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Brain's Response to Story

Brain is hardwired to respond to story. Nature's way of seducing into paying attention to information.



For a story to captivate a reader, it must continually meet the brain's hardwired expectations.


Art is fire plus Algebra

Jorge Luis borges.


1. How to hook the reader
Cognitive Secret: we think in story, which allows us to envision the future

Story Secret: From the very first sentence, the reader must want to know what happens next.


How to lower the activation cost of information

The problem of how to make all this wisdom understandable, persuasive, enforceable, how to make it stick, was solved. Storytelling is the solution. it is something out brains do, naturally and implicitly, and provides the entire fabric of human societies and cultures.


Brain's response to story

Story is the language of experience

Brain constantly seeks meaning out of the dizzying input, so it forms it into a cause and effect chain, creating logical interrelations, mapping connections for future reference.



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.

grab us only when they allow us to experience how it would feel to navigate the plot.


Two key Concepts

1. Neuroscientists believe we devote so much energy to stories is because without them, we’d die. Stories allow us to simulate intense experiences without having to live through them.

Pinker: Fictional narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them.

2. The specific hardwired expectations for every story we’ve read are evolutionary: A story’s ability to provide information on how we might safely navigate this world.


Story focuses always on

what does your protagonist have to confront in order to solve the problem in front of them? Reader needs to know this problem asap



nothing focuses mind like surprise. Something needs to be happening, and there must be some consequence we must anticipate. A breadcrumb trail. What draws us into a story is the firing of dopamine neutrons, signalling that intriguing info is on its way.


Biological imperative

We are always on the hunt for meaning. Having our curiosity piqued is visceral. Leads to the anticipation for knowledge we are hungry for, caused by a rush of dopamine. Because being curious is good for survival, nature rewards it.


Things readers need to know

1. whose story is it?

2. what’s happening hear?
Whenever possible, tell the whole story of the novel in the first sentence. Cues to the problem the pro will spend the story struggling. The yardstick—did this help his goal, move him further away from his goal.

3. what’s at stake?
What is at stake, in conflict for the pro’s specific quest.


Richard Restak: Context

Richard Restak: Things are always evaluated in a specific context in the mind. It is context that bestows meaning.
By giving a yardstick, it allows us to decode the meaning of everything that befalls the pro.

What analogical model fits for observation


Every single thing in the story—subplots, weather, setting tone must

have a clear impact on whether or not the pro will achieve his goal. What will it cost him in the process, and how it will change him in the end.


Myth: Beautiful Writing Trumps All

Reality: Storytelling trumps writing every time


Chap 1 Checkpoint

Do we know whose story it is?
Is there a sense as all is not what it seems?— especially important if the pro isn’t introduced immediately.
Can the reader catch a glimpse of the big picture yardstick—Give the reader the perspective to convey the point of each scene, enabling them to add things up.


2. How to zero in on your point

Cognitive Secret: When the brain focuses on something, it filters out all unnecessary information

Story Secret: To hold the brain’s attention, everything in a story must be there on a need to know basis.


The so what factor

Defining element of the story is the evaluation, the so what factor. What your story is about. Allows reader to reference everything according to that principle.


First job when writing

is to zero in on the point you are making


A story question is designed

, from beginning to end, to answer a single overarching question


If you can't summarize your book in a few sentences

, rewrite the book until you can


Hints that story is going off rails:

We know what a pros goal is, but have no clue as to the inner issue it forces him to deal with
Know pro and goal and issue, but suddenly gets what he wants, changes mind, or dies, abruptly changing character
Aware of pro goal, but what happens doesn’t affect him or help him achieve it. Or the things that happen don’t seem believable which makes it impossible to anticipate what happens next.



Synthesis of three elements; pro issue, theme, plot
Those three things allow us to interpret events as they unfold and anticipate where they are heading.


Pro Issue

Story isn’t about whether pro achieves goal but about what the pro overcomes internally to do it. This is what drives story forward. once achieving the last obstacle, the pro realizes from this new perspective that success is very different than what he thought it was.



What story says about larger human nature. Defines rules of the world, how it will treat pro. What does the story tell us about what it means to be human in this world? What does it say about how humans react to circumstances beyond their control?



the events that relentlessly force the pro to deal with her internal issue as he pursues his goal. not stopping until he does.
All contents are inextricably tied to the single standard and reference point.


“Minds exist to predict what happens next.”



Myth: Plot is what the story is about

Reality: A story is about how the plot affects the pro
Plot is not story. Plot facilitates story by forcing the pro to confront and deal with the issue that keeps him from achieving his goal.


Story Question

What is it I want my readers to walk away thinking about? What point does my story make? How do I want to change the way my readers see the world?


Evelyn Waugh:

All literature implies moral standards and criticisms, the less explicit the better


Chapter 2: Checkpoint

Do you know what the point of your story is?

Do you know what your story says about human nature or the world around you?

Do the pro inner issue, theme and plot work to answer the story question?

Do the plot and theme stick to the story question? Question will always be in the back of readers mind, it is the responsibility of each theme laced event to keep it there.

Can you sum up what your story is about in a short paragraph.


3. Ill Feel what He’s Feeling

Cognitive Secret: Emotion Determines the meaning of everything—if we’re not feeling, we’re not conscious

Story Secret: All story is emotion based —if we aren’t feeling, we aren’t reading.


Daniel Gilbert --Feelings don’t just matter—they are what mattering means

Pinker: Emotions are mechanisms that set the brain’s highest level goals


where do feelings come from: the protagonist

Everything in a story gets its emotional weight and meaning based on how it affects the pro. In every scene the pro must in a way the reader can see and understand in the moment. Reaction must be specific, personal and effect whether or not the pro achieves her goal.
Human binary: will it hurt me or help me.

Must know the event, and what the event means to the pro.


1st person rules

Every word the narrator says must in some way reflect his point of view
Narrator never mentions anything that doesn’t affect him in some way
Narrator draws a conclusion on everything he mentions
Narrator is never neutral, always has an agenda
Narrator never tells us what everyone else is thinking or feeling

only write from one pov per scene.


Don’t write what you know, write what you emotionally know

By tapping into what you know about human nature and how people interact, constantly showing the emotional and psychological why behind everything that happens.


The goal is to have the reader experience the story on their own terms

not have it explained or be herded towards specific hard and fast conclusions. Your job is to lay out what happens, as clearly and dispassionately as possible, show how it affects the pro, and then get the hell out of the way.

Neurological difference between an internal realization and being lectured on a subject.


3. Checkpoint

Does your pro react to everything that happens and in a way that your reader will instantly understand? Can we see the causal link between event and reaction. Aware of her expectations and whether they are met. if not in a scene do we know how it will effect her.

If you are writing in the first person, is everything filtered the narrator’s pos

Have you left out editorializing. Trust the story


4. What Does your Pro Really Want

Cognitive Secret: Everything we do is Goal Directed, and our biggest goal is figuring out everyone else’s agenda, the better to achieve our own.

Story Secret: A pro without a clear goal has nothing to figure out and nowhere to go.


michael gazzaniga

what the human brain seems built to do is think socially—


Intelligent life

as using knowledge of how things work to attain goals int he face of obstacles.



Mirror Neurons

allow us to better infer what others know in order to explain their desires and intention with real precision.


Mental Simulation

When we read a story, we create a mental simulation of the events described by the story.


The driving question is:

What would it cost the pro emotionally to achieve the goal. The internal issue—the thing the pro struggles with that keeps him from easily achieving the goal without struggle. readers want the struggle. Without this goal, there is no way for the reader to envision the chain of causal events. Impossible to anticipate, and it is anticipation that creates the momentum of dopamine in a reader.. Without a goal, everything is meaningless.


“In literature we can redefine our capacities for emotional understanding”



Upon achieving internal goal,

revising external goal.


By defining a pros internal and external goals and pitting them against each other

you can ignite the kind of external tension and internal conflict capable of driving an entire narrative.


Be specific in goal

not fear of death—what fear of death will mean at this moment—leaving kids in debt,


Myth: Adding external problems inherently adds drama to a story

reality: Adding external problems adds drama only if they’re something the protagonist must confront to overcome her issue.


To create organic, compelling obstacles that work

you must make sure everything your pro faces, beginning on page one, springs specifically from the problem the pro needs to solve, internally and externally.


When beginning a Story

Big changes are coming, some disturbance is introduced. Don’t need to know a lot early, just need to imply there is a lot to know.


Chap 4 Checklist:

Do you know what pro wants?
Do you know why your pro wants what he wants?
Do you know what your pros external goal is.
Do you know what your pros internal goal is
Does your pros goal face her to face a specific longstanding problem or fear.


5. Digging up Pros Inner Issue

Cognitive Secret: We see the world not as it is, but as we believe it to be

Story Secret: You must know precisely when and why, your pros worldview was knocked out of alignment.


In order to survive, we’re wired to draw conclusions about everything we see,

whether or not we have the right facts, and more often than not, our unconscious constructs the implicit beliefs that organize and rule our world.


Stories begin at just the moment

as one of the pros long held beliefs is about to be called into question.

Mimics cognitively an insight or epiphany


Plot itself is constructed

to back the pro into a corner where they have not choice but to face the interior issue or fail.
Stories are about dealing with problems they can’t avoid.



The end of our exploring will be to arrive at where we started and to know the place for the first time


Common Story Problems

1. Most common problem with stories that haven’t been outlined is that they don’t build. Without a premeditated destination based on the battle between the pros inner issue and the longstanding desire, fat gets into the machine.
2. redesigning 95 percent of something is more costly than starting with a plan going in.


Myth: Knowing characters through complete bios

Reality: Bios should concentrate on information relevant to story

when writing the bio: what event in his past knocked his worldview out of alignment, triggering the issue that keeps him from achieving his goal, and the inception of the desire for the goal itself. The reader may never see it, butits presence should be implied through action.


fitzgerald: character is action



Checkpoint 5

Do you know why your story begins when it begins? what clock has started ticking?
Have you uncovered the roots of your pros specific fears and desires?
Do you know where the story is going?


6: Story Is in Specifics

Cognitive Secret: We don’t think in the abstract, we think in specific images

Story Secret: Anything conceptual, abstract or general must be made tangible in the pros specific struggle


Albert einstein

didn’t think in the abstract, he thought of himself as a child, riding through space on a beam of light.
“My particular ability does not lie in mathematical calculation, but rather in visualizing effects, possibilities and consequences.”


Images drive emotions as well as intellect. thumpingly concrete.



“although attention may be present, it may not be enough for a stimulus to make it to consciousness. purely concentration, no incentive beyond that”.



Entire Fabric of a conscious mind is created from the same cloth--images



Smart brains are lazy

anytime they can do less instead of more they will do so.


Rakmachandran Humans excel at visual imagery

Our brains evolved the ability to create an internal mental model of the world in which we can rehearse forthcoming actions, without the risks or penalties of doing them in the real world.


Six Places where the Specific Infor often goes missing

1. Specific reason a character does something.
2. Specific thing a metaphor is meant to illuminate.
Metaphors—how the ming nests the abstract thoughts in concrete terms.
3. The specific memory that a situation invokes in the pro
4. Specific reaction a character has to a larger event
5. Possibilities that run through the pros mind as she struggles to make sense of what is happening.
6. specific rationale behind a character’s change of heart


Myth: Sensory Details Bring a Story to Life

Reality: Unless they convey necessary information, sensory details clog a story’s arteries.

details need a strong reason to be there.

Vivid details can boost a story’s credibility— but they must be meaningful e.g. symbolize and support the story’s core idea.


Three main reasons for any sensory detail to be in a story:

1. It’s part of a cause and effect trajectory that relates to plot—drink milkshake, pass out
2. It gives us insight into the character—Lucy’s an unapologetic hedonist headed for trouble
3. It’s a metaphor—is a proper way to frame an elusive idea in concrete and powerful terms

the description of a setting should reveal something else


6 Checklist

Have you translated generic into specific?

Have specifics gone missing in usual places?

Can your reader see what, specifically, your metaphors correlate to in the real world, grasp their mean, and picture them, when reading the first time

Do all the sensory details have a story reason to be there


7. Courting Conflict, Agent of Change

Cognitive Secret: The brain is wired to stubbornly resist change, even good change

Story Secret: Story is about change, which results only from unavoidable conflict


Confidence is comforting.

The lure of certainty is built into the brain at a very basic level.


We don’t like change or conflict, so we try to avoid both

But we also were selected to take risks. We try to stay safe and unchanged until we absolutely have to and then we take steps to change. Thats conflict: battle between feat and desire.


Conflict must be palpable long before it rises to the surfaces.

Conflict must be palpable long before it rises to the surfaces. It’s the potential for conflict that gives urgency to everything that happens and ripples through the story in mounting tension, increases dopamine hits that come from a good tale: by trying to figure what is really going on.


Story is about Change

The process of going from before to after


Versus conflicts:

what the pro believes vs truth
what the pro thinks they want vs what they actually want
what the pro wants vs whats expected
pro vs self
pro inner goal vs pro outer goal
Pro fear vs pro goal
pro vs antagonist
antagonist vs mercy


he brain is wired to hunt for meaningful patterns in everything,

the better to predict what will happen next based on the repetition or alteration of a pattern— which means there needs to be meaningful patterns for the reader to find.


We’re hardwired to love problem solving

when we figure something out, the brain releases an intoxicating rush of neurotransmitters. The pleasure of story is trying to figure out whats really going on.


Myth: Withholding info for the big reveal is what keeps readers hooked

Reality: Withholding infö often robs the story of hooks



something that changes everything that came before it.
1. must be a pattern of hints that tell us things are not as they seem, becoming illuminated as to why in the twist
2. These hints need to stand out and make sense on their own before the reveal.


A reveal Can't be

Convenience, contrivance, coincidence.


For a secret to be useful, the reader needs to want to know the secret.

keeping the secret so vague we can't guess why they are doing it or what the particulars are.


7: Checklist

Have you made sure that the basis of future conflict is sprouting from page one— can we glimpse the avenues that will lead to conflict? Can we anticipate the problems the pro might not yet be aware of?

have you established the versus so that the reader is aware of the specific rock and hard place the pro is wedged between— can we anticipate how he will have to change in order to get what he wants.

Does the conflict force the pro to take action, whether it’s to rationalize it away or make change—imagine what you would want to avoid if you were a pro, and maker her face it.

Have you made sure the story gains something by withholding specific facts for a big reveal later?

Once the reveal is known, will everything that happened up to that point still make sense in the light of this new information? must make more sense than before


Chap 8: Cause and Effect
Cognitive Secret: From birth, our brain’s primary goal is to make causal connections— if this, then that

Story Secret: A story follows a cause and effect trajectory from start to finish
Causality is the cement of or perceived universe.

Brain analyzes everything by cause and effect.
In a story; the will be nothing that does not in some way affect the cause and effect trajectory


Simple mantra: if, then, therefore

therefore being the decision or info gained. action, reaction, decision.


1. Plot-wise cause and effect plays on the surface level, one event logistically auses the next.

2. Story-wise plays out on a deeper level, explains why the logistical effect played out as it did.

why is more important than the what in stories


Myth: Show, don’t tell is literal—don’t tell me john is sad, show him crying

Reality: Show, don’t tell is figurative—don’t tell me john is sad, show me why he is sad. see the cause and reaction


As the story progresses all other choices are winnowed out, one after another,

until the pro is left with the last choice.
Pro: This is the right decision, here’s why
Plot: oh yea?

What does your pro want to have happen during this scene?


Before the next scene:

Has your pro changed? start feeling one way end up feeling another
Having made a decision, does he see things differently from when he scene opened?
Do we know why he made the decision he made? especially if his reasoning is flawed.


Four Areas of Unpredictability:

1. Clear cause and effect pattern is what allows us to focus on the story’s continual wild card: what the pro will actually do, given what he has to overcome. Always competing choices and desires
2. Theres an appearance of free will. all turns out to be fate looking back
3. Rushing headfirst into misreading signs only to realize it is in the wrong direction
4. Strategically revealed new info— the big reveal. must be thought out, highest stake for writer.


Every scene must:

Be caused by the decision made in the scene that preceded it
Move the story forward via the character’s reaction to what is happening
Make the scene that follows inevitable
Provide insight into the characters that enables us to grasp the motive behind their actions
All twists come from the pros wanting to get the most by giving the least. Only succeeds in making the situation worse.

Every action has a cause and consequence


Part of a great chain of cause and effect

Does this scene impart a crucial piece of info without which some future scene won’t make sense?
does it have a clear cause the reader can see?—even if the real cause will be revealed later
Does it provide insight into why the characters acted the way they did?
Does it raise the reader’s expectation of specific imminent action

if i cut it out? Would anything that happens afterward change? if no lose it

Everything in the story must be there for a reason, limited to what the reader needs to know at that moment.


And So Test

what does this new information mean? how does it further the story?


8: Checklist

Does your story follow a cause and effect trajectory beginning on page one, so that each scene is triggered by the one that preceded it?
Does everything in your story’s cause and effect trajectory revolve around the pro-quest?
Are your story’s external events spurred by the pros evolving inner cause and effect trajectory?
When your pro makes a decision, is it always clear how he arrived it, especially when she’s changing her mind
Does each action follow the action, reaction, decision pattern?
Can you answer the and so? to everything in the story?


Chapter 9: What Can Go Wrong, Must Go Wrong

Cognitive Secret: The brain uses stories to simulate how we might navigate difficult situations in the future

Story Secret: A story’s job is to put the pro through tests that, even in her wildest dreams, she didn’t think she could pass


No one would have crossed to ocean if he could have gotten off the ship in a storm

Charles Kettering


The author places a fictitious character in a hypothetical situation

in an otherwise real world where facts and laws hold and allows the reader to explore the consequences.


Rules for making your character’s life hell:

1. Don’t let your characters’ admit anything they aren’t forced to even to themselves
2. Do allow your pro to have secrets, just force them to divulge.
3. Do ensure everything the pro does to remedy the situation makes it worse.
4. Do make sure everything that can go wrong does.—ease off and then hit with a wallop
5. Do let your characters start risking a dollar but end up betting the farm
6. Everything must be earned— and it has to cost dear. Pro has to work for everything he gets often in ways he didn’t anticipate. Only things that come easy are the things ultimately harmful to him.
7. Do encourage characters to lie.
8. Do bring in the threat of a clear, present and escalating danger—can’t be nebulous, must be there and well defined. A ticking clock is always useful
9. Make sure your villain has a good side.
10. Do expose your character’s flaws, demons, insecurities


Hero is a hero

by doing extraordinary go to lengths that are unnatural, facing some inner conflict that seems indomitable.

Stories let us mark how close to the edge we can go without falling over


10 The Road From Setup to Payoff

Cognitive Secret: Since the Brain Abhors Randomness, its always converting raw data to meaningful patterns, the better to anticipate what might happen next

Story Secret: Readers are always on the lookout for patterns: to your reader, everything is either a set up, a pay off, or the road in between.


the most basic way to get someone’s attention

--Break a pattern. The brain is a born cartographer.

A broken pattern means the analogy they thought they had figured out was incomplete or incorrect, and so dopamine starts firing to find the correct answer.

the solution, once revealed, must seem inevitable


Rules of the Setup—payoff highway

Must actually be a road— can’t find out about a problem the moment it has been solved.

Reader must Be able to see the road unfold—must be fleshed out, seeing the threat come closer and closer.

Payoff must not be impossible— even an aborted plan must make sense. Need to make sure you aren’t inadvertently leaving patterns for readers that you didn’t intend.


10 Checklist:

Any Inadvertent set ups?

IS there a clear pattern that begins with a setup and ends in the payoff?
Do the dots build?
Is the payoff for each setup logistically possible.


11. Meanwhile, Back at The Ranch

Cognitive Secret: Brain Summons Past memories to evaluate whats happening in the moment to make sense of it

Story Secret: Foreshadowing, flashbacks and subplots must instantly give readers insight in the main storyline, even if the meaning shifts as the story unfolds.


Each time a conflict peaks,

you want to back off a bit to give the reader time to take it in, process it and speculate on implications. which is where subplots come in.

reader trusts the side road subplot because he thinks he will come back with more info than he started with.

mirror microcosm or dovetail, element of the main story


Subplot jobs:

1. Supply info that affects what happens in the main storyline—
2. Make the pros quest that much harder
3. Tell us something that deepens our understanding of pro, theme


Flashback—cause and effect

Only reason to go into flashback is that, without the info it provides, what happens next won’t make sense.
This cause needs to be clear from the second the flashback begins. need to know how it relates to the main story
When the flashback ends, the info it provided must immediately affect how we see the story from that point on. Needs to be necessary for the story to make sense in the future.


Extraordinary ability Plants:

1. Have the ability to, because we’ve seen them in action.
2. Haven’t seen them do it, but enough tells have happened along the way.


11. Checkpoint:

Do all your subplots affect the pro, either externally or internally, as he struggles?
When you leap into a subplot or flashback, can the reader sense why it was necessary at that moment
When returning to the main storyline, will your reader see things with new eyes from that moment on
When the pro does something out of character, has it been foreshadowed
Have you given the reader enough info to understand what’s happening, so that nothing a character says or does leaves her wondering whether they’ve missed something?


12. Writer’s Brain on Story

Cognitive Secret: It takes long term, conscious effort to hone a skill before the brain assigns it to the cognitive unconscious

Restak: We decrease accuracy and efficiency by thinking too hard.
Story Secret: There’s not writing, only rewriting


Reality Check: every scene

What is actually going on objectively
What does each character believe is going on
What are the contradictions?
Given what each character believes is true, how would they act in the scene?
Does what each character does in the scene make sense, given what he or she believes is true?


Hemingway: Work every day. No matter what happened the day or night before, get up and bite on the nail.



Feedback Questionnaire:

What do you think is going to happen next?
What do you think the important characters are?
What do you think the characters want?
What, if anything, leaps out as a setup?
What information did you think was really important?
What information were you dying to know?
What did you find confusing?


successful writers follow the damn rules, aren’t rebels