Peggy Bechko: It’s the Story

Peggy Bechko nails it. Again:

As a writer I’m fascinated by the way the brain works, aren’t you?

Just the other day I read that when a story hooks a reader (and I’m a reader as well as a writer) it isn’t the woderful play of words, the gripping characters, the on-the-money dialog or even the vivid images that grabs the brain.


It’s the curiosity, the desire all us human have to find out what happens next. That feeling of pleasure we all get is actually a rush of dopamine. Whee. So, when it all gets boiled down, it’s story that captivates the brain.

Cool, huh? Especially since we write stories. Your English teacher was wrong. It isn’t the words, the wonderful way the writer plays them, that hook the reader, it’s the STORY.

Surprise, surprise.

Okay then, so how do we work with that? Well, there are a whole lot of facets but I’ll touch on two of them.
First, no matter what you write – novels, screenplays, short stories – everybody has goals, schemes, an agenda to accomplish. People, it seems, are wired to be goal driven. It’s so deeply embedded that the reader, one reading a novel or one reading your script, wants to know, what does your ‘hero’ want? Why does he want it and of course what does he have to do and overcome to get to where he wants to be? What internal issue does he have to grapple with?

That question is immediate. Really – something you have to get out there right away. Maybe not in the first sentence, but pretty darn soon after it.


Since we’re so goal-oriented and we love story (the words are nice, but the story is the meat), everything that happens in the story you write is underpinned and emotionally invovling because the reader is wrapped up in whether what’s happening is moving that hero closer to his goal or further from it.

So you have to get that goal out there from the beginning. If your reader doesn’t have a clear picture of what the goal is, he or she has no way of knowing what the accumulation of any series of events addes up to. Then the story bogs down. Without a goal the rest of your story is pretty much without meaning.

And the second thing I’ll mention is conflict. You’ve probably been beaten over the head with this – you need conflict. Yes, at your day job you need to work well with others. You need to get along. You don’t want to fight with your spouse and you get tired of the battles with your teenagers.

Yep, we’re trained from an early age to avoid conflict and because of that being stapled into our brains conflict frequently (well almost always really) makes people uncomfortable.

You and me.

And everybody else.

Writers, especially newer writers, frequently avoid dropping the hero into a really nasty situation and instead sort of creep up on it and then quickly rescue him before things really get good (or bad, actually).
In reality the dirty little secret readers harbor in their brains is they’re coming to the book or the movie to live a bit vicariously. They want to experience conflict. They want to take those risks and get out of their comfort zones. They want to examine the possible cost of those risks, emotionally and every other way, and what might be gained through the risk-taking.

It’s escape. It’s fun.

That means the writer has to take him or herself out of that comfort zone first. You have to be mean to that hero you’ve created with all his little quirks (snakes! I hate snakes!) and make him confront his demons, get beaten to an emotional pulp, and finally emerge victorious.

Hey, it’s for his own good.

Probably for the readers’ as well.

Go ahead, try and tell me thats not why you go to the movies or read a book.