What Neuroscientists Are Learning That Writers Already Know

Imagine you’re in a bookstore (remember bookstores?) and you’ve chosen three novels. You can only buy one, so you sit down in a cozy armchair intending to read the first pages of each. An hour later, you glance up blearily and realize that you’re still reading the first book and you have no idea where the time went. You’ve been transported.

How did it happen? Not by accident. The writer made it happen. He created a world so real and compelling that it sucked you right out of your own and into his. Now, through the use of brain scan technology, neuroscientists are beginning to discover the mechanisms by which this phenomenon occurs.

The New York Times ran a fascinating article 2 months ago—“Your Brain on Fiction” by Annie Murphy Paul — that examined recent studies of how our brains function when we read. Teams of researchers have repeatedly found that when subjects hooked up to MRI machines read descriptive, sensory language, the parts of the brain that process sensory input became active. When subjects read words like perfume and coffee, their brains reacted as if they actually smelled those scents. This was true even when the language was used metaphorically. “Metaphors like ‘The singer had a velvet voice’ and ‘He had leathery hands’ roused the sensory cortex, while phrases matched for meaning, like ‘The singer had a pleasing voice’ and ‘He had strong hands,’ did not.”

Within this simulated world, which through the alchemy of reading now exists within the reader’s mind as well as on the page, the encounters and events of the story are experienced as real. Interactions between characters are handled by the same part of the brain as interactions with real people, which explains, for the scientific-minded among us, why we form lasting relationships with fictional characters who never really existed.

Writers need to take account of this phenomenon in their work. It takes skill to create such a world; specifically, it takes descriptive skill. As an agent, I found that the ability to create a fully fleshed, convincing setting was rare compared to the ability to create characters and events. And as a writing teacher, I’ve heard many students say that they “don’t do description;” I’ve never heard any say that they don’t do dialogue or action. But unless the setting is fully realized, nothing that happens there will matter.

With regard to concrete and specific, consider the difference between these two passages. The first is by Ron Hansen, from Atticus:

“Atticus put on his Army Air Corps jacket and cattleman’s hat and went out. Cold snow crunched between his gray cowboy boots with the toothgrind noise of cattle chewing. Jewels of sunlight sparked from the whiteness everywhere. And there under the green pine limbs was the red hay baler, the yellow crawler tractor and bulldozer blade, the plows and reaper and cultivator that were going orange with rust, and the milkwhite Thunderbird just as it was sixteen years ago when Scott took Serena to the store. The high speed impact of the accident had destroyed one headlight and crumpled up the right fender and hood like writing paper meant to be thrown away. The right wheel tilted on its axle as though it had not been fully bolted on, and the rubber tire shredded from it like black clothing scraps.”

Now this second passage is one I wrote – to make a point, I hasten to add:

“Atticus put on his jacket and hat and went out. There was snow on the ground. The sun was shining. Rusty farm equipment sat under some trees, beside the wrecked car, left just as it was after the accident 16 years ago.”

Flat, right, that second one? Two-dimensional? Whereas in Hansen’s description, the scene springs to life. Since they see it so clearly, readers cannot doubt its reality. Notice how the language and sentence structure, and the repeated mentions of color, lull us even as they lead to the unexpected end: the hideously mangled car. (The description also sets up the gradual revelation of the story behind the accident, a vital part of the story.)

With regard to selectivity, no one said it better than Mark Twain, who wrote to a schoolboy writer: “When you catch adjectives, kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together; they give strength when they are wide apart.” To give every detail is to rob the important ones of significance. Language counts, too. “Use the right word,” Twain advised, “not its second cousin.”

Scientists are now beginning to piece together the nuts and bolts of a phenomenon Flannery O’Connor explained long ago in an essay on writing: “One quality of fiction which I think is its least common denominator—the fact that it is concrete….The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and the fiction writer begins where human perception begins. He appeals through the senses, and you cannot appeal to the senses with abstractions.” We have five senses, she wrote, and “if you’re deprived of any of them, you’re in a bad way, but if you’re deprived of more than two at once, you almost aren’t present.”

The take-away for writers? Call a spade a spade, not a digging implement.

A quick note to those folks who’ve asked for updates: I’m teaching a class called “Focus On the Novel” for Writers Digest University starting June 21, 2012. Anyone interested in my own Next Level Workshops should drop me a line–getting on my emailing list is the best way to get in. Next offered will probably Revising Fiction, probably in late 2012. Also, I’m delighted to announced that Simon & Schuster have just reissued SUSPICION as an ebook. Good book for a stormy night, though I says it myself.

2 thoughts on “What Neuroscientists Are Learning That Writers Already Know

  1. Uh oh. Call a spade a spade, yes – but we can’t all call it a velvet voice or we’re accused of using cliches. It takes a whole other set of skills to edit out the tropes and use fresh descriptions!

  2. Pingback: New Mind-Altering Substance Identified. It’s Called Writing. |

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