with Guest Jeff Gerke
Hacking Your Reader’s Brain
Do you remember when you weren’t a novelist? Back when you had never heard of point of view or dialogue attributions or show vs. tell? Maybe back when you could enjoy a novel just because…well, maybe you didn’t even know why you enjoyed it. You just did.
Back then, what was it that made you love a novel? Was it seriously that it had strong verbs or very few –ly adverbs? Was it that the author didn’t bury her dialogue? Was it truly because the book had no prologue or that the writer found a number of alternatives to “said” and “asked”?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about strong fiction craftsmanship. I am a big believer in how the art and craft of the novelist can strengthen a novel, and I not only use them myself in my fiction, but I have made a living teaching great fiction craft.
But I have never read an Amazon review (by a non-novelist) that said, “I loved this novel because it had no gerunds!” Or “I would’ve given this novel 5 stars except the author used the word ‘that’ seven times in the opening chapter.” Or “What made me love this book was how the author refrained from referring to floating body parts, maintained a consistent POV throughout, and made effective use of beats to simulate the passage of time.”
Uh…not so much.
What do thrilled readers actually say? They say, “I couldn’t put it down!” and “I felt like I was in the middle of the story” and “I worried about the characters when I wasn’t reading” and “It swept me away” and “I stayed up all night reading it.”
Did you notice? Not a craft comment in the bunch.
The typical reader of fiction doesn’t know—or care—about to-be verbs, weasel words, or whether or not the author introduced the inciting event within the first two pages. The typical reader of fiction wants to be thrilled, carried away, and utterly engaged.
She wants to not be bored.
And if you can remember back to before you knew all those fancy fiction craft terms, you might recall that you wanted that too. Still want it.
It used to baffle me that so many of the novels that became blockbuster sellers were so terribly written. In craft terms, they were junk. I recall throwing a bestseller across the room because it was so hideously crafted. And yet novels with high fiction craftsmanship most often sell poorly. Most often, but not always.
Then it dawned on me: It’s not that novels with low craft are embraced by the typical reader and novels with high craft are disliked by the typical reader. It’s that a book’s success actually has nothing at all to do with its level of craftsmanship.
That’s a hard pill to swallow for a guy who gets paid to teach craft.
So if high or low fiction craftsmanship isn’t what makes or breaks a novel, what is?
To quote the movie I, Robot: “That, detective, is the right question.”
In The Irresistible Novel, my fifth craft book from Writer’s Digest, I tackle this very question. In Part 1, I look at over 100 fiction craft “rules” and discuss what they’re good for, how to use them, when to break them, and how to not be paralyzed when they directly contradict one another.
All of that is setup for Part 2, wherein I look at the only rule of fiction that merits paying attention to much at all. It’s so essential I promoted it from rule to commandment. Indeed, the Great Commandment of Fiction is this: You must keep your reader engaged from beginning to end.
Your reader, you recall, wants to not be bored. Said another way, she wants to be engaged from start to finish.
How do you do that?
Our answer comes from a surprising quarter: neuroscience.
As I researched The Irresistible Novel, I encountered the work of Dr. Paul J. Zak, Professor of Neurology at Loma Linda University Medical Center. Dr. Zak studies the brain chemistry of reader and viewer engagement.
In other words, he studies what makes people become engaged with stories.
It turns out that the brain is doing one thing (or, really, almost nothing) when it is not engaged with a story, and it does something very different when it is engaged. Neurotransmitters like dopamine and adrenaline and GABA are flowing through the brain of an engaged reader. These are the brain chemicals the reader is craving. It’s what we feel when we’re loving a novel and it’s what we don’t feel when we’re not.
The key brain chemical involved in reader engagement is oxytocin. It is the neurotransmitter responsible for empathy. When you’re watching a video of a baby’s first steps and the baby falls and cries, you might say, “Aw!” and make a sad face out of sympathy. That’s your brain on oxytocin.
Your reader wants to feel connected to your protagonist. More than that, in fact. Dr. Zak says, “Your job as the writer is to make the reader become the character in the book.”
You can do that intentionally. You can trigger oxytocin in your reader’s grey matter. Along with adrenaline, testosterone, glutamate, and the rest. All on demand. All in coordination with your story.
You, my friend, are going to hack your reader’s brain.
All of Part 2 of The Irresistible Novel explains how to do this in full, but I’ll give you one key right here.
You connect your reader to your hero by showing the hero being vulnerable. It’s no mistake that almost every Disney child hero is missing one or both parents. When you see a child without a daddy or a mommy, you lean forward in sympathy. You say, “Oh, come here, honey, I’ll take care of you.” You see the person in need, your brain releases oxytocin, and you connect.
Show how your hero is likable. Show how he’s admirable. Show him being generous and standing up to the bully and feeding the kitty. Show how he’s similar to the reader. Show him in hard situations nevertheless trying again and again. Show him being nice to an old lady. All of these endear your hero to the reader.
But your secret weapon is vulnerability. When the girl is standing there in her new dress with her new haircut and her mother’s pearls and she’s ready to give her first kiss, and the boy finally shows up and says, “Seriously, that’s what you’re wearing? Whatever. Get in the car,” you feel it.
You feel her humiliation and disappointment and anger. And you are instantly in with this girl. You will seriously go with her to the ends of the earth in this story. Why? Because she was vulnerable and you leapt into that space of hurt, and now the two of you are one. When she’s holding onto the top of the train for dear life, your palms will sweat.
That’s called transportation, and it is one of three core ways you must hack your reader’s brain and cause her to be engaged with your novel from beginning to end.
To learn the other two core ways, and to find an entire brain chemistry story map, pick up The Irresistible Novel from Writer’s Digest. (Click here to find on Amazon.)
Missy Tippens, here. Y'all chime in and let us know what you think! As a reader, what makes you really feel for the hero? What makes you go all in?
Today, I'm giving away a surprise package to one lucky commenter! To be entered in the drawing, tell me who's one of the most memorable characters you've read and why (and also let me know you'd like to be entered).
Bio: When you’re truly ready to make your fiction publishable, it’s time to call Jeff Gerke. Jeff trains novelists how to better do what it is they’re trying to do. He trains through his books for Writers Digest: The Irresistible Novel, Plot Versus Character, The First 50 Pages, Write Your Novel in a Month, and The Art & Craft of Writing Christian Fiction. He trains through the many writers’ conferences he teaches at all over the country every year. He trained his authors when he ran Marcher Lord Press, the premier publisher of Christian speculative fiction, which he sold after an award-winning 5-year run. And he trains through the freelance editing he does for his clients at www.jeffgerke.com. Jeff is known for his canny book doctoring skills and his encouraging manner, which leaves writers feeling empowered and like they really can do this thing after all. He lives in Colorado Springs with his wife and three children.