Think stories are just for entertainment? They’re not. Stories are simulations that allow us to vicariously experience problems we might someday face. Think of them as the world’s first virtual reality—minus the geeky visor. Story was more crucial to our evolution than opposable thumbs. All opposable thumbs did was let us hang on. Story told us what to hang on to.
The great feeling of enjoyment we get when a story grabs us is nature’s way of making sure we pay attention to the story. It’s a survival mechanism. Do you know what that feeling is? A rush of the neurotransmitter dopamine. It’s your brain’s way of rewarding you for following your curiosity and finding out how the story’s problem is solved.
That’s why, when it comes to writing, the most important thing to master is the craft of story. Because it turns out that the brain is far less picky about beautiful writing than writers have been taught to believe.
Yes, writing well is a good thing—only a fool would deny that. But what matters most is that the story hooks the reader from the first sentence. How? By igniting the brain’s hardwired desire to find out what happens next. That’s what gives all those beautiful words all their power in the first place.
Lisa Cron explains how story captivates the brain.
So, how do you ignite the reader’s curiosity on that crucial first page? There are three things readers innately hunt for as a story begins.
1. Whose story is it?
Most of us know a story needs a main character, otherwise known as the protagonist. But here’s something writers often don’t know: in a story, the reader feels what the protagonist feels. Without a protagonist, we have no port of entry, and no point of view through which to see, evaluate, and experience the world the author has catapulted us into.
This is crucial, because everything that happens in a story gets its meaning and emotional weight based on how it affects the protagonist as she struggles to solve the story problem. Will it get her closer to or further away from her goal? we ask. That’s what spurs our curiosity, and keeps us reading long past bedtime.
2. What’s happening here?
Stories are about what happens when the protagonist’s expectations aren’t met—which is another way of saying, when life hands them a surprise. And that’s exactly what you want to do: surprise your readers by opening with a situation that lets them know something is already not quite right.
Remember, the reader’s first question: What’s this story about? Let’s drill down deeper to what they’re really asking: What problem will the protagonist have to solve?
We need a glimpse of that problem, beginning on the first page. After all, how can we want to know what happens next, if nothing is happening in the first place?
3. What is at risk?
From the first sentence, readers morph into bloodhounds, relentlessly trying to sniff out what’s at stake and how might it impact the protagonist. They’re dying to know what hangs in the balance. What does the protagonist stand to gain or lose? What will it cost him emotionally? What is he willing to do to succeed?
Do you have to spell it out right out front? Of course not. But you have to give us a tantalizing hint, a clear clue, enough to let us pick up the scent, piquing our curiosity.
Because if there is no risk, there is no story. In real life risk is scary, which is precisely why we’re drawn to story: to find out what it would be like to take those risks. Which brings us back to the hardwired purpose of story. We don’t turn to story to escape reality, we turn to story to navigate reality.
We’re all storytellers
Story is the language of the brain—we think in story. We are the protagonist in our own life, and just like fictional protagonists, we evaluate everything based on how it will affect us. It’s how we evolved to make sense of the world.
So it’s no surprise that these story rules apply whether you’re writing a novel, a screenplay, a short story, a mission statement, or a business presentation. The good news is that the craft of story—based on what the brain craves in every story it hears—can be learned.
Suggested courses to watch next:
• Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story
• Freelancing Fundamentals
• Douglas Kirkland on Photography: Editorial Assignment
• Effective Storytelling with Final Cut Pro X
• Up and Running with Adobe Story