The How of Narrative: Brick by Brick

Story isn’t really about plot. Sure you have a plot happening to our main character, and said character has some sort of goal. If narrative was as simple as that, you would find my trip to Walmart in search of lawn mower oil completely riveting. Trust me it wasn’t. Well, not at first anyway.

If I tell you about the the cryptic plea for help whispered into my ear by the greeter as I entered the doors, it could become interesting. Then there were fifty or so middle-aged women wearing pink wigs and yoga pants, milling about with dazed expressions. As far as the yoga pants, it was as if these women had been poured into pants far too small for them. You just can’t unsee that type of thing.

Let’s not forget the store manager lying on the floor in the paint section, frothing at the mouth and no one calling for help. The strangest part? Yes it gets stranger, the store manager’s picture near the door had “YOU’RE DEAD MEAT” scribbled on it in permanent marker. Did my trip to Walmart suddenly become interesting?

Compass

Stories aren’t about plot.

As strange as it sounds , good stories are not about the plot, protagonist, story question, or how the character transforms as a result. Yes, those elements are there, but the stories we love are about US and how we might change if we climb into a character’s skin, from the safety our favorite chair. The stories we love yank us into the gravity of the main character and hold us to the end. As they ought to.

11 million pieces of information.

According to Lisa Cron(1), our senses are showered with 11,000,000 pieces of information, but our conscious mind only registers about forty of them. Do we really pay attention all that well?

On a good day you process seven bits of data at a time (less than an old-school modem). Bad days? Five bits, or even less. What keeps us from becoming road kill on any given day? Many animals have automatic systems, innate reflex. You know, zombie systems. We have some of those, but we have something else too. Our brains have the ability to connect information provided to us and decide what to do next. This is why story, or narrative, becomes important.

Neuroscientist, Tony Damasio(2), says “The problem of how to make all this wisdom understandable, transmissible, persuasive, enforceable— in a word, of how to make it stick— was faced and a solution found. Storytelling was the solution— storytelling is something brains do, naturally and implicitly.… [I] t should be no surprise that it pervades the entire fabric of human societies and cultures.”

What does this all have to do with stories and those who write them? Everything. If we can understand what the brain (reader) needs from us, it becomes a matter of supplying those needs. As any writer knows all too well, that is something easier said than done.

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Overstressed brains.

Think about the reason our already preoccupied minds allow us the resources of time and space to get lost in a story. We’ll even sacrifice sleep to finish a great story. Such stories simulate intense experience in us without us having to leave the house.

Narratives function as complete mental catalogs of deadly puzzles, relational turmoil, promiscuous bosses making advances at us, immediate wealth dumped on us, or the loss of everything in one fell swoop — even the zombie apocalypse. These catalogs helps us evaluate what we might do in similar circumstance. This type of information becomes useful to the storytellers, because it helps define what story should and should not be. Even more important, it allows us to feel the intensity of life-threatening experiences and never put ourselves in danger.

What needs to happen on the first page?

On the first page of any novel, there needs a clear sense that all is not as it seems. We need to see something wrong, or slightly eschew, staring us in the face that makes us ask, “what’s wrong”.  Along with asking is the hope that things are about to get worse, and if we’re lucky, things won’t be improving anytime time soon. To put it in the terms of neuroscience, we need to get your dopamine firing on all receptors-STAT.

Let me just add, it doesn’t have to be the zombie apocalypse. It could be a death, a divorce, finding your spouse in bed with someone else, a child becomes terminally ill. There are a thousand different things in life that fire up our dopamine without having to resort to prescription drugs.

Let’s start with an easy one:

“There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil,…Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came also among them …And the Lord said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil?…But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face…And the Lord said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand. So Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord.(AV Job 1).

Here is Job, and the whole Universe is about to turn on him. An yet his mean, nasty, wife of his doesn’t die in the process. Talk about lemon juice in the paper cut. The only one in this story that could make a difference, God, appears indifferent to him. (Let me just add, theologically, there is a lot more going on than most evangelicals are taught and a great many things within the Hebrew text itself that gets ignored, but that’s a different blog). Job is about to lose everything in a day.

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Here are the implied question to the reader in Job chapter 1. Is there trouble brewing? Does this mean anything to me? Why am I being told this? Let’s not forget the million dollar question, Should I care?

Of course the answer might be no for some readers. I will say Job has been a solid best-seller for a long time. Many people might be put off-by the archaic style of language, but that’s another topic. Once a reader is able to understand the bigger questions, sometimes they may even change their mind on liking the story.

Answers

As readers we are always searching every piece of information for personal significance. Our brains search for patterns of importance and can tear through data faster than most watches can count. The why beneath what’s happening on the surface is something we do on a daily basis in order to survive.  Pique someone’s curiosity and you flip the switch for dopamine production, which gives us that physically satisfying buzz.

Question Mark In Maze Shows Confusion

The First Page.

Hey writer, are you asking and showing the right questions and answers when you start your book? Three little questions comprise a good chapter one.

Whose story is it?

What’s happening here?

What’s at stake?

Do these questions need to be answered fully in the beginning? Absolutely not, but they need to be there. Can these questions expand as a reader progresses? It better, because life is too short to read boring books. More importantly, a book that doesn’t propel our curiosity becomes boring.

Think about one of your favorite novels that you couldn’t put down. Share with us what that novel was and it started?
1.Cron, Lisa (2012-07-10). Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence (Kindle Locations 176-179). Ten Speed Press. Kindle Edition.

2. Damasio, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain (New York: Pantheon, 2010), 293.

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