Writing—It isn’t brain science


Formulas aren’t a good thing (unless you’re this guy). That’s my opinion, anyway.

I was recently reading a book that claims to understand how our brains are “wired” for certain “types” of stories, and of course the point is if you write a story with these components people will love it, will not be able to put it down, and you will be a hit.

Well, now…

This book claims a scientific precision for its techniques. For example, to “hook” a reader you must plunk an interesting and relatable character into a “rapildy unraveling situation,” or RUS. “What draws us into a story and keeps us there,” the author says, “is the firing of our dopamine neurons, signaling that intriguing information is on its way.”

Okay, I’m with you that far, but I feel this book has a pretty narrow idea of what is intriguing, or how to reveal that to readers, and how rapidly it should be done. You’re supposed to show Interesting People, doing Interesting Things, but their world unravels and they are Plunged Into Chaos. And this must happen quickly.

Basically, the book says, you have to hook ’em with your first page. Your first sentence, really. That’s what you have to do, it says, or people will find your story dull or, worse, non-existent. (Somebody tell Virginia Woolf. Apparently she screwed up To The Lighthouse. Big time. What an idiot she clearly was.)

The book gives an example: “Joel Campbell, eleven years old at the time, began his descent into murder with a bus ride.”

In that first sentence, the author of this book says, we learn whose story it is (Joel Campbell’s), what‘s happening (he’s on a bus, which somehow will trigger a murder), and what’s at stake (Joel’s life, someone else’s life, and who knows what else?) It’s all so scientific, almost expressible as an equation: I=ws+wh+was/fs. I’ll have to ask Sheldon Cooper to check my math.

Well, all fine and good. That’s one way of starting a story. But I can think of plenty of other great writers who begin very differently, who don’t worry about whose story it is yet, or what’s at stake, etc. Some writers set a scene. Some start with lots of backstory about a character, so we learn how they got here. As Laura Miller points out in a Salon article I read about the same time as the book, “A character and a conflict are one of the most reliable ways to lure the reader further into the story, but a setting, if skillfully evoked, can do the job, too: David Copperfield’s cold stepfather, Jane Eyre’s stifled pride, the glittering ballrooms of Tolstoy’s Russia, the threat posed to Middle-earth.”

Let’s take another example, the opening three lines, which I’ve talked about before, from Susan Gabriel’s novel The Secret Life of Wildflower : There are two things I’m afraid of. One is dying young. The other is Johnny Monroe.

Great approach to an opening. I love it. But it’s far from the only way to go. She could have started with an autobiographical introduction of the character, or a diary excerpt, or a description of Appalachia where the story takes place, or many another way.  What bothers me is that because of all the “how-to” books and websites, many authors and wanna-be authors are starting their novels with obligatory, even contrived, first-line hooks. Some of these are terrific. Some—many—turn out to be gimmicks.

Roger Ebert’s review of Pulp Fiction stands out to me particularly for one comment he made: “The screenplay, by Tarantino and Roger Avary, is so well-written in a scruffy, fanzine way that you want to rub noses in it – the noses of those zombie writers who take ‘screenwriting’ classes that teach them the formulas for ‘hit films.'” Indeed, whether you loved or loathed Tarentino’s movie, you have to admit, it did not follow any formulas, though it inspired a slew of imitators.

Recently one of the big publishing houses held a contest. You were to enter your first sentence and the title of your novel. The best first sentence/title would be contacted and would receive help to moving the novel or novel-in-genesis toward completion and publication, complete with publicity, cover design, editing, and so on.

But they were judging it—looking for their next Harry Potter/Hunger Games/Twilight/Fifty Shades of Grey—based on one sentence.

You know why this is silly, don’t you? You’re going to get a lot of GREAT openings, which degenerate into muck. (Actually, the contest was promoed that way, but when you got to the actual site it turned out that while most of the weight would be on that holy first sentence, up to the first three sentences were actually permitted.)

Just to show I can in fact play this game, I entered. I typed the first three sentences from a novella I once wrote that I hope someday to turn into a full-length novel, called Death Among The Living: “I first met Death at my friend Robert’s house. Robert Hedlund—yes, the famous bass player from the band ‘Notable Haligonians’—died at the tender age of 36. An aneurism, Death told me.” Hope they enjoy it. Doesn’t tell them (or you) beans about the rest of the story, though.

I suspect one reason the first page and particularly the first sentence have taken on such a paramount importance lately is that there are almost no more bookstores—in the U.S. at least—where you can browse through books, sampling as much or as little as you want. Now you can only get a taste from the online sample, and as I wrote about recently, Amazon and others are providing only the first few pages—and sometimes just the first page or a fraction thereof—from which you must decide to buy a 480-page novel.

But this solution to the very real problem of the inability to browse or listen, ironically the very opposite of what the Internet gate-keepers promised us, is a simplistic one that can very easily be gamed, and is. (Check the number of Amazon and Goodreads reviews that say, This started out great, but really went down hill after the first chapter. What happened?)

Formulas and gimmicks inexorably lead to the death of art, and a lot of art forms are in intensive care or dead right now because of this slavish adherence to them, ways of making people notice, as if we were all trained seals. The way of making people notice is to do something different. I don’t want all my books to start out with one-line hooks any more than I want all my symphonies to start out with da-da-da-duuum, even though it worked great for Beethoven—once. If we’re all in agreement, as the saying goes, then only one of us is doing the thinking.

Quentin Tarantino, I think, would agree.


2 responses

  1. Agree with your premise. There indeed are no formulas to good writing, and people worry too much about formulas that have been inculcated in them by, in your example, brain-dead pseudo-scientists. In the end, structure, characterization, imagery setting, etc., are what’s really important to a novel.

    However, I believe this notion can also be dangerous: “The way of making people notice is to do something different.” Tarentino, for instance, is IMO a director who often does something subversive for the sake of doing something subversive but is really a mediocrity who dresses all his ideas up in the shabby clothing of pseudo-originality. Pulp Fiction was at least a parody of trash that didn’t try to be anything more than trash. More dangerous is his silly recent hit Inglourious Basterds featuring Brad Pitt’s grade-school performance as well as puerile mockery through revisionist history. It’s what’s also wrong with charlatans like the Coen brothers, who cheaply use shock, nihilism, violence, and disjointed attempts at black comedyin films like Fargo and No Country for Old Men to convince the critics they’ve done something different or original. Anyone can do something different. It’s the people who do something different but also do something different within the confines of good taste and logic that are really significant, like Bergman and J.S. Bach.


    November 22, 2013 at 8:13 am

  2. Hi, I read some of your stuff today. Your writing style is awesome, keep doing what you’re doing!


    November 24, 2013 at 10:43 am

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