We all like a good story, and for hundreds of years, writers have tried to tell us the ones that are interesting, shocking, and exciting. But writers of today have an advantage over writers of the past: they have brain science on their side. Writers today can understand how humans are wired for story.
Studies of the brain can tell us why we like stories and what kinds of stories catch our attention the most. This book gives an overview of what was found. They teach aspiring writers what they need to do to get ahead.
Table of Contents
- Stories are key to humanity’s evolution and survival
- Filter out unnecessary information in your story
- How to add emotions within a story
- Have a clear goal for the protagonist
- Add specifics to make your story more engaging
- Look for and play with patterns in a story.
- Practice writing more stories to become a better storyteller
- Summary of learnings
Stories are key to humanity’s evolution and survival
Our TV stations are full of dramas and soap operas. Additionally, most of the books on our best-seller lists are works of fiction. Why do we love to hear stories so much?
Our brains are hardwired to like stories, which is why we like them so much. They help us think about the future and get ready for it.
When a good story grabs our attention, the brain releases dopamine. This makes us pay more attention and be more interested.
We can thank evolution for making this happen. The best way for our ancestors to share information that could save their lives was through stories. We learned to pay attention to them.
Imagine a Stone Age man sitting in his cave one night and listening to his friend tell how his daughter almost died after eating some red berries. Our ancestors would have learned important things from that story about how to keep their own children safe.
Modern neuroscience can help us get to the bottom of this evolutionary practice so we can understand it better. We now know that when we hear a story, our brains process the information the same way they do when we experience something in real life. This shows that stories started out as a way to learn about danger without actually having to face it.
For example, if your ancient self wanted to know why you shouldn’t approach a saber-tooth tiger, it was better to listen to a friend’s story than to go and see what might happen. Both ways would teach the lesson, but you’re not likely to die from the story.
We aren’t likely to run into a saber-toothed tiger in the world we live in now. Still, stories continue to keep us interested and teach us things.
The great thing is that this can be used by writers. But just telling a story isn’t enough. Stories that are interesting need to have certain elements, which we will look at in the following summaries.
Filter out unnecessary information in your story
Have you ever read a great story that didn’t have a good plot? Most likely not! When we hear a story that doesn’t go anywhere, we’re likely to lose interest in it quickly. This is because every good story needs a clear focus made up of three things in order to be interesting.
The first thing is the protagonist’s problem, or what your main character wants. If we look at Hamlet, the problem would be the death of his father and his search for the killer.
The theme is the second thing. The story’s theme is what it tells people about what it means to be human. The main ideas in Hamlet would be sanity, madness, and sadness.
The last thing is the plot, which is how the main character gets to his goal. In Hamlet, this would be all the strange things that happened before Hamlet died.
Once you know what your story is about, everything else in it needs to fit into one of these three categories. There shouldn’t be any information that isn’t needed.
So why is focusing so important? When we look at how our brains process information, the answer is clear.
Every second, our senses send around 11 million pieces of information to our brains, but we can only process between 5 and 7 (not 5 to 7 million) of them all at once.
Focusing on one thing at a time helps the brain pick out what is important and relevant. Without it, it’s hard for us to figure out what’s important, and our dopamine levels drop, which makes us less interested in what’s going on.
Without the main idea, Hamlet is just a bunch of random facts about Denmark in the Middle Ages.
How to add emotions within a story
We tend to think that our personalities have two different sides. One side is in charge of reason, logic, and making decisions, and the other side is in charge of emotions, gut reactions, and making snap decisions.
We believe that in order to make smart decisions, we can simply ignore our emotional side and concentrate on the rational one. But that’s not true.
Neuroscience has shown that we can’t just use our minds to get things done. Our emotions are crucial.
Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist, looked at a man with a brain tumor that made him unable to feel emotions. He did well on IQ tests, but without his feelings, he couldn’t make any decisions at all. He couldn’t even do something as simple as pick out a pen.
A writer shouldn’t underestimate the importance of emotion. If you want your readers to gain anything from your story, you need to satisfy their emotional side.
One way is to put the audience in the place of the main character. The audience wants to feel the same feelings as the main character. They want to know exactly what it would feel like to be him.
There are several ways to do this.
You can paint a picture of how the character feels by describing things and actions like how she paces back and forth in fear, how her face turns deathly pale, and so on.
You could also tell the audience something that the main character doesn’t know yet, like that his girlfriend is coming home and he is in bed with another woman. This lets the audience figure out how the characters will feel before they do.
You could also have a narrator tell us what the main character is thinking and how she feels.
Have a clear goal for the protagonist
Can you think of a book you liked where the main character just kind of stumbled around, not really knowing what he or she wanted? You probably can’t.
That’s because a good writer knows that it’s important for the main character to have a clear goal if they want to keep the reader interested.
We find it interesting because we have mirror neurons in our brains. When we know what the main character is doing, like getting lost in a scary house, the same parts of our brains light up as if we were doing the action ourselves.
But what does this have to do with what the main characters want? Well, if we didn’t know what the main character wanted, we wouldn’t know how his actions would make him (and us) feel.
If we don’t know that our hero is looking through the scary house to find her kidnapped partner, we can’t feel how she’s feeling while she’s doing it.
There are two kinds of goals: internal goals and external goals. Internal goals are those that the main character needs to reach in order to grow as a person (such as finding the kidnap victim).
Let’s take a look at what John McClane wanted to do in the movie Die Hard. McClane wants to stop a group of crazy terrorists from killing everyone at Nakatomi Plaza. But what he really wants is to get back together with his ex-wife Holly.
Internal goals are actually the most important because they’re what the audience can relate to the most. We can’t really understand what it’s like to fight a group of terrorists, but most of us know how we’d feel if we were trying to win back a loved one.
So, it’s important to have very clear internal goals. Even though the outside ones can add excitement and mystery to a plot, they shouldn’t be the most important ones.
Add specifics to make your story more engaging
Without main ideas and big ideas, stories would be boring. The problem is that you can’t see them. Have you ever tried to picture the two sides of a person without any images to help you?
Because our brains have evolved to be so good at making mental pictures, images are the most important thing.
With these pictures, we make a mental model of the world where we can imagine what would happen if we did something without having to deal with real-world consequences.
But how important is it? Well, neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio says that all of our thoughts are made up of images.
Even scientists use pictures and analogies to help them understand abstract ideas. Einstein was able to explain his theory of relativity by talking about how, when he was young, he would sometimes imagine himself riding on a beam of light.
But how does the fact that imagery is so important to affect writers?
Using images is a very powerful tool for writers. When a story has too many generalities, people’s minds start to wander. This is because generalities don’t make specific pictures in the mind, which makes it hard to understand what they mean. So, people start to lose interest, and their dopamine levels go down.
Look at the following examples of house fires;
Every year, about 2,500 people die in house fires in the United States.
David woke up to the sound of his mother screaming, and the room was full of smoke. He ran to her, but the flames kept pushing him back. When he got there, he saw that she was trapped under the fallen roof. She shouted “I love you” as he fought to save her.
Which one makes you think more? Of course, the second one. The first is just a general fact, so it’s hard for us to picture it. The second, on the other hand, has details that we can see in our minds, which draws us in right away.
Look for and play with patterns in a story.
Randomness is something our brains absolutely detest. It seeks to identify patterns even where none exist.
Our inclination to recognize patterns emerged as a beneficial tool to reduce the complicated world that surrounds us and enable us to forecast future behaviors with speed.
For example, a caveman who witnessed a mammoth drop its head prior to a charge would have anticipated another charge if he seen the same behavior again.
It is therefore not surprising that this propensity for patterns has had a significant impact on narrative.
An ingrained assumption about stories is that everything we consider to be the beginning of a pattern, or a setup, must be followed by a resolution.
Setup refers to anything in a narrative that indicates upcoming action. When Q shows James Bond an assortment of interesting gadgets, we know he’s not just looking at them for fun. Bond’s deployment of one of these gadgets against a bad guy is the payout.
To be effective, there must be a clear path between the setup and the payoff.
If something is introduced at the beginning of a novel but does not reappear until the very end, the reader may not remember it, and the reward will not be as satisfying.
However, there is one effective technique you may utilize to capture the audience’s attention: deviate from the usual pattern. When anything deviates from our expectations, we are surprised and fascinated.
Consider the iconic moment from the first Indiana Jones film in which Indy faces off against a sword-wielding psychopath. You expect the conclusion to feature an exciting and skilled sword battle, but instead, Indy just pulls out his gun and shoots the opponent. Because the pattern is broken, it makes an effect on us.
Practice writing more stories to become a better storyteller
Suppose someone asks you the number of “e”s in the word “entrepreneur.” You rapidly attempt to imagine it, but are unable to come up with the correct response. We’ve all experienced the unsettling sensation of forgetting how to spell a particular word, and the more we attempt to figure it out, the more uncertain we become.
This is due to the fact that our brains function optimally when we act based on our intuition; overthinking typically impairs performance.
According to Nobel winner Herbert Simon, it takes around ten years to become an expert in a certain field. Approximately 50,000 pieces of knowledge become internalized in the brain after ten years of practice, allowing us to automatically process them. This information becomes readily available to the brain, without our needing to consciously recall it.
An expert table tennis player, for instance, will have practiced so much that she can instantly estimate the bounce of the ball or the direction of the stroke; she does not need to think about it.
However, how does this relate to writing?
Rewriting repeatedly is the most effective method for developing the abilities required to write an engaging story. It turns your talent to generate tremendously unforgettable tales into something that occurs naturally.
When you feel that your script isn’t up to par, keep in mind that many outstanding novels were likely reworked countless times prior to publication.
For instance, by the time Michael Arndt completed the screenplay for the critically acclaimed film Little Miss Sunshine, he had already revised it over a hundred times.
When you need a boost to keep going, recall what Hemingway said: “All first drafts are trash.”
Imagine that someone asks you how many “e”s are in the word “entrepreneur.” You attempt to imagine it quickly, but you cannot come up with the correct response. We’ve all experienced the unsettling sensation of forgetting how to spell a particular word, and the more we attempt to figure it out, the less convinced we become.
This is due to the fact that our brains function optimally when we act based on our intuition; overthinking typically hinders our success.
According to Nobel winner Herbert Simon, it takes around ten years to become an expert in a field. After ten years of practice, the brain internalizes approximately 50,000 pieces of knowledge, allowing us to comprehend them naturally. This information becomes readily accessible to the brain, without the need for conscious thought.
An expert table tennis player, for instance, will have practiced so frequently that she can estimate the bounce of the ball or the direction of the stroke without thinking.
However, what does this have to do with writing?
Rewriting repeatedly is the best approach to build the abilities essential for writing an engaging story. It transforms your capacity to generate tremendously memorable tales into an instinctive process.
When you feel that your script isn’t up to par, keep in mind that many excellent novels have undoubtedly been reworked countless times before publication.
Michael Arndt had revised the screenplay for the critically praised film Little Miss Sunshine almost a hundred times by the time he completed it.
When you need a little encouragement to continue, recall what Hemingway famously said: “All first manuscripts are crap.”
Consider the iconic moment from the first Indiana Jones film in which Indy faces off against a sword-wielding psychopath. You expect the conclusion to feature an exciting and skilled sword battle, but instead Indy just pulls out his gun and shoots the opponent. Because the pattern is broken, it makes an effect on us.
Summary of learnings
Understanding how the human brain absorbs information is essential for writing a fantastic story. Once you grasp this concept and master the writing approaches that capitalize on it, you will be well on your way to generating amazing stories. Also, you may find our other summaries interesting like Think like a freak and Marketing made simple
Don’t overload your audience
Although sensory details can help bring a story to life, excessive use can be overwhelming. In the end, your brain can only process a small fraction of the sensory input. Therefore, carefully consider whether the sensory elements contribute to the plot.
Create a relatable goal for your protagonist
“Outside world” ambitions are amusing, but does your protagonist have a goal that is relatable? It may be fascinating to read about saving the world from zombies, but it is difficult for the reader to comprehend how the protagonist could feel in this situation. Also, consider an internal motivation or objective that all individuals can relate to, such as finding love or coping with the loss of a loved one.