Monday 9 July 2012

Wired For Story

Lisa Cron, a reader of OnFiction, has worked in publishing at W.W. Norton and more recently as a TV producer and screenwriting consultant. Her informally-written book, called Wired For Story, is unusual in that it offers advice about writing stories that draws on modern cognitive psychology and neuroscience. As you may gather from her subtitle The writer's guide to using brain science to hook readers from the very first sentence, Lisa Cron's idea is an ambitious one.

The research literature on which Cron draws will probably be familiar to readers of OnFiction. It includes work by Brian Boyd, Michael Gazzaniga, Steven Pinker, Antonio Damasio, Jamie Pennebaker, and even members of the OnFiction team. Cron's basic idea is that although story is an indigenous mode of thinking for us human beings, writers have to work hard to engage this mode fully in potential readers. Writers will be successful, she argues, by knowing some principles of cognitive psychology and brain science. Each chapter opens with the announcement of what Cron calls a "Cognitive Secret" and a "Story Secret." For chapter 1 these are, respectively: "We think in story which allows us to envision the future," and "From the very first sentence, the reader must want to know what happens next." For chapter 2 the Cognitive Secret is "When the brain focuses its full attention on something, it filters out all unnecessary information" and the Story Secret is "To hold the brain's attention, everything must be there on a need-to-know basis." For chapter 3, the Cognitive Secret is "Emotion determines the meaning of everything—if we're not feeling we're not conscious," and the Story Secret is "All story is emotion based—if we're not feeling we're not reading." After its opening announcements,  each chapter is then devoted to drawing on the relevant research, unpacking the concepts, and to showing how they can be applied to the craft of writing.

In my own fiction writing I certainly use what I know of cognitive psychology and brain science, so to me it makes sense to offer a book that gives writers relevant ideas in these areas. Some of the issues that are covered, for instance the importance of re-writing, are familiar to readers of how-to books on writing, but Cron comes at issues from an angle that is fresh and different from that of most such books. One feature I particularly like is a check-list in most of the chapters. Chapter 9 is entitled "What can go wrong must go wrong, and then some," and its Cognitive Secret is: "The brain uses stories to simulate how we might navigate difficult situations in the future." One of the points in the checklist for this chapter is: "Have you exposed your protagonist's … most guarded flaws?" Now there's an interesting question for a writer of a novel or screenplay.

This book is informative, thought-provoking, and helpful.

Lisa Cron (2012). Wired for story: The writer's guide to using brain science to hook readers from the very first sentence. Berkeley, CA. Ten Speed Press.
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Jamie said...

Thanks for the helpful review. You actually gave an idea of the books content and how it tries to help the writer. Now, I'll go buy it.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you Jamie. I am glad you found the review informative, and I hope you enjoy the book. Best, Keith

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