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Monday, September 2, 2013

September 2013 Wired for Story

Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers From the Very First Sentence (2012)  by Lisa Cron  

1. Opening Thoughts
2.  Table of Contents
3.   Further Reviews and Summaries
4. Quotes from the Book

Opening Thoughts

Lisa Cron does a masterful job at bringing the latest in brain science to bear on masterful writing. While many teachers focus on techniques, Lisa focuses on why some things work and why other things do not based on what we have learned about how and why the brain processes information.  She basis her observations on the dual tracks of experience and research.  I especially appreciated her valuable end notes that documented her observations.  While never losing focus on her goal of speaking to writers, she did an excellent job of documenting some of the latest research that shows how the brain is hard wired for processing stories.

Table of Contents

1. How to Hook the Reader
2. How to Zero in on Your Point
3. I’ll Feel What He’s Feeling
4. What Does Your Protagonist Really Want?
5. Digging Up Your Protagonist’s Inner Issue
6. The Story is in the Specifics
7. Courting Conflict, the Agent of Change
8. Cause and Effect

Reviews and Summaries


Short Reviews
As both a publishing veteran and a TV pro, Lisa Cron knows storytelling. In Wired for Story she shares her fascinating psychological approaches to the craft. Her fresh way of looking at the core essentials of writing has our neurons firing. 
- Writer's Digest

. . . how can you craft a story compelling enough to keep readers turning the pages deep into the night? The answer lies in a new book linking writing to neuroscience, Lisa Cron's Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science. - Arnie Cooper - Poets & Writers

Lisa Cron's Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence is relentlessly interesting because it reveals how our brains perceive and process stories and narratives.  Ms. Cron walks the writer through the mental architecture of a story, patiently revealing what works and what doesn't and why. She writes with clarity and humor about elementary things every writer could profit from revisiting under her auspices. Who would have thought anyone could make the intricacies of brain science accessible?
- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“We all love a good story but most of us struggle to write them. Lisa Cron enlightens us as to how to get the job done in a savvy and engaging way.”—Michael Gazzaniga, neuroscientist and director of the SAGE Center for the Study of Mind, University of California, Santa Barbara

Quotes from the Book (My choices: Read more at location is reference for the Kindle version of the book)

Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution—more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to. Story is what enabled us to imagine what might happen in the future, and so prepare for it—a feat no other species can lay claim to, opposable thumbs or not.1 Story is what makes us human, not just metaphorically but literally. Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience reveal that our brain is hardwired to respond to story; the pleasure we derive from a tale well told is nature’s way of seducing us into paying attention to it.2Read more at location 83
Thus it’s no surprise that when given a choice, people prefer fiction to nonfiction—they’d rather read a historical novel than a history book, watch a movie than a dry documentary. Read more at location 91
because our neural circuitry is designed to crave story. Read more at location 93
—it makes us willing pupils, primed to absorb the myriad lessons each story imparts.4   Read more at location 94
Even more exciting, it turns out that a powerful story can have a hand in rewiring the reader’s brain—helping instill empathy, for instance—which is why writers are, and have always been, among the most powerful people in the world. Read more at location 97
For a story to captivate a reader, it must continually meet his or her hardwired expectations.  Read more at location 103
Story originated as a method of bringing us together to share specific information that might be lifesaving. Read more at location 121
That meant readers—with hardwired expectations in place—had to be drawn to the story on its own merits. Read more at location 124
Evolution dictates that the first job of any good story is to completely anesthetize the part of our brain that questions how it is creating such a compelling illusion of reality. After all, a good story doesn’t feel like an illusion. What it feels like is life. Literally. A recent brain-imaging study reported in Psychological Science reveals that the regions of the brain that process the sights, sounds, tastes, and movement of real life are activated when we’re engrossed in a compelling narrative. That’s what accounts for the vivid mental images and the visceral reactions we feel when we can’t stop reading, evenRead more at location 128
character—when, in fact, despite how engaging those things appear to be in and of themselves, it turns out they’re secondary. What has us hooked is something else altogether, something that underlies them, secretly bringing them to life: story, as our brain understands it. Read more at location 138
Although readers have their own personal taste when it comes to the type of novel they’re drawn to, unless that story meets their hardwired expectations, it stays on the shelf. Read more at location 142
IN THE SECOND IT TAKES YOU to read this sentence, your senses are showering you with over 11,000,000 pieces of information. Your conscious mind is capable of registering about forty of them. And when it comes to actually paying attention? On a good day, you can process seven bits of data at a time.  Read more at location 155
Your brain, along with every other living organism down to the humble amoeba, has one main goal: survival. Your subconscious brain—which neuroscientists refer to as the adaptive or cognitive unconscious—is a finely tuned instrument, instantly aware of what matters, what doesn’t, why, and, hopefully, what you should do about it. It knows you don’t have the time to think, Read more at location 164
our brain devised a method of sifting through and interpreting all that information much, much faster than our slowpoke conscious mind is capable of. Although for most other animals that sort of innate reflex is where evolution called it a day, thus relegating their reactions to what neuroscientists aptly refer to as zombie systems, we humans got a little something extra. Our brain developed a way to consciously navigate information so that, provided we have the time, we can decide on our own what to do next. Here’s how neuroscientist Antonio Damasio sums it up: “The problem of how to make all this wisdom understandable, transmissible, persuasive, enforceable—in a word, of how to make it stick—was faced and a solution found. Storytelling was the solution—storytelling is something brains do, naturally and implicitly.… [I]t should be no surprise that it pervades the entire fabric of human societies and cultures.”Read more at location 170
We think in story. It’s hardwired in our brain. It’s how we make strategic sense of the otherwise overwhelming world around us. Simply put, the brain constantly seeks meaning from all the input thrown at it, yanks out what’s important for our survival on a need-to-know basis, and tells us a story about it, based on what it knows of our past experience with it, how we feel about it, and how it might affect us. Rather than recording everything on a first come, first served basis, our brain casts us as “the protagonist” and then edits our experience with cinema-like precision, creating logical interrelations, mapping connections between memories, ideas, and events for future reference.  Read more at location 179
It means that we can now decode what the brain (aka the reader) is really looking for in every story, beginning with the two key concepts that underlie all the cognitive secrets in this book:   Neuroscientists believe the reason our already overloaded brain devotes so much precious time and space to allowing us to get lost in a story is that without stories, we’d be toast. Stories allow us to simulate intense experiences without actually having to live through them. This was a matter of life and death back in the Stone Age, Read more at location 187
Not only do we crave story, but we have very specific hardwired expectations for every story we read, even though—and here’s the kicker—chances are next to nil that the average reader could tell you what those expectations are.  Read more at location 205
So what is a story? A story is how what happens affects someone who is trying to achieve what turns out to be a difficult goal, and how he or she changes as a result. Breaking it down in the soothingly familiar parlance of the writing world, this translates to “What happens” is the plot. “Someone” is the protagonist. The “goal” is what’s known as the story question. And “how he or she changes” is what the story itself is actually about. As counterintuitive as it may sound, a story is not about the plot or even what happens in it. Stories are about how we, rather than the world around us, change. They grab us only when they allow us to experience how it would feel to navigate the plot. Thus story, as we’ll see throughout, is an internal journey, not an external one.  Read more at location 223
Simply put, we are looking for a reason to care. So for a story to grab us, not only must something be happening, but also there must be a consequence we can anticipate. Read more at location 253
neuroscience reveals, what draws us into a story and keeps us there is the firing of our dopamine neurons, signaling that intriguing information is on its way.This means that whether it’s an actual event unfolding or we meet the protagonist in the midst of an internal quandary or there’s merely a hint that something’s slightly “off” on the first page, there has to be a ball already in play. Read more at location 254
As readers we eagerly probe each piece of information for significance, constantly wondering, “What is this meant to tell me?” It’s said people can go forty days without food, three days without water, and about thirty-five seconds without finding meaning in something—truth is, thirty-five seconds is an eternity compared to the warp speed with which our subconscious brain rips through data. It’s a biological imperative: we are always on the hunt for meaning—not in the metaphysical “What is the true nature of reality?” sense but in the far more primal, very specific sense of: Joe left without his usual morning coffee; I wonder why? Betty is always on time; how come she’s half an hour late? That annoying dog next door barks its head off every morning; why is it so quiet today? Read more at location 274
And to that end, here are the three basic things readers relentlessly hunt for as they read that first page:   1. Whose story is it?   2. What’s happening here?   3. What’s at stake?  Read more at location 314
Because, as neuropsychiatrist Richard Restak writes, “Within the brain, things are always evaluated within a specific context.”13 It is context that bestows meaning, and it is meaning that your brain is wired to sniff out. After all, if stories are simulations that our brains plumb for useful information in case we ever find ourselves in a similar situation, we sort of need to know what the situation is.Read more at location 358
Elmore Leonard famously said that a story is real life with the boring parts left out.Read more at location 366
Do we know whose story it is? There must be someone through whose eyes we see  Read more at location 397
Is something happening, beginning on the first page? Don’t just set the stage for later conflict. Jump right in with something that will affect the protagonist… Read more at location 399

Can we glimpse enough of the “big picture” to have that all-important yardstick? It’s the “big picture” that gives readers perspective and conveys theRead more at location 408
Thus your first job is to zero in on the point your story is making.Read more at location 429
A story is designed, from beginning to end, to answer a single overarching question. As readers we instinctively know this, so we expect every word, every line, every character, every image, every action to move us closer to the answer. Read more at location 435
So, what is this thing called focus? It’s the synthesis of three elements that work in unison to create a story: the protagonist’s issue, the theme, and the plot.Read more at location 470
The story isn’t about whether or not the protagonist achieves her goal per se; it’s about what she has to overcome internally to do it. This is what drives the story forward. I call it the protagonist’s issue.Read more at location 473
The second element, the theme, is what your story says about human nature. Read more at location 475
The third element is the plot itself—the events that relentlessly force the protagonist to deal with her issue as she pursues her goal, no matter how many times she tries to make an end run around her issue along the way.Read more at location 478
This is crucial because “minds exist to predict what will happen next.” It’s their raison d’être—the better to keep us on this earthly plane as long as humanly possible. We love to figure things out and we don’t like being confused. Read more at location 481
After all, this is exactly how our brain processes information when we’re confronted with a sticky situation in real life. As neuroscientist Antonio Damasio demonstrates, this is what literature is modeled on:Read more at location 490
Happily, theme actually boils down to something incredibly simple:    • What does the story tell us about what it means to be human?    • What does it say about how humans react to circumstances beyond their control? Read more at location 507
It’s crucial, because the instant a reader opens your book, his cognitive unconscious is hunting for a way to make life a little easier, see things a little clearer, understand people a bit better.9 So why not take a second to ask yourself, What is it I want my readers to walk away thinking about? What point does my story make? How do I want to change the way my reader sees the world?Read more at location 529
Theme: The Keys to the Universe Since theme is the underlying point the narrative makes about the human experience, it’s also where the universal lies. The universal is a feeling, emotion, or truth that resonates with us all. Read more at location 565
Theme and Tone: It’s Not What You Say but How You Say It If theme is one of the most powerful elements of your story, it’s also one of the most invisible.Read more at location 588
Your story’s tone reflects how you see your characters and helps define the world you’ve set them loose in. Read more at location 593
In other words, your theme begets the story’s tone, which begets the mood the reader feels. Mood is what underlies the reader’s sense of what is possible and what isn’t in the world of your story, which brings us back to the point your story is making as reflected in its theme—reflected being the key word. Because as crucial as theme is, it’s never stated outright; it’s always implied.  Read more at location 600
What this means is that the more passionate you are about making your point, the more you have to trust your story to convey it. As Evelyn Waugh says, “All literature implies moral standards and criticisms, the less explicit the better.”  Read more at location 608
Turns out, as neuroscience writer Jonah Lehrer says, “If it weren’t for our emotions, reason wouldn’t exist at all.” Read more at location 739
Elliot, a patient of Antonio Damasio, had lost a small section of his prefrontal cortices during surgery for a benign brain tumor. Before his illness, Elliot held a high-level corporate job and had a happy, thriving family. Read more at location 742
Without emotion, each option carried the exact same weight—everything really was six of one, half a dozen of the other. Turns out, as cognitive scientist Steven Pinker notes, “Emotions are mechanisms that set the brain’s highest-level goals.”Read more at location 750
This means that everything in a story gets its emotional weight and meaning based on how it affects the protagonist. Read more at location 773
Readers intuitively know what neuroscientists have discovered: everything we experience is automatically coated in emotion. Read more at location 778
it’s based on a single question: Will it hurt me, or will it help me? This humble equation underlies every aspect of our rich, elegant, complex, and ever-changing sense of self, and how we experience the world around us. According to Damasio, “No set of conscious images of any kind on any topic ever fails to be accompanied by an obedient choir of emotions and consequent feelings.”5 If we’re not feeling, we’re not breathing. A neutral protagonist is an automaton. Read more at location 779
Lest the significance of this be lost, bear in mind that our brain evolved with just that goal—to see into the minds of others in order to intuit their motives, thoughts, and thus, true colors.6 (We’ll explore this further in chapter 4.) Even so, in life the key word is intuit; movies have the raw power to convey thoughts visually, through action; plays, via dialogue. While all three can be incredibly compelling (especially life), ultimately, they still leave usRead more at location 802
Body language is the one language it’s impossible to really lie in. As Steven Pinker says, “Intentions come from emotions, and emotions have evolved displays on the face and body. Unless you are a master of the Stanislavsky method, you will have trouble faking them; in fact, they probably evolved because they were hard to fake.”13 In other words, body language is the first thing we humans learned to decode, because even back in the Stone Age we knew that what a person grunts and what he really means might be two very differentRead more at location 953
This tendency drives what communication scholars Chip and Dan Heath have dubbed “the Curse of Knowledge.” They explain, “Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.”16 When writers unconsciouslyRead more at location 1024
In fact, Steven Pinker defines intelligent life as “using knowledge of how things work to attain goals in the face of obstacles.”1Read more at location 1070
That’s no doubt why, as neuroscientists have recently discovered, our brain comes equipped with something they believe might be akin to X-ray glasses: mirror neurons.Read more at location 1072
According to neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni, who pioneered the research, our mirror neurons fire when we watch someone do something and when we do the same thing ourselves.Read more at location 1074
our real goal is to understand the action.2 As Michael Gazzaniga has noted, thanks to mirror neurons, “Not only do you understand someone is grabbing a candy bar, you understand she is going to eat it or put it in her purse or throw it out or, if you’re lucky, hand it to you.”3 Mirror neurons allow us to feel what others experience almost as if it were happening to us, the better to infer what “others know in order to explain their desires and intentions with real precision.”4 But here’s the kicker. We don’t just mirror other people. We mirror fictional characters too.Read more at location 1076
Here’s what Jeffrey M. Zacks, coauthor of the study, has to say about the physical effect a story has on us: “Psychologists and neuroscientists are increasingly coming to the conclusion that when we read a story and really understand it, we create a mental simulation of the events described by the story.” But it goes much deeper than that. As lead author of the study Nicole Speer points out, the “findings demonstrate that reading is by no means a passive exercise. Rather, readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative. Details about actions and sensation are captured from the text and integrated with personal knowledge from past experiences. These data are then run through mental simulations using brain regions that closely mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities.”5 In short, when we read a story,Read more at location 1085
Mirror neurons allow us to walk a mile in the protagonist’s shoes, which means he has to actually be going somewhere.Read more at location 1100
Dwight D. Eisenhower perfectly captures the essence of a successful story: “We succeed only as we identify in life, or in war, or in anything else a single overriding objective, and make all other considerations bend to that one objective.”7Read more at location 1106
It is anticipation that creates the intoxicating sense of momentum that hooks a reader, so stories without it remain unread.Read more at location 1126
No one ever does anything for no reason, whether or not they’re aware of the reason.Read more at location 1159
And the best preparation for writing any story is to know with clarity what your protagonists’ worldview is, and more to the point, where and why it’s off base.Read more at location 1638
And the key word here is visualizing. If we can’t see it, we can’t feel it. “Images drive the emotions as well as the intellect,” says Steven Pinker, who goes on to call images “thumpingly concrete.”2Read more at location 1664
Story, on the other hand, takes mind-numbing generalities and makes them specific so we can try them on for size. Remember, we’re hardwired to instantly evaluate everything in life on the basis of is it safe or not? Thus the whole point of a story is to translate the general into a specific, so we can see what it really means, just in case we ever come faceRead more at location 1672
As Antonio Damasio says, “The entire fabric of a conscious mind is created from the same cloth—images.”4 Neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran agrees: “Humans excel at visual imagery. Our brains evolved this ability to create an internal mental picture or model of the world in which we can rehearse forthcoming actions, without the risks or penalties of doing them in the real world.”5 What this all boils down to is, as I’m inordinately fond of saying, the story is in the specifics. Yet writers often tell entire Read more at location 1675
As Damasio says, “Smart brains are also extremely lazy. Anytime they can do less instead of more, they will, a minimalist philosophy they follow religiously.”6 SinceRead more at location 1700
The point is, if I ask you to think about something, you can decide not to. But if I make you feel something? Now I have your attention. Feeling is a reaction; our feelings let us know what matters to us, and our thoughts have no choice but to follow.7 FactsRead more at location 1705
Feel first. Think second. That’s the magic of story. Story takes a general situation, idea, or premise and personifies it via the very specific.Read more at location 1712
The specific thing a metaphor is meant to illuminate. Here’s an interesting fact to add to what we already know: not only do we think in story and in images, but as cognitive linguist George Lakoff points out, although we may not always know it, we also think in metaphor.8 Metaphor is how the mind “couches the abstract concepts in concrete terms.”9 Believe it or not, we utter about six metaphors a minute. PricesRead more at location 1800
And as neuroscience writer Jonah Lehrer points out in How We Decide, “Confidence is comforting. The lure of certainty is built into the brain at a very basic level.”2 In fact, it’s a big part of our sense of well-being. That is why, when questions arise that challenge our beliefs about, well, anything, we tend get a little cranky. Or as social psychologist Timothy D. Wilson says, “People are masterful spin doctors, rationalizers, and justifiers of threatening information and go to great lengths to maintain a sense of well-being.”3Read more at location 1990
And there’s the paradox: we survived because we’re risk takers, but our goal is to stay safe by not changing an iota unless we absolutely have to. Talk about conflict! And that brings us right back to story. Story’s job is to tackle exactly how we handle that conflict, which boils down to this: the battle between fear and desire.Read more at location 2004
But when it comes to portraying conflict on the page, how we’re wired for real life tends to muck things up. “Since we are social creatures, a need to belong is as basic to our survival as our need for food and oxygen,” says neuropsychiatrist Richard Restak. It started a couple of hundred thousand years ago when it first dawned on us that, survival-wise, two heads are better than one, and a whole society, better yet! Thus a new human goal was born, one still championed by kindergarten teachers the world over: working well with others. This gave rise to a whole host of emotions—some pleasant and some decidedly not—to encourage us to get along. And for anyone with lingering doubts about the unequaled power of emotion, a recent study using magnetic resonance imaging revealed that intense social rejection activates the same areas in the brain that physical pain does.6 Our brain is making a point. Conflict hurts. That’s probably whyRead more at location 2020
In the same way that a vicarious thrill, being one crucial step removed, isn’t nearly as powerful as the real thing, neither is the pain we experience when lost in a story. Sure, we’re literally feeling what the protagonist feels, but our trusty brain is also quite aware that what befalls the poor sap is not, in fact, literally happening to us. So,Read more at location 2048
Suspense Is the Handmaiden of Conflict Read more at location 2055
Before we dive into their story, let’s review three important facts about how our brain processes info:   1. As we’ll explore in chapter 10, the brain is wired to hunt for meaningful patterns in everything, the better to predict what will happen next based on the repetition or the alteration of the pattern (which means, first and foremost, that there need to be meaningful patterns for the reader to find).8   2. We run the scenario on the page through our own personal experience of similar events, whether real or imagined, to see whether it’s believable (which gives us the ability to infer more information than is on the page—or go mad when there isn’t enough information for us to infer anything at all).9   3. We’re hardwired to love problem solving; when we figure something out, the brain releases an intoxicating rush of neurotransmitters that say, “Good job!”10 The pleasure of story is trying to figure out what’s really going on (which means that stories that ignore the first two facts tend to offer the reader no pleasure at all). All this is another way of saying the reader knows way more than you think she does, so relax and don’t worry so much about giving too much away. Chances are your readers will be several steps ahead of your protagonist, which is exactly where you want them to be. ForRead more at location 2087
there are two ironclad conditions that must be met first:   1. There must have been a pattern of specific “hints” or “tells” along the way, alerting us that all was not as it seems, which the new twist now illuminates and explains.   2. These “hints” and “tells” need to stand out (and make sense) in their own right before the reveal.Read more at location 2204
Here’s an apt case in point, from Antonio Damasio: “Usually the brain is assumed to be a passive recording medium, like film, onto which the characteristics of an object, as analyzed by sensory detectors, can be mapped faithfully. If the eye is the passive innocent camera, the brain is the passive, virgin celluloid. This is pure fiction.” Instead, Damasio explains, “Our memories are prejudiced, in the full sense of the term, by our past history and beliefs.”2Read more at location 2300
But we don’t stop there. While a few other species take a rudimentary stab at observing and predicting what might happen next, we alone try to explain why.3 Understanding why “this” caused “that” is what allows us to anticipate what might happen next and decide what the hell we’re going to do about it. It lets us theorize about the future and, better yet, try to change it to our advantage.Read more at location 2305
As we know, both life and story are driven by emotion, but what they’re ordered by is logic. Logic is the yang to emotion’s yin. It’s no surprise that our memories—how we make sense of the world—are logically interrelated. According to Damasio, the brain tends to organize the profusion of input and memories, “much like a film editor would, by giving it some kind of coherent narrative structure in which certain actions are said to cause certain effects.”5 Since the brain analyzes everything in terms of cause and effect, when a story doesn’t follow a clear cause-and-effect trajectory, the brain doesn’t know what to make of it—which can trigger a sensation of physical distress,6 not to mention the desire to pitch the book out the window. The good news is, when it comes to keeping your story on track, it boils down to the mantra if, then, therefore. If I put my hand in the fire (action), then I’ll get burned (reaction). Therefore, I’d better not put my hand in the fire (decision). Action, reaction, decision—it’s what drives a story forward. From beginning to end, a story must follow a cause-and-effect trajectory so when your protagonist finally tackles her ultimate goal, the path that led her there not only is clear, but, in hindsight, reveals exactly why this confrontation was inevitable from the very start.Read more at location 2319
a seamless narrative thread.   1. Plot-wise cause and effect plays out on the surface level, as one event logistically triggers the next: Joe pops Clyde’s shiny red balloon; Joe gets kicked out of clown school.   2. Story-wise cause and effect plays out on a deeper level—that of meaning. It explains why Joe pops Clyde’s balloon, even though he knows it will probably get him expelled.Read more at location 2407
And there you have it: action, reaction, decision .Read more at location 2481
To guarantee that the stakes ratchet ever upward, you want to make sure you’ve infused each cause with enough firepower to trigger an effect that packs an unexpected, yet perfectly logical, wallop. ForRead more at location 2487
Here are four areas of delicious unpredictability:   1. A clear cause-and-effect pattern is what allows us to focus on the story’s continual wild card: what the protagonist will actually do, given what he has to overcome. Read more at location 2512
There’s an appearance of free will. Just because someone might do something, it doesn’t mean she will. There are lots of different reactions, and subsequent decisions, that a particular action might evoke—even though in the end, when all is revealed, said reactions and decisions will, in retrospect, be the only ones the character could have made. Read more at location 2515
Just like the rest of us, characters are famous for utterly misreading signs and rushing headlong in the absolute wrong direction (witness just about any episode of the classic TV series I Love Lucy).   4. Remember those cards that writers love to keep up their sleeves? Strategically revealed new information can change how the protagonist interprets everything that’s happened up to then, not to mention change how the reader interprets the protagonist’s motives from that point on .Read more at location 2519
As we’ll discuss in detail in chapter 10, we’re wired to predict what will happen next, and the way we do this is by charting patterns. Familiar patterns are safe. Deviate from a pattern, and bingo, like the robot in Lost in Space, it’s “Danger, Will Robinson!” and you have our attention. The deviation then becomes the lens through which we filter Read more at location 2532
Each thing you add to your story is like a drop of paint falling into a bowl of clear water. It spreads and colors everything. As with life, new information causes us to reevaluate the meaning and emotional weight of all that preceded it, and to see the future with fresh eyes.14 InRead more at location 2559
To wit, every scene must    • In some way be caused by the “decision” made in the scene that preceded it    • Move the story forward via the characters’ reaction to what is happening    • Make the scene that follows it inevitable    • Provide insight into the characters that enables us to grasp the motive behind their actionsRead more at location 2575
Does this scene impart a crucial piece of information, without which some future scene won’t make sense?    • Does it have a clear cause the reader can see (even if the “real reason” it happened will be revealed later)?    • Does it provide insight into why the characters acted as they did?    • Does it raise the reader’s expectation of specific, imminent action? Now, for the math test: when evaluating the relevance of each scene in your story, ask yourself, If I cut it out, would anything that happens afterward change?Read more at location 2581
CHAPTER 8: CHECKPOINT Does your story follow a cause-and-effect trajectory beginning on page one, so that each scene is triggered by the one that preceded it? Read more at location 2624
Does everything in your story’s cause-and-effect trajectory revolve around the protagonist’s quest (the story question)? If it doesn’t, get rid of it. It’s that easy. Are your story’s external events (the plot) spurred by the protagonist’s evolving internal cause-and-effect trajectory? WeRead more at location 2628
When your protagonist makes a decision, is it always clear how she arrived at it, especially when she’s changing her mind about something? Read more at location 2633
Does each scene follow the action, reaction, decision pattern? It’s like the one, two, three of a waltz. Get that rhythm stuck in your head—action, reaction, decision—and then use it to build momentum. Can you answer the “And so?” to everything in the story? Ask this question relentlessly, like a four-year-old, and the minute you can’t answer, know that you’re likely in the company of a darling, a digression, or something else likely to cause your story to go into free fall. Read more at location 2635
The brain never does anything it doesn’t have to, so as neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga notes, the fact that “there seems to be a reward system that allows us to enjoy good fiction, implies that there is a benefit to the fictional experience.”3 What is the benefit, survival-wise, that led to the neural rush of enjoyment a good story unleashes, effectively disconnecting us from the otherwise incessant Sturm und Drang of daily life? The answer is clear: it lets us sit back and vicariously experience someone else suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, the better to learn how to dodge those darts should they ever be aimed at us. As Steven Pinker says,Read more at location 2652
A secret is “the result of a struggle between competing parties in the brain. One part of the brain wants to reveal something, and another part does not want to,” writes neuroscientist David Eagleman in Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain.9 In fact, turns out it’s unhealthy to keep a secret, both mentally and physically. According to psychologist James Pennebaker, “the act of not discussing or confiding the event with another may be more damaging than having experienced the event per se.”10     Thus, given how painfulRead more at location 2776
 “The brain is a born cartographer,” says neuroscientist Antonio Damasio.3 From the moment we leave the womb, it begins charting the patterns around us, always with the same agenda: What’s safe, and whatRead more at location 2939
But as researchers at Stanford have proven, contrary to popular wisdom, effective mental multitasking is not actually possible—the brain, as it turns out, can’t process two strings of incoming information at the same time. According to neuroscientist Anthony Wagner, when trying to focus on multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, people are “not able to filter out what’s not relevant to their current goal.”8 Read more at location 3004
It’s not even a choice; it’s innate: the brain is wired to go offline—that is, ignore the real world and slip into a fictional one—only if it believes the story will be of benefit by providing info that’ll help it navigate this cockeyed world of ours. Once engaged, it flips the switch that filters out actual reality. When that belief is shattered—say, by setups that go nowhere—reality floods back in.9Read more at location 3011
The Importance of the Highway between Setup and Payoff: Three Rules of the Road We know anticipation feels really good, and that what readers love to hunt for is the emerging path from setups to payoffs. After all, a big part of the pleasure of reading is recognizing, interpreting, and then connecting the dots so the pattern emerges.Read more at location 3071
RULE ONE: THERE MUST ACTUALLY BE A ROAD This means the setup is not allowed to piggyback on the payoff. Piggybacking occurs when we learn about a problem at the moment it’s been solved.Read more at location 3075
RULE TWO: THE READER MUST BE ABLE TO SEE THE ROAD UNFOLD This means it can’t take place off the page, shrouded in secrecy. There are three reasons writers tend to keep the road between setup and payoff veiled, if not totally obscured. One, as we already know, is because they’re saving it all up for the big reveal.Read more at location 3084
And this brings us to the third reason writers sometimes inadvertently skimp on the “tells” necessary to establish a pattern. As the author, you know everything about your story—where it’s going, who’s really doing what to whom, and where the proverbial (and sometimes literal) bodies are buried. Because of this, you’re acutely aware of exactly what each “dot” really means and how it all fits together.Read more at location 3095
RULE THREE: THE INTENDED PAYOFF MUST NOT BE PATENTLY IMPOSSIBLE I don’t mean impossible in the “he’ll try it and when he fails, it will teach him something” sense. I mean, literally impossible, so that if the protagonist himself had given it a moment’s thought, he’d have realized how ridiculousRead more at location 3101
Do the “dots” build? If you connect the dots between the setup and the payoff, do they add up? Does a pattern emerge? Will your reader see the escalating progression and be able to draw conclusions from it and so, anticipate what might happen next? Read more at location 3152
In his book Self Comes to Mind, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio speculates that it’s thanks to the intersection of the self and memory that consciousness is able to bestow on us its ultimate gift: “the ability to navigate the future in the seas of our imagination, guiding the self craft into a safe and productive harbor.”2 We use the past as a yardstick against which we size up the present in order to make it to tomorrow. What’s more, when we do this, sometimes it’s our evaluation of the past that changes in light of what we’ve since learned.3 Memories are continually revised, along with the meaning we derive from them, so that in the future they’ll be of even more use.Read more at location 3166
As Steven Pinker points out, “Gossip is a favorite pastime in all human societies because knowledge is power.” Sometimes this knowledge gives us power over others, and sometimes it gives us the power to make the right decision when our time comes.Read more at location 3177
As neuropsychiatrist Richard Restak says, “In many cases we decrease accuracy and efficiency by thinking too hard.” Read more at location 3456
Indeed, Nobel laureate Herbert Simon estimates that it takes about ten years to really master a subject. By then we’ve gathered upward of fifty thousand “chunks” of knowledge, which the brain has deftly indexed so our cognitive unconscious can access each chunk on its own whenever necessary. Simon goes on to explain that this is “why experts can … respond to many situations ‘intuitively’—that is, very rapidly, and often without being able to specify the process they have used to reach their answers. Intuition is no longer a mystery.”4 Antonio Damasio agrees: “Outsourcing expertise to the unconscious space is what we do when we hone a skill so finely that we are no longer aware of the technical steps needed to be skillful. We develop skills in the clear light of consciousness, but then we let them go underground, into the roomy basement of our minds.…”5 It’sRead more at location 3466

Recently, evolutionary psychologist Robin I. M. Dunbar asked himself the question we’ve been wrestling with from the beginning: considering that the ability to appreciate a story is universal, why are good writers so rare? His research reveals that one of the key factors revolves around something called “intentionality.” This boils down to our ability to infer what someone else is thinking. In a pinch, most people can keep track of five states of mind at once. Says Dunbar, “When the audience ponders Shakespeare’s Othello, for example, they are obliged to work at fourth order intentional levels: I (the audience) believe that Iago intends that Othello supposes that Desdemona wants [to love someone else]. When Shakespeare puts the play on stage before us, he will, in critical scenes, have four individuals interacting, thus obliging us to work at fifth order level—the very limits to which most of us can cope.” Read more at location 3514

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