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Wired for "Wired for Story" -- by Allen Tiffany

I believe we live in a universe governed by laws of causes and effects even though we don’t yet fully understand all the causes and all the effects. When it comes to art, in particular, it is immensely difficult to know what cause will result in which effect. So it is tremendously difficult in the realm of words to know which sentence, which metaphor, which plot device will resonate with a majority of your targeted genre’s readers. Though we don’t know these things with precision, I do believe that there are quantifiable causes and effects in play. 

Wired for Story is Lisa Cron’s assertion that we do in fact have (some) science in the realm of writing that enables us to understand the causes and effects of good story telling.

I’ve not heard much of this book, but it is well reviewed on Amazon, and the start intrigued me, so I thought I’d give it a look. I, too, have given it 5 stars, but not without a few reservations. Let me explain…

Cron’s thesis is this: “…our neural circuitry is designed to crave story. The rush of intoxication a good story triggers … makes us willing pupils, primed to absorb the myriad lessons each story imparts. This information is a game changer for writers. Research has helped decode the secret blueprint for story that’s hardwired in the reader’s brain, thereby lifting the veil on what, specifically the brain is hungry for in every story it encounters.” The intent of her well-documented book is to share with aspiring writers this secret blueprint.

Heady stuff, no? Finally, a “blueprint” that will ensure we can write a story that our target audience will find compelling.

Too good to be true?

Too good to be true.

It is not so much that I don’t think a blueprint might exist, or that she does not share a long list of references to substantiate her argument. Rather, what she shares is essentially all the conventional wisdom we already know about writing. In this sense, her book is not wrong – on the contrary, I think highly of it – but it does not offer a new blueprint. Its strength is that it is a concise summary of many lessons learned over the centuries that we writers need to keep in mind to keep our readers engaged. Cron provides some scientific evidence to explain why these things matter to readers, but most of it is so self-evident that it does not need science for validation.

Though she writes well with an engaging and at times flippant style, I found the book to be somewhat episodic, especially the later chapters, as if each chapter were a stand-alone entry.  There is nothing wrong with that, but it is inconsistent with the notion of an integrated blueprint.

Again, I think highly of the book and have already reread some potions of it. Here are just a few of the many nuggets I find of value with a few thoughts of my own:

“I love a beautifully crafted sentence as much as the next person. But make no mistake: learning to ‘write well’ is not synonymous with learning to write a story. And of the two, writing well is secondary.” – I aspire to great sentences, but have reluctantly come to believe that she is right about this. I do fear, though, that some writers will infer that they can be lazy with their writing, which is a mistake. Good stories are further elevated by great writing.

“A story is designed, from beginning to end, to answer a single overarching question.” – I agree, though there are times when I find such efficient writing so direct that it is almost like reading a business report. Though we do read a story to find out what happens, if that was the only purpose in reading, there would be no novels. All stories would be concise summaries, simple explanations of conflict and resolution. I think most of us would agree that part of the joy of reading is going along for the ride, becoming emotionally engaged in the story, going to places we have never been before and enjoying the journey as much as the resolution.

“…everything in a story gets its emotional weight and meaning based on how it affects the protagonist.” – I agree with this one, and a smart observation. I’ve been thinking of this one as I have been proofing my recent work.

“…the less you tell us how to feel, the more likely we’ll feel exactly what you want us to.” – Totally agree. Present the story. Let the reader develop his or her own emotional response.

“A protagonist without a clear goal has nothing to figure out and nowhere to go. [Without it] the things that happen will feel random.” – Yes, but… Sometimes a bit of random helps fill out the story and keeps it from becoming too linear.

“A story is about how the plot affects the protagonists.”—Another interesting assertion I need to think about some more, though it feels right.

“Feel fist. Think second. Story takes the horror of a huge, monstrous event – the Holocaust – and illustrates its effect through a single personal dilemma – Sophie’s Choice.” – I agree. Very much so.

“By defining your protagonist’s internal and external goals, then pitting them against each other, you can often ignite the kind of external tension and internal conflict capable of driving an entire narrative.” – Let’s talk about this one in more detail…

Among all the other insights she shares, Cron puts great emphasis on internal and external conflict; she argues that the more conflicted the more compelling the story. She makes light of an internal goal of survival (and external forces that want your protagonist dead) because we all want to live. I don’t agree with her on this one. 

I’ve heard this line of reasoning many times over the years, and I’ve never been able to fully convince myself that the only path to a great story is resolving a conflict between internal and external desires. For instance, though I might get an argument on this one, I don’t think Paul Atreides of Dune was internally conflicted. He spent most of the novel trying to stay alive and reconciling how to behave and what to do as he gained power and insight. Ripley, in “Aliens”, knew very well what she wanted to do without any internal conflict at all: She wanted to save herself and a little girl from a horrific death at the hands (so to speak) of the alien matriarch. Katniss Everdeen never seemed internally conflicted to me, either. And having read a number Clancy’s books, I can’t think of a single character that had a conflict between their internal and external desires. So I think Cron is too fast to dismiss survival as a credible goal for a character. It is not the only theme, but I think it a powerful one.

Cron has a background that includes television, and in her book and online bio talks about what she has learned from television ads, how they hook us and appeal to us emotionally. These are important things for writers to understand, but this background has not only fueled her thinking on how stories are constructed, I suspect it also drives her to want to make stories as efficient as possible. Television and movie production costs can be tens of thousands of dollars a minute, so efficiency is critical. I’m not convinced that writing needs to be just as efficient.

Discounting these quibbles, Cron’s book is well worth reading for writers who wish to hone their storytelling skills, and to enjoy a number of other insights about the craft. So though I was wired to latch on to a “blueprint” for writing stories,this is not it. I encourage all writers of fiction to check it out on Amazon via the “Look Inside” feature. It will provide you with enough to get a good sense of her writing style and her line of reasoning. Alternatively, you can watch this 17 min video to get a summary of her thesis:  If you enjoy the video, consider the book. Though the video summarizes her thesis, it is only a small part of all the gathered knowledge she shares in Wired For Story.

Wired to disagree? Share your thoughts.


Tiffany’s first novella, which went through CritiqueCircle early this year, was published in March and has made it to #6 and #9 on a few of Amazon's (more obscure) “Bestseller”  list. His next novel is embarking on its second trip through CritiqueCircle. You can find it here. He hopes to publish it in early 2016. 

Posted by Allen Tiffany 5 Jan 2016 at 01:11
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Responses to this blog

Blandcorp 5 Jan 2016 at 07:33  
Great, one more blue-print book to add to my to-read list, along "Save the cat!"

At this point, I wish we'd get a new kind of literature on writing— how to use these templates. "Well duh, you just apply them"— I don't think it's that simple.

I share your reservations about the advice you highligthed. I might disagree that Ripley is entirely without inner conflict, for example, but her inner conflict really isn't that important for why Aliens worked, and why Ripley became so iconic. There really is more than one way to write a good story. On the other hand, I'm willing to believe that the templates being brandished about by the likes of "Save the cat!" or "Wired for story" do in fact work, for the most part.

So am I, as a writer, now to take such a template, fill in the gaps via a process of brainstorming, and chuck the resulting story onto the public? I'm sure this works, I'm sure it's been done, and I'm sure you can tell where. Those things that feel lifeless and "designed by committee", to appeal to the largest target, and hence ultimately bland, those are the results I believe come from this approach.

I'm an Engineer, with affinity for Mathematics and rigor, and even I believe all good stories crop up organically, more or less of their own accord, from the writer's mind. It's the flaws— in terms of lulls, misplaced climaxes or ignored perspectives— that templates such as "Save the cat!"'s might fix. Basically, at least in my opinion, you should already have a story when you reach for the template. And sometimes you need to be brave enough and defend your story when it doesn't quite fit on that Procustean bed. But the templates can be useful to show you where your story could be improved, and how. For what it's worth.

Other opinions I'm sure are available, and I'm eager to hear from the many of you with more experience.


Trevose 6 Jan 2016 at 07:57  
Hey Blandcorp, thanks for the feedback. I've actually read what you wrote several times. I find it insightful and thoughtful.

Without repeating all that you or I said, I think you are spot on when you say Those things that feel lifeless and 'designed by committee', to appeal to the largest target, and hence ultimately bland, those are the results I believe come from this approach... and [a story's] flaws? in terms of lulls, misplaced climaxes or ignored perspectives? that templates such as "Save the cat!"'s might fix.

I think every writer (or artist, for that matter) is constantly torn between feeling like they must follow established templates and grammar rules versus being both smart enough and confident enough to write their own way and tell their own story. The trick is to tell it while abiding just enough of the paint-by-numbers templates and rules to ensure their art is decipherable in such a way that their readers can find it emotionally engaging without getting lost and confused and eventually putting it down.

It's extremely hard to write so well and only a few have done so. As an aside, I doubt it even has much to do with being on bestseller lists. I'm not sure if it takes a touch of insanity, or genius, or divine intervention to really get a writer to such a point. I do think, though, that by accident or through study, great writers have largely internalized the various templates and rules and use them to their advantage because they know readers expect them. So sometimes these accomplished writers give the reader what he or she is expecting. And sometimes they manipulate the reader's expectations that have been set by so many "bland" books that have come before that were written to a given template.

So I think you were very much on target with your last paragraph, too. Story wins out, which Cron will also tell you. Oddly, though, there are really only so many stories in the world. A chapter in her book I did not cover was her discussion about "themes". It is a topic I don't fully understand, so I did not speak to in the review. But I have been pondering it more of late as I look at my own work. I keep asking myself, 'If I pull away all the words, and I was going to describe my story in one sentence that spoke to the emotional story — not the plot — what would that one sentence be?' I think this is getting to the theme, and if I can get that right, then I can wrap all the words around it, and use such templates as these to tell the story I want to tell in a way readers will find engaging.

In short (now that I've written such a long response), studying and coming to understand such templates is important but only inasmuch as it enables more creativity and experimentation in your story telling, not less. This is where my head is.
Redwyvern 6 Jan 2016 at 11:13  
"'learning to ?write well? is not synonymous with learning to write a story. And of the two, writing well is secondarys.'"

From my understanding, I see this line as a difference between study and praxis. I might have studied English for four years, but it doesn't mean that I'm going to produce the next best seller. With practice, I would be able to some like that in the near future.
Rellrod 8 Jan 2016 at 22:48  
I wouldn't quite say that it's the difference between study and praxis. I took the quoted line more as pointing to the difference between prose style or language on the one hand — the 'micro' aspects so beloved of English teachers — and story construction or overall structure on the other, the 'macro' aspects.

On that point, I'm about half in agreement. I have no use for torrents of clever prose that fail to add up to a story. But on the other hand, the stories I come back to tend to be ones that not only are structured well, but also are so well-written (at the micro level) that practically every paragraph is worth savoring.

A lot of good points and thought-provoking ideas in Cron's book, obviously. One nit I can't resist picking: it seems to me she's on thin ice when she jumps to the conclusion that our "neural circuitry" is what makes us crave story. I doubt that anyone has nailed that craving down to specific neurological facts; I think it's far more complicated than that. The "neural" reference gives her observations a nice veneer of scientificness, but to my mind she'd have to get through a heavy barrage of skepticism to really make good on that claim. (So, as you say, it sounds as if she's offering good advice that's being a bit oversold.)


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