The Rules of Story

Why the rules of story are even more immutable than the rules of grammar  

Lisa Cron, Writing for
6-minute read
Episode #330


We all know that grammar is utterly necessary. Try to read a book with all the punctuation removed and you won’t make it past the first page. But grammar, like language, is a living breathing entity. That’s what makes it so intoxicating, interesting and at times, maddening. It changes as the culture changes.

Which is why writers may understandably assume that the same concept applies to the rules of story, leaving you free to experiment with which elements of story to use, which to ignore, and perhaps to even make up new elements as the spirit moves you.

Nothing could be further from the truth. While the rules of grammar continually evolve, the rules of story do not. They’re fixed, because they stem from the way our brain has evolved. They’re hardwired into the architecture of our very humanness.

And here’s something surprising: the rules of story are often the opposite of what writers think they are. Which is no doubt what prompted Flannery O’Connor to note, “I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.”

After all, our brain responds to a story like a duck to water—we instinctively know a good story when we hear one. Why? Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience reveal that our brain is wired to respond to story because story is necessary to our survival—it’s how we make sense of the world. A story is a simulation. It allows us to envision the future, and so plan for it. Thus our brain gives us a reward for paying attention to stories: that delicious dollop of dopamine that fuels our desire to know what happens next.

But when it comes to creating a story, we often believe that what matters most is the writing—luscious language, intriguing dialogue, vivid descriptions, compelling characters. It’s not. Those things are great, but they’re gravy. What matters most is that they’re harnessed to a story that meets the brain’s hardwired expectations.

So, what are the brain’s hardwired expectations when it comes to story? Here are seven immutable rules:

1. All stories make a point, beginning on page one. A story is designed, from beginning to end, to answer a single overarching question, which complicates as the story progresses. After all, a story is a simulation—it captures our attention because it allows us to vicariously experience what it would be like to navigate a challenging situation. Which means we need to have an idea of what that situation is from the get-go. It’s like when your friend is rambling on about something that happened yesterday, and you nod and smile politely while a little voice in your head screams, “Okay, okay, but what’s your point?” Same with a story. Think of your story’s point as the context that allows the reader to gauge what things are adding up to.

2. Story is about how someone solves a problem, which is another way of saying story is about change. But here’s the fine print: change results only from unavoidable conflict. Because no one – you, me, or the guy next door—changes unless we’re forced to. Think about it. We swear we’re definitely going to start looking a new job—tomorrow. Which is code for about a week from never. Until one day we show up for work and the door is padlocked, the factory closed, and guess what? It’s tomorrow! In other words, a story’s job is to shove protagonists into the fray, where they find out what they’re really made of. It’s like that great JFK story. When asked what made him a war hero, he replied, “I didn’t have a choice. They sank my boat.”

3. All story is emotion based. Neuroscience has proven that, as Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert says, “Feelings don’t just matter. They are what mattering means.” In life, if we’re not feeling, we’re not conscious. In a story, if we’re not feeling, we’re not reading. The question is What are we feeling? The answer is The reader feels what the protagonist feels. The protagonist is our surrogate—our avatar—in the world in which the story unfolds.  Can you see the fine print in this one? It means that the protagonist had better be affected by everything that happens and react in a way the reader can see.

4. Story is not about the plot; it’s about how the plot affects the protagonist. This means that everything in a story gets its meaning and emotional weight based on how it affects the protagonist in pursuit of his or her quest. You can have a dramatic event in a story, and we’re talking birth, death, or the fall of the Roman Empire, but if it doesn’t affect the protagonist—if it doesn’t matter to her—then it doesn’t matter to the reader, either. Drama for its own sake means nothing.

5. Story is about an internal journey, not an external one. In other words, a story isn’t about the external events that unfold, it’s about the internal changes the protagonist must make, given those events, in order to achieve his or her goal. At the end of the day, what your reader is aching to know is What would it cost someone emotionally to do that? What would it gain them?

6. Everything in a story must be there solely on a need-to-know basis. When your brain focuses on something, it filters out all unnecessary information, the better to concentrate on the task at hand. And since about 11,000,000 pieces of information bombard your five senses every second, your brain does a pretty good job of it. In a story, that’s your job as writer. Because as far as readers are concerned, there’s a story-reason for everything you tell them, or you wouldn’t waste their time mentioning it. The problem is that the brain is wired to read meaning into everything, so if you throw in something that might be beautifully written, but that doesn’t have an effect story-wise, readers will try to read meaning into it anyway. And when that doesn’t work? The rush of dopamine that kept them riveted dries up, and they decide to see what’s on TV.

7. In a story, everything that can go wrong, must go wrong—and then some. It helps to think of a story as that annoying schoolyard bully who always taunted, “Oh yeah? Prove it!” The purpose of a story is to allow your reader to learn from experience—namely, your protagonist’s. Which means that as writers, it helps to be a little bit of a sadist. Because your protagonist has to earn her victory, nimbly snatching it from the jaws of defeat. And the only way she can do that, is if you construct a plot that forces her to face things she’s probably spent her whole life trying to avoid. This is what the reader comes for – to find out what it would really feel like to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, you know, just in case. 

And lest it sound as if I’m speaking metaphorically when I talk about the reader “feeling” what the protagonist feels, here’s something to think about. Recent brain imaging studies show that when we’re lost in a good story, the same areas of our brain light up when we read about something happening to the protagonist, as light up when we actually experience it ourselves. Story is the world’s first virtual reality, and as neuroscience reveals, we have the hardwiring to prove it. Of course, it also helps immensely to get the punctuation right.

Lisa Cron is the author of the new book Wired for Story. I loved this book; it was overflowing with practical information. Get it or find out more at WiredForStory.com.

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Still Life (35mm) - Typewriter image, Tyler Nienhouse at Flickr. CC BY SA- 2.0.