Review: What science teaches writers about storytelling

Wired for Story, by Lisa Cron, explains the science behind storytelling.

When you feel that your writing is featureless and you’ve fallen into a rut, a book about writing can sometimes pull you out. That’s what happened when I picked up Wired for Story, a 2012 volume by Lisa Cron, a Los Angeles-area editor, story consultant, and instructor at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. Unlike most writing books, Wired for Story explains storytelling in the context of brain science and human evolution. For me, it clarified some of the truisms of writing, while shedding light on why storytelling matters.

Anthropologists have long observed the universality of storytelling. Every human culture has some form of narrative that serves several purposes, ranging from simple survival instructions to the transmission of cultural values. In a college literature class, I learned that Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were as much instruction manuals for high-born Greeks as they were adventure stories.

Cron shows how stories become simulations of reality under specific conditions defined by the writer.

Putting narrative in a modern context, Cron shows how stories become simulations of reality under specific conditions defined by the writer. All fiction writers ask the question “What if?” and set out the parameters and variables of a narrative “program” that runs in the reader’s head. As something of a computer nerd, I found this metaphor appealing, and it helped explain a purpose of science fiction, that is, to test possible futures.

As well as offering a big picture view of storytelling, Wired for Story contains mountains of useful, practical advice for storytellers. Brain science has shown that the human mind is hard-wired to make educated guesses about the future; Is the red berry poisonous? Is the female an appropriate mate? Will that animal attack? In the best narratives, the reader steps into the protagonist’s mind to help him or her solve the story problem, which emerges from conflict.

Every writer knows that conflict is essential to story. Cron teaches writers to create two kinds of conflict for the protagonist: internal and external. Put the protagonist in an impossible internal dilemma, e.g., Oedipus killing his father and marrying his mother. At the same time, make him or her face an external threat. The combination of an internal dilemma and an external threat, if each are plausible, is bound to engage most readers.

Before I read Wired for Story, I’d come to feel that many of my characters, especially the protagonists, were flat in some way, despite spending lots of time writing character bios and making notes about the worlds they lived in. Cron’s book gave me more tools to add depth and give readers more excuses to stick around. I’ve applied the ideas to a couple of unpublished stories, so it’s too soon to tell if they’ll make a difference. I feel better, however, about climbing out of my rut.

Have you read Wired for Story? What did you think?

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