There’s an old curse: May you live in interesting times. We do. Interesting, and often terrifying, heartbreaking, confusing, and scary times. And then there’s the upcoming election. The world has never moved so fast, and in so many unexpected directions at once. There aren’t any maps any more. We’re deep in uncharted territory.
Which is why “interesting times” is a crucial time to be a writer. Because story is what opens minds, changes hearts, and helps us chart that scary, unfamiliar territory.
In his book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain neuroscientist David Eagleman writes that to make a good narrative, “the brain works around the clock to stitch together a pattern of logic to our daily lives: what just happened and what was my role in it? Fabrication of stories is one of the key businesses in which our brains engage. Brains do this with the single-minded goal of getting the multifaceted actions of [the world around us] to make sense.”
Story is the language of the brain. And in that capacity, story’s main job is to impart useful inside intel on how to navigate the scary, beautiful, unpredictable world we find ourselves in.
As writers, that gives us an unparalleled amount of power, and every day, people are harnessing that power to change lives. Here’s a short list:
- American movies smuggled into Romania helped cause the 1989 Romanian Revolution. Says Teodor Zamfir, the man who behind the operation that brought the movies into the country, had them dubbed in Romanian, and distributed them: “During a dictatorship which had controlled everything, they lost control of something that seemed insignificant, the videotape. The videotapes set the whole communist system off balance. . . During the 1989 revolution everybody was in the streets because they all knew there was a better life out there. How? From films.”
- Movies can double as couples therapy. As Tara Parker-Pope writes in the New York Times, “A University of Rochester study found that couples who watched and talked about issues raised in movies like “Steel Magnolias” and “Love Story” were less likely to divorce or separate than couples in a control group. Surprisingly, the “Love Story” intervention was as effective at keeping couples together as two intensive therapist-led methods.” Plus it costs so much less, and there’s popcorn.
- Novels enlarge our brain’s capacity for empathy, and change how we see the world, ourselves, and how we then act in it. As Annie Murphy Paul writes: “Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.”
- Novels help make doctors better understand their patients and themselves. Says Daniel Marchalik, M.D. in the New York Times: “Our busy jobs on the hospital wards require precision and efficiency, but in literature class we can slow down and explore human lives and thoughts in a different, more complex way. The class is an anatomy lab of the mind.”
- And, on a purely personal level, reading novels can make you happier. Not to mention calmer, healthier, more creative and better able to sleep through the night. Says Ceridwen Dovey in The New Yorker: “Reading has been shown to put our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, similar to meditation, and it brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm. Regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers.”
How is it that reading stories – losing oneself in a narrative – has so much power? What’s the secret?
As Virginia Woolf wrote, a book “splits us into two parts as we read,” for “the state of reading consists in the complete elimination of the ego,” while promising “perpetual union” with another mind. In other words, Virginia Woolf defined the prototype for a Vulcan Mind Meld decades before Star Trek dreamed it up.
Story doesn’t just help us walk in the shoes of others, far more potently it puts us into the minds of others as they navigate the uncharted rapids life has so unceremoniously tossed them into. That’s precisely how writers change hearts, minds and lives, and what makes writers so influential.
But there’s one caveat: you have to have actually written a story. One that meets the reader’s hardwired expectations, seducing her away from her real life and into the world of the story. The trouble is that these expectations are tacit – so most of us don’t know that they’re what’s grabbed us. And when we’re readers, that’s absolutely fine.
But as writers we kind of have to know what these expectations are, otherwise how can we be sure our stories meet them? That’s why I’ll be diving into one of these hardwired expectations every Friday here for the next 14 weeks – which will take us up to and through the publication of my book, Story Genius. I want to share some of the book’s inside info with you – the writers who follow me in this space – so that you can get an exclusive peek at what readers crave, and how to get it onto the page.
Because when it comes to how to create a story that grabs the reader at hello, well that’s what Story Genius is all about . . .