By Boni Wagner-Stafford

September 27, 2021

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How the Neuroscience of Narrative Can Improve Your Writing

Story has been wired into the architecture of our brains for hundreds of thousands of years. We think in story. We come to story for problem solving. And the only way that we can solve a problem isn’t to look at it “objectively” in terms of what’s going on in the external world. No. We solve problems internally. Story is about an internal journey, not an external journey. Lisa Cron explains how the neuroscience of narrative can help improve your writing.

Lisa has a background in publishing and as a literary agent. She’s also worked as a TV producer, and as a story consultant for Hollywood studios. She’s an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and is on the faculty of School of Visual Arts New York City’s MFA program in visual narrative. She has her own TEDx talk and video classes online. Lisa is the author of three books about story craft: Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel  (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere) and the recently published Story or Die: How to Use Brain Science to Engage, Persuade, and Change Minds in Business and in Life.

We talked with Lisa about story and the brain on The Empowered Author Podcast. You can listen to the episode here. (Please share and review!)

How are our brains wired for story?

Story is not just something that we use for entertainment. It’s what we use to make sense of things and to solve problems. Understanding this is the foundation of all your efforts to improve your writing.

In his book Your Brain is a Time Machine, neuroscientist Dean Buonamano explains that the brain is continuously making predictions of what will happen next and when it will happen. These predictions help us survive.

How does the brain know this? It uses memory. In fact, that seems to be the whole purpose of why we’ve developed memory: to use it to predict the future.

From the moment we’re born, we’re taking in information to help us figure out what to do so that we can survive: “How is this going to affect me? Will it help me or will it hurt me? Will it get me closer to what I want,”–food or shelter, for example–“or will it get me killed?” This is an external metric we’ve created from our subjective reality and the experiences we’ve gone through. External events force us to question our beliefs—or rather, our misbeliefs—and have an “Aha” moment. Now we can either solve the problem, conclude that it never really was a problem in the first place, or continue the misbelief, leading to our destruction.

Because it is based on our subjective reality, two people can look at the same things in very different ways. So how do we survive if we only use our subjective experiences? How, for instance, do we know to avoid sharks and crocodiles if we’ve never seen sharks and crocodiles?

Story triggers the brain as if we were there

This is where story comes in. When we hear someone else’s story, it triggers the same part in our brain that would have been triggered if we were doing what the protagonist is doing: we are using the available information to try and figure out what needs to happen next. We hear how someone else got too close to a shark or a crocodile and had their leg bitten off, so we now know that we should probably avoid sharks and crocodiles if we want to keep our own legs intact.

So, narrative thread isn’t simply about the events that happen in the plot. It’s about what happens internally to the protagonist: they see the world not as it is but as they think it is. They think they’re being objective but they’re not. Something happens to the protagonist that makes them question what they’ve been believing. They experience an “Aha” moment, which helps them decide what to do and drives the story forward to its conclusion. And because we’re all wired for story, we all experience that journey along with the protagonist, having our own “Aha” moments along the way.

Improve your writing and satisfy the brain  

It will improve your writing if you can focus on the protagonist’s misbeliefs and “Aha” moments. The misbeliefs are what drive the protagonist to make all the wrong decisions, leading to the tension that keeps the reader riveted. The plot revolves around how the protagonist has to confront their misbeliefs in order to solve a problem. Towards the end of the story, the protagonist has that “Aha” moment that changes everything: it prompts them to approach the problem in a different way and leads to resolution. That’s the moment our brains are wired for: the moment when we understand the why.

So where do you begin to tell your protagonist’s story? After all, misbeliefs are usually formed in childhood. This does not mean you need to write a long back story just to get the story started. Remember that all stories start in the middle of it all. You need to know where these misbeliefs were formed in order to write the story well, but your reader doesn’t necessary need to be spoon fed that same information.

Instead of giving a summary of how all those misbeliefs were formed, look for how they have shaped the protagonist’s journey and led to the problem the character will face at the start of the story you want to tell. Look for that moment when they’re about to reach critical mass and the protagonist has no other choice than to confront the problem. This is your starting point.

The foursquare approach

You can take a foursquare approach, where you divide a page into four squares and in each, you answer questions about the following:

  1. Character: Who is the story about?
  2. Problem: What is the external thing that is going to happen and set the story in motion?
  3. Struggle: What is the internal struggle the character will go through? What is it that they want to do and what is it that they should do?
  4. Solution: How will going through the internal struggle lead the character to a solution?

However, the key question you need to ask when you want to improve your writing is the why: the point you want to make with the story. After all, without meaning, we can’t make a single rational decision – and that’s biological fact.

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