By Andrea Fausbøll
Feb 23, 2022


Stories saved our lives

Have you ever wondered just why humans are so enthralled by stories?

There is indeed a scientific answer to that question. Somewhere along the journey of evolution, our brains developed a way to consciously navigate information, which allowed us the freedom and choice of making our own decisions in respective situations.

According to neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, the conscious mind is what sets us apart from other animals out there.

But in order to process the flood of information coming our way and to make all this information understandable and most importantly, to make this wisdom memorable, our brain came up with the concept of…. Yes, storytelling.

Quite cool isn’t it?

Antonio Damasio says;

“Consciousness begins when brains acquire the power, the simple power I must add, of telling a story”.

Once a piece of information or any sort of input enters your brain, it takes literally milliseconds before your brain has deemed whether this information is crucial to your survival or not.

If it is important for your survival, like sable tigers are dangerous, your brain will start spinning a story based on your past experience of this information, how you feel about it, and how it might affect you going forward.

In our case, your brain will probably tell you a story of how someone was eaten by a sable tiger and that you should run if you happen to spot one prancing down the street.

The explanation can be traced back to the time when we humans made tools with an edge, a point or a percussion surface.

Yes, you guessed it; the stone age.

In the midst of utter primal survival, we would allow ourselves time to dive into stories, even though we could be killed doing so – a moment of vulnerability we were willing to take our chances on.


Because it allowed us to prepare for the unexpected and teach us how to deal with situations we had not yet experienced ourselves. Delving into a story about how a human survived a sable tiger attack might just become very useful, should we find ourselves in a similar situation one day.

Unlikely today, plausible in the stone age.

Another way to look at it is that you are the protagonist of your life and your brain spins a tale like no other, helping you connect the dots from the past and future and making sure your memories and experiences are connected allowing you to make informed and calculated decisions.  

Lisa Cron says that story is the language of experience, whether it’s ours, someone else’s, or that of fictional characters.

Stories allow us to experience situations both social and physical without actually putting ourselves in danger.

Preeetty smart in my opinion.

What story is really about

Unlike common belief, a story is not about the external plot, but rather about the change the protagonist goes through.

The stronger the character arc, the better. Our brains absolutely adore this.

In Wikipedia terms, a character arc is the transformation or inner journey of a character over the course of a story.

If you develop a character that allows the reader to live through them, to experience their change or transformation, you are sure to be on the right track.

Remember, it needs to be clear whose story it is. Don’t keep that from the reader in an attempt to keep it mysterious, it won’t work.

You need to give it all away and make sure your reader knows from the get-go who the story is about.

All is not as it seems

In order to compete with all the distractions your reader is exposed to, you need to make sure that you capture your reader from the very first sentence. Your reader has to keep reading, even when their Whatsapp or Facebook is blowing up.

Incredibly difficult competition, I know, but just bear with me.

The element of surprise will be your best friend here. Start your story at exactly the right moment.

Don’t spend paragraphs writing up the past or setting the scene. Start your story when something is happening right now. Give your readers a reason to care right now.

By creating the feeling that “all is not as it seems”, that something life-changing is about to happen very soon, that’s when you snag a brain to keep reading – we are dying to know what happens next and how we could possibly deal with it.

What’s at stake?

Whatever is happening on that first page, it must relate directly to your protagonist. There must be an inherent conflict, something at stake.

Imagine yourself pitching your story to an agent. You tell them excitedly about your protagonist’s goal and all the difficult things they must endure to achieve it.

Now imagine that the agent asks you;

“If your protagonist is not successful then what? Why should we care?”

Surprisingly, many people do not know how to answer this question.

It is one thing to make up an all-consuming goal for your protagonist.

It is another, and far more difficult matter, to make your reader care about it.

Why would they?

Look at it this way, why do you care what happens to your best friends?

Why do you care if they succeed at making their dreams come true?

Because you sympathize with them. You love them. You understand what they have been through, perhaps you’ve even been there all along cheering them on, on the sideline.

Now take that and apply it to your protagonist. The very same mechanism is at play here.

You make your reader care about your protagonist and their journey by making your character sympathetic.

If you manage to build a character that inspires the reader with their tireless attempt to achieve their goal, a character that holds an intimate candor and if you let your reader into your character’s head, that is when you start making magic.

When you make your reader feel every emotion that curses through your protagonist, when you give it all away, that is when you hook your reader.

In essence, understanding leads to sympathy.

To build high stakes, you must make your reader care about your protagonist and their goal.

If your protagonist’s life is at stake, but your reader doesn’t care, then there are no stakes at play and your reader will lose interest.

There needs to be narrative drive

If your first scene or chapter doesn’t logically lead to the next scene you are in trouble.

You want to make sure your story has a narrative drive from the very first sentence. Pixar is famous for its story structure. It is as follows although overly simplified. 

The core takeaway here is that one thing leads to the next – always. There is no gap, no dead-end, no irrelevant spin-offs.

If you keep this in mind when writing, your story will mould together and snowball into a beautiful tale of cause and effect keeping your reader hooked from the very first scene.

Your first attempt is not always your best

Set a timer for 30 minutes and sketch out your first scene. I say sketch because I mean it. You are not supposed to write beautiful prose or have everything figured out yet.

The important thing is to get down to the core of your story, the stuff that matters, and to make sure you have every element we covered earlier.

Once the timer is up, stretch your legs, get some chocolate and come back and do it all again. This time, you start from a slightly different perspective and let your mind wander once again. Do not restrict yourself or shut down any new ideas, just go with the flow and your gut.

Repeat it all again a third time. The point of this exercise is to give you the opportunity to really explore all angles and discover facets you hadn’t thought about earlier.

Finally, sit back and evaluate your scenes. Which scene made you most excited to write? Which scene do you feel best captures your story and the forward momentum?

And voila, you now have your very first chapter or scene.

I hope this blog post gave you some idea of how to take on that dreaded first chapter.

Trust your gut and make sure every sentence is written with the reader in mind and you will be fine.

Believe in your tales and keep writing.

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