Wired For Story. Using Brain Science To Hook Readers With Lisa Cron

Why has 50 Shades of Grey sold millions of copies when it is not ‘great’ writing? Why is a great story more important than beautiful language? In today’s interview with Lisa Cron, we get into what makes a great story and how we can write more effectively.

Lisa CronLisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story, The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. She has also worked as a story consultant, a publishing professional, a writing coach and literary agent.

  • Lisa has always been drawn to the power of story. She mentions ‘A Wrinkle In Time’ as a book that changed her life. Stories fascinated her, even in advertising. She has always worked with story – in publishing and television. The interesting thing is why some books don’t work, and the mistakes are similar. This ties into neuroscience, which is how the brain works and how we process information. Writers are the most powerful people in the world.
  • What is story anyway? They aren’t primarily for entertainment. They were designed to teach us how to live. We think in story and evaluate everything based on story. We can envision the future and plan for it. It tells us what to hold on to. So we make sense of the world through story and learn through it effectively. This helps us with what are the keys to how people respond to a strong story.

Why we are wired for story?

  • The neurotransmitter dopamine, for pleasure, is triggered through curiosity. We feel pleasure via the brain’s reward system that pulls us forward through the story because we have to find out what happens. Because we could learn lessons that can help us in our own lives.
  • Beautiful language or amazing story? Why 50 Shades of Grey is so popular and literary fiction doesn’t sell so well. People can’t put 50 Shades down, but it is not well-written. Great language is fantastic but it’s not what pulls us into a story. Writing is taught as if the goal is to write ‘well’ but it should be about how to tell a great story. Language should be there to stimulate curiosity and dopamine in the brain. EL James gets some things right – she lets us know what Ana thinks is going to happen, so when it doesn’t happen that way, we know how she feels. This draws us into the story more because we want to know how it feels.

With literary fiction, the danger is that you end up with a beautifully written ‘who cares’.

  • Why would we slog through something that doesn’t give us a dopamine rush? I mention Umberto Eco as a literary writer. I bought The Prague Cemetery but I couldn’t get past the first chapter.
  • What do writers get wrong in story? The big one is that writers don’t know what the book is about. A story is virtual reality. I’m going to step into a problem and I’m going to solve it. So you need to know who the protagonist is and what they want. The story has to follow that path – solve the plot question and what’s inside holding them back.
  • Everything in the story gets its meaning based on how it is affecting the protagonist. So dramatic events mean nothing without the personal impact. We evaluate everything in the story based on how its affecting the protagonist. It gets emotional weight from this. You can also go into the reactions and how it changes the character.

What show, don’t tell really means

  • People think it means ‘show’ me people being upset e.g. Joe threw the cup against the wall (to show anger). It should be show me WHY he’s angry, not the emotion of anger. e.g. he had a bad day at work, but more than that – why. So the scene would be more about what happened at work, not just jumping to show Joe throwing a cup. Or when a character changes their mind, you have to explain why, not that Joe stroked his chin and looked out the window. Don’t show thinking, show how the decision is made. This brings us to story, the things we can’t say. It can be physical, e.g. body language, but use that to show us something we don’t already know.
  • How is the story question going to resolve? Keep in mind the “and so” test. Ask yourself – what is the point? Why does the reader need to know this? What insight does it give the reader into the situation or the character. You have to leave out what doesn’t matter. Only tell things that pertain to the story question, otherwise you lose the curiosity. The vicarious thrill of ‘experiencing’ something through a book – why I write about murder and violence – is so we don’t have to experience it ourselves but we still want to know what makes people tick.

Wired for StoryYou can find Wired for Story on Amazon and at all other book sites.

You can find Lisa at WiredForStory.com and on twitter @lisacron

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  1. says

    I stumbled upon this book on Amazon and then forgot about it until this very post.

    I will be buying and reading it very soon.

    Thanks Joanna!

  2. says

    OMG, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people interpret “show don’t tell” as “describe everything in the room with the character to a detail that no living person would notice or care about.” Or as Lisa Cron said during the interview, having Jim throwing a cup to “show” he’s angry, but without showing us WHY he’s angry.

    I’ve shared this with all my writer friends. :)

  3. says

    “Beautiful language or amazing story?” I don’t know . . . does it have to be one or the other? Could it not be both? There seems to be a false dichotomy in the world of literary versus genre fiction. In my opinion, it’s definitely possible to use compelling language to tell a thrilling story.

    • says

      I totally agree, Ilana! I’m not saying that you can’t have both — or that both isn’t better — it is! All I’m saying is that beautiful writing without a thrilling story just sits there, about as appealing as a perfectly rendered bowl of wax fruit. While a story without beautiful writing is still capable of hooking the reader from the get-go.

  4. says

    I completely agree, Lisa. You described the ‘show, don’t tell’ advice so well and much more sense to me, now. Thanks, Joanna, for bringing Lisa to us. Thanks, Lisa, for your insight and clear explanation of things we thought we knew. I look forward to reading your book and visiting your site. :)

  5. says

    “Show don’t tell” – I had forgotten that phrase, but will be keeping that as my mantra moving forward. A great way to remember how to write about events. I get frustrated when I read stuff along the lines of “He angrily furrowed his brow”. Ugh! At that point I’d rather just read “He was pissed!”, but what would be best is when the author writes about an action which I can then interpret as anger.

  6. says

    On a personal note, I am doing some edits ready for submission to a publisher with an agent, and I am noticing that I have made the mistake of showing the concern/worry etc e.g. “She furrowed her brow”. I am now deleting a lot of that and using dialogue to make it more interesting and internal thoughts to show reasoning and emotion behind it. We can be told these things over and over again before we spot it in our own work! Thanks Lisa.

  7. Kieran says

    That was an interesting read, Thanks.

    I disagree with the “Show don’t tell comment though”. Sure explain why someone is angry, if you haven’t explained then you’ve got plotting issues (unless its part of the plot that we don’t know :P), but I see “show don’t tell” as a writing tool, not a plotting tool.

    Showing Mark arguing with his wife then finishing with “Mark had to leave the house, he was angry”, is as bad as describing mark storming out the house, slamming the door etc etc, but not telling us why. Well I’d say so anyway.

    Cheers again.

  8. says

    ‘Show- Don’t Tell’ seems to be the most troubling concept for new fiction writers to grasp. I sure struggled with it until I read Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’. His take is that you tell a story, you don’t show it. By that he means that you have to use a combination of devices, including the dreaded narrative which so many ‘experts’ denounce.
    Some basic devices are a central question that must be answered, a strong hook, a cohesive plot, suspension of disbelief, colourful characters that the reader can love or hate, crisp dialogue, limited use of adjectives and adverbs, reliance on nouns and verbs, and by all means – descriptive narrative. All of these should invoke the senses so the reader can live in the story.
    I also believe that the writer is every much an artist with words as a painter is with acrylics or a sculptor is with marble. Don’t throw away your individuality for the sake of being showing-correct.
    King’s best advice is ‘Just tell the G.D. story’.

  9. says

    I enjoyed this interview and got a lot out of it. But I must put a word in for language. Go back to Poe. He uses words to build atmosphere – or mood- which is emotional content. He paints pictures with words and sometimes layers these words. For example in Fall of the House of Usher : “I tethered my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that kay in unruffled luster by the dwelling..” he goes on describe the “pestilent and mystic vapor..” Pestilent and mystic! I go into dazzlement at this language use! It does not pull me out of the story but makes the journey of the story and aesthetic as well as narrative experience. This is why I ADORE Tanith Lee. It’s like rounding a corner on a city street and coming upon a lilac trees in full bloom. Anyway, that is how my brain is wired.
    Stories come and go. Books come and go. But if you pay attention to what endures – like poor Poe who died of drunken exposure thinking he was a failure, you will find great characters, plots and language. Even Stephen the King of pop fic considers language important.
    This is not sour grapes, but every NY Times best seller I have bought, I have put down about one third of the way through with a huge YAWN. Every single one. That may not bode well for my future success as a novelist, but I must see some artistry or I can’t go on.

    • says

      I could not agree with you more, Alyne! In fact, you’re making my point when you say that Poe uses words to build atmosphere — or mood — which is emotional content. Absolutely! And that emotional content is harnessed to the story he’s telling. The language is amazing, not in and of itself, but because it is communicating something that furthers the story, deepening it, and making you feel it to your bones.

      I completely understand what you’re saying about putting down NY Times bestsellers because they’re not written well — you’re looking for something capable of touching you more deeply. But here’s the thing: beautiful words in and of themselves are, literally, meaningless. It’s the underlying story that gives them their undying power. I’m not saying language is unimportant, far from it. What I’m saying is that, first and foremost, those beautiful words need something to say.

      • says

        I understand where you’re coming from. At open mics you hear a lot of pretty writing – especially with memoirists – that have no tension or drama or crisis and they wonder why the work falls flat. I think, like me, they come from the journaling generation of the 80s and 90s. Writing under the influence of Natalie Goldberg and Julia Cameron who seem less interested in story than in meditation or therapy.
        Thaks for the great insights!

      • says

        I used wallpaper-tray which is also good, and aollws you to select graphic files from multiple directories. It also has a feature called wallpaper which aollws the user to search the workstation for files that can be used as wallpapers.I tried drapes a few Ubuntu versions ago, but it kept crashing at the time.

  10. cp wren says

    I have read Lisa Cron’s book and cite it/recommend it to more fellow writers and workshop participants than nearly any other title on my very short list of books on writing which I consider worth the paper they’re printed on. Here’s why–

    The presentation is crisp, succinctly organized into a handful of basic elements of modern story-telling with a useful set of checklist questions at the end of each section. Bravo! She exemplifies her points by being “to the point” in rendering the basics. No repetitiveness, or, greeps help me, no blowhard, pound in the point with a meat mallet happening in “Wired…” What Lisa Cron put together can be thought of as a “pilot’s pre-lift-off” checklist. It’s that practical in approach.

    I usually cringe in nauseated horror at the sight of what I term the “derived of the four legs good, two legs bad” school of writing, i.e. “show, don’t tell”. Honestly, a rote sensibility being offered up for writers?––of all people! What is offered in “Wired…” is far more intelligently presented, with questions offered for assessing writing rather than rote “rules” inculcated. In a brief book filled with practical usefulness and neurological food for thought Ms. Cron underscores the same art of story/age-old wisdom I received during my film-school theory days over 30 years ago.

    What makes a great story is the same now as it’s ever been–evoke through invoking the senses and keep ’em moving, anticipating and wanting to find out. Sometimes this means showing, sometimes pacing dictates telling–developing in the art of dynamics will dictate what to show and when to cut. I’m so glad that along such a well-written book on story that artistry in language is also championed. So long as all that we write––as beautifully as we’re able to–– is integrated with the basic gears of story, the story will show up, be felt and will move readers.

    I highly recommend “Wired for Story” before returning to a draft in fallow and up for a rewrite.

  11. Davina says

    I for one didn’t – couldn’t – read past page three of Fifty Shades. It brought on the gag reflex too many times in those three pages for me to continue. Give me “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies” by Hilary Mantel, and the excellent writing of her peers. I like a good story to come with good writing. I have treasured books since early childhood, but Fifty Shades went out with the rubbish.

  12. says

    I think it has a lot to do with the readers level of “intellectual muscle.” I do not intend this as a criticism but – much like physical muscle – people exist at all levels of intellectual strength. A lot depends on the books you read growing up and what your educational background is. I participate in a lot of readers forums and I hear some people say “I just want a good story” and “If it’s not well-written I can’t read it.” One size does not fit all. Personally, I couldn’t get through the sample of 50 Shades but I know lots of people whose taste I respect who loved it.

    Sometimes “story” is in the eye of the beholder. Some readers want a tight plot with a climax and resolution. Others want to get deep into the characters’ lives and are less concerned with what happens. No one formula will work for all readers — thank heavens.

  13. says

    When I first started writing, I was telling, not showing. It took a few years for it to sink in. Sometimes I still have trouble, but I usually catch it when I reread and revise.

    Thanks for reminding me again.


  14. says

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  15. says

    I just happen to be reading WIRED FOR STORY right now, so I really appreciate this podcast (and your whole site, Joanna!). Thanks so much for all the great work you do.


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