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 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.
You can find Wired for Story on Amazon and at all other book sites.
Transcript of Interview with Lisa Cron
Hi, everyone. I’m Joanna Penn from thecreativepenn.com, and today I’m talking to Lisa Cron.
Lisa 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 a literary agent. So, welcome, Lisa.
Lisa: Thank you, Joanna. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Joanna: Well, you’ve got some amazing credentials, and the book is brilliant.
Let’s start off by you just telling us a bit more about yourself, and your writing background, and your neuroscience background. Why the hell write this, anyway?
Lisa: Great question. I think, like all of us, I’ve been drawn to stories since I was a child. It’s what made me who I am. And I noticed the power of story as opposed to writing very early. My entire life changed when I read a book at the age of nine called, “A Wrinkle in Time.” I think a lot of us read that book, and I felt my whole world change. In fact, when I look back now, I wonder who I would be had I not read that book.
I read veraciously. I watched every movie that ever came out. I was even drawn to story in advertising. I remember writing a paper in college called, “How Advertising Affects the Roles of Men and Women,” because I figured, even if you’re not going to buy the cleanser, or the shirt or whatever, the stories were changing how we saw the world and ourselves.
Stories always fascinated me, which was why I think I went into publishing, and then I worked as an agent. I worked in television, I analyzed books and scripts. It’s primarily the basis of what I did. And what that really comes down to is figuring out why they don’t work. You know, most of what you’re reading isn’t going to work.
What I discovered really pretty early on, was that while writers tended to make mistakes in their own individual, spectacular, interesting way, the mistakes they were making were very similar, and they all kind of went to certain very specific things that I was looking for. And it resonated, and that was what made a story or a novel or a screenplay work and what didn’t.
The interesting thing was those things were very different from what writers had been taught, from what I’d ever heard. It had nothing to do with language or great characters, wonderful metaphors. It had to do with really wanting to know what happened next and how things were affecting the characters.
I’ve also always kind of been a neuroscience geek. I didn’t study it at school, which wouldn’t have mattered at this point anyway, because so much of the research is really new and exciting, and happening as we speak. I began to notice that every article I was reading about neuroscience — which we were hearing about everywhere…you turn on the radio, you pick up a newspaper, and there’s something that they’re discovering — had to do with how we process information, and how story affects us and what we’re looking for.
I turned to neuroscience for the same reason that we all turn to story, which is I wanted to know what made people tick. That’s why we turn to story. What makes people tick? What does that really feel like? What it looks like on the surface, but what does it really feel like? What are people really thinking?
What happened was, I realized…and it was the biggest “aha” moment of my life. I realized that everything I was reading in the neuroscience was confirming everything I thought about story, which I’d already been writing about. So I incorporated the two, and ended up writing the book.
Because my feeling has always been that if writers really knew what we were looking for in story, if they really knew how stories affect us, they would not only be able to write better, but they would realize that they’re the most powerful people in the world, because we are the most powerful people in the world.
Joanna: That’s awesome. I’ve read the book. I think it’s brilliant. I know you want us to come back to the things that people get wrong, but let’s start with this:
In what way are humans wired for story? What do you actually mean by that phrase?
Lisa: That’s kind of a two-part question, so first let’s talk about what story actually is and where it came from. And a misconception, a very easy misconception that people have, which is that stories are for entertainment, and we love them, we feel great. There’s not a culture or a society in the world that doesn’t have storytelling. It brings us together, but the stories are not really about the business of life. They’re about enjoying life, and it couldn’t be less true.
Story is literally how we got here. Story is what makes us human. We think in story. We evaluate everything that happens to us in story. Story is what allows us to envision the future, and so hopefully, plan for it. It was back in the day, it was like, “Look at those shiny, red berries. They look delicious. I’m starving, and I heard a story about the Neanderthal next door who gobbled them down and died a horrible, grisly death.” Opposable thumbs let us hold on, story told us what to hold onto.
Our brains are literally wired to respond to story, and to take in information in story form. Story is how we make sense of the world.
Now, why that’s important for writers is because it tells us what we’re really responding to in every story that we hear, and it’s not the beautiful writing. There’s nothing wrong with beautiful writing, it’s wonderful, but that’s not what we’re responding to.
That feeling that we get when we can’t put a book down…and I think we’ve all had those days, you know, where you’re exhausted at work because you stayed up until four in the morning, because you were reading a book and you kept thinking, “Okay, I’ll just get to the end of the page and I’ll stop.” And you can’t stop. And what’s pulling you forward, and the reason you can’t stop, and we all know the feeling, isn’t just some random emotion. It’s not just enjoyment.
Where that’s really coming from is the neurotransmitter, dopamine. Pleasure. The brain’s pleasure neurotransmitter. And that’s being triggered by curiosity, because Mother Nature figured that since we needed this information to survive, to figure out the future, to figure out what makes people tick, it’s curiosity to find out what happens next that’s pulling us forward.
The pleasure we feel comes from our brain’s reward system, saying, “Yeah, keep reading. Don’t go to sleep,” because you might find out something that’s gonna help you better understand how people tick. The one thing that doesn’t pull us forward will not.
And think about it, when we keep reading forward we’re never going, “I wonder what beautiful word the writer’s gonna use next. I wonder what gorgeous sentence is gonna come next.” What we wonder is, “I wonder what’s gonna happen next. Will this event affect the protagonist, and how can I use that information in my own life?”
Joanna: Let’s tackle that. We’re going to come back to a lot of things but, you know, the Fifty Shades question. “Fifty Shades of Grey,” I’m sure everybody knows this multi-multi-million of these books…
Lisa: Twenty million.
Joanna: Yeah. I mean these books just keep selling. They’re everywhere. You know, you see people reading them everywhere. And I hear a lot of writers complaining, and saying, “It’s so awful that this terrible book is selling, whereas this literary fiction, wonderful book with amazing writing that won the Pulitzer, or whatever, has only sold 5,000 copies.”
I always say, “Well, actually, I read all three of the Fifty Shades books because somehow you are pulled in.” But I know you’ve written, not specifically in the book but you’ve blogged about it.
Maybe you can expand on the great literature vs. what sells kind of thing.
Lisa: I would actually take exception to the term “great literature,” you know, on one level. Just to first talk about that and then to go to “Fifty Shades of Grey,” I think that the biggest problem comes from the way that writing is taught, and the way that we naturally look at it.
It’s understandable because writing is taught as if the goal is to learn to write well. And who would argue with that? But it’s taught as if, if you learn to write well, which means, you know, you have a love of language or language is beautiful, you’ve written great characters, you’re great with metaphors, you’d read a lot of really, very vivid sensory details, and if you do all that, somehow by magic you’ll have written a story. And it couldn’t be further from the truth.
Words, and all of that beautiful writing, is the handmaiden of story. It’s story that gives those words meaning, and that stimulates the curiosity and the dopamine that makes us wanna know what happens next.
A book like “Fifty Shades of Grey” grabs us immediately in that I want to know what happens next. It tells a really good story, because the two things that we hear about “Fifty Shades of Grey” all the time…you know, two things. One, people can’t put it down, and two, it’s not well written. Well, if being well written is what grabbed people, would it have sold 20 million copies, and selling? Of course not. What grabs people is, “I want to know what happens next.”
And I actually think that E.L. James is a better writer than she’s being given credit for. I mean, yeah, she makes a lot of mistakes. I mean she says, “Holy crap,” like 44 times. And we should never say that ever, even in our real lives, let alone in our books.
But she gets a lot of stuff right. For instance, she does something that writers often forget to do, which is she always lets us know what Anastasia Steele expects to have happen. So when it doesn’t, we’re in her skin, feeling her reaction to what actually does happen, and that pulls us through.
Because, really, what brings us the story is: what’s the emotional cost? What’s that person really feeling, as opposed to what they’re doing on the surface?
We got the surface covered. We don’t need to know that. What we want to know in story is, what does it really feel like? Like that old song, “Never Let ’em See You Sweat.” Stories about what it feels like to sweat.
There’s a lot of sweating in Fifty Shades of Grey. Fantasy. We all have, I think, big fantasies like that, and my guess actually is, Joanna, that a lot of those people who swear they only read literary fiction are at night under the covers reading Fifty Shades of Grey. They’re just not admitting it to anybody.
With literary fiction, though, I think a lot of it is that even if you do all of that good writing well, you end up writing what’s known in the trade as “a beautifully written who cares?” because it’s not affecting anyone.
And that’s why people, even when they buy those books, I think, often don’t read them, because we don’t have that curiosity and so we’ve got other things to do. Our own lives are so demanding and interesting to us that why would we slog through something that doesn’t give us that sense of, “I want to be there,” that wonderful dopamine rush. We’re addicted to it, we love it.
Joanna: It’s true, and you know, I’m going to put it out there. I’m going to admit this. Since “The Name of the Rose” I’ve loved Umberto Eco; brilliant literary writer. I bought his “Prague Cemetery” without even reading a sample. I was like, “I have to read it.”
Could I get past chapter one? No, I couldn’t. Because, like you say, life’s too short.
Lisa: Yeah, and it’s so funny you’d bring that up because talking about “The Name of the Rose,” I remember I was in publishing in New York when that book came out and it made the bestseller list, and it had the reputation of being the book everyone bought and no one read.
Joanna: It is. I tried to read it again, it’s quite dry. But anyway, let’s talk about…we don’t want people to think that they can’t love language and can’t do that. We just want them to actually think about some other things.
What are the other things that authors get wrong, and how can they fix them? Let’s try and come up with three specifics.
Lisa: Just before we get there, just to say, in no way am I saying that great writing, and great metaphors, and great characters isn’t important. It’s really important. But you can write a great book without that. The only thing that really matters, and the one non-negotiable, is wanting to know what happens next.
The biggest mistake that writers make, and you would be shocked how many writers make this mistake because it seems it’s like, “How could this be?” but they don’t know what their story is about.
I can’t tell you how many manuscripts I’ve read where, if you ask me what it’s about, I’d say, “It’s about 300 pages.” I have absolutely no idea. And that’s because what writers don’t tend to realize is that a story is virtual reality.
It’s, “I’m going to step into a problem, and I want to know how to solve it.” That story begins on page one with, “Here is what the problem is. Here is the protagonist who’s going to be solving that problem.” They want something very badly. There’s something usually, not just external but internal, that’s holding them back. And everything in the story goes toward that.
The story makes the point of, “How are they going to solve that?” not just in terms of solving the plot question, but solving that internal issue that’s keeping them back.
What do they have to realize by the end? Writers don’t realize that you need to go into a story having a pretty good idea of what that’s going to be.
It can change. Certainly, you can change your mind and go back. But if you don’t know that, what you end up is a collection of just random events that happen. So there’s no dopamine because there’s no curiosity because we can’t anticipate what’s going to happen next.
That’s really, honestly the biggest mistake that writers make. They don’t realize that a story makes a point from page one. Advertisers know that really well. Televangelists, politicians know that really well, but writers don’t tend to want to go there because they think it’s about the beautiful writing.
The other mistake that writers make is that they don’t realize that everything in their story is going to get its meaning based on how it’s affecting the protagonist who’s trying to solve this problem. That they have big things happen, but it’s not affecting the protagonist. And if it’s not, it doesn’t matter how big.
It could be the most dramatic event in the world — birth, death, fall of the Roman Empire — and it’s neutral because we’re going to evaluate everything in the story based on how it’s affecting the protagonist in pursuit of their quest, which means that it’s going to get its emotional weight and meaning based on that. And that means that the protagonist needs to react to all of those things.
And that’s another big mistake that writers make. They’ll have something very dramatic happen to the protagonist, and then they don’t tell us how he or she is reacting to it. It goes back to the, “Well, what are they really thinking? How is that changing their worldview? How is that helping them overcome whatever they have to overcome to get their goal, to succeed?”
Whether the goal is even…it might even be something to stay exactly as they are, sort of like Bilbo Baggins in “The Hobbit.” That certainly can be a goal, but then everything needs to put weight on that goal. Is it gonna get them closer? Is it gonna get them further away?
Joanna: I know you talk about the “Show, Don’t Tell” rule, that people get that wrong.
Lisa: Yes. “Show, Don’t Tell”…and actually, if we could talk about that for a second because there are three ways that people really get that wrong. And this also does go to where specifics go missing in story, and goes back to what we were just talking about, which is not allowing us to see the characters’ internal, how they’re making sense of the world. I’ll just jump into one great example of “Show, Don’t Tell.”
What people think “Show, Don’t Tell” means, often, is, don’t tell me that someone’s upset, show me that they’re upset. I had a writer once that I was working with, and he had a guy who was eating his dinner, and all of a sudden he threw his coffee cup against the wall, like out of the blue.
I called him up and I said, “What’s going on there?” And he said, “Oh, well, I had a writing teacher who told me, ‘Don’t just tell me he’s angry, show him doing something.'” And I said, “Okay, no. That’s not really what he meant.
What he meant was, ‘Show me why he’s angry. Show me what’s causing him to be angry.'” Because one of the things that writers tend to do is they’ll sum up the things that have happened, in general, and then draw a conclusion from it without showing us what really happened.
It turned out that that guy had a bad day at work, and they might say, “Well, Joe had a bad day at work, and he was angry, and he threw it.” That is not enough. A bad day at work? A bad day at work could be Joe went to work, Joe’s a total slacker, and he fell asleep at his desk, and he got caught, and he got yelled at. That would be a bad day at work.
Also it could be that Joe worked his fingers to the bone, his nemesis came in, and took all the credit for it. And Joe was dying over that, and Joe had a bad day at work.
Now, both of those things are specific. You’ve showed us what happened, and they give as much more insight into how Joe’s feeling, and they allow us to anticipate what he might do next. If that’s just, “He had a bad day at work,” we have no idea how that’s affecting him or what he might do as a result.
Another really good example of this — and this is a funny one — I had a writer who had a habit of writing characters who would swear that they would never do something. Like, “I would never, ever, ever do this.” And then someone would come up and they’d go, “Hey, you wanna go do it?” and they’d go, “Okay, fine,” and off they’d go. And I said, “Okay, if you’re gonna have a character change their mind, you have to show them changing their mind. They can’t just go make a 180-degree turn for no reason.”
She went, “Okay, great. I get it, I’ll do it,” and I got the manuscript back, and I’d read three or four versions of this before I realized what she’d done. And it was a scene where, you know, the wife comes in and says, “Joe, I know you said that we could never, ever get a dog again after what happened with Rover, but I saw the cutest Cockapoo at the pound. Please can we go get him?”
And it was, “Joe sat on the couch. He stroked his chin. He looked pensively out the window. Seconds ticked by. ‘Okay, honey. Let’s go get the dog,'” and I realized that she was indeed showing Joe make the decision.
And of course, that’s not what it meant at all. It meant show us how he changes his mind, because that’s where we came to story; the difference between, as I said, what we see on the outside and what we’re really thinking.
Story is often about the things that we can’t say. How do we process information? What does that mean to us, really? We want to see the steps between, “No, I would absolutely never do that,” and what does it costs us to go, “Okay, yeah, I will.” That’s what we want to know. What did that really feel like?
Sometimes “Show, Don’t Tell” is physical, is seeing something physical, especially with body language, which is the only language that no matter how hard we try we cannot lie in. But when you do “Show, Don’t Tell” and you’re going to use body language, you want it to tell us something we don’t already know.
In other words, if Sally’s boyfriend broke up with her and we already know she’s really sad, we don’t need three pages of watching her cry a beautiful river. Where you do want to use it would be if Sally’s boyfriend broke up with her and she said to him, “You know what? Not only was I gonna break up with you, but I never liked you anyway,” and then we see her shoulders slump and we go, “Oh, Sally’s lying.” Now, we know what that’s really feeling like.
So, “Show, Don’t Tell” is often, when it’s physical, used to show us something that is giving us insight into how the character feels, separate from what every other character is seeing.
Joanna: Fantastic. You’ve talked a bit about the kind of curiosity and the dopamine effect of wanting to know what’s happening.
Does that literally mean we should just be opening questions and keeping the curiosity going throughout the book? How can writers specifically kind of get that feeling?
Lisa: It really does always come back to realizing that what’s going to be in the reader’s mind is, “How is the story question going to resolve?” How is the main character, the protagonist in whose skin we are…the protagonist is our avatar, our surrogate in the story, and so we’re watching that character try to solve that problem.
What that means is that, within your story, every single thing that happens has to, in some way, answer that question. Everything they try to solve the problem usually, as in real life, only makes it worse, and now they’ve got to reconsider and move forward.
One thing to think about, and watch this when you’re reading or watching everything: we’re really wired to believe, and we tacitly assume that in a story every single thing the writer tells us is there on a need-to-know basis. If we don’t need to know it, the writer is not going to waste our time telling us.
If you do tell us things that we don’t need to know, we’re going to make up a reason for it, and that reason is going to inherently be wrong because there is no right reason. And what happens is, at that point, the story stops making sense, and then we can’t anticipate what happens next because we’re not really sure what’s happening in the moment.
The real thing to keep in mind, I think, all the way through is that yard stick. There’s something that I like to call the “and so” test. For everything that you’ve written, even a sentence, a paragraph, a scene, a chapter, ask yourself, “And so?”
The question you’re asking is, “What’s the point?” Why does the reader need to know this? What insight does this give the reader? And not just in terms of literally, physically, what’s going to happen next, but what insight does it give the reader into how the protagonist, or whatever character it is, is seeing the situation and what they may or may not do as a result. How is it really affecting them?
Story is about that internal stuff that we don’t talk about. That’s what we come to it for. The stuff our friends don’t tell us, the stuff that everybody is keeping secret, we want to know that. That’s what brings us to Fifty Shades of Grey, all that stuff. We can think of in a story is like, “Oh, yeah. Me, too. I feel that, too. I’m not the only one.” But the more that everything goes to that story question, the better.
Joanna: And it’s good that you say that. I like the chapter in your book about that. There’s actually a lot of things in your book, I think, we know as writers, but actually you can see how, perhaps, we’ve got some of it wrong. And I’ve had a number of people who I’ve done consulting with, and their books are so much in the protagonist’s point of view where they might say, “Then they brushed their teeth and then they had this for breakfast, and then they did that and the other.” That’s not what you mean, is it?
We’re in someone’s point of view but it’s not everything, it’s only what matters.
Lisa: Exactly. There’s so many different layers we could talk about that on, but absolutely, you’re only telling us things that pertain to the story question and whether or not this moves them further away or closer to. And usually, it’s again how they’re interpreting what’s happening and it’s driving them to make a decision that pertains to the story question.
That’s where the “and so” test comes in. And one way to look at it is…this is a really interesting brain thing, and it’s kind of shocking. Every second of every day there are 11 million pieces of information that are bombarding your 5 senses.
Now, if we had to deal with all of those 11 million pieces of information at one time, we couldn’t move. So what our brain does is it very, very quickly, at warp speed, sifts through it, and I think they say there are about 40 things we can kind of be aware of. And what we can actually concentrate on is somewhere between, like, five and nine; seven being the optimal number.
And what does our brain filter out? It filters out all the stuff that we don’t need to know in terms of the task at hand, the stuff that has no consequence to what we’re doing now.
That’s what writers need to do. They need to filter out every piece of information in the protagonist’s life that doesn’t pertain to, “Are they or aren’t they going to achieve whatever it is that the story is forcing them to achieve?” Because the story needs to force them. Stories are about problems that we can’t avoid.
Stories are about conflict that can’t be avoided, because in real life we’re wired to avoid conflict. We don’t want it at all. But yet, we’re kind of drawn to it because we think, “I wonder what that risk would feel like.” That’s what we come to story for.
Story takes characters, and we’re in their shoes, and now it’s forcing them to deal with things that in real life we can avoid because we want to know, “Well, maybe that risk is worth it.” Everything in the story goes to, “What would it be like to take that risk?” And unless the risk is trying a toothpaste that might kill you, we don’t need to know.
Joanna: No, I agree. I like that idea that you want to be getting the dopamine. And I feel that, as a writer, the reason I write about killing and murder, and do fight scenes, is because I don’t want to go through that but there is a sort of vicarious thrill.
Lisa: Right. We all wonder what makes people tick. Every time someone does especially something on that level…I mean there’s this horrible thing that I’m sure you’re aware of that just happened here in Colorado, and the burning question everywhere, and I’ve seen it referred to in the New York Times as “The Burning Question,” is why did he do that? Why would a person go in and do something as utterly horrendous as what he did? And it comes down to what we wanna know. What makes people tick?
The wonderful movie, “Citizen Kane,” opens with the producer of the newsroom going, “There’s nothing more interesting than finding out what makes people tick.” And especially people who do things that we would never do, like murder people, hopefully. We’d never do that.
Joanna: Yeah, it’s terrible. Okay, so we’ve covered a lot in our time, and I highly recommend the book. So where can people find you and the book online?
Lisa: They can find me online at www.wiredforstory.com, and the book can really be found just about everywhere, all the usual suspects — bookstores and everywhere online where you look for books.
Joanna: Fantastic. Thanks ever so much for your time, Lisa. That was great.
Lisa: Thank you, Joanna. It was really fun.