Wired for Story by Lisa Cron (Quickie Book Review)

This past Thanksgiving holiday I was put out of action by a dodgy knee while my nearest and dearest slithered down the slopes. It was not all bad, because I got the chance to read Wired For Story by Lisa Cron (with nary an interruption—bliss!).  Drawing on neuroscience, Lisa Cron contends that our brains crave story, because story is what helps us survive and thrive. A good story engages our brain in a pleasurable and rewarding way, and therefore we want more of it.

So what makes a story good?

Lots of things, but—surprisingly—none of them have to do with beautiful writing.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t write as well as possible, but beautifully wrought sentences are certainly not required to hook the reader. Just think of some of the bestsellers you have read over the years where the writing is more prosaic than poetic. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code comes to mind, and apparently it’s the same with E L James’ Shades of Gray (I haven’t read it yet), and no doubt with a slew of other bestselling novels. What makes these books irresistible to the reader is not gorgeous writing, but—repeat with me—a good story.

This may come as a shock to anyone going through an MFA program that emphasizes style, often at the expense of story.  But without a good story, beautiful is boring. Just ask the MFA student Cron mentions who was reduced to tears by the mind-numbingly boring books she had to read for her courses. I’m sure most of us have read, or were forced to read, books that didn’t have much to say by way of story, but said it beautifully anyway. Story is what drives the whole thing, and unless you get it right your reader may well end up crying with boredom, no matter how many hours you labored to find the perfect metaphor to describe the exact sensation of a grape bursting in your mouth.

So what is story? Well, it’s not plot. Plot is simply what happens.

Lisa Cron argues that a book can still tell a riveting story without much of a plot (i.e. without much external action).  Story is how what happens affects your protagonist. Everything that happens, every detail you include, must in some way affect the protagonist.  Which brings me to another problem area she identifies: description that does not, in some essential way, pertain to the protagonist’s story.

Think about it: which parts of a novel do you tend to skim over? Exactly. Lengthy descriptions of weather, countryside, interiors, battles, clothes. Descriptions that are there just for the sake of it. Just because a spring meadow is colorful doesn’t mean the reader wants to know about every single flower growing in it—unless the flower relates to the protagonist and has a role in propelling the story. Nor do readers care about arcane architectural flourishes—unless, again, they affect the protagonist’s story (think Harry Potter).

Very few writers (including myself) can resist the temptation to describe. At the very least, we feel obliged to drop in serviceable, though mostly pointless, descriptions, because it’s the “writerly” thing to do. Obviously, since a novel doesn’t take place in empty space (and even there you’d be surrounded by stars and planets), it’s important to know where the action occurs. But a brief nod to the surroundings is usually enough to clue in the reader—unless the environment affects the character and becomes part of the story, as it does in novels like Heart of Darkness, The Name of the Rose, and Harry Potter. 

Wired for Story not only leads you through all the elements that make a story compelling, but also provides convenient check lists at the end of each chapter. It’s almost like having an editor look over your shoulder! This is one of the few writing books worth reading again and again: before, during, and after your writing project. Lisa Cron presents her advice with wit and the wisdom of many years of teaching, agenting, and consulting—which makes her book not only useful, but  also a pleasure to read.

If you are serious about learning or reminding yourself about what makes a good story, do yourself a favor and read her book. You may even end up writing a story,  beautifully.

Check our Lisa Cron’s webpage for more information.

 

Free book promotion on November 2 and 3

On November 2 and 3, my mystery novel Spitting Image  will be available for free on Kindle. Just in time for the weekend!

Mystery and mayhem in the Florida Keys! Fans of Evanovich and Hiaasen: check out Spitting Image.

Here’s the in-a-nutshell:

Simone Darling has an empty bank account, a boring boyfriend, and an irrational fear of Miami, capital of vice and crime. No way will she set foot in Florida, not even to visit her mother. But when her mother offers her a quick job for a lot of $$$$, she relents and to travels to Florida, her boyfriend Kevin in tow.

First stop: Miami. All seems normal—until Simone finds a dead man inside her mother’s fridge. A man who looks like Kevin.  Too late she realizes she has walked into a trap where Kevin is the bait. Can Simone rescue her boyfriend before ruthless drug smugglers and the FBI get to him?

Troubles follow hard and fast, as Simone and Kevin embark on a hilarious adventure from Miami to Key West, while trying to rekindle their passion for each other and survive a family reunion marked by murder and mayhem.

Fat cat on the mat: the first step to freedom

A few weeks ago my son started reading. Okay, it’s not riveting stuff (fat cat on the mat, fox on a box, this is my Dad, and so on), but the delight on his face is a pleasure to behold and makes the mommy heart swell with pride.  Soon he will be reading “proper” sentences, paragraphs, stories, books — and new worlds will open up for him, worlds in which I will have no part, because reading is an activity that engages each reader’s imagination differently. Learning to read is the first step to freedom.

By reading you start to see things around you in a new light, you get to experience new points of view, you light up niches in your conscience and the outside world that would otherwise remain mysterious and feared.

Reading lets your mind soar free, engages your imagination and helps you add to the ever-evolving edifice of what makes you you.  And—here is the important thing—you are free to accept or reject what is presented to you as you read. Reading empowers you, and when you are empowered, you become free.

I can’t imagine not being able to read, or being prevented from reading what I want and, as a corollary, from thinking what I want because of what I have read.  Our imagination and our skills in thinking, discriminating, and arguing are nurtured by our ability to read.

In our society we take it for granted that children must learn to read—literacy is the cornerstone of our education, and rightly so. Because only by being able to read can we access information and make informed choices, all of which empowers us and makes us more self-reliant. We don’t have to depend on demagogues or snake-oil salesmen to tell us what we can or cannot think and do.  (Unfortunately, being able to read does not necessarily translate into an ability to think for ourselves, or to dare to think for ourselves, but that is another topic). The ability to read enables us to become self-directed, confident, and educated in ways that an illiterate person would have a hard time achieving.

And yet this right to reading and education is not universal. Just look at the Afghani teenager who was shot in the face for daring to speak up for girls’ education. (Malala Yousafzai). Or other Afghani girls subjected to vicious attacks just because they wanted to go to school. Whenever a new oppressive regime arises, the first thing it does is attack education and literacy, often using intimidating measures to stop people from reading and thinking. Oppression becomes so much easier when you prevent people from becoming free and self-directed individuals with the ability and desire to make their own choices. Reading is the first step towards the kind of freedom we take for granted.

A few years ago I read Reading Lolita in Tehran, a memoir by Azar Nafisi that recounts the crackdown on women’s rights to education and access to information. If you have any doubts how important reading is for our sense of personal freedom and accomplishment—even for our sanity—I recommend you read this book. Sadly, the story of repression by denying access to education continues in various parts of the world, and it affects mostly girls.

My son’s pleasure in his growing ability to read bodes well for his future as a reader, thinker, and self-confident citizen of the world—at least, that is what I wish for him.  And to think that it all starts with the fat cat on the mat!

Read lots, read widely, read on! 

David Gaughran

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