Good Prose Month: Lisa Cron on Why Prose Don’t Matter As Much As We Think

Editor's Note: In conjunction with his publication of his new book, "Good Prose," Pulitzer Prize winner and bestselling author Tracy Kidder and editor Richard Todd will host “Good Prose Month” on Signature.com, with the goal of bringing together the strongest voices in nonfiction to share insight into the writing and editing process with the next generation of authors. Every day during the month of January, visit Signature.com for a new Good Prose tip, lesson, or story from bestselling authors, award-winning journalists, acclaimed editors, and favorite storytellers. The conversation will continue on Twitter with a weekly #GoodProse chat about the craft of writing, hosted by selected authors from a range of nonfiction genres.

Lisa Cron spent a decade in publishing -- first at W.W. Norton then at John Muir Publications -- before turning to television, where she’s been supervising producer on shows for Showtime and Court TV. She’s been a story consultant for Warner Brothers, the William Morris Agency, Village Roadshow, and Icon; an agent at the Angela Rinaldi Literary Agency; and is featured in Ask the Pros: Screenwriting. Lisa is an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.

When you begin reading a novel, it’s the voice that grabs you -- the riveting prose, the clever turn of phrase, the vivid details, the insightful metaphors. Right?

Wrong!

As counterintuitive as it may sound, it is not the prose that hooks us. It’s the story that the prose is giving voice to that hooks us, every time.

There’s only one non-negotiable rule when it comes to grabbing the reader: they have to want to know what happens next. Great prose? That’s gravy.

Why?

It’s how we’re wired, we think in story. Story is how we make sense of the world. It’s not arbitrary or optional. It’s a matter of survival. It turns out that story was more crucial to our evolution than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on. Story tells us what to hang on to.

Think of story as the world’s first virtual reality. It allowed us to envision the future, and so plan for the thing that still terrifies us most -- the unknown, the unexpected.

That’s why stories are about problems that arise when our expectations aren’t met. Stories answer the question, “Geez, what should I do now, and what’s it going to cost me, emotionally?”

Our driving desire to find the answer is what catapults us into the story, and keeps us there.

This brings us to what it is that actually hooks the reader: curiosity. That’s what triggers the exhilarating sensation that keeps us reading even though it’s past midnight and we have to be up a dawn.

And here’s the game-changer: that feeling isn’t ephemeral, capricious, or simply pleasure for pleasure’s sake. It’s dopamine. It’s our brain’s way of rewarding us for following our curiosity, because it just might lead to information that’ll come in handy in the future.

Thus, the hardwired purpose of story isn’t simply to entertain us, anymore than the purpose of food is to taste good. Stories are entertaining so we’ll pay attention to them, and learn what we need to know to survive on this cockeyed, earthly plane.

In other words, we don’t turn to story to escape reality, we turn to story to navigate reality.

That’s why writers are the most powerful people on the planet, you can change your readers’ worldview by giving them a glimpse of life through your protagonist’s eyes. In fact, studies show stories can rewire our brain for empathy.

How much does this have to do with great prose? Truthfully, just about zip. Even the most pedestrian prose can rivet us provided it’s giving voice to a compelling story.

This is not to say that great writing isn’t a huge plus. It absolutely is. But beautiful prose, all by itself, is about as compelling as a perfectly rendered bowl of waxed fruit.

So what should writers do? Focus on nailing the story first and foremost, draft after draft. It’s actually liberating, because it quiets the annoying little voice that incessantly whispers, “You’re using that word. Really?

Once you’ve wrestled the story onto the page, then focus on the beauty of the prose, and polish away to your heart’s content. Otherwise? It’s like frosting a cake you haven’t baked yet.