A photo of a ball with blue and green lights sparking off it to illustrate the role brain science plays in storytelling.

Power Your Stories with Brain Science

To celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month, I’d like to show you how to use brain science to improve your stories, by sharing some of Lisa Cron’s tips from The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence.

Lisa says, “Our brains are hardwired for story. The pleasure we derive from a well-told tale is nature’s way of seducing us to pay attention to it.”

Stories teach us how to survive by allowing us to rehearse events that up our chances of survival. Read a book or watch a movie about a car careening off a bridge, and later that day, you’ll likely think through how you’d escape that jam.

The delight we experience is one of the reasons why so many people want to write a book. 

But writing a book isn’t as easy as it looks. Many smart, motivated, ambitious people think their years as avid readers will help them quickly and easily draft a bestseller. When that doesn’t happen, fears of failure settle in.

I frequently share this shame-busting analogy with demoralized clients:

Reading and writing are like riding in or driving a car. But great storytellers are like master mechanics. They don’t just know how to drive a car; they know how to build one.

That takes time, knowledge, and a lot of practice.

Here’s your first lesson master mechanic lesson: The writer’s first task is to hook the reader. 

Our senses shower us with 11,000,000 pieces of information per second, yet “our conscious minds can only register 40…. On a good day, you can process 7.”

But according to Lisa Cron, “those other 10,999,960 are still important.”

That’s because “your subconscious brain, or what neuroscientists call the adaptive or cognitive unconscious, is a finely tuned instrument that’s instantly aware of what matters.” To hook a reader, you must make your story so compelling the brain can’t resist it.

Doing so requires you to understand what stories are, and what makes them irresistible. That’s where brain science comes in.

A story is not your book’s plot, but rather the internal transformation your narrator or protagonist goes through while “trying to achieve what turns out to be a difficult goal.”

Once you know your story, you must “plunk the reader in a situation that’s already unraveling,” a place where things are not as they seem. She gives us some hard wisdom in this area. “The ball has to already be in play. Not the preamble to the ball. Not all the stuff you have to know to really understand the ball. The ball itself.”

While you don’t have to reveal your entire story on page one, the ball in play must captivate us. It does this by sparking our curiosity, which releases dopamine, a feel-good chemical the brain’s reward center loves. More mystery equals more dopamine.

But you can’t simply introduce anything. Your mystery must establish three things:

  • Whose story is this?
  • What’s happening?
  • What’s at stake?

Artful stories do this on the first page. The very best ones accomplish this in the first sentence.

 Lisa shares an example from Elizabeth George’s What Came Before He Shot Her, which begins with the following line:

“Joel Campbell, eleven years old at the time, began his descent into murder with a bus ride.”

All three questions have been answered. Plus, there’s a pun-intended killer mystery to boot.

So how can you apply this brain science wisdom to your work?

If you’re writing a first draft, keep writing and read avidly in your genre. When you complete a book, jot down its first line. Then ask yourself how many of those three questions it answered.

If you’re in the messy middle, up the ante by crafting some sentences that do this work at the chapter level.

If you’re about to query, make sure chapter one answers these questions. Then challenge yourself to write a kickass Elizabeth-George-style opening line. Even if doesn’t answer all three questions, the exercise will strengthen your project.

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