Our Brains Are Wired For Story

Wired For Story by Lisa Cron was one of the first writing craft books I read. It was published in 2012, just as I was drafting my debut novel. Wired For Story, A Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence was game changing. It caused me to go back and rewrite—a good thing because my book did well on opening day.

I was so inspired by Wired For Story that I contacted Lisa Cron and thanked her. She graciously responded, and that led to Lisa sharing a guest post on my blog at DyingWords. I’ve dug it from the archives and am happy to repurpose it here at The Kill Zone. Hopefully, Wired For Story can have the same effect on others as it did on me.


What would you say if I told you that what the brain craves, hunts for, and responds to in every story it hears has nothing to do with what most writers are taught to strive for? What’s more, that it’s the same thing whether you’re writing literary fiction or a down and dirty thriller?

You’d probably say, prove it. Fair enough.

First, the mistaken belief: From time immemorial we’ve been taught that things like lyrical language, insightful metaphors, vivid description, memorable characters, palpable sensory details, and a fresh voice are what hooks readers.

It’s a seductive belief, because all those things are indisputably good. But they’re not what hook the reader. The brain, it turns out, is far less picky when it comes pretty prose than we’ve been led to believe.

What does the brain crave?

Beginning with the very first sentence, the brain craves a sense of urgency that instantly makes us want to know what happens next. It’s a visceral feeling that seduces us into leaving the real world behind and surrendering to the world of the story.

Which brings us to the real question: Why? What are we really looking for in every story we read? What is that sense of urgency all about?

Thanks to recent advances in neuroscience, these are questions that we can now begin to answer with the kind clarity that sheds light on the genuine purpose of story and elevates writers to the most powerful people on earth. Because story, as it turns out, has a much deeper and more meaningful purpose than simply to entertain and delight.

Story is how we make sense of the world. Let me explain . . .

It’s long been known that the brain has one goal: survival. It evaluates everything we encounter based on a very simple question: Is this going to help me or hurt me? Not just physically, but emotionally as well.

The brain’s goal is to then predict what might happen, so we can figure out what the hell to do about it before it does. That’s where story comes in.

By letting us vicariously experience difficult situations and problems we haven’t actually lived through, story bestows upon us, risk free, a treasure trove of useful intel – just in case.

And so back in the Stone Age, even though those shiny red berries looked delicious, we remembered the story of the Neanderthal next door who gobbled ‘em down and promptly keeled over, and made do with a couple of stale old beetles instead.

Story was so crucial to our survival that the brain evolved specifically to respond to it, especially once we realized that banding together in social groups makes surviving a whole lot easier.

Suddenly it wasn’t just about figuring out the physical world, it was about something far trickier: navigating the social realm.

In short, we’re wired to turn to story to teach us the way of the world and give us insight into what makes people tick, the better to discern whether the cute guy in the next cubicle really is single like he says, and to plan the perfect comeuppance if he’s not.

The sense of urgency we feel when a good story grabs us is nature’s way of making sure we pay attention to it. It turns out that intoxicating sensation is not arbitrary, ephemeral or “magic,” even though it sure feels like magic. It’s physical. It’s a rush of the neural pleasure transmitter, dopamine. And it has a very specific purpose.

Want to know what triggers it?


When we actively pursue new information – that is, when we want to know what happens next — curiosity rewards us with a flood of dopamine to keep us reading long after midnight because tomorrow we just might need the insight it will give us.

This is a game changer for writers.

It proves that no matter how lyrical your language, or how memorable your characters, unless those characters are actively engaged in solving a problem – making us wonder how they’ll get out of that one – we have no vested interest in them.

We can’t choose whether or not to respond to story. Dopamine makes us respond. Which is probably why so many readers who swear they only read highbrow fiction are surreptitiously downloading Fifty Shades of Grey. I’m just saying.

I know that many writers will want to resist this notion. After all, the brain is also wired to resist change and to crave certainty.

And for a long time writers were certain that learning to “write well” was the way to hook the reader.

So embracing a new approach to writing – even though it’s based on our biology, and how the brain processes information — probably feels scary. The incentive to focus on story first and “writing” second, however, is enormous. To wit:

  • You’ll reduce your editing time exponentially because story tends to be what’s lacking in most rough drafts. Polishing prose in a story that’s not working is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
  • You’ll have a 1000% better chance of getting the attention of agents, editors and publishers. Yeah, 1000% is arbitrary, but it’s not far off. These professionals are highly trained when it comes to identifying a good story. They like good writing as much as a next person – but only when it’s used to tell a good story.
  • You’ll have a fighting chance of changing the world – and I’m not kidding. Writers are the most powerful people on the planet. They can capture people’s attention, teach them something new about themselves and the world, and literally rewrite the brain – all with a well-told tale.

Indeed, the pen is far mightier than the sword.

That is, if you know how to wield it.


Lisa Cron is an instructor at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. She has worked in publishing at W. W. Norton, as an agent at the Angela Rinaldi Agency, as a producer on shows for Showtime and Court TV, and as a story consultant for Warner Brothers and Village Roadshow. She lives in Santa Monica, California.

Kill Zoners – What’s your view on brain science and storytelling? Is it something you consider when writing?

36 thoughts on “Our Brains Are Wired For Story

  1. Welcome, Lisa! I’ve actually often thought about how we are hardwired for storytelling, not only in the oral tradition but also in writing, as demonstrated in cave markings and the like. It’s not just human beings who are so blessed, either, as anyone who has ever taken a dog for a walk knows. Every territory mark tells a story. I have never done a deep dive into the subject, however, so I greatly appreciate your introduction to the topic and Garry’s sharing it here. Thank you.

    • Good Thursday morning, Joe. I emailed Lisa to let her know she’d be a star here on TKZ today – she’s probably used to the fame and hopefully she’ll drop by. 🙂

      Being a multi-dog owner over the years, I know what it’s like to follow the south end of a north bound hound. Males, especially, stop all the time to, what my mother called, read the newspaper.

  2. I heard Lisa speak at a NINC conference years ago. I was still a newbie-writer, and her talk made quite the impression. Thanks so much for sharing, Garry. It’s good to revisit the topic, as I’ll soon be starting a new book and I have no clue what the story is going to be yet. But there will be problems for my characters to solve, for sure.

  3. Wow, Garry, great post. And, Lisa, if you’re eavesdropping on our conversation at TKZ today, Wired for Story is one of my favorite craft books, I’ve read it at least twice, and am on a third pass. I keep it on my TBR stack and pick it up during commercials. It’s highlighted and underlined.

    In answer to your questions, Garry, the findings of brain science and story telling line up with our experience of reading, if we stop and consider. This book has motivated me to try to create a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter. It reminds me that I need to drop more dopamine crumbs along the story path.

    Thanks, Garry and Lisa!

  4. Awesome post, Garry! Thanks for repubbing here on TKZ. I do write with a sense of urgency, but not for brain science. I simply write what I like to read. Now it makes sense. 🙂 I would argue, we cannot achieve that urgency without applying craft (characterization, story structure, etc.)

  5. Good morning, Garry and Lisa, and thanks for this thought-provoking article.

    Lisa says that writers “… can capture people’s attention, teach them something new about themselves and the world.” For me, that’s the goal — to make readers reflect on the story and think beyond the end of the book.

    Thanks, Garry, for letting us know about Lisa. I hadn’t heard of “Wired for Story” before, but it’s being added to my treasure chest of writing craft books.

    • And a good morning to you, too, Kay. “Capture attention” is one thing. Holding it is an entirely different challenge. If you have any suggestions, I’m all ears. Make sure you move WFS to the top of your TBR.

  6. Terrific post, Lisa! Garry, thanks for sharing this here. A sense of urgency keeps me reading–I think it’s key to turning the page and continuing. Couple that with attachment that the writer creates for the reader with their characters and their situation, and we’re driven to want to see how it turns out.

    When it comes to my actual writing, I do consider that urgency. When it comes to learning craft, I remind myself that the key to “mastery” is to practice until it’s internalized and I don’t have to consciously strive as hard to create the effect.

    Thanks again for an inspiring and insightful post!

    • You hit the proverbial nail on the head with “practice”, Dale. I often think of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outlier rule of 10,000 hours of practice. In my case, I’ve got a lot more than 10K in writing practice and I’m beginning to wonder if mastery is even on the horizon. Enjoy your day, my book-friend!

      • I’m with you, Garry, on having more than 10K hours of writing practice pace Gladwell, and suspect I’ll never reach it, which gives me another reason to keep writing until my last day. Speaking of days, enjoy yours, too, my friend!

  7. It makes perfect sense from my point of view.

    My OH&S day job involves investigating people and mishaps. So this post made me think about why people take shortcuts on the job. The number 1 cause why people take shortcuts is a trigger decision based on motivations for rewards. People risk their lives in dangerous occupations to save five minutes or to spend their time doing other things than working.

    The correlation is that people don’t want to wait around for reward. My guess is readers want the motivation (s) to come quickly. If you bore them, it affects behavior – behavior then leads to reaction – leading to action to put the book down and walk away.

    I think maybe it’s inherited in all of us, when the author says, “Beginning with the very first sentence, the brain craves a sense of urgency that instantly makes us want to know what happens next.” Therefore, if there is no reward for the reader, then their brain chemistry should nag at them to move on.

    • Exceptionally well put, Ben. You and I have something in common besides being Western Canadian (which, for our US friends, is polar opposite to being Eastern Canadian, but we won’t go there, will we?) I had stint in OH&S which has kept me in a part-time, past-retirement, and stupidly well-paying job of toxicology testing at industrial workplaces – you know – pee in my cup, blow on my hose, lick my swab. Many tests are post-incident safety violations with the leading one being LOTO (LockOutTagOut). I usually ask why it happened and the two answers (often a combination of both) are “my mind was somewhere else” and “I thought I could save time”. Same applies to readers, eh?

      • Yes. It has to be human conditioning, genetics, and environment. I’ve read too many text books in my life to cover it all. My guess is once a reader learns to put a book down there’s a reward for that behavior. They either find another book they like, save money not buying it, or make a different accomplishment. I’m guessing there are endorphins released which helps them remember that giving up can be a good thing.

        Go Oilers. Boo Leafs.

  8. Amen! Yes, there is something innate in humans that seeks or, perhaps better, resonates with stories à la Vogler/ Campbell. This takes place at the “unconscious” level, a misnomer, since there’s reason to believe that part of the brain is also conscious. Jung said, “…The question arises: ‘Has the Unconscious consciousness of its own?’” ~ETH Lectures, Pg 212 ff.
    This part of the brain, call it what you will, is the survival center, deep in the limbic system and associated regions. It enjoys being triggered, whether by seeing a tiger (or imagining it sees one) or by reading Maneaters of Kumaon or by any threat. [Alcohol = a poison = a threat!]
    “It loves that sense of urgency.” Yes, and it loves it a lot more than you do, especially when actual tigers are involved. It also prefers the familiar–rejoice, o ye scribers of series! It has no conscience–exult, o ye authors of erotica! Make it your writing partner, but remind it often that you are in charge.

  9. “Polishing prose in a story that’s not working is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.” Great quote.

    This post is just what the doctor ordered for today (along with pain pills, gentle walking, copious amounts of water, and sleep). I’m tucking this under my pillow for future study.

    Thanks Garry & Lisa!

  10. This is very exciting stuff; thanks for posting Gary. I’m finalizing my latest novel and will start planning the next one soon. And am looking around for maybe something new. And this may help with my process.

    QUESTION (for Gary or Lisa): What’s the difference between Lisa’s three books on the subject? I’m guessing the latest (Story or Die) is for a more general—non-novel-writing—audience, and Story Genius (2016) is an update of Wired for Story (2012). Am I right? I’m going to get one of these. Thanks.

    • Hi Harald – Story Genius is pretty much a remix of Wired For Story. I’ve read both with my red pen and yellow highlighter and recommend that anyone unfamiliar with Lisa’s work should read Wired For Story first, then go through Story Genius. Lisa also has an online course that goes with Story Genius. I wasn’t aware that Story Or Die was published. I just had a quick boo on Amazon and it looks like a second remix.

    • Hey, 10³ thanks for that link, Garry. Consciousness is a puzzlement I hope to crack someday, but it may not be possible. AI, of course, is only simulated intelligence, unrelated to consciousness. It may be that consciousness can only be shared, not created.

  11. I am learning to think of story first—I’m rewriting WiP with that in mind. But by cutting exposition and strengthening action an image, how do I make sure the characters are deep enough?

    • I wish I had an easy answer for this, Nancy. I think a key to characterization is having them do or say something that’s memorable. Let’s open the mic to other Kill Zoners…

  12. Late in commenting b/c I was offline all day yesterday.

    Wired for Story is a terrific book, Garry. Thanks for spotlighting it and reminding me to reread the dog-earred copy beside the bed.

    • Better late than never, Debbie. It really is a must-read fro all writers. My copy isn’t too dog-eared, but it’s carved up with redlines and yellow highlights.

  13. I am so glad I found this post! It has reinforced my own beliefs about good story-telling.
    A bit of background: I wrote my first novel, starting in 2016, at the age of 69. I’d always dreamed of writing seriously but life had always got in the way.
    The only ‘training’ I’d had was a correspondence course a few years back and I naively thought I was ready. The book took me four years to write; I was basically learning the craft as I went.
    The point I’m leading up to is that I’m sooooo glad I never studied creative writing or anything similar on a university or college level. I think it would have ruined my writing voice. What you say about plot and action being more important than ‘good’ writing is spot on. How often do we pick up a book that has won a major award because of the perceived quality of its writing or the standing of its author only to be unable to finish it due to its inability to hold out attention? For me, it’s all too often.
    Good, technically correct, writing can make a good story great, but the reverse isn’t necessarily true. A good premise, a tight plot, strong character interaction, drama, intrigue, tension, etc etc; This is what makes for a good book. Good literary writing can make that good book great. In the wrong hands, however, it can also ruin it.

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