Writing To Attract The Brain

Storytelling is an art. Moreover, writing compelling stories that appeal to an audience, intrigue them, and keep them coming back for more, is a science. Writers today, have a clear advantage over the writers of the past. They have science on their side and can use the power of brain science to write better, compelling stories.

Wired for Story (2012) by Lisa Cron delves into the human brain to understand what type of narratives appeal to the human brain, and how writers can tap into some of the fundamental techniques that can make their readers come back for more!

The Evolution of The Love For Storytelling

Why do humans love stories? 

Stories have been a part of humanity since the beginning. Exchanging stories was the most effective manner of communicating lifesaving information that human ancestors had. Humans thus evolved to pay attention to stories, which was hardwired into the human brain, enabling humans to visualize the future, and even prepare for it.

When a story captivates a person, it is because dopamine, a neurotransmitter gets released in the brain, causing interest and concentration to heighten. This process is also attributed to evolution.

To understand how this process worked, imagine a Stone Aged man telling another how his child ate some red berries nearby and almost died. Hearing this, the second man might have learned how to keep his own children away from those berries and out of danger.

To get a deeper understanding of this evolutionary practice, modern neuroscience helps by stripping it down further. It shows that the brain processes the information in the story like real life and becomes a stimulating learning experience. Such stories teach how to ward off danger without even experiencing it oneself.

Hence, in ancient times, learning that approaching a tiger is dangerous through a story is better than approaching itself and finding out for real. While both, listening to a story and facing reality teaches the same lesson, hearing a story is far less dangerous.

This ability of stories to educate is relevant and endures even today – an ability that modern-day writers can use to their advantage.

Wired for Story (2012) by Lisa Cron
Wired for Story (2012) by Lisa Cron

Focus Filters Out Unnecessary Information

Why does one lose interest in a story?

More often than not, a story without a plot, one that has an aimlessly meandering narrative fails to captivate attention. Furthermore, it is tough to find a good story without a plot.

To create an engaging, great story, it needs to have an explicit focus that consists of the following three factors.

  • The Protagonists Issue: The protagonist needs to have a main desire. In Hamlet, the protagonist’s issue murder of the hero’s father, the investigation surrounding it, and the protagonists need to know what happened.
  • Theme: The theme of the story communicates humanness. The themes in Hamlet would be depression, madness, and sanity.
  • Plot: The third factor is the plot, or the protagonist’s quest to reach a goal. Everything unexpected that leads to Hamlet’s death, surmises the plot.

In a story, all the information needs to adhere to one of the three factors, without any superfluous information. Why?

The human brain gets flooded with about 11 million pieces of information every second! And it is able to process only 5 to 7! Hence, the focus is vital to a story being relevant and providing important information to the brain. Without this focus, the brain struggles to process the amount of information, filter out what is important resulting in a drop in dopamine levels. The brain then loses interest in the story. 

Hence, without a clear focus, Hamlet would have been just a random compilation of facts about Medieval Denmark.

Empathizing With Emotions

The human personality is believed to have two sides. One side corresponds with rationality, reasoning, and decision-making, and the other side corresponds to emotions, intuitions and judgement.

While many think that smart decisions need to stem only from rationality, neuroscience has proved that the emotional side is as important. Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist, studied a man who had a brain tumour. The tumour had rendered the man incapable of feeling emotions. In fact, while he scored high on a number of IQ tests, without his emotional capabilities, he could not make decisions – as simple as choosing a pen – at all.

Hence writers need to be able to satisfy the emotional side of their readers and empathize with them to get engaged in the story. This can be achieved by putting the readers in the protagonist’s shoes so that they can experience, and feel exactly what the protagonist feels.

In order to do this, writers can describe how the protagonist reacts to emotions. For example, describing how the hero paces back and forth in a room describe his anxious state, or how his face turning ghostly pale can describe a feeling of fear.

Another way is to reveal to the reader’s information that the protagonist doesn’t know. For example, a murderer hiding inside his house, as the protagonist approaches it, will give the readers a look into how the protagonist will feel in the near future. Additionally, writers can also use narrators to show the protagonists thoughts and feelings.

A Clear Internal Goal

In order to captivate the readers, a writer needs to give the protagonist a clear goal. 

The mirror neurons in the human brain are responsible for making a story or a situation compelling. For example, a reader reads that the protagonist is fumbling with the keys to open the door, without knowing that there is a murderer inside, the same areas of the reader’s brain get activated if the reader was in the same situation as the protagonist.

How do mirror neurons in the reader’s brain connect with a protagonist’s goal?

If the reader did not know or understand the goal of the protagonist, the reader won’t be able to understand the behaviour, feelings, and emotions the protagonist feels in that situation. While reading, without understanding how the protagonist will feel when he finally encounters the murderer and how will he escape.

Protagonists’ goals can be of two types – internal and external goals. Consider an example. In the movie Die Hard, John McClane’s goal is to stop a gang of terrorists from killing everyone at the Nakatomi Plaza. His other goal is to get back with his ex-wife Holly.

In this situation, stopping the terrorists would be McClane’s external goals, which are goals that need to be completed in the outside world. 

On the other hand, winning his ex-wife back are McClane’s internal goals. A protagonist needs to realize internal goals in order to evolve as a person. These are the goals that readers most identify with and are vital to the protagonist’s story. They should be crystal clear to the readers.

While on one hand, readers won’t really be able to identify with feelings the protagonist feels while fighting terrorists, they will surely be able to identify with personal internal goals of trying to win back a loved one.

External goals are used to make a plot intriguing and exciting. However, they should not dominate the story.

Specifics That Help Readers Engage And Imagine

The human brain has evolved with the amazing ability to mentally create images. That said, images are extremely vital, and stories must have abstract ideas and central concepts.

The images that people mentally create a model of a world wherein they can imagine their actions without any consequences they would face in the real world.

According to Damasio, the entire human consciousness is filled with images, making them crucial to a story. For example, Einstein was able to bring to reality his abstract concept of the Theory of relativity by remembering how he would visualize himself riding a beam of light in his childhood.

For writers, using imagery brings forth an advantage. Generalities do not create specific imagery in a readers mind. A story with too many generalities results in the reader’s brain drifting off, making the story conceptually difficult to grasp. This leads to a drop in the levels of dopamine, and the reader loses interest in the story.

Consider the following pieces of information– 

  1. In the United States, about 2500 people perish in house fires.
  2. David rushed inside his smoke-filled house, finding his mother trapped under the collapsed roof, screaming. As he fought to reach her through the flames, she looked towards him and whispered, “I love you, son.”

Here, the second piece of information helps create an image. The specifics and details given help readers visualize the situation and the reader immediately gets involved in the story. The first sentence, however, being a general fact doesn’t create any imagery, making it difficult for the brain to relate to it.

The Desire To Look For Patterns

The human brain has evolved to look for patterns in places where none exist. In fact, it hates randomness. This evolution took place to break down the complex surrounding world – a useful tool to be able to rapidly predict subsequent actions.

For example, when a cave dweller first saw a mammoth lower its head before charging would have learned that another mammoth is prepared for charging when it lowered its head.

Thus the evolution to seek patterns has an impact on storytelling too. Humans fundamentally assume that everything is the start of a pattern or a setup, and expect the following payoff. Hence everything that signifies an action in the future in a story is a setup.

For example, when Q shows James Bond a number of gadgets, it is a setup for the future action in the story. When Bond uses one of the gadgets against the villain, it is the payoff.

For a story to be effective, the path that links the setup and the payoff should be clear, concise and quick enough. For example, if a setup is introduced at the beginning of the story and reappears only at the fag end of it, the payoff might not be as effective or satisfying enough.

However, when the writer breaks the expected pattern in the story, he can get the readers attention. This is because anything that deviates from the pattern can be shocking and intriguing.

Practising Makes Storytelling Intuitive

The brain functions at its best when it works alongside intuition. For example, when asked how many letters of ‘e’ are there in the word ‘entrepreneur’, the brain immediately tries to visualize the word. Sometimes, when the brain can’t remember the spelling, overthinking tends to decrease its performance.

According to Herbert Simons, the Nobel Laureate, a person takes about 10 years to excel at a subject. After 10 years, the brain internalized about 50,000 bits of knowledge, enabling it to process these bits automatically. One doesn’t need to actively think about them to recall them.

For example, an expert tennis player, after years of practice, can estimate the speed, bounce, and direction of the ball without thinking about it.

How does this connect to writing?

In order to develop the necessary skills for writing a good, compelling story, it has to be rewritten over and over again. Practising writing the story makes it intuitive, thus making the story better with every new draft. Michael Ardnt had reworked the story of Little Miss Sunshine over a hundred times before the final award-winning screenplay was written.

Almost all great novels and stories have been rewritten a number of times. After all, all first drafts are shit!


Writers today have the advantage of brain science to write compelling, intriguing, great stories. Whether it is to understand when and why the brain releases dopamine, how mirror neurons work to make the reader experience the feelings of a protagonist, or how the brain functions best alongside intuition, they need to understand how and why the brain reacts to stories, and use writing techniques that exploit the brain’s manner of processing information.