The Neuroscience of Storytelling

By Ramona Zacharias • June 17, 2021

It’s a simple question: “How do you write an effective, engaging story?”

In the first of a two-part interview, we spoke with Cron about the neuroscience of storytelling, Breaking Bad‘s brilliant finale, and why pantsing is idiotic.

Tell me about your professional background. What are some of the most common mistakes you saw that led you to write both this book and its predecessor?

I have always loved story my entire life. When I graduated from college I moved to New York and I actually wanted to be a writer – that was my goal. But I didn’t quite have the courage to do it.

So I went into publishing and back in the day, it was where you got the actual manuscript. Working at Norton, I was in the publicity department but was also allowed to be a reader. So I started reading manuscripts and just loved it. I then went to work as an editor at a tiny publishing company in Santa Fe and again read manuscripts and worked with editors.

I also worked in television for a while – in reality TV, before there was reality TV! That was an education in and of itself. The television industry wasn’t for me.

I think that the biggest problem we have when we think of stories is that we think of them as entertainment. They’re entertaining, yes – but they’re entertaining so that they will grab us and put us biologically on time out. They then work their magic in the way that they do, which is to help us navigate reality and put us into other realities. Story being the first virtual reality, minus that geeky visor.

The trouble I found with the entertainment industry was that no matter what you did, when that show ended, you were back at square one again. And it was just so insanely difficult. Because I was working with a company, every time they did something I would go back and work for them again. That was too stressful.

I started working with screenwriters at that point, writing notes. I worked for Warner Bros, writing coverage mostly for book-to-film although scripts also. They had a really great story department in New York, which was where I was living at the time.

The rumor was it was when The Postman tanked that they closed down their New York story department – everybody lost their jobs. The woman who ran the department took every reader she had and found them other jobs. That’s when I started working in the books-to-film department at William Morris, before it was WME. That was amazing and I loved it.

From reading manuscripts for decades, it really started to hit me that what I was looking for and what made a manuscript/story/screenplay successful had nothing to do with what we’d been taught it had to do with. That was what really pulled me in. It had to do with something different, and that led to the realization that even though everybody was making mistakes in their own way, they were all making the same mistakes.

That’s when I started to think about “what am I looking for here, what is it that gives you that sense of ‘I have to know what happens next’?” I started teaching writing at UCLA at that point and working one-on-one with writers, which is a lot of what I do now as a story coach.

I started reading brain science, as neuroscience was exploding at that point. In doing my research for Wired for Story, I realized that my theory was in fact how we process information. There’s science to back it up, and it’s not just “this might be a way to do it” – it is how to do it. That’s what then became Wired for Story.

Wired for Story does break it down, tell you things to look for and things to do…but it’s still general theory to some degree. So the question was: “As a writer, what do you do? How do you go, step by step, and implement this so that you’re sure that you’ve got something from the first page?”

I was speaking at writers conferences and started teaching how to break it down and what to do from the very first crumb of an idea all the way through to the full-fledged project, be it a novel or screenplay or anything else. That then became Story Genius – a step-by-step, “here’s what you need to know going in”.

I think writing is taught wrong everywhere, 100%, and it makes my head explode. Writing and story are taught as if it’s something from the outside in, and it’s not. It’s taught as if it begins on the first page, and it doesn’t.

I know I sometimes say incendiary things, but I would burn every copy of The Hero’s Journey and every narration of every story structure book on the planet if I could. Because I think it leads people so deeply astray. It’s about the shape of something and the shape of things that have already been created.

Story structure books take very popular movies that we’ve all seen and break them down. When you’re looking at the shape of something that you’ve seen, that you know has grabbed you, you’re already supplying the internal story that the plot couldn’t possibly give you.

So then you look at the shape that they’re talking about and think “if I just ape that shape, I’m going to have a story”. Anyone who reads a lot of screenplays know that this is so common. Screenplays are really hard to write – and with many of them, there might be a plot there but there’s no story.

Let’s take an extremely successful show, like Breaking Bad – what were some of the things that Vince Gilligan and his writers did to make the story so appealing, giving viewers that instant “hook”?

I watched every minute of it. But can I talk to you about the one thing that was missing from that show? We never understood what actually happened where Walter got kicked out of the company he started with the wealthy couple. That’s what would have really told us who that guy was and what his misbelief was. What was it that made him not hold on to that?

I could guess ten thousand things, I don’t know which one would be right. It was skated around, implied…and if the answer was there, I missed it. I was waiting for it the whole time and that’s what I think was the biggest flaw of that show.

But I think Breaking Bad had the most brilliant finale of any show I’ve ever seen in my entire life. And it was smart. It brought you all the way around and you knew at the end that he died happy. He’d gotten what he wanted. Vince Gilligan said that he wanted to write a show where the character went from protagonist to antagonist throughout the arc. Walter White did, but there was always a reason why.

I think that the brilliance of that show was you always knew why he was doing what he was doing. And you saw the layers of it. For instance, in the episode where he lets Jesse’s girlfriend die. You see all of the layers of what he’s letting happen. You see it go through on his face.

The writers were so brilliant because they gave you so much information about him. In a novel, we would have been in his head and we would have been hearing it. But movie and TV shows can’t do that.

I think the other thing about Breaking Bad is that you knew every other character so well too. Every other character was created to put Walter through his paces. Even though they were individual people in and of themselves and each one had its own arc, they still were there to force him through this internal transformation that he did take, from that first episode. And you knew what each one cost him.

They also let you empathize with everybody – Tuco, Gus, all of them. You kind of liked everybody on some level. I wish I’d never seen it so I’d have the pleasure of seeing it again for the first time!

In Story Genius you talk about misguided writing methods, like pantsing. How do you work with clients who may be set in their approach to writing and initially resistant to your strategy?

[Pantsing is writing without a fixed outline, and a limited degree of planning.]

I think pantsing is idiotic, honestly. But it’s so prevalent because it feels easy. It feels like that’s how you do it. Writing is taught as if it’s about talent and if you have it and you unleash your creativity, you’ll have a story. It doesn’t work that way. That’s why so many screenplays and manuscripts are god-awful.

I think that writers are taught either pantsing or plotting. And both of them get it 100% wrong, because both of them start on page 1. Both of them start as if what it’s about is the plot and then the plot somehow gives birth to a protagonist. I think there are very few people who can do that well. They’re natural storytellers and they can just sit down and write a laundry list and you’re sobbing over the plight of poorly sorted socks.

Robin Dunbar is an evolutionary psychologist who teaches out of Oxford. He wrote a paper talking about how we all know what a story is. Nobody has to teach you to enjoy a story – you get that from the time you can understand language. So why are there so few good writers?

He called it layers of intentionality, which means that you know what every character within every scene within every story is thinking. What they believe, what their overarching agenda is and how they’re going to react to what happens. You’ve got all of those layers in your head and therefore you can write it into a scene that feels like one thing. You know how scenes are – they feel like one thing is happening. But that’s not the case. It’s the plot, the subplots, the deepening of the character…it’s really several small steps in unison.

That’s hard to do. Even for a lot of people who are naturals – it comes in and out. That’s why you might see a movie or a book where the beginning is great and then suddenly there are these long stretches where you’re waiting for it to pick back up. That’s because the story wasn’t tied to that one single problem that grows, escalates and complicates.

The real problem that’s driving it isn’t the plot problem, it’s the story problem. Which began long before the plot did…which is why pantsing and plotting don’t work. That character arrives on page 1 with what they want, who they are and how they’re seeing things already completely fully formed. That’s what drives everything and is in fact what creates and drives the plot as well. So if you start right there, how do you get anywhere?

But again, writing tends to be taught as if you’re either a pantser or a plotter. Those are your two options – you’ve got one or the other and that’s it. My take is that neither one work.

So I would assume that writing backstory is essential.

100%. Whether it’s in the screenplay or not, it’s what drives everything. My favorite quote is Faulkner’s “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past”.

Think about it in your own life. Think about right now, what you want to do, how you’re evaluating what I’m saying, what your next thing is…all of that came from your past. The way that you’re even responding to what I’m saying came from your experiences. That’s the lens that you’re using to evaluate what I’m saying. What you want, what your driving agenda is.

Stories are about someone who enters with a driving agenda that was there before the plot ever kicked in. Not knowing that is how you end up with a lot of shallow movies. I don’t watch movies much anymore.

Long-form TV is what has grabbed me at this point, because it feels like it’s about something in a way that very few movies seem to be. I’m watching something I’ve seen a million times before and it’s surface stuff. I see what that character’s doing but you’re not giving me a why that gives me information that I don’t have just by looking at the surface and making it up for myself.

Lisa Cron - An accomplished author and story coach, she has just published her second book, Story Genius (subtitle: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel). A manual of sorts, it teaches cognitive storytelling strategies and uses actual brain science to help make its readers into better writers.

Cron’s 2012 book Wired for Story was a breakout hit in the writing community and similarly taught writers how to look at story from a different, science-based perspective. The end goal? A compelling novel (or screenplay) that has a point and captures its audience’s attention from the very first sentence.

A self-proclaimed “evangelist for the power of story”, Cron has worked as a consultant for the likes of Warner Bros, Village Roadshow and the William Morris Agency. Also a teacher and one-on-one coach for writers (be they novelists or journalists), she is an extremely passionate educator.

Ramona Zacharias