Story Structure: what’s the brain got to do with it?

Brain Science: Getting story structure right

Part of what makes storytelling so magical is that the brain is a willing and active participant. And this applies to fiction and nonfiction works. And when you tap into these techniques properly, it makes your book unputdownable.


Let’s talk about brains. Our brains are wired to survive and thrive. And it all goes back to how our brains are wired for story. The brain has two goals: survive and thrive. And it is constantly looking for information on how to do this.

Luckily for us, it is particularly wired to get this information from story. If we think about how we convey important information, it is almost always done through story. Think about Aesop’s fables or the parables of Jesus. Every culture has a storytelling legacy that conveys important information handed down through the generations. These stories give us important information about how to behave in society in a format we can easily remember. 

Because of the brain’s obsession with surviving and thriving, it casts itself as the protagonist in the story. It wants to learn about physical survival such as, “If I encounter a tiger that wants to eat me, what should I do?” If you’re reading a book that involves that, the brain will go, “Aha! Now I know what to do in that situation.”

But the brain also wants to thrive, to know how to deal with emotional and social situations. Which, let’s be honest, are far more fraught with land mines and are situations we encounter far more often than tigers anyway.

Romance, women’s fiction, and genres that you wouldn’t think of as action packed give the brain information on how to navigate and survive the arenas of the heart and social situations. Knowing how to navigate a community, be a part of it, and resolve conflict are extremely important to surviving and thriving.

Stories have a structure the brain is intrinsically looking for

Which makes storytellers some of the most powerful people in the world. The brain needs to know the main character so it can identify with her. And it’s looking for information in a certain pattern. Such as this one:

The main character has a past with a wound and a lie that stems from that wound. She has been living life just fine, thank you very much, protecting her wound. 

Until something happens. This is the inciting incident, the event that changes everything and means she can no longer operate in the world the way she has been. She wants something external and tangible, a story goal, but what she really wants, deep down inside is the magic elixir that will heal her wound. This is her internal goal.

Because we are resistant to change, she will try to reach for her story goal while protecting her wound. But we as authors will throw all sorts of things at her to make life more difficult, such as conflict and plot complications, because we all know life isn’t easy. And the brain knows it too. It doesn’t give credit to an easy victory. These will force her to deal with her wound, but generally she’ll just make things worse for herself.

Until she reaches the point where her wound is exposed, the lie seems real, and all appears to be lost. The black moment. It is here that she realizes what she needs to do to find healing. She has become stronger and learned more during all her trials.

This leads to the epiphany. The lie is exposed for what it is. She does the thing she needs to do, which she can now do that she couldn’t at the beginning of the story. She may need to fight a final battle with the new-found strength and courage, or she might be able to directly tie up loose plot threads. All of which leads to a satisfying conclusion.

Sound familiar? You can probably think of a lot of movies and books that follow this formula, but in case you can’t, I’ll give you an example.

My favorite example is Star Wars.

Luke Skywalker, our main character, has a past that includes parents who died under unknown (to him) circumstances. His wound is that he longs for adventure, for something more, but he’s never going to get it living under the shadow of his father’s death. The lie he believes is that he’ll never do great things, he’s not capable, he’s not enough.

He’s living with his aunt and uncle on a farm until one day a droid shows up with a holographic message from Princess Leia. He has a choice. He can ignore the message and go on with his life. Or he can accept this invitation to adventure by tracking down old Ben Kenobi and figure out what the message means. This is the inciting incident.

The story goal is to rescue Princess Leia. That’s what starts us on this journey. But what he really wants—what will heal his wound—is to fight for the rebellion and be part of something bigger than himself.

We have a lot of plot complications from the asteroids to being captured by the Empire to the death of Obi Wan to the space battle.

Which brings us to the Dark Moment. The Rebels are trying to bomb the Death Star, but nothing is working, and soon it will be in position to blow up the Rebel base. Luke fears he is good for nothing and can’t help those he loves.

His epiphany? Obi Wan appearing to him and telling him to use the Force. He’s able to drop the bombs precisely and save the day. 

It makes perfect sense when you see it applied to something you’re familiar with.

Key story structure points

  • Everything in the story must be there for a reason. The brain is looking for answers so it’s going to assume if it’s in the story, it must be part of the answer.
  • Everything must tie itself to the wound in some way. The wound is the problem that the brain is looking for a solution to. Anything else isn’t relevant.
  • Everything must resolve itself in a reasonable way. The brain wants the story to make sense so it can be replicated.

How does your story stack up? Does it hit these beats? Does your nonfiction book take your reader on a similar journey—often by using stories and case studies? As you are working through your books—or even enjoying a book or a movie—see how the creators use brain science to pull you in. Then go do that in your own work.

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