Peter Gelfan's Reviews > Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence

Wired for Story by Lisa Cron
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This book marks a convergence that has been a long time coming. For millennia, the craft of storytelling, which has been taught informally and formally by writers and other teachers, has consisted of handed-down principles and so-called rules whose origins lie in philosophy, experience, scholarship, pedantry, sarcasm perceived as wisdom, personal opinion, the necessity to construct marketable curricula, and the pithy utterances of great men and women. Some of this accumulated pile of craft is certainly useful while other parts have devolved into empty catchphrases and clichés.

Meanwhile, great advances in brain research and cognitive science have provided much factual insight into why we humans invest so much time, energy, and emotion in literature and other forms of story. But mostly, the scientists published in their journals and books, and writing schools continued to teach their courses.

Brian Boyd, with his On the Origin of Stories, was the first I know of to put together a comprehensive, brain-based theory of how and why storytelling is a vital evolutionary advance that helps account for the human race’s unlikely survival and eventual conquest of much of the world. We need to ponder stories just as urgently as every kitten needs to acrobatically attack anything that moves. But even though (or, on second thought, perhaps because) Boyd is a literature professor, his ideas seem to have remained mostly confined to the fields of literary and critical theory rather than gaining much influence in storytelling itself. Jonathan Gottschall, in The Storytelling Animal, explored some brain- and evolution-based ideas about stories and their importance, but he didn’t go a step further and suggest ways writers might use the recent discoveries to make their stories more effective.

Cron puts it all together for writers. She explains not only why our brains need stories, but also how writers can shape their stories to best engage readers’ brains from the start, keep them with the story until the end, and deliver maximum benefit and pleasure. She goes into detail and gives many examples. Her writing is clear, conversational, and snappy with plenty of humor.

I think she goes too far in trying to distill the big ideas down to sets of do’s and don’ts for writers. Beginners may find the lists of rules helpful, but I believe it’s far more important for writers to grasp the underlying principles and then figure out how to best apply them to each task and situation in their own work. For example, she insists that before a character does something, readers must always understand why. But in fact, sometimes it’s more important, both literarily and cognitively, to make readers wonder why. With its oversimplifications and checklists, the book does come across as a beginner’s guide, which is too bad, because this may put off experienced writers, who also stand to gain a lot of insight from the big ideas.

I highly recommend Wired for Story to any storyteller. There’s much wisdom, science, and perspective lurking behind the for-dummies façade.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
May 10, 2015 – Shelved

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