Exactly what does that catchy little phrase actually mean?
Your reader is biologically wired to respond to your protagonist’s inner struggle. When we’re lost in a story, our brains sync with the protagonist’s and her struggle becomes our struggle. This isn’t a metaphor—functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) reveals that when a story engages us, we experience what the protagonist is going through as if it were happening to us—because it is. We feel what she feels because her emotions travel down our neutral pathways. —Lisa Cron, “Story First, Plot Second,” from Author in Progress, Therese Walsh, ed.
That neural pathway connection depends on the characters of a story or novel. Almost magically, readers respond to vital ones as if they were vitally alive, but without any of the danger, disappointment, mayhem or messiness that real-world interactions bring. Cron goes on to add
To hell with those clunky virtual reality visors—humans already come equipped with the most effective VR of all: the ability to neurologically slip into someone else’s life, especially when she’s struggling with an unavoidable problem trying to figure out what the heck to do. The unspoken question we’re wired to bring to every story is: What would it cost, emotionally, to have to go through that? What will I learn about what makes people tick that will help me navigate my own life?
So as the storyteller every novelist is, your initial challenge is to let readers make an emotional connection that sparks something meaningful to the personal lives of your readers. This could be curiosity, betrayal, paranoia, forgiveness, spirituality—any human issue.
You don’t need anything complex to accomplish this connection, observes Orion Jones in “How the Human Brain Became Hardwired to Tell Stories”:
A standard story-telling formula may go something like this: character(s) + predicament(s) + attempted extrication(s). In short, the very stuff of life. Like our language instinct, a story drive—an inborn hunger for story hearing and story making—emerges untutored universally in healthy children. Every culture bathes their children in stories to explain how the world works and to engage and educate their emotions.
All stories, from cave paintings to meta-novels, share those basic elements. In “Storytelling: What Listening to a Story Does to Our Brains,” Leo Widrich reminds that “A story, if broken down into the simplest form, is a connection of cause and effect.”
Tip: Build plot and characterization keeping the hardwired impact of story in mind.
Most novelists already know that characters mustn’t seem flat, that many readers dislike too much “telling,” that episodic or coincidental plots rarely convince, and that story resides in plot instead of theme, rather than the other way around.
So it’s less that writers should revise their approach to plot and characterization than remember what underlies those. Spoon-fed readers can’t experience anything vicariously. Stereotypes don’t evoke human behavior, and thematic statements move us far less than the journeys that reveal those. Consider why internal arcs satisfy more than external ones, why you need to “show” the behavior of your multi-dimensional characters.
The “why” might just be the path to the “how.” Although it may not feel like it when seeking an agent or publisher, every novelist has a built-in audience. You’ll find those readers through characters who are universal and thus empathetic plus a plot that is causal and thus credible.