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.