Wired for Story
Wired for Story

Wired for Story

From the very first sentence, the reader must want to know what happens next. (Page 6)

When the brain focuses its full attention on something, it filters out all unnecessary information. STORY SECRET: To hold the brain’s attention, everything in a story must be there on a need-to-know basis. (Page 7)

A protagonist without a clear goal has nothing to figure out and nowhere to go. (Page 7)

COGNITIVE SECRET: The brain is wired to stubbornly resist change, even good change. STORY SECRET: Story is about change, which results only from unavoidable conflict. (Page 8)

COGNITIVE SECRET: The brain uses stories to simulate how we might navigate difficult situations in the future. STORY SECRET: A story’s job is to put the protagonist through tests that, even in her wildest dreams, she doesn’t think she can pass. (Page 8)

 The Road from Setup to Payoff COGNITIVE SECRET: Since the brain abhors randomness, it’s always converting raw data into meaningful patterns, the better to anticipate what might happen next. STORY SECRET: Readers are always on the lookout for patterns; to your reader, everything is either a setup, a payoff, or the road in between. (Page 9)

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch COGNITIVE SECRET: The brain summons past memories to evaluate what’s happening in the moment in order to make sense of it. STORY SECRET: Foreshadowing, flashbacks, and subplots must instantly give readers insight into what’s happening in the main storyline, even if the meaning shifts as the story unfolds. (Page 9)

The Writer’s Brain on Story COGNITIVE SECRET: It takes long-term, conscious effort to hone a skill before the brain assigns it to the cognitive unconscious. STORY SECRET: There’s no writing; there’s only rewriting. (Page 9)

Thus it’s no surprise that when given a choice, people prefer fiction to nonfiction—they’d rather read a historical novel than a history book, watch a movie than a dry documentary. 3 It’s not because we’re lazy sots but because our neural circuitry is designed to crave story. The rush of intoxication a good story triggers doesn’t make us closet hedonists—it makes us willing pupils, primed to absorb the myriad lessons each story imparts. (Page 11)

Even more exciting, it turns out that a powerful story can have a hand in rewiring the reader’s brain—helping instill empathy, for instance5—which is why writers are, and have always been, among the most powerful people in the world. Writers can change the way people think simply by giving them a glimpse of life through their characters’ eyes. (Page 11)

Evolution dictates that the first job of any good story is to completely anesthetize the part of our brain that questions how it is creating such a compelling illusion of reality. After all, a good story doesn’t feel like an illusion. What it feels like is life. Literally. A recent brain-imaging study reported in Psychological Science reveals that the regions of the brain that process the sights, sounds, tastes, and movement of real life are activated when we’re engrossed in a compelling narrative. (Page 13)

It’s only by stopping to analyze what we’re unconsciously responding to when we read a story—what has actually snagged our brain’s attention—that we can then write a story that will grab the reader’s brain. (Page 14)

The idea is to pinpoint where each trouble spot lies and then remedy it before it spreads like a weed, undermining your entire narrative. (Page 15)

 (Page 16)

IN THE SECOND IT TAKES YOU to read this sentence, your senses are showering you with over 11,000,000 pieces of information. Your conscious mind is capable of registering about forty of them. And when it comes to actually paying attention? On a good day, you can process seven bits of data at a time. On a bad day, five. 1 On one of those days? More like minus three. (Page 17)

We think in story. It’s hardwired in our brain. It’s how we make strategic sense of the otherwise overwhelming world around us. Simply put, the brain constantly seeks meaning from all the input thrown at it, yanks out what’s important for our survival on a need-to-know basis, and tells us a story about it, based on what it knows of our past experience with it, how we feel about it, and how it might affect us. (Page 18)

Neuroscientists believe the reason our already overloaded brain devotes so much precious time and space to allowing us to get lost in a story is that without stories, we’d be toast. Stories allow us to simulate intense experiences without actually having to live through them. (Page 19)

Story evolved as a way to explore our own mind and the minds of others, as a sort of dress rehearsal for the future. (Page 19)

Not only do we crave story, but we have very specific hardwired expectations for every story we read, even though—and here’s the kicker—chances are next to nil that the average reader could tell you what those expectations are. (Page 20)

our expectations have everything to do with the story’s ability to provide information on how we might safely navigate this earthly plane. (Page 20)

When a story meets our brain’s criteria, we relax and slip into the protagonist’s skin, eager to experience what his or her struggle feels like, without having to leave the comfort of home. (Page 21)

A story is how what happens affects someone who is trying to achieve what turns out to be a difficult goal, and how he or she changes as a result. Breaking it down in the soothingly familiar parlance of the writing world, this translates to “What happens” is the plot. “Someone” is the protagonist. The “goal” is what’s known as the story question. And “how he or she changes” is what the story itself is actually about. (Page 22)

And that problem is what the reader is going to be hunting for from the get-go, because it’s going to define everything that happens from the first sentence on. (Page 23)

Let’s face it, we’re all busy. Plus, most of us are plagued by that little voice in the back of our head constantly reminding us of what we really should be doing right now instead of whatever it is we’re actually doing—especially when we take time out to do something as seemingly nonproductive as, um, read a novel. Which means that in order to distract us from the relentless demands of our immediate surroundings, a story has to grab our attention fast. 8 And, as neuroscience writer Jonah Lehrer says, nothing focuses the mind like surprise. 9 That means when we pick up a book, we’re jonesing for the feeling that something out of the ordinary is happening. We crave the notion that we’ve come in at a crucial juncture in someone’s life, and not a moment too soon. What intoxicates us is the hint that not only is trouble brewing, but it’s longstanding and about to reach critical mass. This means that from the first sentence we need to catch sight of the breadcrumb trail that will lure us deeper into the thicket. I’ve heard it said that fiction (all stories, for that matter) can be summed up by a single sentence—All is not as it seems—which means that what we’re hoping for in that opening sentence is the sense that something is about to change (and not necessarily for the better). (Page 24)

Simply put, we are looking for a reason to care. So for a story to grab us, not only must something be happening, but also there must be a consequence we can anticipate. As neuroscience reveals, what draws us into a story and keeps us there is the firing of our dopamine neurons, signaling that intriguing information is on its way. (Page 24)

Thus your curiosity is engaged, and you read on without consciously having made the decision to do so. (Page 26)

As readers we eagerly probe each piece of information for significance, constantly wondering, “What is this meant to tell me?” It’s said people can go forty days without food, three days without water, and about thirty-five seconds without finding meaning in something—truth is, thirty-five seconds is an eternity compared to the warp speed with which our subconscious brain rips through data. It’s a biological imperative: we are always on the hunt for meaning—not in the metaphysical “What is the true nature of reality?” sense but in the far more primal, very specific sense of: Joe left without his usual morning coffee; I wonder why? Betty is always on time; how come she’s half an hour late? That annoying dog next door barks its head off every morning; why is it so quiet today? We are always looking for the why beneath what’s happening on the surface. Not only because our survival might depend on it, but because it’s exhilarating. It makes us feel something—namely, curiosity. Having our curiosity piqued is visceral. And it leads to something even more potent: the anticipation of knowledge we’re now hungry for, a sensation caused by that pleasurable rush of dopamine. (Page 27)

And bingo! You feel that delicious sense of urgency (hello dopamine!) that all good stories instantly ignite. (Page 27)

It’s the same with the first page of a story. If we don’t have a sense of what’s happening and why it matters to the protagonist, we’re not going to read it. After all, have you ever gone into a bookstore, pulled a novel off the shelf, read the first few pages and thought, You know, this is kind of dull, and I don’t really care about these people, but I’m sure the author tried really hard and probably has something important to say, so I’m going to buy it, read it, and recommend it to all my friends? Nope. You’re beautifully, brutally heartless. I’m betting you never give the author’s hard work or good intentions a second thought. And that’s as it should be. As a reader, you owe the writer absolutely nothing. You read their book solely at your own pleasure, where it stands or falls on its own merit. If you don’t like it, you simply slip it back onto the shelf and slide out another. (Page 28)

Story is visceral. We climb inside the protagonist’s skin and become sensate, feeling what he feels. (Page 30)

In short, without a protagonist, everything is neutral, and as we’ll see in chapter 3, in a story (as in life) there’s no such thing as neutral. Which means we need to meet the protagonist as soon as possible—hopefully, in the first paragraph. (Page 31)

As John Irving once said, “Whenever possible, tell the whole story of the novel in the first sentence.” 12 Glib? Yeah, okay. But a worthy goal to shoot for. (Page 31)

What hangs in the balance? Where’s the conflict? Conflict is story’s lifeblood—another seeming no-brainer. But there’s a bit of helpful fine print that often goes unread. We’re not talking about just any conflict, but conflict that is specific to the protagonist’s quest. From the first sentence, readers morph into bloodhounds, relentlessly trying to sniff out what is at stake here and how will it impact the protagonist. (Page 32)

Here’s something even more interesting: without that opening sentence, What Came Before He Shot Her would be a very, very different story. Things would happen, but we’d have no real idea what they were building toward. So, regardless of how well written it is (and it is), it wouldn’t be nearly as engaging. Why? Because, as neuropsychiatrist Richard Restak writes, “Within the brain, things are always evaluated within a specific context.” 13 It is context that bestows meaning, and it is meaning that your brain is wired to sniff out. After all, if stories are simulations that our brains plumb for useful information in case we ever find ourselves in a similar situation, we sort of need to know what the situation is. By giving us a glimpse of the big picture, George provides a yardstick that allows us to decode the meaning of everything that befalls Joel. Such yardsticks are like a mathematical proof—they let the reader anticipate what things are adding up to. Which makes them even more useful for the intrepid writer, because a story’s yardstick mercilessly reveals those passages that don’t seem to add up at all, unmasking them as the one thing you want to banish from your story at all costs. (Page 34)

Elmore Leonard famously said that a story is real life with the boring parts left out. (Page 35)

What hooks us, and keeps us reading, is the dopamine-fueled desire to know what happens next. Without that, nothing else matters. (Page 35)

A story must have the ability to engender a sense of urgency from the first sentence. Everything else—fabulous characters, great dialogue, vivid imagery, luscious language—is gravy. (Page 36)

But make no mistake: learning to “write well” is not synonymous with learning to write a story. And of the two, writing well is secondary. Because if the reader doesn’t want to know what happens next, so what if it’s well written? (Page 36)

CHAPTER 1: CHECKPOINT  Do we know whose story it is? There must be someone through whose eyes we are viewing the world we’ve been plunked into—aka the protagonist. Think of your protagonist as the reader’s surrogate in the world that you, the writer, are creating. Is something happening, beginning on the first page? Don’t just set the stage for later conflict. Jump right in with something that will affect the protagonist and so make the reader hungry to find out what the consequence will be. After all, unless something is already happening, how can we want to know what happens next? Is there conflict in what’s happening? Will the conflict have a direct impact on the protagonist’s quest, even though your reader might not yet know what that quest is? Is something at stake on the first page? And, as important, is your reader aware of what it is? Is there a sense that “all is not as it seems”? This is especially important if the protagonist isn’t introduced in the first few pages, in which case it pays to ask: Is there a growing sense of focused foreboding that’ll keep the reader hooked until the protagonist appears in the not-too-distant future? Can we glimpse enough of the “big picture” to have that all-important yardstick? It’s the “big picture” that gives readers perspective and conveys the point of each scene, enabling them to add things up. If we don’t know where the story is going, how can we tell if it’s moving at all? (Page 36)

How to Zero In on Your Point (Page 36)

HERE’S A DISCONCERTING THOUGHT: marketers, politicians, and televangelists know more about story than most writers. This is because, by definition, they start with something writers often never even think about—the point their story will make. (Page 40)

It’s not that you’re easy to boss around, but a well-crafted story speaks first to your cognitive unconscious1—which marketers hope will then translate it into something conscious, like, It may be midnight, but I really do deserve a Big Mac. (Page 40)

So to take back some of that power, writers would do well to embrace this counterintuitive fact: the defining element of a story is something that has little to do with writing. Rather, it underlies the story itself and is what renowned linguist William Labov has dubbed “evaluation” because it allows readers to evaluate the meaning of the story’s events. Think of it as the “So what?” factor. 2 It’s what lets readers in on the point of the story, cluing them in to the relevance of everything that happens in it. Put plainly, it tells them what the story is about. As literary scholar Brian Boyd so aptly points out, a story with no point of reference leaves the reader with no way of determining what information matters: is it “the color of people’s eyes or their socks? The shape of their noses or their shoes? The number of syllables in their name?” (Page 40)

Thus your first job is to zero in on the point your story is making. The good news is that this is one of the few things that can actually cut down on time spent rewriting. Why? Because from the get-go it allows you to do for your story what your cognitive unconscious automatically does for you: filter out unnecessary and distracting information. (Page 41)

A story is designed, from beginning to end, to answer a single overarching question. As readers we instinctively know this, so we expect every word, every line, every character, every image, every action to move us closer to the answer. (Page 42)

The story is so full of things the reader doesn’t need to know that it has no focus, so it isn’t really a story. It’s just a collection of things that happen. Stories that lack focus often aren’t about anything at all. (Page 42)

As one editor put it, “If you can’t summarize your book in a few sentences, rewrite the book until you can.” (Page 42)

What was missing in all those failed manuscripts is focus. Without it, the reader has no way to gauge the meaning of anything, and since we’re wired to hunt for meaning in everything—well, you do the math. A story without focus has no yardstick. (Page 45)

So, what is this thing called focus? It’s the synthesis of three elements that work in unison to create a story: the protagonist’s issue, the theme, and the plot. (Page 45)

The story isn’t about whether or not the protagonist achieves her goal per se; it’s about what she has to overcome internally to do it. This is what drives the story forward. I call it the protagonist’s issue. (Page 45)

The second element, the theme, is what your story says about human nature. Theme tends to be reflected in how your characters treat each other, so it defines what is possible and what isn’t in the world the story unfolds in. As we’ll see, it’s often what determines whether the protagonist’s efforts will succeed or fail, regardless of how heroic she is. (Page 45)

The third element is the plot itself—the events that relentlessly force the protagonist to deal with her issue as she pursues her goal, no matter how many times she tries to make an end run around her issue along the way. (Page 45)

We love to figure things out and we don’t like being confused. For writers, focus is of utmost importance as well: the first two elements (the protagonist’s issue and the theme) are the lens through which we determine what the events (the plot) will be. (Page 46)

you cherry-pick events that are relevant to the story question and construct a gauntlet of challenge (read: the plot) that will force the protagonist to put his money where his mouth is. Think baptism by ever-escalating fire. (Page 46)

There’s a lot of talk about what theme is, and how it’s revealed, which can result in esoteric discussions capable of parsing it down to the thematic use of margarine as a metaphor for innocence lost. Happily, theme actually boils down to something incredibly simple: • What does the story tell us about what it means to be human? • What does it say about how humans react to circumstances beyond their control? (Page 48)

Note: Specific

Theme often reveals your take on how an element of human nature—loyalty, suspicion, grit, love—defines human behavior. But the real secret to theme is that it’s not general; that is, the theme wouldn’t be “love” per se—rather, it would be a very specific point you’re making about love. (Page 48)

Knowing the theme of your story in advance helps, because it gives you a gauge by which to measure your characters’ responses to the situations they find themselves in. They’ll be kind, gruff, or conniving depending on the universe you have created for them. This, then, affects how the story question is resolved, because it governs the type of resistance the protagonist will meet along the way. (Page 48)

Theme often reveals the point your story is making—and all stories make a point, beginning on page one. But that doesn’t mean you have to hit readers over the head with it. (Page 50)

What is it I want my readers to walk away thinking about? What point does my story make? How do I want to change the way my reader sees the world? (Page 50)

MYTH: The Plot Is What the Story Is About REALITY: A Story Is About How the Plot Affects the Protagonist While thus far it’s been implied, it helps to say it flat out: plot is not synonymous with story. Plot facilitates story by forcing the protagonist to confront and deal with the issue that keeps him from achieving his goal. The way the world treats him, and how he reacts, reveals the theme. So at the end of the day, what the protagonist is forced to learn as he navigates the plot is what the story is about. (Page 51)

Since theme is the underlying point the narrative makes about the human experience, it’s also where the universal lies. (Page 54)

The universal is the portal that allows us to climb into the skin of characters completely different from us and miraculously feel what they feel. (Page 54)

By filtering her story through the thematic lens of loss and human endurance, Strout was able to pluck an otherwise random moment from Olive’s life and use it to give us insight into how Olive sees the world, and at the same time provide a visceral glimpse of the cost of being human. (Page 55)

Tone is often how theme is conveyed, by cueing your readers to the emotional prism through which you want them to view your story—like a soundtrack in a movie. (Page 56)

Tone belongs to the author; mood to the reader. In other words, your theme begets the story’s tone, which begets the mood the reader feels. Mood is what underlies the reader’s sense of what is possible and what isn’t in the world of your story, which brings us back to the point your story is making as reflected in its theme—reflected being the key word. Because as crucial as theme is, it’s never stated outright; it’s always implied. (Page 56)

Unchecked, theme is a bully, a know-it-all. And no one likes to be told what to do, which is why reverse psychology works so well. What this means is that the more passionate you are about making your point, the more you have to trust your story to convey it. As Evelyn Waugh says, “All literature implies moral standards and criticisms, the less explicit the better.” (Page 57)

the central theme must provide a point of view precise enough to give us specific insight into the protagonist and her internal issue, yet be broad enough to take into account everything that happens (again: the plot). (Page 60)

As we know, it’s the plot that puts the protagonist through his paces, presenting increasingly difficult obstacles that must be overcome if he’s to get within grabbing distance of the brass ring. But the plot’s goal isn’t simply to find out whether he snags that brass ring or not; rather, it’s to force him to confront the internal issue that’s keeping him from it in the first place. This issue is sometimes called the protagonist’s “fatal flaw,” and whether a deep-rooted fear, a stubborn misperception, or a dubious character trait, it’s what he’s been battling throughout and what he must finally overcome to have a clear shot at the last remaining obstacle. (Page 62)

Note: Fatal flaw

Readers are a surprisingly accepting lot when it comes to willfully blind protagonists, provided they understand the reason for their blindness. This is often exactly what such stories are about: why would a person work overtime to stay blind to something that is painfully clear to everyone else? In fact, sometimes the “aha!” moment belongs to the reader rather than the protagonist. It’s the epiphany that comes of realization that not only isn’t the protagonist going to change, but for the first time we grasp the full weight of what the self-imposed blindness is protecting her from. (Page 64)

While clearly this is a very handy method for defining what, exactly, your story is about once it’s written, it can be even more helpful before you begin writing—or at whatever stage your story is at right now. It’s never too late or too early, and it always helps. Knowing what the focus of your story is allows you to do for your story what your cognitive unconscious does for you: filter out everything extraneous, everything that doesn’t matter. (Page 66)

Don’t forget: when a story shifts focus halfway through, it not only means it’s now heading in a different direction; it also means that everything leading up to that spot has to shift as well. (Page 66)

CHAPTER 2: CHECKPOINT  Do you know what the point of your story is? What do you want people to walk away thinking about? How do you want to change how they see the world? Do you know what your story says about human nature? Stories are our way of making sense of the world, so each and every one tells us something about what it means to be human, whether the author does it on purpose or not. What is your story saying? Do the protagonist’s inner issue, the theme, and the plot work together to answer the story question? How can you tell? Ask yourself: Is my theme reflected in the way the world treats my protagonist? Does each plot twist and turn force my protagonist to deal with his inner issue, the thing that’s holding him back? Do the plot and theme stick to the story question? Remember, the story question will always be in the back of your reader’s mind, and it is the responsibility of each theme-laced event to keep it there. Can you sum up what your story is about in a short paragraph? One way to begin is to ask yourself how your theme shapes your plot. Put yourself through the paces just as we did with Gone with the Wind. It may be painful, but it’ll pay off big time in the end. (Page 67)

Turns out, as cognitive scientist Steven Pinker notes, “Emotions are mechanisms that set the brain’s highest-level goals.” (Page 71)

It is exactly the same when it comes to story. If the reader can’t feel what matters and what doesn’t, then nothing matters, including finishing the story. The question for writers, then, is where do these feelings come from? The answer’s very simple: the protagonist. (Page 71)

When we’re fully engaged in a story, our own boundaries dissolve. We become the protagonist, feeling what she feels, wanting what she wants, fearing what she fears—as we’ll see in the next chapter, we literally mirror her every thought. (Page 72)

But at least for a few splendid minutes walking down Shattuck Avenue, I saw the world through Linda Seton’s eyes. It was visceral, and it felt like a gift—because my worldview had shifted. Linda was the black sheep of her family, and so was I. She’d fought tradition, regardless of the consequences, and even though she spent years in the proverbial attic, in the end, she triumphed. Maybe I could too. (Page 72)

This is a gift that so many of the manuscripts I’ve since read didn’t quite bestow, because the author had fallen prey to a very common pitfall, one that in essence rendered their protagonist off-limits to the reader. They had mistaken the story for what happens in it. But as we’ve learned, the real story is how what happens affects the protagonist, and what she does as a result. This means that everything in a story gets its emotional weight and meaning based on how it affects the protagonist. (Page 72)

Neutrality bores the reader. (Page 73)

That’s why in every scene you write, the protagonist must react in a way the reader can see and understand in the moment. This reaction must be specific, personal, and have an effect on whether the protagonist achieves her goal. What it can’t be is dispassionate objective commentary. (Page 73)

Because ultimately what moves a story forward are the protagonist’s actions, reactions, and decisions, rather than the external events that trigger them. (Page 74)

Your protagonist’s reaction can come across in one of three ways: 1. Externally: Fred is late; Sue paces nervously, stubbing her toe. It hurts. She hops on one foot, swearing like a sailor, hoping she didn’t chip the ruby red polish Fred loves so much. 2. Via our intuition: We know Sue’s in love with Fred, so when we discover that the reason he’s late is because he’s with her BFF, Joan, we instantly feel Sue’s upcoming pain, although at the moment she has no idea Fred even knows Joan. 3. Via the protagonist’s internal thought: When Sue introduces Fred to Joan, she instantly senses something is going on between them. Watching them pretend to be strangers, Sue begins to plot the intricate details of their grisly demise. (Page 74)

When the events of the story are filtered through the protagonist’s point of view—allowing us to watch as she makes sense of everything that happens to her—we are seeing it through her eyes. Thus it’s not just that we see the things she sees—it’s that we grasp what they mean to her. In other words, the reader must be aware of the protagonist’s personal spin on everything that happens. (Page 75)

In prose, those thoughts, clearly stated, are where the story lives and breathes, because they directly reveal how the protagonist is affected by—and how she interprets the meaning of—what happens to her. (Page 75)

Is there an objective truth? Maybe. But considering that by definition we experience everything subjectively, how would we know? Which means that in a first-person account, everything the narrator tells us is imbued with his own subjective meaning, simply by virtue of the fact that these are the details he’s picked to tell his story. (Page 77)

In a first-person account, on the other hand, nothing is ever neutral, even for a moment. This means the narrator will never tell us about anything that does not in some way affect him. He won’t give us long objective passages about what the town looked like, what Edna wore to the office, how great the madeleine tasted, or how the Reagan administration ruined the country. Sure, he might tell us all these things but only because they have a specific effect on the story he’s telling. It might help to think of the narrator as a narcissist (but in a good way). Everything in the story relates to him or else why would he be telling us about it? Thus the narrator’s thoughts are laced through everything he chooses to report, and he draws a conclusion about everything he mentions. But he doesn’t stop there. He isn’t the least bit shy about directly expressing exactly what he thinks about, well, everything. Of course, he could be completely wrong about everything he says—first-person narrators are often unreliable, and part of the reader’s pleasure is figuring out what’s really true. (Page 78)

The only thing a first-person narrator can’t tell us is what someone else is thinking or feeling. (Page 78)

To sum up, when writing in the first person, it helps to keep these things in mind: • Every word the narrator says must in some way reflect his point of view. • The narrator never mentions anything that doesn’t affect him in some way. • The narrator draws a conclusion about everything he mentions. • The narrator is never neutral; he always has an agenda. • The narrator can never tell us what anyone else is thinking or feeling. Conveying Thoughts in the Third Person One of the beauties of writing in the first person is that you never have to worry whether the reader will know whose thoughts you’re trying to convey. Every thought belongs to the narrator. But writing in the third person is another story, especially because there are several variations. First, here’s a quick rundown of the three most frequently used: 1. Third-person objective: The story is told from an objective external standpoint, so the writer never takes us into the characters’ minds at all, never tells us how they feel or what they think. Instead, as with film (long rambling voiceovers not withstanding), that information is implied solely based on how the characters behave. If you’re writing in third-person objective, you’ll show us the protagonist’s internal reactions through external cues: body language, clothes, where she goes, what she does, who she associates with, and of course, what she says. 2. Third-person limited (aka third person close): This is very much like writing in first person, in that you can tell us only what one person—almost always the protagonist—is thinking, feeling, and seeing. Thus the protagonist must be in every scene, and aware of everything that happens; the only real difference is that you’re using “he” or “she” rather than “I.” And as with first person, you can’t tell us definitively what anyone but the protagonist thinks or feels unless that person pipes up and actually says it out loud. 3. Third-person omniscient: Here, the story is told by an all-seeing, all-knowing, objective and (traditionally) trustworthy narrator (you), who has the power to go into every character’s mind and tell us what they are thinking and feeling, have done, and will ever do. The trick, of course, is to keep track of all of it. And to stay behind the curtain at all times. Even a fleeting glimpse of the puppet master completely ruins the illusion that there are no strings attached. (Page 79)

Notice that, as when writing in first person, a character in third person can’t make a definitive statement about how anyone else feels or what they’re about to do. Just as in life, characters can only assume. (Page 84)

No matter whose point of view you’re writing in, you may be in only one head per scene. (Page 86)

Body language is the one language it’s impossible to really lie in. As Steven Pinker says, “Intentions come from emotions, and emotions have evolved displays on the face and body. (Page 88)

In a story, the goal is to show us how a character really feels—especially when there’s a big discrepancy between what he wants to say and what he can say—through his body language. The most common mistake writers make is using body language to tell us something we already know. If we know Ann is sad, why would we need a paragraph describing what she looks like when she’s crying? Rather, body language should tell us something we don’t know. At its most effective, it tells us what’s really going on inside the character’s head. This is why body language works best when it’s at odds with what’s happening—either by telling us something that the character doesn’t want known Ann pretends to be completely calm but can’t stop her right foot from nervously jittering. ... or by dashing a character’s expectations: Ann expects Jeff to be glad he’s finally left Michelle; instead, he sits there, hunched, staring mournfully at the embarrassingly dirty rug. We feel Ann’s pain, because the author made sure we already knew what she expected—that Jeff would return grinning, with luggage. Instead, he’s come back frowning, with baggage. Unless we’re aware of both what Ann wants and what she then gets instead, all the body language in the world will be rendered mute. This sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how often writers forget to let us know what a character hopes will happen, so that when it doesn’t, we have no idea their expectations have been dashed. (Page 88)

And that brings us to another common pitfall: editorializing. It’s what writers resort to when they don’t trust the reader to get it. (Page 90)

Note: Truzst

The reader’s goal is to experience the story on her own terms, not to have it explained to her or be herded toward a specific hard-and-fast conclusion. (Page 91)

So if you want us to think that John’s a bad guy, show him doing bad things. (Page 91)

Your job is not to judge your characters, no matter how despicable or wonderful they may be. Your job is to lay out what happens, as clearly and dispassionately as possible, show how it affects the protagonist, and then get the hell out of the way. The irony is, the less you tell us how to feel, the more likely we’ll feel exactly what you want us to. We’re putty in your hands as long as you let us think we’re making up our own mind. (Page 92)

As Johann Wolfgang van Goethe, who knew a thing or two about dancing with the devil, said: “Every author in some way portrays himself in his works, even if it be against his will.” (Page 92)

MYTH: Write What You Know REALITY: Write What You Know Emotionally (Page 92)

“Write what you know” doesn’t refer as much to facts as to what you know emotionally, which translates to your knowledge of what makes people tick. (Page 93)

When writers unconsciously assume the readers’ knowledge of—not to mention interest in—what the writers themselves are passionate about, their stories tend to be wildly uneven. (Page 93)

Equally treacherous is the common misconception that just because something “really happened” it’s believable (read: makes sense). That’s why it’s always helpful to have Mark Twain’s pithy observation close at hand: “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.” 17 How do you make it make sense? By tapping into what you know about human nature and how people interact, and then consistently showing us the emotional and psychological “why” behind everything that happens. Do you have to hammer this out to the nth degree before you start writing? Of course not. As novelist Donald Windham so astutely says, “I disagree with the advice ‘write about what you know.’ Write about what you need to know, in an effort to understand.” (Page 93)

And speaking of understanding, here’s a final word to the wise: the bigger the word, the less emotion it conveys. (Page 94)

CHAPTER 3: CHECKPOINT  Does your protagonist react to everything that happens and in a way that your reader will instantly understand? Can we see the causal link between what happened and why she reacted the way she did? Are we aware of what her expectations are so we can tell whether or not they’re being met? And, if she isn’t in the scene in question, do we know how what happens will affect her? If you’re writing in the first person, is everything filtered through the narrator’s point of view? Remember, in the first person, the narrator doesn’t mention anything that doesn’t relate to the story and that doesn’t already have his personal spin stamped on it. Have you left editorializing to the op-ed department? The more you have a message you want to convey, the more you have to trust your story to do it. The joy of reading is getting to make up your own mind about what a story’s ultimate message is. The joy of writing is being stealthy enough to stack the deck so your reader will choose yours. Do you use body language to tell us things we don’t already know? Think of body language as a “tell,” something that cues your reader into the fact that all is not as it seems. (Page 94)

BEFORE THERE WERE BOOKS, we read each other. We still do, every minute of every day. We instinctively know everyone has an agenda, and we want to be sure that agenda isn’t to clobber us, either metaphorically or with a hammer. (Page 97)

It’s interesting, too, that the most common obstacle in both life and story is figuring out what other people really mean. That’s no doubt why, as neuroscientists have recently discovered, our brain comes equipped with something they believe might be akin to X-ray glasses: mirror neurons. (Page 97)

Mirror neurons allow us to feel what others experience almost as if it were happening to us, the better to infer what “others know in order to explain their desires and intentions with real precision.” 4 But here’s the kicker. We don’t just mirror other people. We mirror fictional characters too. (Page 98)

Here’s what Jeffrey M. Zacks, coauthor of the study, has to say about the physical effect a story has on us: “Psychologists and neuroscientists are increasingly coming to the conclusion that when we read a story and really understand it, we create a mental simulation of the events described by the story.” But it goes much deeper than that. As lead author of the study Nicole Speer points out, the “findings demonstrate that reading is by no means a passive exercise. Rather, readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative. Details about actions and sensation are captured from the text and integrated with personal knowledge from past experiences. These data are then run through mental simulations using brain regions that closely mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities.” 5 In short, when we read a story, we really do slip into the protagonist’s skin, feeling what she feels, experiencing what she experiences. And what we feel is based, 100 percent, on one thing: her goal, which then defines how she evaluates everything the other characters do. If we don’t know what she wants, we have no idea how, or why, what she does helps her achieve it. As Pinker is quick to point out, without a goal, everything is meaningless. 6 It’s a sobering thought, isn’t it? So in this chapter our goal is to zero in on how to define your protagonist’s goal, since it’s what bestows meaning on everything that happens. (Page 98)

The even better news is that what your protagonist wants dictates how she will react to everything that happens to her. (Page 100)

As we’ll see throughout, this internal struggle is what the reader came for, whether he’s conscious of it or not. The driving question is: what would it cost, emotionally, to achieve that goal? (Page 100)

If you don’t provide your protagonist with a driving deep-seated need that he believes his quest will fulfill, the things that happen will feel random; they won’t add up to anything. (Page 102)

If you don’t know what the objective is, everything appears random. The action doesn’t add up, so there’s nothing to follow, which makes it impossible to anticipate what will happen next. It is anticipation that creates the intoxicating sense of momentum that hooks a reader, so stories without it remain unread. (Page 102)

Remember, it is the job of a story to dig beneath the surface and decipher life, not just to present it. (Page 104)

Or put more simply, as the aggravated newsreel producer barked at the beginning of Citizen Kane, “Nothing is ever better than finding out what makes people tick.” Because with that comes the predictive power of knowing when to hold ’em, when to fold ’em, and when to run for cover. (Page 104)

No one ever does anything for no reason, whether or not they’re aware of the reason. Nothing happens in a vacuum, or “just because”—especially in a story. The whole point of a story is to explore this “why” and the underlying issue that, in real life, dear old Susan never let on she was struggling with. Otherwise, how will we, as readers, be able to pick up pointers for navigating our own lives? (Page 105)

Notice, too, that all this revolves around what we’ve learned from neuroscience: the brain is built to think socially. It’s not what happens externally that motivates George; it’s the responsibility he feels toward others, and how he sees himself. (Page 106)

Upon Achieving the Internal Goal, Revisiting the External Goal Often the protagonist’s external goal changes as the story progresses—in fact, that’s often what the reader is rooting for (Page 108)

By defining your protagonist’s internal and external goals, and then pitting them against each other, you can often ignite the kind of external tension and internal conflict capable of driving an entire narrative. (Page 109)

The Real Issue: The Protagonist as Her Own Worst Enemy What the protagonist must overcome to achieve her external goal tends to be pretty straightforward—that is, the external plot-driven obstacles that stand between her and success—but what about her internal goal? What stands in the way of that? In the you-have-to-fight-fire-with-fire category, the answer is, internal obstacles—usually in the form of longstanding emotional and psychological barriers—that are forever holding her back. This, then, is her internal issue. (Page 110)

Like the protagonist’s goal, her fears spring from, and are defined by, her life experience— (Page 111)

MYTH: Adding External Problems Inherently Adds Drama to a Story REALITY: Adding External Problems Adds Drama Only If They’re Something the Protagonist Must Confront to Overcome Her Issue (Page 111)

The myth that external problems add drama has plagued writers from time immemorial and has been inadvertently perpetuated by the myriad versions of the “hero’s journey” story-structure model, which mandates that certain external events must happen at certain specific points in a story. The result is that writers craft plots in which these events occur rather than crafting protagonists whose internal progress depends on said events occurring. Such stories are written from the outside in: the writers throw dramatic obstacles in their protagonist’s path because the timeline tells them to rather than because they’re part of an organic, escalating scenario that forces the protagonist to confront her inner issue. Thus the dramatic events aren’t spawned by the story itself but by an external by-the-numbers story-structure formula. (Page 111)

To create organic, compelling obstacles that work, you must make sure that everything your protagonist faces—beginning on page one—springs specifically from the problem she needs to solve, both internally and externally. This will help you avoid a very common pitfall: using a generic “bad situation” to create the protagonist’s goal. (Page 112)

We turn to story to tell us something we don’t know. So while we don’t care a whit about what “any person” would do, we care passionately about what your protagonist would do—as long as we know why. (Page 113)

Our goal is to make the reader feel like they know her, and—this is essential—to care enough about her to want to find out what will happen to her. Which means we’ve also got to establish two things—that big changes are coming and all is not as it seems—and we have to do it as quickly as possible. (Page 115)

Stories not only give us much-needed practice in figuring out what makes people tick, they give us insight into how we tick. (Page 118)

CHAPTER 4: CHECKPOINT  Do you know what your protagonist wants? What does she desire most? What is her agenda, her raison d’être? Do you know why your protagonist wants what he wants? What does achieving his goal mean to him, specifically? Do you know why? In short, what’s his motivation? Do you know what your protagonist’s external goal is? What specific goal does his desire catapult him toward? Beware of simply shoving him into a generic “bad situation” just to see what he will do. Remember, achieving his goal must fulfill a longstanding need or desire—and force him to face a deep-seated fear in the process. Do you know what your protagonist’s internal goal is? One way of arriving at this is to ask yourself, What does achieving her external goal mean to her? How does she think it will affect how she sees herself? What does she think it will say about her? Is she right? Or is her internal goal at odds with her external goal? Does your protagonist’s goal force her to face a specific longstanding problem or fear? What secret terror must she face to get there? What deeply held belief will she have to question? What has she spent her whole life avoiding that she now must either look straight in the eye or wave the white flag of defeat? (Page 118)

Stories often begin at just that moment, as one of the protagonist’s long-held beliefs is about to be called into question. Sometimes that belief is what stands between her and something she really wants. Sometimes it’s what’s keeping her from doing the right thing. Sometimes it’s what she has to confront to get out of a bad situation before it’s too late. But make no mistake, it’s her struggle with this “internal issue” that drives the story forward. In fact, the plot itself is cleverly constructed to systematically back her into a corner where she has no choice but to face it or fold up her tent and go home. (Page 122)

Stories are about people dealing with problems they can’t avoid—sounds so elementary, doesn’t it? Why, then, do writers so often leap in without knowing what, exactly, the protagonist’s problem actually is? Often it’s because they’re hoping it’ll become clear if they just start writing. (Page 124)

The most common problem with stories that haven’t been outlined is that they don’t build. (Page 126)

let me reassure you that outlining can be an intuitive, creative, and inspiring process. (Page 127)

In a story, way too personal is a good thing. But irrelevant is not. (Page 127)

Here’s the secret: you are looking only for information that pertains to the story you’re telling. If a story is about a problem, then what you’re looking for is the root of the problem that will blossom on page one. (Page 128)

That’s why, when writing your protagonist’s bio, the goal is to pinpoint two things: the event in his past that knocked his worldview out of alignment, triggering the internal issue that keeps him from achieving his goal; and the inception of his desire for the goal itself. (Page 128)

While in many stories we wouldn’t actually see this “telltale” scene, it’s often referenced while the protagonist struggles with the havoc it wreaks on his life. It may not even be mentioned at all, its presence merely implied by his actions. So, although the reader doesn’t see it, they feel its effect, because you, the writer, understood it so clearly that you were able to weave it through everything the protagonist does. Thus when you write your protagonist’s bio, the goal is to find those seminal moments and then trace the trajectory of events they triggered, culminating in the particular dilemma your story will revolve around. (Page 129)

story is about something that is changing. Things start out one way and end up another—this is what is meant by a story’s arc. The story itself unfolds in the space between the “before” and the “after.” It chronicles the exhilarating time when things are in flux, giving the reader the illusion that it really could go either way. Thus what you’re looking for when you write your character bios is the specific before that leads to the moment when suddenly everything is in flux. (Page 130)

The “before” is the yardstick that allows the reader to measure the protagonist’s progress toward “after.” (Page 130)

Your goal is to allow them to be full, complete flesh-and-blood characters who, like us, are doing their best to muddle through against all odds. The essence of a story lies in revealing the things that in real life we don’t say out loud. (Page 131)

It’s what Fitzgerald meant when he so famously said, “Character is action”—meaning the things we do reveal who we are, especially because, as Gazzaniga reminds us, “Our actions tend to reflect our automatic intuitive thinking or beliefs.” 13 Story is often about a protagonist coming to realize what’s really causing him to do the things he does, at which point he either celebrates, because he’s better than he thought, or begins making amends, because he’s worse. (Page 132)

Most writers begin with a premise; something along the lines of, “Hey, what would happen if ...?” (Page 133)

What inner issue must she deal with in order to even try? To find out, we need to probe a little deeper. (Page 134)

Now let’s refine it a bit. What are we saying about human nature? How about: when you work up the courage to take a risk, good things happen, even if they’re not quite the good things you expected. Great—now we have an idea of how the world is going to treat her. (Page 135)

If you can’t picture it, it’s general. If you can see it, it’s specific. (Page 135)

At least she hopes so. That’s what keeps her going. Her fear is that she’ll show her paintings to a pro and find out her main talent is the same as her mom’s: self-delusion. (Page 136)

Note: Herkenbaar

The question, as with all subplots, is how does Chloe’s existence impact the main storyline? Does it move it forward? (Page 136)

for now, suffice to say that mirroring subplots don’t literally mirror the main storyline for the obvious reason—it would be redundant (hence boring). Instead, they reveal alternate ways in which the story question could be answered, usually for the protagonist’s benefit—as either a cautionary tale or an incentive to change. (Page 136)

Okay, we’ve set up a mirror. And something else—something you’re always on the hunt for as you dig through your characters’ backstories: current conflict. Especially conflict wired to a ticking clock. (Page 137)

Her heart beats with the question, What will people say? (Page 138)

That means we’ve found our beginning. Each one is standing on the shore of “before,” staring into the distance, trying to make out the shape of “after.” The story will chart the path in between. Now we have Why, Where, How, When, and Who. Close your eyes and you can begin to see it actually unfold. (Page 140)

So you see, outlining doesn’t have to take the spontaneity out of writing. You don’t need to know exactly how the story is going to end, but you do need to know what the protagonist will have to learn along the way—that is, what her “aha!” moment will be. (Page 141)

Sometimes the excitement of writing is discovering those places where the story suddenly careens into new territory on its own—and you realize its new direction makes even more sense than the one in which it was headed. (Page 141)

CHAPTER 5: CHECKPOINT  Do you know why your story begins when it does? What clock has started ticking? What is forcing your protagonist to take action, whether she wants to or not? Have you uncovered the roots of your protagonist’s specific fears and desires? Do you know what her inner issue is? Can you trace it all back to specific events in her past? Do you know how her inner issue then thwarted her desire right up to the moment the story begins? Have you made your characters reveal their deepest, darkest secrets to you? I don’t want to go all Big Brother on you, but if you let your characters hold back, we’ll know. Trust me. When writing character bios, are you being specific enough? When you close your eyes, can you envision what happens, or is it still conceptual? If you can’t see it, there will be no yardstick to measure your protagonist’s progress. You can’t have an after without a before. Do you know where the story is going? This isn’t to say you need to know how it ends when you write word one (although it’s not a bad idea), but unless you have some clue where it’s headed, how can you be sure you’ve sown the seeds of the future there on page one?  (Page 142)

Here’s how Einstein explained his own mental process: “My particular ability does not lie in mathematical calculation, but rather in visualizing effects, possibilities, and consequences.” 1 Sounds exactly like a story to me. And the key word here is visualizing. If we can’t see it, we can’t feel it. “Images drive the emotions as well as the intellect,” says Steven Pinker, who goes on to call images “thumpingly concrete.” 2 Abstract concepts, generalities, and conceptual notions have a hard time engaging us. Because we can’t see them, feel them, or otherwise experience them, we have to focus on them really, really hard, consciously—and even then our brain is not happy about it. We tend to find abstract concepts thumpingly boring. Michael Gazzaniga puts it this way: “Although attention may be present, it may not be enough for a stimulus to make it to consciousness. (Page 144)

Story, on the other hand, takes mind-numbing generalities and makes them specific so we can try them on for size. Remember, we’re hardwired to instantly evaluate everything in life on the basis of is it safe or not? Thus the whole point of a story is to translate the general into a specific, so we can see what it really means, just in case we ever come face to face with it in a dark alley. (Page 145)

As counterintuitive as it may seem, even the most massive, horrendous event, when presented in general, doesn’t have much direct emotional impact, so it’s easy to sail right by it almost as if it wasn’t there. Why? Because we’d have to stop and think about it in order to “manually” do what a story would have done: make it specific enough to have an emotional impact. And why would you do that? As Damasio says, “Smart brains are also extremely lazy. Anytime they can do less instead of more, they will, a minimalist philosophy they follow religiously.” (Page 146)

The point is, if I ask you to think about something, you can decide not to. But if I make you feel something? Now I have your attention. (Page 147)

Facts that don’t affect us—either directly or because we can’t imagine how the facts affect someone else—don’t matter to us. (Page 147)

In fact, it is only via a specific personalization that the point of a generalization is shot home. (Page 147)

Feel first. Think second. That’s the magic of story. (Page 147)

Generic concepts are crafty devils. They leap in front of your story and pull the blinds down, shutting the reader out. (Page 149)

The problem with generalities is that because they’re utterly ambiguous, they don’t have legs. Because they don’t tell us specifically what is happening now, we can’t anticipate, specifically, what might happen next. So much for the delicious dopamine rush of curiosity that keeps us reading. The point is, generalities are not capable of producing specific consequences, and so the story has nowhere to go. (Page 152)

Without a specific, we have no clue. (Page 155)

Metaphors have resonance only when we know, specifically, what they’re supposed to illuminate. (Page 156)

The point is, characters need to react to everything that happens for a specific reason we can grasp in the moment. Of course, there may be a deeper reason as well that we won’t fully understand until later. In fact, the “real reason” for a reaction may be the opposite of what it looks like now. But what there can’t be, if you want your readers to stay with you, is no reaction. This is especially true when we’ve been led to believe that a character will be hugely affected by something that then doesn’t cause him to bat an eyelash. It’s one more reason to always keep in mind that the story isn’t in what happens; it’s in how your characters react to it. (Page 158)

Before we get carried away and load up our stories with specifics as if they’re plates at an all-you-can-eat buffet, it pays to keep Mary Poppins’ sage advice in mind: enough is as good as a feast. Too many specifics can overwhelm the reader. Our brain can hold only about seven facts at a time. If we’re given too many details too quickly, we begin to shut down. (Page 161)

Because although the writer may have known why each detail was important, the reader doesn’t have a clue. And we can’t even pause to try to figure it out, because the details keep on coming. So by the end of the paragraph, we have lost track of not only the details, but the story itself. (Page 161)

MYTH: Sensory Details Bring a Story to Life REALITY: Unless They Convey Necessary Information, Sensory Details Clog a Story’s Arteries (Page 162)

As Chip and Dan Heath point out in Made to Stick, while vivid details can boost a story’s credibility, they must be meaningful—that is, they need to symbolize and support the story’s core idea. 14 Remember those 11,000,000 bits of information our five senses are lobbing at us every second? They are sensory details. Yet our brain knows that we need to be shielded from at least 10,999,960 of them. The only details it lets through are the ones with the potential to affect us. The same is true of your story. Your job is to filter out the details that don’t matter a whit so you can have plenty of space left for the ones that do. (Page 163)

There are three main reasons for any sensory detail to be in a story: 1. It’s part of a cause-and-effect trajectory that relates to the plot—Lucy drinks the shake, she passes out. 2. It gives us insight into the character—Lucy’s an unapologetic hedonist headed for trouble. 3. It’s a metaphor—Lucy’s flavor choice represents how she sees the world. (Page 164)

As Elmore Leonard so shrewdly advised, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” (Page 166)

As Steven Pinker says, “Mood depends on surroundings: think of being in a bus terminal waiting room or a lakeside cottage.” 16 So if you go to great pains to describe the scenery—be it a room, a setting, an elaborate meal, or what your protagonist is wearing—you’d better actually be communicating something else. (Page 166)

CHAPTER 6: CHECKPOINT  Have you translated every “generic” into a “specific”? This is another way of saying, “Do your job.” After all, you don’t want your reader filling in the blanks in ways you never intended. Have the specifics gone missing in any of the usual places? Are there places where the reason, rationale, reaction, memories, or possibilities that underlie your protagonist’s actions are invisible to the reader? Can your reader see what, specifically, your metaphors correlate to in the “real world,” grasp their meaning, and picture them, when reading at a clip? The last thing you want is for your reader to have to reread it three or four times—first to be able to picture it and then to figure out what the heck it means. Do all the “sensory details”—that is, what something tastes, feels, or looks like—have an actual story reason to be there, beyond “just because”? You want to be sure each sensory detail is strategically placed to give us insight into your characters, your story, and perhaps even your theme. And remember, scenery without subtext is a travelogue. (Page 168)

THE BRAIN DOESN’T LIKE CHANGE. Would you, if you’d spent millions of years evolving with the sole goal of maintaining a constant, stable equilibrium? And the brain didn’t slack off after mastering mere physical survival, no sir; it turned its sights to making sure we had a nice comfortable sense of well-being to go along with it. Only then did the brain settle in for the long haul—unseen yet vigilant—ready to pounce on any possible imbalance, often before it hits our conscious radar. (Page 170)

And as neuroscience writer Jonah Lehrer points out in How We Decide, “Confidence is comforting. The lure of certainty is built into the brain at a very basic level.” 2 In fact, it’s a big part of our sense of well-being. That is why, when questions arise that challenge our beliefs about, well, anything, we tend get a little cranky. (Page 170)

We don’t like change, and we don’t like conflict, either. So most of the time we do our best to avoid both. (Page 171)

The lure of the new, the novel—of that bright shiny thing hovering just out of range—is equally hardwired. (Page 171)

And there’s the paradox: we survived because we’re risk takers, but our goal is to stay safe by not changing an iota unless we absolutely have to. Talk about conflict! And that brings us right back to story. Story’s job is to tackle exactly how we handle that conflict, which boils down to this: the battle between fear and desire. (Page 171)

When it comes to conflict, your reader—like the pasty-faced kid in The Sixth Sense—must be able to see things that aren’t there. In order for readers to sense that “all is not as it seems,” conflict must be palpable long before it rises to the surface. It’s the potential for conflict that gives urgency to everything that happens, underscoring even the most benign events with portent. Indeed, it ripples through the story in the guise of mounting tension, engendering in the reader that delicious dopamine-driven sensation we’re addicted to when it comes to a good tale: suspense, the desire to find out what’s really going on. (Page 173)

The thing is, every story tells the tale of Mr. In-Between. (Page 174)

The author was a successful businessman who, at sixty-something, was still married to his childhood sweetheart and had several smart, well-adjusted kids. I asked him how he felt about conflict in his real life. He frowned. “I don’t like it,” he said, tensing. “Who does?” The answer, of course, is no one (drama queens notwithstanding). That’s exactly why we turn to story—to experience all the things that in life we avoid, rationalize away, fear, or long to accomplish but for various and sundry reasons haven’t or can’t. We want to know what it would cost us emotionally, what it would really feel like, should we ever find ourselves, or someone we know, in a similar situation. (Page 174)

It boils down to this: in real life we want conflict to resolve right now, this very minute; in a story we want conflict to drag out, ratcheting ever upward, for as deliciously long as humanly possible. (Page 175)

In the same way that a vicarious thrill, being one crucial step removed, isn’t nearly as powerful as the real thing, neither is the pain we experience when lost in a story. Sure, we’re literally feeling what the protagonist feels, but our trusty brain is also quite aware that what befalls the poor sap is not, in fact, literally happening to us. So, although we feel Juliet’s anguish on awaking to find Romeo lifeless by her side, we never once lose sight of the fact that our own beloved is, in fact, snoring peacefully in the theater seat next to us. And that, my friends, is what makes stories so deeply satisfying. (Page 175)

But those obstacles mean nothing unless, beneath the surface, the seeds of that conflict are present from the outset, as they begin pushing their tender shoots through the soil in search of the sun. Picture it as the first hairline crack in the otherwise solid wall of “before.” The cause of this fissure is often the answer to the question, Why does this story have to start at this very minute? (Page 176)

Thus a story’s first hairline crack and its resulting offshoots are like fault lines, running through the center of the protagonist’s world, undermining everything. As with an earthquake, the cracks tend to be caused by two opposing forces, with the protagonist caught between them. I like to think of these battling forces as “the versus,” which taken together create the arena in which the story then proceeds to duke it out. (Page 177)

Keeping in mind that every story has more than one versus, here are the most common: • What the protagonist believes is true versus what is actually true • What the protagonist wants versus what the protagonist actually has • What the protagonist wants versus what’s expected of her • The protagonist versus herself • The protagonist’s inner goal versus the protagonist’s external goal • The protagonist’s fear versus the protagonist’s goal (external, internal, or both) • The protagonist versus the antagonist • The antagonist versus mercy (or the appearance thereof) (Page 177)

So, to enlarge our nutshell a bit: story takes place in the time between “before” and “after” and in the space between the “versus,” as the protagonist maneuvers within two conflicting realities, trying to bring them into alignment (and thus solve the problem). Once he does this, the space between them closes and the story ends. (Page 177)

The pleasure of story is trying to figure out what’s really going on (which means that stories that ignore the first two facts tend to offer the reader no pleasure at all). (Page 179)

All this is another way of saying the reader knows way more than you think she does, so relax and don’t worry so much about giving too much away. Chances are your readers will be several steps ahead of your protagonist, which is exactly where you want them to be. (Page 179)

One way to tell if what the protagonist wants in the beginning is her genuine goal is to ask yourself: will she have to face her biggest fear, and so resolve her inner issue, to achieve said goal? If the answer is no, then guess what—it’s a false goal. (Page 181)

Note: Centraal punt gjhz

The point is, the antagonist must put the protagonist through her paces. (Page 183)

The reason the various versus are so good at engendering suspense is that pitting two opposing desires, facts, or truths against each other inherently incites ongoing conflict. (Page 184)

Note: Opposing desires - bb

But make no mistake, it is only because of the pattern of hints that the reveal, when it comes, is instantly accepted as truth. (Page 185)

If we don’t know there’s intrigue afoot, then there is no intrigue afoot. (Page 186)

Because while readers relish looking back and reinterpreting specific events in light of new information that now twists their meaning, there are two ironclad conditions that must be met first: 1. There must have been a pattern of specific “hints” or “tells” along the way, alerting us that all was not as it seems, which the new twist now illuminates and explains. 2. These “hints” and “tells” need to stand out (and make sense) in their own right before the reveal. What readers won’t do is go back and insert entire subplots. (Page 186)

The trouble with keeping both the situation and the characters generic—since anything else would “give it away”—is that it not only straitjackets the story but also tends to strip the characters of their credibility as well. Why? Because once the writer decides to keep the protagonist’s big secret under wraps, the protagonist can’t so much as think about it—even though, of course, it’s exactly what he would be thinking about. Even more damaging, he can’t react to anything the way he would, given what really happened, because that, too, would give it away. (Page 190)

If you make sure the reader’s always aware of the conflicting realities the protagonist finds herself trapped between, you’ll be off to the races—together. (Page 192)

CHAPTER 7: CHECKPOINT  Have you made sure that the basis of future conflict is sprouting, beginning on page one? Can we glimpse avenues that will lead to conflict? Can we anticipate the problems that the protagonist might not yet be aware of? Have you established the “versus” so that the reader is aware of the specific rock and hard place the protagonist is wedged between? Can we anticipate how he will have to change in order to get what he wants? Does the conflict force the protagonist to take action, whether it’s to rationalize it away or actually change? Imagine what you would want to avoid if you were your protagonist—and then make her face it. Have you made sure that the story gains something by withholding specific facts for a big reveal later? Don’t be afraid of giving too much away; you can always pare back later. Showing your hand is often a very good thing indeed. Once the reveal is known, will everything that happened up to that point still make sense in light of this new information? Remember, the story must make complete sense without the reveal, but in light of the reveal, the story must make even more sense. (Page 192)

As we know, both life and story are driven by emotion, but what they’re ordered by is logic. Logic is the yang to emotion’s yin. It’s no surprise that our memories—how we make sense of the world—are logically interrelated. According to Damasio, the brain tends to organize the profusion of input and memories, “much like a film editor would, by giving it some kind of coherent narrative structure in which certain actions are said to cause certain effects.” (Page 197)

Since the brain analyzes everything in terms of cause and effect, when a story doesn’t follow a clear cause-and-effect trajectory, the brain doesn’t know what to make of it—which can trigger a sensation of physical distress, 6 not to mention the desire to pitch the book out the window. (Page 197)

Action, reaction, decision—it’s what drives a story forward. (Page 197)

Everything in a story should indeed be utterly predictable, but only from the satisfying perspective of “the end.” (Page 197)

To create a story the reader will care about, the narrative must follow an emotional cause-and-effect trajectory from the outset. How? By obeying the basic laws of the physical universe. Thus the key thing to remember is, naturally, Newton’s first law of thermodynamics: you can’t get something from nothing. Or as the equally brainy Albert Einstein reportedly quipped, “Nothing happens until something moves.” In other words, no matter how much something catches you off guard, nothing ever really occurs out of the blue. Not in real life, not in a story. There is always a cause-and-effect trajectory, whether or not the protagonist—or in the case of real life, you and I—see it coming. (Page 198)

It’s the writer’s job to zero in on the story’s particular “if, then, therefore” pattern and stick with it throughout. This trajectory is the track that the story’s narrative train rumbles down. (Page 199)

There is a school of writing that holds that it’s the reader’s responsibility to “get it,” rather than the author’s job to communicate it. Many writers of experimental fiction graduated from this particular school with advanced degrees. Thus, when we readers don’t “get it,” the fault is not assumed to be theirs, but ours. This attitude can foster an unconscious contempt for the reader, while freeing the writer from any responsibility beyond his or her own self-expression. (Page 200)

MYTH: “Show, Don’t Tell” Is Literal—Don’t Tell Me John Is Sad, Show Him Crying REALITY: “Show, Don’t Tell” Is Figurative—Don’t Tell Me John Is Sad, Show Me Why He’s Sad (Page 204)

In short, “telling” tends to refer to conclusions drawn from information we aren’t privy to; “showing,” to how the characters arrived at those conclusions in the first place. (Page 205)

Since story, both internally and externally, revolves around whether the protagonist achieves his goal, each turn of the cause-and-effect wheel, large and small, must bring him closer to the answer. (Page 208)

There’s a method to the madness, because each cause-and-effect pairing specifically—and logically—spurs the next. Each scene’s decision point is tested by the next scene’s action. In other words, each scene makes the next scene inevitable. (Page 208)

To guarantee that the stakes ratchet ever upward, you want to make sure you’ve infused each cause with enough firepower to trigger an effect that packs an unexpected, yet perfectly logical, wallop. (Page 210)

In the same way, your goal is to be sure each individual scene effectively uses its specific “action, reaction, decision” to evoke maximum tension and to up the odds. At the beginning of the scene, it helps to ask yourself, What does my protagonist want to have happen during this scene? That established, ask yourself, “What is at stake here?” What will it cost her to get what she wants? Armed with this info, you’re ready to write the scene. When you finish it, before diving into the next scene, ask yourself these questions: • Has the protagonist changed? He should start out feeling one way and end up feeling another—often the exact opposite of how he originally felt. • Having weighed his options, given what was at stake, and then made a decision, does he now see things differently than he did when the scene opened? • Do we know why he made the decision he did? Do we understand how he arrived at that particular conclusion, even—make that especially—if his reasoning is flawed? Can we see how this changed his assessment of what’s going on and how he’s adjusted his game plan accordingly? Notice that once again it’s the protagonist’s internal reaction to what happens that not only dictates what happens next but also gives it meaning. (Page 210)

Cause and Effect Doesn’t Mean Predictable (Page 212)