A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
I was pretty annoying at school. Always the one who mucked around in class and asked awkward questions like ‘what is fire made of?’ and ‘why do equations need to be balanced?’ I was pretty annoying at home too – I once famously dismantled my parents’ typewriter to see how it worked. Only when it lay in pieces around me did I realise I had absolutely no idea how to put it back together again. Valuable lesson learned.
This desire to understand how everything works carried into my reading, and then my writing life. Why do we write stories? Why do people like reading them so much? What are they for? Luckily I came across a spate of books that attempted to answer exactly these questions. The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker, Into The Woods by John Yorke, and Jonathan Gottschall’s excellent The Story-Telling Animal.
But my favourite is the brilliant Wired for Story by Lisa Cron, subtitled The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. With a title like that, you might think it’s a bit dry. Think again.
“Imagine knowing what the brain craves from every tale it encounters, what fuels the success of any great story, and what keeps readers transfixed,” says the blurb. “Wired for Story reveals these cognitive secrets – and it’s a game-changer for anyone who has ever set pen to paper.’ And yes, it does exactly that – opens the lid on what you need to do to keep your readers turning the pages. Pure gold for a thriller writer like me.
Cron, a veteran of both publishing and TV, nails it from the get-go: All fiction can be summed up by the sentence, ‘All is not what it seems’ she says, with ourselves, as readers, opening the first page immediately looking for a reason to care.
What draws us into a story and keeps us there is the signal that intriguing information is on its way, Cron explains. We’re always on the hunt for meaning. “We are always looking for the why beneath what’s happening on the surface. Not only because our survival might depend on it, but because it’s exhilarating. It makes us feel something – namely, curiosity. Having our curiosity piqued is visceral.’
Once your curiosity is roused as a reader, you have an emotional, vested interest in finding out what happens next, she says. “And bingo! You feel that delicious sense of urgency (hello, dopamine!) that all good stories instantly ignite.”
Cron believes that stories allow us to simulate intense experiences without actually having to live through them, evolving as a way to explore our own mind and the minds of others, a sort of dress rehearsal for the future. “That’s exactly why we turn to story – to experience all the things that in life we avoid.” That is what makes stories so deeply satisfying. “We get to try on trouble, pretty much risk-free.”
As writers she reminds us it’s vital we start our story at a crucial juncture in someone’s life. “What intoxicates us is the hint that not only is there trouble brewing, but it’s longstanding and about to reach critical mass.” And conflict must be palpable long before it rises to the surface. “It’s the potential for conflict that gives urgency to everything that happens, underscoring even the most benign events with portent. Indeed, it ripples through the story in the guise of mounting tension, engendering in the reader that delicious dopamine-driven sensation we’re addicted to when it comes to a good tale: suspense, the desire to find out what’s really going on.”
Wired for Story isn’t all theory though – Cron gives us a complete road map for what we should try to achieve when we’re writing – and not just thrillers. Any story. Even the most literary, the most meandering or descriptive. If they don’t arouse our curiosity, we won’t see them through to the end, she says, explaining exactly why you shouldn’t overload your novel with too much backstory or description:
“Merely describing the scenery, the town, the weather – regardless of how well written or interesting it might be in and of itself – stops a story dead in its tracks…we need a story reason to care how ominous the clouds are, how vibrant the city, how quaint the white picket fence.” Every scenery detail should be strategically placed to give insight into your character, your story and even your theme, Cron says, reminding us that scenery without subtext is a travelogue.
Storytelling trumps beautiful writing every time, she warns. “Because, from the very first page, readers are dying to know what happens next. And that’s what matters most. A story must have the ability to engender a sense of urgency from the first sentence. Everything else – fabulous characters, great dialogue, vivid imagery, luscious language – is gravy.”
For me, reading Wired for Story was like feeling the penny drop, over and over again. Most of all, I finally understood that reading is an active rather than a passive activity, and why even guessing a twist is part of the reading experience.
“We have a voracious appetite for setups. We love them because they’re intoxicating; they stimulate our imagination, triggering one of our favourite sensations: anticipation. They invite us to figure out what might happen next, which leads to an even better satisfaction: the adrenaline-fuelled rush of insight that comes from making connections ourselves.” Set-ups seduce us with engagement, she says, making us feel involved and purposeful.
That’s something I try to remember with each novel I write – the experience I’m attempting to give the reader. How can I arouse curiosity, increase that sense of anticipation? How long can I delay giving readers the answers they crave? How can I lead them down different mental pathways, entice them to come to the wrong conclusions? It’s a game, but one with two players, and it’s my job to make sure that it never stops being fun for both.
Emma Haughton grew up in Sussex; after a stint au pairing in Paris and some half-hearted attempts to backpack across Europe, she studied English at university and trained as a journalist. She wrote articles for many of the national newspapers, including regular pieces for the Times Travel section.
Her first fiction was a picture book called Rainy Day, followed by a number of non-fiction books for schools. Her first YA thriller, Now You See Me, was published in 2014 and nominated for the Carnegie and the Amazing Book Awards. Her second, Better Left Buried, was picked by the Sunday Express as one of the best YA reads for 2015. Her third novel – Cruel Heart Broken – was published in July, 2016.