Pattern recognition. I heard the term coming from the first pathologist I ever worked for, in a tiny hospital, in a rural town on the west coast of central Florida. And had no clue what he was talking about. I was—and still am—a technician working in scientific research.
“How,” I had asked him, “can you be sure you’ve examined every single cell on the slide and not missed that one that’s abnormal? There are thousands of them!”
Dr. Winter didn’t raise his eyes from the microscope, just continued to scan the slide as he spoke. “It’s true: you can’t possibly look at every single cell. It’s all about pattern recognition. What you’re looking for is a break in the pattern. Once you’ve memorized what normal cells look like, it’s easy to spot the one that’s different. In time, with training, you will even be able to identify what type of disease causes that new, different pattern.” He pushed back in his chair and studied me. “You would have made an excellent pathologist, you know. Your pattern recognition is superb.”
Fast forward almost forty years, and although I still work in the field of pathology by day, nocturnally, I’m a novelist. I recently sat down with one of two excellent writing craft books by Lisa Cron, and came across that same concept again—pattern recognition. Only this time, the term applied to the art of storytelling.
I confess: I owned and read (before I recently did a major purge) over thirty books on the craft of writing. I’ve studied the process of outlining, storyboarding, and mind mapping. Sticky notes, character interviews, and the classic three-act arc. I’ve blindly sat down and slammed my way through a few novels purely by the seat of my pants. But I have never come across a study of creating a compelling plot quite like this.
The two books I am referring to, Cron’s Wired for Story and Story Genius, utilize an entirely different perspective in developing a plot to keep your reader riveted to the page. Cron turned to the scientific method (which obviously appeals to me, the science geek by day) to dissect the reason why some stories hook readers and drag them through every page, while others fall flat. And guess what? It all comes down to the human brain’s addiction to patterns.
Ms. Cron conducted an admirable amount of research, incorporating scientific journals specializing in psychology. And I must tell you, I think she’s hit a nerve—pun totally intended.
She quotes neuroscientist Antonio Damasio: “The brain is a born cartographer.” In other words, our minds naturally yearn to chart patterns.
Cron contends that this stems from man’s prehistoric days, when our safe place consisted of a cave with no high-tech security system, no energy-efficient light bulbs to flick on. When night fell, it got dark. If cave-wifey was home alone with the neander-kids waiting for cave-hubby to return from the hunt, it was important she recognize the sound her man-beast made on his way thumping into the cave. To have that pattern of footfalls memorized. Because if what she heard represented a break in that pattern, instead of eating dinner…well, the neander-family might just become the main course.So pattern recognition, beginning as a survival mechanism, has become ingrained in the human brain. We can’t help but yearn for it, search for it—and be satisfied when we’ve found that all-important pattern.
In Wired for Story, Cron says, “…as far as the reader is concerned, everything is part of a pattern—and the thrill of reading is recognizing those patterns.” She goes on to explain that this is exactly the reason why we must ensure that each and every crumb we drop along the way in telling our tale is part of a pattern. If it doesn’t fit in, like a puzzle piece somewhere later in the story, the reader will be not only disappointed, but confused, and will lose trust in the author. And a reader who doesn’t trust the author isn’t going to pick up another one of his or her books again.
In this short blog, I can’t even begin to scratch the surface of the illuminating concepts I’ve gleaned from these two books. I’ll admit: since I’m a science geek, I had no problem sticking with the analytical lingo, but that may be difficult for those less inclined. What I can tell you is this—these two books will NOT be purged from my craft book library. I have the feeling I will be returning to them, again and again, as reference manuals. They may well have just become my story-building bibles.
Let’s hope my original pathology teacher, the late, great, Dr. William Winter, was right—that my pattern recognition is superb. And the talent will enable me to craft stories that lure readers inexorably into my books—leading me to a pattern of success. If you’d like to explore the scientific side of creating a compelling plot, I invite you to check out Lisa Cron’s books here: