Saturday, June 20, 2015

What makes a great story? It may not be exactly what you think.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about what makes a fabulous story. Is it character development? Lyrical language? Properly placed plot points? (Is it alliteration?) What makes that book so intoxicating that you can’t put it down, so addictive that you neglect your family, your housekeeping, heck, even sleeping and showering—just to find out what happens next?

Plot points, world-building, amazing characters—sure, those things are important. Just not in and of themselves. What makes a book not-put-down-able is a combination of all of these things, in the right amounts, in order to create a narrative that our brain can dive into and live for itself.  When we read a story, we don’t necessarily think about the mechanics of why we can almost feel the heat from the raging fire, why our heart breaks in two right along with the protagonist as she watches her board a war-bound plane, or why we want to jump for joy when the hero strikes a fatal blow to the heart of the dragon. We might attribute it to “just a great story” without understanding that there are very concrete psychological and physical causes for the way we become immersed in the story.

My son and I were talking about dreams and nightmares the other day, and I was explaining to him how our dreams are often a way for the subconscious mind to work out problems in a safe environment, sort of like “safe mode” in Microsoft Windows. That dream about being in an out-of-control vehicle can help our subconscious mind deal with feeling out-of-control in a life situation we may be in, for example (or so it goes in the circle of people who try to figure that sort of thing out).

Psychologists have proposed that the human penchant for stories serves sort of the same purpose. Part of what sets us apart from animals is the ability to hear a story and experience it, thereby gaining knowledge with which to navigate the world. An example given is “Don’t eat those red berries. Grog from the next cave did, and wait until you hear what happened to him.” The hearer learns the red berries are not good, perhaps by experiencing Grog’s intestinal distress vicariously, and doesn’t have to learn from experience.

Research has shown that when we read, our minds can actually simulate what we are reading. A 2009 study published in  Psychological Science reports that as subjects read descriptions in a story of different actions, the parts of the brain responsible for those actions or emotions in real life lit up in brain scans. A person reading about a light switch being turned on has response in the area of the brain responsible for interpreting light. The conclusion drawn by the study is:

“These results suggest that readers use perceptual and motor representations in the process of comprehending narrated activity, and these representations are dynamically updated at points where relevant aspects of the situation are changing,” says Speer, now a research associate with The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) Mental Health Program in Boulder, Colo. “Readers understand a story by simulating the events in the story world and updating their simulation when features of that world change.”
(“Reading stories activates neural representations of visual and motor experiences,”Speer, Reynolds, Swallow, Zacks. Psychological Science. 2009 Aug;20(8):989-99. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02397.x. Epub 2009 Jun 30)

In short, we think in story. It’s the way our brains makes sense of the world around us. Other people’s stories do the same thing. Our brains can stimulate intense experiences—our brain craves the knowledge, because it wants to know how to, say, defend the family against an incursion of zombie bunny rabbits. The problem is presented, and then the story teaches our brain how the protagonist conquers it. We feel it—because our brain is running the scenario as if it were real, in order to gain the muscle memory for how to cope quickly with that scenario in real life. It reminds me of Keanu Reeves in the Matrix, downloading Kung Fu.

So, as authors, the goal is to tap into the brain’s need for the story. This is why the three-act plot, with plot points, pinch points, believable character development, etc., are so important. Our brain will believe the most fantastical of plots, if it is in the right format. We know what real humans are like, so unbelievable characters won’t ring true and will disrupt the program. A plot that doesn’t set up the problem properly, won’t engage the brain because it won’t even cross its radar of “situations I need to learn about so that I can file them away unless I need to handle one like it someday.”

SO. All of those “Million Dollar Outlines,” “Write Like Rowling,” “Write About Dragons” and ten-bajillion other writing helps have something. Unless you just organically write in the proper format, you’re going to have to either outline your story, or edit the hell out of it to get it into a format that the brain’s “operating system” recognizes as useful information. If not, no matter how beautifully your words flow, no matter how artfully you can describe the 6-moon sky over planet Whatchamacalit, your story will feel flat and your reader will not find themselves immersed in the world and the journey of your characters.

Here’s a little saying I found in my reading rambles that sums it up perfectly:

Art is fire plus algebra

—Jorge Luis Borges


  1. Great post! I once heard an agent give the advice to have someone read a hard copy of your manuscript and to put a red mark every time they felt pulled out of the story (or when the program gets disrupted, as you say). I thought it was genius. :-)

  2. I found this interesting, just saying



Related Posts with Thumbnails