Monday, 9 December 2013

THE CRAFT OF WRITING: Reeling in your Reader

By Anne Hamilton

Every second about 11 million bits of information scrabble for your brain’s attention. And every second, your brain filters out all but a handful of them as irrelevant to the present moment. 

Neuroscientists think we choose out of this mind-blowing datastream according to our moment-by-moment judgment of whether the information pertains to survival or not. 

So, they’ve wondered, what makes us turn off all the switches and curl up with a good novel? If the brain devotes so much effort to personal survival, why on earth does it risk throwing all its work away by encouraging us in the dangerous pastime of reading fiction? 

Because it’s beneficial, of course. Andrea addressed some of the issues in Why Bother? And Iola addressed still others in On Christian Romance. 

I’m going to look at other factors. As neuroscientists have analysed brain function while a subject is reading, they’ve discovered the brain is hardwired for story. When we read about fictional events, neural pathways turn on in our brain — the same neural pathways as those which would indicate we are actually experiencing the event.



In other words, fiction teaches us how to navigate through a new experience by allowing our brains to thrust us in a virtual ‘simulation’. Now, generally speaking, we know this. We know that a good story makes us feel the emotions of the protagonist, walk in their shoes, have empathy for people we’d otherwise avoid. 

It also helps us survive. Maybe the storytelling of ancient man was all about raw survival out in a brutal world, but the social world today is no less brutal. Story puts us into all sorts of different social situations where the main character survives, giving us the hope that we too can make it through without gaffe or embarrassment. In fact, a good story gives us clues on just how to do this. 

Ahh, good story. That’s the key. Lisa Cron’s book Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence emphasises that the brain responds positively to a sense of urgency in story (no matter how badly it’s told) and switches off if the prose seems to be meandering and pointless (no matter how beautiful and inviting the style is.) 

Yep, when the story starts, it’s all about narrative hook. I’m thumping my favourite theme yet again. Grab the reader’s attention and hold it. 

Lisa Cron has some excellent questions to ask yourself about your opening paragraph. Here are just four of them but they are sufficient to get you going. 

(1) Do we know whose story it is? If we can’t see the world through the protagonist’s eyes from the start, then we’re missing more than the hook — we’re missing the whole boat. 

(2) Is something happening? Don’t set the scene for later conflict. Jump into the conflict. 

(3) Is something at stake? And does the reader have clues as to what it is? 

(4) Is there a sense that ‘not all is as it seems’? 

I highly recommend the book and going back to your narrative hook (now that you’ve worked on it for the last few weeks) and seeing how it shapes up in the light of your answers above. 

It’s not just about the narrative hook, it’s about the kind of bait you’re using.



Anne Hamilton is the author of the award-winning children’s fantasy, Many-Coloured Realm. She’s just finished reading Wired for Story and looking at her next children’s fantasy with critical eyes, wondering just how well the opening paragraph works, after all.

12 comments:

  1. I especially like the first point - if we don't know whose story this is, we're missing the whole boat. I've read books like this, where it takes forever to get to the point, and a lot of readers will give up (and not purchase if they are browsing in the bookstore).

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    1. Hi Iola - I thought it was interesting too but it makes sense that the brain wants to know the person first, rather than the surroundings. We're wired for relationship with people...

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  2. I agree. Even a good blog will draw you in and take you on a little journey.

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    1. Hi Debbie - so very true. I find today I'm so busy I read the title and the first line of a blog and if it doesn't pull me in by that time, I don't bother.

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  3. Thanks, Annie. All very wise and true. Now the minor detail of putting this into practice!

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    1. Yes, Jo-Anne! I found it a real challenge to think how all this could be put into practise.

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  4. Great post! So interesting to hear science back up our love of reading fiction!

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    1. Hi Catherine - it was a quite fascinating book. It's interesting that fiction can do what non-fiction can't - and explains why some people 'crave' fiction.

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  5. Hi Annie, great post. I love what you said about story thrusting us into virtual simulation. What a fantastic concept to hold on to when writing.

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    1. Hi Linsey - it is very interesting about the virtual simulation. It's about learning to solve problems without the real pain of having the problem. By 'real pain' I mean the genuine type, because apparently we actually do experience 'virtual pain' in our reading. Which explains sensations of feeling sick or experiencing joy.

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  6. Annie, excellent post! The science is fascinating and also validating for fiction readers. I'm enjoying your series on the narrative hook and I look forward to reading the last post in the series next week.

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    1. Hi Narelle - well, I'm not so sure I will finish up now with another on narrative hook. There was such a fascinating idea in the book that I am seriously considering ditching the hook in favour of 'conflict'.

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