A Writer’s Guide to Hacking the Reader’s Brain (in 5 Steps)
Question: When you’re lost in a story — any story — what, exactly, is it that has you so mesmerized that the real world seems to have vanished?
You may be thinking, Hey, it depends on what kind of story I’m lost in, the genre, whether it’s commercial or literary fiction — sheesh, there’s a long list of possible criteria, and it varies. I mean, it’s not like there’s one answer or anything. How reductive!
That’s what I used to think. I was wrong.
I know because I spent my career asking that question — not in a musing, hypothetical sort of way — but in a much more practical way, largely because I had no choice. It was my job. I’ve spent the better part of my career working with writers, reading and analyzing manuscripts, screenplays, and stories to figure out if they worked, and if not, why not, and what to do about it.
If you’d asked what I was looking for when I started out, I would have rolled my eyes — because it’s so obvious — and said: “Okay, while it depends on the genre — duh — in general I’m looking for intriguing characters, interesting situations, dramatic scenes, intense conflict, authentic dialogue, great writing, illuminating metaphors.” At which point, realizing that my answer sounded a tad vague, I’d have ended with: “Look, I know a great story when I see one, okay?”
That part is true. We all know a great story when we see one.
We’re geniuses at recognizing a compelling story from birth on, because story is wired into the architecture of the brain: we think in story, it’s how we make sense of the world around us. But what’s far less clear is what it is that we’re actually responding to when a story has us under its spell.
And what makes figuring it out even trickier is that what we think has hooked us, doesn’t.
What I ultimately discovered is this: There is one fundamental thing that hooks and holds readers — one thing that gives meaning, urgency, and potency to everything else, regardless the genre.
Without that one thing, it doesn’t matter how “well written” a manuscript is, it doesn’t matter how beautiful the prose is, it doesn’t matter how externally dramatic the plot is, it doesn’t matter how many “sensory details” have been thrown in, or even how unique, fresh or quirky the protagonist is. A manuscript can have all those things, and still be the literary equivalent of a fist full of Ambien.
And, just as surprising, a manuscript without any of those things can still be riveting.
The one thing that generates the juice — the electricity — that brings everything in a story to life, giving it meaning, conflict and urgency, is this: a clear sense of how what’s happening in the plot is affecting the protagonist internally.
The story, I realized, is not about the plot. The story is about how the things that happen in the plot force the protagonist to struggle with an unavoidable problem, thus triggering — scene-by-scene — a long needed, incredibly hard internal change.
What hooks and holds the reader is internal conflict, not external “drama.” Recent advances in brain science and evolutionary biology have born this out. Stories are simulations — think of them as the world’s first virtual reality: you are there, viscerally experiencing what the protagonist is going through, from the inside out. A story isn’t about what someone does, it’s about why they do it. Only by diving deep into what someone is really struggling with as they make a hard, unavoidable decision, can we reap useful intel on what it would actually be like to be in that situation ourselves.
You’re not reading about Jane Eyre’s experiences from the outside in, you are Jane Eyre, experiencing those events yourself. I do not mean that metaphorically; fMRI studies have shown that when you’re lost in a story, what the protagonist feels travels down your neural pathways as if it were happening to you. Because, biologically, it is. It’s not about putting the reader into someone else’s shoes — it’s about putting the reader into someone else’s brain. And as the protagonist’s worldview changes, so does ours.
The question is, as a writer, how do you create a novel capable of hacking your reader’s brain from the very first sentence?
The answer is: by first creating your novel’s command center, the place from which all meaning, urgency and conflict arise: your protagonist’s brain. To do that, a writer’s first goal is to drill down to the deep-seated internal change the protagonist will enter the story already needing to make. Otherwise, how can you create a plot that will force her to make it?
With that in mind, here are 5 surprising — and crucial — questions you to need to dive deeply into before you get to page one. Think of them as the descending layers that you’ll dig through to get to the heart of the real story.
1. What’s your point?
All stories make a point about human nature, beginning in the very first sentence. Which means that as the writer, you need to know what that point is before you begin writing. Without a point your story will meander all over the place, and be as engaging as your dithery friend Todd who rambles on for hours about who knows what, and who you’re six seconds away from ghosting.
Like you, the reader expects everything in a story to be there in service of making a point. And make no mistake, readers can tell very quickly if a story isn’t leading anywhere, because things don’t add up.
The internal change the plot forces the protagonist to make is precisely how a story makes a point about human nature. So until you know what the point is, you can’t begin to figure out how, and why, your protagonist’s worldview needs to change in the first place.
To dig down to your point, ask:
- What insight into human nature will I give my reader; what savvy intel on how to better navigate the chaotic, confusing, beautiful world we live in?
2. What’s your protagonist’s agenda: what does she enter wanting?
All protagonists enter the story already wanting something very badly — even if it’s to stay exactly as they are, forever. This is something they’ve most likely wanted for eons before the fateful moment when you shove them onto page one. This goal will underlie their agenda from the second they enter the story. It will define how they see the world, themselves, what they want, and what they do. To begin creating your protagonist’s worldview ask:
- What does my protagonist enter the story already wanting?
- Why does she want it?
3. What longstanding misbelief will your protagonist have to confront and overcome to get what she wants?
This is where your novel’s seminal source of conflict lies: the struggle between what your protagonist enters believing about the world, and what the plot will then set her straight on — that is, if she wants to achieve her longstanding goal. Story is about what it costs your protagonist, internally, to evolve. The question you’re answering here is: evolve from what? This misbelief is what your protagonist will have to confront, struggle with and overcome in order to achieve (or not) her goal, and thus solve the external plot problem.
- What longstanding misbelief has held my protagonist back, keeping her from swooping in and getting what she wants without breaking a sweat?
4. What external plot problem will force your protagonist to go after what he wants?
The plot revolves around one single problem that grows, escalates and complicates — a problem with mounting consequences that the protagonist has no choice but to deal with. But here’s the part writers often forget: everything that happens in the plot will get its meaning and emotional weight based on how it affects the protagonist, given his internal quest. The plot is there to serve the protagonist’s inner transformation, not the other way around. That means that you need to be sure of two things as you begin to develop your plot problem:
- Does this one, single problem have the power to steadily escalate, and so sustain the entire novel from the first page to the last?
- Will it force my protagonist to confront his misbelief — and take action — every step of the way in order to get what he wants?
5. What will your protagonist’s ultimate “aha” moment be?
This is the moment when your protagonist recognizes his misbelief for what it is: wrong. In that second his worldview will shift as at last he grasps the actual consequences of what’s been happening. This is often what spurs him to solve the plot problem. It’s the moment the entire novel will build toward from the very first page. This internal shift — and what it will cost your protagonist emotionally to finally get there — is what your story is about. This is what readers come for (whether they’re consciously aware of it or not).
Knowing your protagonist’s “aha” moment before you get to page one is what allows you to create a story that earns it. The questions to ask are:
- What will my protagonist realize that ultimately upends his misbelief?
- What new belief will take its place?
Here’s the beauty of answering these five questions now, and diving deep, asking “why” at every turn: Everything you come up with will actually be in the pages of your novel. You’re creating the lens through which your protagonist will evaluate everything that happens, a lens wholly created by her past experience — which you may have heard referred to as “backstory,” making it sound like it’s not really part of the story you’re telling. That couldn’t be less true. Backstory is the most seminal layer of the story you’re telling, and will be laced into every page, giving meaning to everything.
And the excavating doesn’t stop here. You will continually dive into your protagonist’s past as you write forward, to bring clarity, context, conflict and meaning to every decision the plot forces her to sweat over. After all, as Faulkner so astutely said, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”
This article originally appeared on Signature.
Lisa Cron has worked as a literary agent, a TV producer, and a story consultant for Warner Brothers, the William Morris Agency, and many others. She is a frequent speaker at writers’ conferences, and a story coach for writers, educators, and journalists. Her latest book, Story Genius, is out now.