3 Key Strategies for Effective Fiction—Derived from Neuroscience

Image: a white porcelain head painted with black lines indicating which areas of the brain control cognitive functions.
Photo by meo

Today’s post is by regular contributor Susan DeFreitas (@manzanitafire), an award-winning author, editor, and book coach. She offers an online course, Story Medicine, designed to help writers use their power as storytellers to support a more just and verdant world.

If you’ve read any of my other posts for Jane’s blog, you’ve probably picked up on the fact that, when it comes to story, I am a total geek.

So it should surprise no one that I am a super fan of the work of story coach Lisa Cron, who’s done so much to explicate the ways that reading fiction—reading stories, period—intersects with what we know about how the human brain works.

If you haven’t read her work, I say, run, don’t walk, to your local bookstore or library (or navigate to your favorite online retailer) to pick up your copy of Wired for Story and Story Genius. Her work has been absolutely pivotal to me as both a writer and a book coach, cutting through the vague and often impractical advice I received in the study of creative writing, revealing what a story actually is and how it actually works.

I’m also a big fan of the work of Lisa Zunshine, who likewise explores fiction through the lens of brain science—but from a different angle, that of the study of literature.

For those of you who haven’t read the work of either of these authors—or who may find yourself intimidated by the science part of neuroscience—I thought I’d provide a few key strategies for fiction writers derived from what we know about the human brain, and the human brain on books.*

1. Reveal vulnerability

The neurotransmitter oxytocin is known as the “bonding chemical” for a reason: It’s released when we make a new friend, fall in love, or even (studies suggest) see an adorably cute little kitten or pup.

The same thing appears to occur when we observe a character in a moment of vulnerability—because sharing intimacies is something we do when we’re involved in the act of social bonding.

Maybe this character puts up a brave front but secretly feels lesser in every way than her best friend (My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante).

Maybe they’ve just lost his mother in a horrible explosion, and his dad is MIA (The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt).

Maybe he’s adopted someone who’s lost their parents in a terrible car crash and has absolutely no idea how to be a parent (“The Would-be Father,” Charles Baxter).

Whatever it is that makes your protagonist feel vulnerable, it’s the same thing that will make us feel for them—and care about their story.

2. Raise questions

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward, as well as memory and learning.

Because, as it turns out, learning things is super adaptive, and helpful in terms of passing on your genes. (Just like sex—which, you know, also feels good. Because science.)

Dopamine is released when we become curious, because that sends a signal to the brain that intriguing information is headed our way. Information that might just reveal something new about the world, and prove potentially useful in our lives. The brain loves to learn, and curiosity sends the signal that learning is about to occur.

That’s why raising questions in fiction is such a strong tactic for getting your reader hooked at the beginning. (What’s that weird look about? Who is that strange man? Why is this character lying?)

It’s also why raising questions is one of the strongest tactics for keeping your reader engaged with the story all the way through: when we’re curious about something, that curiosity compels us to keep turning the pages to find out what will happen next.

3. Use the senses

You know that magical feeling of being transported by fiction—the sense that you’re no longer reading the story, you’re living it?

Basically, when we’re caught up in a story, our brains can’t tell the difference between what the POV character is experiencing and what we’re actually experiencing ourselves—the same way our brains can’t tell the difference between dreams and reality.

This is because of something called mirror neurons, which essentially map an action we’re seeing or reading about, such as running or walking, onto the same parts of our brains that are active when we ourselves are running or walking.

This is why we’re often told to use the senses, and to be very specific when we describe what our characters are doing or seeing in our fiction: because doing so is the secret to getting your reader to map the experience of the POV character into their own brain.

This is especially important when it comes to scene—the place in fiction where the illusion of actually living the story is most complete, and we’re most fully transported into the world of the story.

These three strategies may seem simple, and in many ways they are, but I’ve seen again and again how effective they are in fiction, regardless of genre.

They’re also really useful for those working with story forms that don’t necessarily follow traditional forms—because as long as you do these three things, chances are, you’re going to draw your readers in, keep them engaged, and provide them with a compelling experience.

Now it’s your turn: What is it that makes your protagonist vulnerable?

What questions are you raising at the beginning of your story?

And what are the best strategies you’ve found for really making your reader feel like they’re there, in the world of your story?

* Please note that while I am inspired by the authors noted here, any inaccuracies contained in this article are my own.

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