Long before I was a writer, I was a psychologist. The study of the whys of what we do drew me like the smell of roast turkey on Christmas day. There was no point in fighting it, for me, it’s practically a primal need.
Discovering the evolutionary, biological, and psychological drives behind the choices we make fascinated me. I was always asking ‘but, why?’. Why do we say what we should do, but then do the exact opposite? Why do we fear something that might never happen? Why can’t I say no to cheesecake?
So when I discovered writing, it was inevitable that the same process would start ticking over. Why is that story more popular than that one? Why do readers read?
And how can I harness that in my own writing to create a book readers will love?
Which is exactly what sparked the research for Hook Your Readers, my upcoming book. In past posts we covered they where, the why, the how, and the what of story – its powerful evolutionary basis and how we can harness that as writers. This week we delve into the first psychological component that is going to hook a reader: curiosity.
There’s one powerful motivator that led a reader to your book. It’s what drew them to consider investing several hours in a story in the first place. It’s what captured their attention when they saw your title, your cover, and your blurb. It had them clicking, buying, and ignoring the dishes in the sink. It’s the very same thing that has you reading these words right now. Are you curious to know what that one powerful motivator is?
(In fact, take a moment to notice how this curiosity feels. I’ve seeded some words in your consciousness and ideally they’ve triggered something. What are the thoughts and sensations? Is there interest or questions, predictions or conjecture, disbelief or doubt—if there’s boredom or indifference then I need to go back to the drawing board—and ultimately, interest and engagement? Notice the competing sensations of being engaged in a positive sense…but also some tension because things are incomplete. Does it drive you to keep reading? If the answer’s yes, then you’ve just experienced what we’re about to harness.)
Human curiosity is so powerful it has us doing completely unproductive things like reading news about people we will never meet, learning topics we will never have use for, or exploring places we will never come back to. Think about it—have you ever gotten lost, ever tried something just to see what would happen, or did things just for the heck of it?
Yep, that was curiosity working its magic.
And just like story, curiosity is wired into our grey matter (even though it has its disadvantages).
In the same way getting lost in a story seems counterintuitive if you want to be around to bear and raise young, venturing outside your safe cave into the wilds where danger and disaster await doesn’t seem smart. Yet, it was only when our ancestors braved the boundaries of what was known that they could add to their knowledge and skills. They had to discover which berries were good and which were deadly, they had to discover that staying thirsty was better than drinking seawater. They had to discover that bark isn’t the best medium for toilet paper.
They had to be curious.
Neanderthals had to discover what they were missing out on beyond the safe confines of their abodes. Our ancestors had to be motivated to seek out the new. It’s how we discovered fire and sanitation and cheesecake (I like to consider those three the cornerstones of civilisation). Which means, just like story, curiosity was wired into the reward centres of our brain.
Evolution has built up a reward system in the brain that drives behaviours that help animals acquire essential resources. It’s why babies spend more time studying novel stimuli rather than familiar stimuli. It’s why we find it harder not to listen to someone talking on the phone (when we only hear half the conversation) than to listen to two people having a face-to-face exchange. And actually, this is why clichés are a no-no in writing. Clichés are overused terms or expressions that we’ve read countless times before. Our brain skips and skims over anything banal or known, it fails to grab our attention, because our brain has seen it before, processed it, and is ready to move on (to something interesting—like someone else’s book…).
Ultimately, these evolutionary foundations are why neuroimaging studies show that when people are curious about the answers to trivia questions or watch a blurry image become clear, reward-related structures in the brain are activated. Synapses fire. Our minds want to know more. Because when we actively pursue new information, we’re rewarded with a flood of pleasure inducing dopamine. Persisting and getting answers feels good! What this research demonstrates is that we are informavores—information stimulates our brains the same way sex and cheesecake do.
The added bonus of curiosity is when it’s peaked and then satisfied (and therefore triggers those important reward circuits), it enhances memory. That information the brain has enjoyed exploring is transferred into long-term memory—those files of information that we never forget so that we can access them time and time again. Those books that you’ve read and never forgotten? That was in part (we’ll explore the other way information is imprinted in memory later) due to the rewarding process that is curiosity.
And who doesn’t want their book to be remembered?
Evolution knew that the drive to find new and novel things helped us not only survive, but thrive, so it wired it into our grey matter. That’s what we want our books to tap into. Ultimately, curiosity is what’s going to keep that magical chemical concoction swimming around your readers’ brains and keep them reading. We’ve all been there, it’s 2 am, on a week night, with children who are early risers…knowing we’ve run out of coffee—but we just HAVE to know what happens next!
Thankfully, psychology has studied curiosity, and we writers can use what they’ve discovered to our advantage. Curious?
Well, you get to find out the first of those strategies next week. The next four posts will be another series, each exploring four different ways we can tap into curiosity. Until then, have you considered how important curiosity is to the reading experience? How have you woven curiosity into your stories? What techniques can you think that will have them intrigued and engaged? Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook or Twitter.
Have a wonderful week,