by Susan DeFreitas, collaborative editor

Many creative folks seem to possess a natural aversion to science. But in recent years, studies in neuroscience have revealed some fascinating tidbits that should be of interest to anyone involved in the arts—writers of fiction in particular.

As it turns out, when you hook up the average human being to a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine and give him a novel to read, a veritable Fourth of July goes off in his brain.

What’s going on in there sheds some valuable light on how we, as writers, can create stronger, more compelling, more immersive fiction.

1. Body Language, Part One
When we read about a character doing certain things or having certain physical experiences, neuroscience tells us that the same parts of our brains light up as if we were doing those things or having those experiences ourselves.

That means, basically, when you read “she threw the ball as hard as she could,” the same part of your brain lights up as if you were throwing a ball. Same thing if tears sting his eyes or the sweat prickles her neck—to your gray matter, it makes no difference whether something physical is actually occurring or is simply being described. (Fun fact: the same thing appears to occur when we’re dreaming.)

That’s why writing teachers often tell us to rely on the senses and specific physical details when we write fiction. Because the more physically detailed your fiction, the greater the degree to which the human brain will allow us to experience what your characters experience.

2. Body Language, Part Two
The brains of the most social primates appear to be bigger than those of their less-social contemporaries. They also seem to possess more facial muscles, corresponding to a wider spectrum of expressions. The upshot being that there appears to be a positive correlation between these big brains of ours and our ability to process emotionally nuanced body language.

How many times have you watched a movie with the sound off—on an airplane, say—and found you could still follow the plot? I certainly have, and no wonder: our brains are highly attuned to the nuances of body language.

As a consequence, gestures, posture, glances, expression, tics of movement, etc., are not merely some form of window dressing you, the author, can throw in here and there to spice up your dialogue. They are, in fact, critical in terms of how your reader will understand the dialogue and/or assess underlying issues and tensions in a scene. (Pro tip: the higher the drama and/or the more ambiguous the lines of dialogue, the more body language is generally needed.)

3. Clues and Puzzles
Neuroscience tells us that our brains are very good at tracking patterns, looking for cause and effect, and making predictions. Consider: if so-and-so from your clan, who ate the blue berries, got sick and died last week, and then so-and-so from another clan, who died too, happened to have blue stains around his mouth—and then you see your baby headed straight for those shiny blue berries…

Let’s just say, this sort of thing has been useful in keeping Homo sapiens in business for the past 200,000 odd years.

Neuroscience tells us that in fiction as in life, we love clues and puzzles. But too often I see novels that either don’t set up their big developments well enough for the reader to suspect what’s going on or, conversely, explain things too much. Skillful storytellers know that what pulls the reader onward is a trail of crumbs that indicates where you’re going with all of this and which details are important—without coming right out and saying it.

4. Drama
Do you have a number of characters with competing agendas trying to pull one over on each other? Eavesdropping? Missed cues? He knows this but she doesn’t, and therefore tragedy ensues? Good news! The human brain can’t get enough of this kind of low-budget drama.

That’s because the human brain, as far as we can tell, evolved to not only keep track of what different people know at different times but also to be constantly figuring out what their sources of motivation might be. The fancy term for this is theory of mind—and while what I’ve described above may sound a bit like a soap opera to you, writers ranging from Shakespeare to Jane Austen have relied heavily upon it.

Bottom line: people with hidden agendas are fascinating. And if we know a little something the other characters don’t know, so much the better.

5. Focus on Conflict
It has been suggested that the purpose of stories—that is, the evolutionary advantage they confer—is in their ability to prepare us for threats and challenges we have yet to face. (Again, the same has been suggested of dreams.) One way or another, when we read scenes involving conflict, fMRI suggests that they get our attention in a big way.

It’s no wonder, then, that one of the most ubiquitous pieces of writing advice you are likely to encounter is to focus on conflict. Not only does conflict get our attention, but it can also offer us tools to deal with difficulties in our own lives (say, for instance, a romantic breakup or the death of a parent).

That’s why, if something can go wrong for your protagonist, it probably should; her aims should not be too easily fulfilled. And if there’s some deep, dark truth she’s hiding from, so much the better—your reader knows that she will have to face it before the story is through.

Susan DeFreitasSusan DeFreitas feeds her appetite for neuroscience’s relationship with fiction on books like Wired for Story by Lisa Cron and Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel by Lisa Zunshine. Susan’s work has appeared in The Utne Reader, The Nervous Breakdown, and Southwestern American Literature, among other publications. Her poem “Fear of Men” was recently selected as a finalist for Best of the Net, and she is the author of the fiction chapbook Pyrophitic (ELJ Publications, 2014). She holds an MFA from Pacific University and lives in Portland, Oregon, where she serves as a collaborative editor with Indigo and a reader for Tin House Magazine.

Currently on Susan’s nightstand: Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin (“Talk about drama!” she says).