I was originally going to make this a twitter thread or something,
but I decided that since I haven’t done a book review in a while,
this is the perfect time to write another one.
I heard about Wired for Story from Abbie, and since I have a habit of picking up books recommended by people I know on the internet, I went out and picked up this one. Even though I am not writing fiction at the moment, I was still interested to read Cron’s perspective on storytelling.
I have read quite a few “writing books” over the years. But this one is in my favorite’s list for two reasons:
B. it’s straight-up honest.
It’s is the kind of book that has something helpful on every page. The ideas build on each other so much that you want to underline the whole thing at once. It has scope and details, and practical examples – and a lot, a lot of “writer myth” corrections. Cron really knows what she’s talking about.
Let’s get into it.
What is Story?
– and why people are the best judges of what story is.
I love that storytelling is at least as old as humans are. I love that, with the exception of very few people, most of us would grab a novel over a history book. And that, give us writers a very important task: to write stories that ignite the spark that sits doormat inside each of us.
Knowing why and what triggers these sparks is what Wired for Story is all about.
Think about your favorite book or film – how did it make you feel? Alive and inspired? Or maybe it struck you so hard in the chest that you wondered if you’d ever be able to breathe? All those feelings you felt were because your brain is wired to understand and embrace a good story.
But if you can recognize “good storytelling” you absolutely can recognize “bad storytelling.” Even if you can’t explain why it’s bad, you just know. It just doesn’t “feel right;” it doesn’t hit the right triggers; it feels fake and uncommitted.
Wired for Story is all about identifying what your brain expects a “good story” to be, and how you can use this information to write better stories. In each chapter, Cron tackles a specific cognitive secret, and then shows you how it applies to storytelling – your story. She approaches every angle of storytelling from the perspective of your reader. This was especially interesting to me, because a lot of writer books focus on the writer. But Cron showed me that the best thing you can do is write with your reader in mind.
So what exactly is story?
“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.”
|| Wired for Story, pg. 11
Writing is Algebra
– or, why you need to learn what makes a good story
As with every form of art, there are two parts equally important. There’s the fire and the algebra. Fire is the passion behind the craft, the sleepless nights, the motivation. But algebra is the how, the technical, the rules – it’s learning the why behind whatever it is that captivates you.
This is so so important for writers because you aren’t just writing for yourself. You are writing to be read someday. And if your readers cannot connect with your story because you didn’t study algebra, you will miss out on one of the greatest opportunities a writer can have – the chance make something that impacts people.
I want to briefly talk about some of the key points in Wired for Story that really struck me.
My favorite point she makes about characters is this: Characters need a believable reason for everything they do, everything they say, and every thought they think. And that reason must be believable or else the reader feels cheated.
For example: you would never allow your pacifist city-girl to shoot a man in cold blood, just because the plot demands that she get arrested so she can meet her long lost father in prison by the end of the book.
Most, I’d say, would define plot as: what happens in the story. But Cron argues that traditional definitions of plot leave out a critical part of storytelling – the characters. She defines plot this way: what happens to the character and how he/she changes as a result.
That sounds like the definition of story, doesn’t it?
When you only define plot as what happens in the story – without the characters – it feels disconnected and stale. There’s a bunch of things happening (and maybe they are epic, high-stake kinds of things), but the reader can’t make sense of it because it doesn’t feel organic or natural – meaning: not connected to the the characters. The story doesn’t change the characters, or maybe it changes them in ways that don’t make sense (which is why you have to get the character right, first before you can work on plot).
The plot should only make sense from the perspective of the character’s inner desires, thoughts and actions – not the other way around. Plot should never dictate what a character should think or do or say. Stories with plot that indicates what a character should think, do or say (this is called putting plot before character) never work because the reader knows, deep inside, that he/she character would never do/say that.
Readers will demand a reason behind very action and consequence in your story. They will not be satisfied with shortcuts, because they are wired (gosh, I have used that word too much today) to see the meaning behind everything. They will not want to read about how a middle-aged man survives an earthquake, they will want know what that earthquake cost him.
Did he change?
How did he react?
What did he lose?
The way I see it: plot and character are almost interchangeable. If the plot can only reflect the character’s inner desires, thoughts, and actions – then plot is something like the verse that says, “as a man thinks, so is he.” (also: what he does)
But! I’m not a writer!
– you should still read this book
Here’s the thing: you will encounter “bad storytelling” in your lifetime – whether or not you’re a writer. Chances are, you’ve already encountered it.
You know, the character who cheated on that other character even though she was in love with his best friend? Or the character who said something contradictory to what he said two episodes ago? Or the villain who you can’t imagine that he’d carry that kind of motive?
So wouldn’t you like to understand why your brain instinctively knows what bad storytelling is? Wouldn’t you like to know why that character’s motivation/actions didn’t set with you?
I would. I love the feeling when I understand the why behind something.
In February, I finished a TV series right around the time that I read Wired for Story. Now. The show is good. I liked it. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that writers weren’t being true to the characters, even though I understood why things happened the way they did. It disappointed me sometimes because, I thought the characters deserved better.
Reading Wired for Story really, really gave me a lot of perspective about the mistakes writers make, and the shortcuts they take in storytelling. I realized why I wasn’t connecting with the story as much as I would have liked to. And once I understood that, I started thinking of ways I could improve the plot based on what I thought the characters should have done. So my brain was working to overcome what I was watching, and turn it into something else.
My point is: once you know what storytelling mistakes look like, you’ll see them everywhere. You’ll know exactly why your favorite books resonate with you the way they do. You’ll understand the shortcuts made in movies. And most of all: you’ll understand that storytelling is hard, hard work.
Read this book.
What This Book Taught Me
– because lessons are good, am I right?
just a couple of things. . .
1) story is less about a “big, grand idea” and more about patterns, conflict, and change
2) writing is a demanding profession, not for the faint-of-heart
3) story is an art, yes, but it is also a science and if you what to get it right, you need to understand it
4) writing is communication. you should always write with your reader in mind
5) all readers subconsciously ask questions, and if you learn to anticipate those questions
and answer them, you will write better stories.*
6) writing is more about the details you leave out, than the details you put in
What is the point?
Why should I care?
Why does she feel that way?
What does it matter, anyway?
hope your week is lovely.
postscript #1 – and just so you know, Abbie
gives excellent writing book suggestions.
postscript #2 – all photos (except the header)