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.