Why do we tell stories? Read them? Watch movies, or play video games with storylines embedded? Why do we gossip or read celebrity news?
The love of story. Or, according to some brain experts, the need for story. It turns out that stories help us survive.
I’m reading a fantastic writer’s guide called Wired For Story (Lisa Cron, Ten Speed Press, 2012) about how the brain evolved to include a reward—in the form of dopamine—for satisfying stories. You know the cozy feeling you get when you’ve finished a wonderful book? That’s dopamine flooding your system. It’s no accident that picture books, which are short and pleasurable to the brain on a chemical level, are so often used to help put children to sleep.
But why are stories such a big part of the human experience? Some neuroscientists believe it’s because stories have been so useful in survival. Through stories, humans can learn from experiences they themselves did not have, passing on life-saving tips through verbal exchange instead of relying on instinct or direct experience. That plant is poisonous. When you hear a roar, run.
But writers take note. For a story to grab us—both as survivors and modern readers today—there must be something happening that matters, and we must be able to anticipate consequences. Dopamine fuels the reader’s curiosity and anticipation, urging us onward, just as early human listeners must have been in thrall as a story teller related the saga of a saber cat’s attack. Stories with consequences that cannot, in part at least, be predicted are surprisingly less engaging for a reader than those that are. Just as a hiker may not wish to climb a path with no hope of a view, readers need a sense—even if they are incorrect in the end—of what could happen.
This is similar to the idea of “stakes” in that readers need to know the price if the character doesn’t achieve his or her goal. But it’s more. Readers must be guided to imagine possible outcomes. Surprise endings (or middles, for that matter) are less satisfying than those a reader has the chance to anticipate or dread.
Wired For Story is a great resource for writers who want to know the brain-based ways to develop stories that engage and delight readers.