I have a whole shelf full of books about writing,from the Chicago Manual of Style to Stephen King’s On Writing. All of them are helpful, to one extent or another, and I often pull one out when I need some inspiration, or just a reminder that I’m not the only person who wrestled with the perennial issues of character, plot, story arc, pacing, etcetera, etcetera and so forth. Some of them have good advice, some of them are a bit off-the-wall and many of them tend to contradict each other. Like dieting, writing is a subject to which certain objective rules can be applied but the outcome of which is always subjective.
Most writers of writing books either expound on well-established truisms such as “show, don’t tell” or talk about what works for them, be it outlining or word-webbing or writing with a No.2 pencil on a Big Chief tablet. I prefer the second kind of book about writing because I love to know what makes people tick (which explains why I like to write), but neither type of advice is all that helpful for figuring out what the heck went awry between the story in my head and the one that ended up on paper.
Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence by Lisa Cron, is a horse of a different color. Drawing on her many years as an editor and writing instructor, she goes over familiar territory—the hook, plotting, character development, foreshadowing, etc.—in a refreshingly useful way. As she advocates that writers do in their stories, she not only gives good advice for how to improve a story, but also explains why to do so in terms of the way our brains work.
Did you know that humans are “hard-wired” for reading/listening to stories? And a good story activates the same region of the brain that process input from our senses. In fact, to the brain, there’s not much difference between what we really experience and what we read. Provided, that is, that the story not only grabs our attention but keeps us engaged by avoiding all kinds of pitfalls we writers are prone to—such as assuming the reader knows as much about our story as we do or wandering off on lovely, but surplus to requirements, tangents. A bad story is bad precisely because the necessary brain activation either doesn’t happen or isn’t sustained.
And, this is the real kicker for me, Cron gives useful advice for how to use this knowledge of brain science to deal with writing pitfalls both while planning a story and during revision. I am gearing up to tackle a major rewrite on my YA novel but have been dragging my feet because I have a pretty good sense of what its problems are but didn’t have a clear-cut idea of how to fix them. Now, thanks to Cron’s book, I have a much better idea of where to go from here.
I’ll keep you posted on how it goes. In the meantime, please check out her book and website at wiredforstory.com.