Writing for Story – It’s in the Genes

male hand with pen isolated on white background

The motivation to write is something that many of us feel. Millions of us, perhaps billions of us. As a writer I would guess that every time the subject is brought up publicly, you’ll have some relative, friend, work colleague or random stranger come up to you and talk about the book they have in them too (if only they had time, etc).

For every writer out there actually writing something, imagine how many more people there must be who want to write, but don’t. (A good thing, too. Because the relationship should be one writer to many readers, not one writer to…somebody busy writing also…).

The dream to write is something undeniably in our human genes.

Writing is one of our biggest forms of communication. Back in caveman times, we used to paint our stories and fables onto cave walls. Once we had evolved our languages, oral narrators – storytellers and musicians – were revered roles, traveling from community to community to share our stories. Community = communication.

When writing forms developed, our tales were documented. Print technology allowed these to spread further to the masses. Nowadays we have developed other forms of communication – moving pictures, audio, videos, the internet, social media. But aside from images, most of those communication forms for passing along our stories, still sit reliant upon the written word (scripts, planning, some text).

This calling, then, to write, is something shared and understood by all of human society – it sits at the forefront of our evolution. As writers, we have a responsibility to understand the power of what we write, because human kind is wired for story.

Randy Ingermanson (The Snow-flake Guy), in his very latest Advanced Fiction Writing E-Zine, discusses this very subject. Here’s what he and author Lisa Cron say-

Your Brain is Wired for Story

I recently heard a talk by Lisa Cron about how humans are “wired for story.” It was a terrific talk, and midway through it, I hopped onto Amazon and bought Lisa’s book, WIRED FOR STORY.

Does it matter if humans are “wired for story?”

Sure it does. If you understand why humans desperately need story, you’ll be a better writer.

Story gives us a chemical buzz. Story lets us try out somebody else’s life without any risk. Story is our preferred way to learn things.

I met Lisa after her talk and we got into one of those intense conversations that lasts an hour but feels like five minutes. We think alike on a lot of things, but she knows way more about the neuroscience of story than I do.

I’ve now finished reading WIRED FOR STORY, and I found plenty of gold there. Here are a few of the nuggets I learned, which you can apply to your fiction writing:

Your Brain Likes the Big Picture 

Imagine you’re driving down a busy street. Your eyes and ears are taking in enormous amounts of data each second. The layout of all the cars around you, their shifting patterns, the traffic lights. The sky, the sun, the weather. Cars honking, road noise, the idiot guy on the radio. Your speedometer, fuel gauge, temperature gauge. If it’s raining, millions of water drops are streaming at you, and your windshield wipers are flitting across your field of vision every second. A kid is riding his bike out into the street right in front of your car.

With no effort at all, your brain filters out all the unimportant stuff.

You spot the kid and you jam on the brakes.

How did that happen?

Your brain is wired to care about the important stuff. The big picture.

In real life, your brain takes in about 11 million bits of data per second and passes on to your conscious mind about 40 bits per second.

Some writers worry about how to paint a picture that their reader can see, complete with mountains of detail. Because that’s “real life.”

Don’t.

In your story, your reader is expecting that you have filtered out all the useless information. Your reader expects that anything she reads is important to the story.

Your job as an author is to highlight the kid on the bike. To filter out the other cars, the traffic lights, the weather, the road noise, the radio jerk, the dashboard.

All those minor things will get a sentence or two, just to set the context. The kid gets half a page.

Story isn’t about the details.

Story is about what matters.

Focus on what matters, and your story will feel more real than if you try to focus on “everything.” Which feels to the reader like focusing on “nothing.”

Your Brain Thinks Concretely, Not Abstractly 

Picture this scenario:

You’re in great danger and you have to fight your adversary or else face grave consequences.

Can you see that in your mind’s eye?

Probably not. “Danger” could be anything—a mugger, a tornado, a submarine falling out of a third-floor window.

“Danger” is abstract. You can’t picture “danger.” You can picture a mugger, because that’s concrete. So is a tornado. So is a submarine.

Likewise, “fight” is abstract. So is “adversary.” So is “grave consequences.”

I’ve asked your brain to do something it can’t possibly do—picture the abstract.

Your brain can only picture concrete things.

So let’s try again. Picture this scenario:

You’re in a wilderness area and you’re attacked by a wild beast. You have a weapon and you must use it to neutralize your enemy.

How was that? Could you visualize it?

You could, possibly, but only if you filled in a lot of gaps.

Is that “wilderness” a desert, a jungle, or an arctic ice floe?

Is that “wild beast” a tiger, a T-rex, or a tarantula?

Is that “weapon” a stick, a machete, or an Uzi?

Does “neutralize” mean to cripple, to kill, or to scare away?

Again, the scenario I’ve asked you to visualize is abstract, when your brain wanted something concrete.

One more try. Picture this scenario:

You’re walking through a steaming Indian jungle at noon and a Bengal tiger comes charging toward you. You’ve got a loaded rifle, and you have half a second to kill the tiger.

Can you see that in your mind’s eye?

Of course you can. Because everything is now concrete. The jungle. The tiger. The rifle. The ticking clock. The only way of salvation.

Your brain is wired to imagine concrete things. Your brain is not wired to imagine abstract things.

When writing fiction, use concrete nouns and verbs. Leave the abstract stuff to your Philosophy 101 professor.

Your Brain Believes in Cause and Effect 

You are locked in a cage with Ricky Headmasher, the world heavyweight champion in mixed martial arts. The rules today are that they won’t open the cage until one of you is unconscious. Or both of you.

Ricky starts falling, right after you land a lucky kick to his head, but not before he has punched you in the eye, which happened right after you lunged at him in a feint, after which he ducked and threw a wicked left at your head, which you then tried to twist away from but failed. The cage opens after Ricky hits the canvas and you stomp on his face, just before Ricky’s eyes roll back and his muscles turn to spaghetti.

A rousing bit of action, no?

What? No? Seriously? You didn’t quite follow that?

You probably could follow it if you tried hard enough. You’re smart enough to make a list of things that happened and then sort them to see which came first.

But you’d hate that. Your brain is wired to expect cause and effect. The cause comes first, then the effect. That effect then becomes the cause for some other effect. And so on.

Your brain is not wired to see a mishmash of effects and causes all out of order.

Your brain is not wired to see “Ricky starts falling just after you land a lucky kick to his head.” Because in that sentence, the effect is written first, and then the cause.

Your brain wants to see you land that kick and then see Ricky start his epic fall.

When you’re writing fiction, your reader expects to see causes and effects. In that order. Your reader hates to see effects that have no causes. Your reader is puzzled to see causes that don’t lead to effects.

Make your reader happy. Work with her brain the way it’s wired.

Focus your reader on the big picture. Show her concrete images. Show her cause and effect.

These are three ideas out of a dozen that you’ll find in WIRED FOR STORY, by Lisa Cron.

If you want to learn the rest, with a whole lot more detail, check out her book.

You can get it on Amazon.

You can also get it on Barnes & Noble. (I’ve left Randy’s affiliate links in, it’s only fair).


The excerpt above was provided from Randy Ingermanson’s Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with the following reprint rights:

This article is reprinted by permission of the author.
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 6,700 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.

This post was a bonus post in a 7 post series running from last Wednesday to the next. You can find the index post for all from the series here.

Later today there will be some thoughts by Jeff Goins will suggest what a true calling to write may be. In next week’s posts, there will be more on motivating factors vs a calling.

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