Most communication involves storytelling. According to the “Godzilla of Persuasion” himself, Robert Cialdini, communication itself evolved more to persuade than inform. It makes sense, right? Even in the “lower” animals, why do you think males make courtship displays? It’s not to relay information. There is a story involved – an attempt at persuasion. On a related note, do you remember those old pickup artist sites from 2005-2009 telling men how to become better storytellers? That’s because you always have stories to tell – about yourself, your product, and so on. If your stories don’t connect with people and make them want to find out more, you will be less successful than you should. This is where Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story comes in.
Lisa Cron is an experienced writer and editor in the entertainment business. Wired for Story reflects that, as it is mainly for fiction writers. Yet, it will be useful to you no matter what you’re doing. This book is based on brain science and makes you aware of all the irrational, instinctive judgments people make when looking at new information. I can’t say enough good things about it. Let’s just dive into some of the best parts.
What Constitutes “Good Writing?”
Immediately, Wired for Story challenges the layman’s assumptions about what good storytelling actually is. It isn’t necessarily being able to write (or sing?) like Homer, with his brilliant use of verbs and metaphors. It is first and foremost writing in a way that makes people want to stick around to see what happens next. You don’t have time to lose. Especially in the age of screen-reading, you have less than a minute to capture attention.
Point being, you can use beautiful and even compelling language, but if it isn’t linked to catching and keeping attention, your effort will be wasted. There has to be a reason for the use of that language. For example, Homer uses one of his most beautiful passages at the end of book 8 of the Iliad:
And so their spirits soared as they took positions down the passageways of battle all night long, and the watchfires blazed among them. Hundreds strong, as stars in the night sky glittering round the moon’s brilliance blaze in all their glory when the air falls to a sudden, windless calm…all the lookout peaks stand out and the jutting cliffs and the steep ravines and down from the high heavens bursts the boundless bright air and all the stars shine clear and the shepherd’s heart exults – so many fires burned between the ships and the Xanthus’ whirling rapids set by the men of Troy, bright against their walls. A thousand fires were burning there on the plain and beside each fire sat fifty fighting men poised in the leaping blaze, and champing oats and glistening barley, stationed by their chariots, stallions waited for Dawn to mount her glowing throne.
Beautiful, right? …But there is, as Lisa Cron would say “a story reason” why he used those words. Homer is no mere exhibitionist. He doesn’t use this language for flippant reasons, as we see immediately at the start of book 9:
So the Trojans held their watch that night but not the Achaeans – godsent panic seized them, comrade of bloodcurdling Rout: all their best were struck by grief too much to bear. As crosswinds chop the sea where the fish swarm, the North Wind and the West Wind blasting out of Thrace in sudden, lightning attack, wave on blacker wave, cresting, heaving a tangled mass of seaweed out along the surf – so the Achaeans’ hearts were torn inside their chests.
Distraught with rising anguish, Atreus’ son went ranging back and forth, commanding heralds to sound out loud and clear and call the men to muster, each by name, but no loud outcry now. The king himself pitched in with the red heralds, summoning troops. They grouped on the meeting grounds, morale broken.
Out of this meeting, the Achaeans resolved to send an embassy to Achilles to plead with him to return to the front line. This was the “story reason” why these scenes took place with that language. Each scene followed the other in logical sequence:
- The Trojans, exultant, took position, looming ominously over the Greek camp.
- The Greeks, routed and desperate, resolved to make amends with their best warrior.
The similes simply served to beautifully buttress this grim situation for the Greeks, showing us the urgency (a word you’ll find a lot in Wired for Story) of getting Achilles back into the fighting line.
It all relates back to the Iliad’s story question which I posed last week: “will the greatest Greek warrior recover his honor, and if so, at what price?”
These two scenes would seem to answer in the affirmative, but we know the story wouldn’t be over yet!
This is good writing and is what such language should be used for. In fact, Wired for Story starts with this because it’s so important. Lisa Cron is emphatic that you need to start, on the very first page, with something, related to the story question and concept, that will profoundly change the protagonist:
Is something happening, beginning on the first page? Don’t just set the stage for later conflict. Jump right in with something that will affect the protagonist and so make the reader hungry to find out what the consequence will be. After all, unless something is already happening, how can we want to know what happens next? (pg. 22)
Homer does that with his very first lines: “Rage goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son, Achilles.” In fact, I pointed out the excellence of this technique here years ago.
You’ll find that just by this chapter alone, Wired for Story will increase your confidence for any project you need to do.
Your Protagonist/s’ External and Internal Issues
Two chapters in Wired for Story go into the subject of your protagonist/s. There, Lisa Cron talks about two separate things – your protagonist’s goal and inner issue, and how these two things must conflict to create the required tension for a good read:
In a story, plot-wise, what all other considerations bend to is the protagonist’s external goal. Sounds easy enough, until you add the fact that what her external goal bends to is her internal issue – the things she struggles with that keeps her from easily achieving said goal without breaking a sweat. As we’ll see throughout, this internal struggle is what the reader came for, whether he’s conscious of it or not. The driving question is: what would it cost, emotionally, to achieve that goal? (pg. 68)
When we look at the Iliad, we see that Achilles’ external goal is to recover his lost honor, but this comes at the price of Patroclus’ death. The loss of his best friend enrages him far more than Agamemnon’s insults, and this shattering loss hints at his inner issue, arguably his true goal. He accepted that he would die in exchange for kleos – undying glory – but wanted Patroclus to survive the war. Zeus and the strong force of fate gave him kleos but denied him this, all stemming from his own stubbornness. This is the tragedy of the Iliad.
In my upcoming The Red War, each protagonist has the same external goal – preventing their world from being absorbed into an off-world, post-human borg, but the way they approach this goal is different, each according to their own inner issues.
For one character, Hector Turenne, his external goal seems to be only to survive and later, be a good officer. But his real goal, which had been plaguing him since long before the Earthlings came, is to prove himself as a worthy, honorable man, and claim his masculine center. To do that, he has to not only survive, but command respect by overcoming progressively bigger fears. He had long hesitated to assume that responsibility (a key theme in the book), preferring to take the easy road.
War has a way of making that harder, but not impossible to do, as you’ll see. And sometimes, it is not always possible to command respect from everyone important to you at the same time, as Hector sees through the war and his conflicting responsibilities involving it. Safe to say, your commanding officer, and the man who had become your father-figure, might have one set of expectations for you. Then there’s a woman you have a candid and important, but nebulous, turbulent relationship with. She’s become an important political figure during your time with the army, and now she’s counting on your presence to help her with her own vital, secret anxieties as she tries to piece together a broken world.
Who do you go with when the enemy’s movements, at a crucial time, demand you make a decision?
This is what Lisa Cron means in Wired for Story when she talks about external and internal desires conflicting.
Wired for Story: Conclusion
Those are only two parts of Wired for Story. There are many more that are well worth reading. While Wired for Story is mostly for fiction writers, you will, again, get a lot out of it even if you just need to write for business. The same rules apply. You need to make your readers interested in what happens next. “Digressions are deadly.” Each report comes with a certain point of view you need to make your writing adhere to.
When it came to my own Red War story, Wired for Story instantly made me aware of what I realized but could somehow not grasp. I’m relieved to say that it instinctively adhered to many of the conventions of Wired for Story (that episode of Hector’s arc above is just one of them), but I now know exactly what’s necessary to make it truly ready for prime time. Wired for Story gave me the confidence to dive in again, rather than get stuck in analysis paralysis. I hope to bring The Red War to you in the coming year – but there’s no guarantee. Wired for Story tells you that the rewriting process will take as long as it takes, a commandment which I’ve long agreed with.
In this sort of business, there’s no substitute for quality. You take however long you take, provided you keep putting the effort in and don’t use it as an excuse for laziness.
Wired for Story is there to help you make your projects engage with the human brain. Whether you’re just getting started or you need to rewrite something important (for work or otherwise), Wired for Story will help you. I can’t recommend it enough.