Peggy Bechko: Why We Like Stories – Ask the Brain

fossils by Peggy Bechko

Have you ever sat back and considered WHY we like stories? Why we like reading books, going to the movies, hearing tall tales? This like is universal in that there isn’t a society on earth that doesn’t share stories. Stories, well told, captivate us, draw us in, hold our attention firmly.

But again, why? Sure everyone thinks, it’s fun, it’s entertainment, it gives us escape from our daily lives. But they don’t play a necessary role in our lives today, I mean stories aren’t key to our survival. Things have changed from the way back, right?


The brain is an amazing organ. You can read all about it in a whole lot of places, but not in great detail here. Here we’re going to touch on cause and effect in reading and writing, not brain function.

Writers listen up. If stories are good, we pay attention, and from day one in the ‘way back’ stories gave people an idea of what to hang on to and what to reject. They gave us tools to use to envision the future, to plan for the unexpected, to leap ahead of where we started.

And what makes a reader want to read YOUR story? What makes them enjoy what you put down on paper? Is it your colorful, lyrical language? Your robust and well-drawn characters? Touching dialog? Ummm, probably not.

The brain is curious. It wants answers. Wants to know what happens next.

So, how to create a story that gives them what they want?

Here are a few ways –

Surprise. Surprise is good. Surprise gets everyone’s attention by skipping around the usual expectations. The brain is hard wired to begin figuring out what is going on, like a puzzle. The wiring comes from our general desire to know ahead of time if we’re in danger or possibly about to get a warm hug. And it’s a great idea to start with the opening sentence.

Feel it. That goes along with a post I did a while back – Make ‘em Laugh, Make ‘em Cry. Why are feelings so vital? In everyday life the brain is much more inclined to use emotion than our much touted reason to decide what matters to each of us and what doesn’t. Feelings drive choices. So, if a reader isn’t feeling it won’t be long before he or she isn’t reading.

When you write, write in specifics. We don’t normally think in the abstract, we think in specific images. Think about this. If folks think about love, they don’t think about a vague concept. Instead each person envisions some treasured images that evoke the concept of love. So if, as a writer, you write in generalizations, the reader doesn’t get hooked.

Now, so you won’t accuse me of writing in generalizations I’ll give a quick example.

Take the sentence, The weather was bad. All righty. Bad what? A hurricane, hail the size of baseballs? Blizzard? Dust Storm? Readers love specifics, their brains are wired to.

Give them what they want and they’ll love the writer in you.

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