Review: "Wired for Story" by Lisa Cron
Have you ever wondered why humans love stories so much? From the time we’re little, we love to listen to stories, or read them, or watch them on TV. Stories are downright addicting. Why?
In her 2012 craft book Wired for Story, Lisa Cron shows us why our brains are hooked on story: because each of us wants to care about something. We want our curiosity piqued. When we are drawn into a story and made to care about its characters and plot, our dopamine neurons fire excitedly, letting us know that “intriguing information is on its way” (13).
In this book, Lisa Cron shows writers how to use this to our advantage.
Cron Gently Nudges Writers Into a Self-Critical Mindset
If you’ve ever written and completed a short story or first draft of a novel, you probably remember how thrilling it felt to be done with something. Maybe you looked back over your precious pages and re-read the words and smiled because you knew how amazing your book was. Agents were sure to snap it up; award committees would definitely short-list it.
And if you then shared that story with a critique group, all your lovely thoughts about your book probably got dashed. Lisa Cron understands this. One fantastic thing about her book is that she acknowledges the hard work writers put into every sentence, and she honors that.
But then she tells you why it’s probably not nearly as wonderfully crafted as you think, and she does this by putting you into the reader’s shoes. Think of the ultra-common trick of keeping a secret back from the reader to increase suspense. Cron argues that most of us approach revelations of secrets the wrong way, “Letting us know there is a secret, but then keeping it so vague that [readers] can’t even guess what the particulars are” (140).
After pinpointing this problem, she tells you how to solve it in your own work in a way that makes your story even more exciting. Which is what you were going for in the first place when you wrote a vague novel about a super-delicious secret!
The Book is Fittingly Organized
Every chapter begins with a Cognitive Secret and a Story Secret. After these secrets comes a quote from a famous novelist — Flannery O’Connor and E. B. White among them. Then, within the first section of each chapter, Cron tells you exactly what you’re going to learn about in the following paragraphs. This foreshadowing that makes the reading of this craft book downright thrilling. Each chapter ends with a checklist of questions to ask ourselves as we write.
In addition, Cron sprinkles common “Myths” and their “Realities” throughout in ways that reinforce the Cognitive and Story secrets. For example, in the chapter “Cause and Effect,” Cron’s Cognitive Secret is, “From birth, our brain’s primary goal is to make causal connections—if this, then that.” The Story Secret is: “A story follows a cause-and-effect trajectory from start to finish” (144).
Then, because some works of great literature don’t adhere to these secrets, Cron calls them out directly: “Hey, what about Ulysses?” she asks. “Isn’t it widely acclaimed as the best novel ever written?” (149). She answers herself with a Myth: “Experimental Literature Can Break All the Rules of Storytelling with Impunity—In Fact, It’s High Art and Thus Far Superior to Regular Old Novels.”
The corresponding Reality goes like this: “Novels That Are Hard to Read Aren’t Read.” Boom. Can we give Cron a round of applause for that one? Novels are supposed to engage us, not make us scream with boredom.
For a Book With “Brain Science” in the Title, You’d Expect More Brain Science
While Cron does mention different workings of the brain a few times, she could have delved deeper into how the brain works. As in, the actual science of it. For those who may have long since forgotten their high school biology and psychology classes, a little refresher on how story releases dopamine into the brain (not just the information that it does release dopamine), would’ve been lovely.
This book contains so much helpful, challenging, yet ultimately reassuring advice that we recommend it to writers of all levels, ages, and stages. Happy reading!
Cron, Lisa. Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. Ten Speed Press-Random House, 2012.
About Laura Ojeda Melchor
Laura Ojeda Melchor holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and spends her days chasing after her adventurous toddler. A freelance writer and fiction novelist, she lives in Alaska with her family. She enjoys reading, writing, listening to music, exploring Alaska, and going for walks in her delightfully foresty neighborhood.
For her fiction, she’s represented by a fantastic agent at Upstart Crow Literary. She’s also a contributing writer for Book Riot. You can find her at her online home, lauraojedamelchor.com.