I Researched How To Hack Readers’ Brains Into Loving My Stories

Here’s What I Learned:

Five complete fiction manuscripts. Eight years. Hundreds of rejections. Zero offers of representation. 

Saying I was frustrated with my journey to authorship is an understatement. Worse was that agents and publishers gave the same feedback, whether in response to a query or the full manuscript:

“We don’t feel like it’s a good fit for us at this time.”

Seeing these words still makes me cringe. Maybe I have a mild form of writerly PTSD. Or I’m just bitter. Yeah, probably bitter.

I’m setting this up so that you don’t blame me when I admit that I turned into a mad scientist. There was reason for it — an origin story, if you will. 

I wanted to know why my writing wasn’t compelling gatekeepers to offer representation. It made no sense, because I’d read dozens of books about hooking readers, crafting the perfect plots, and creating queries that would stand out from the slush pile. I’d attended conferences, classes, and other writerly events. I was doing everything “right.”

And yet, I was nowhere. So I started my Master’s degree in English Language and Linguistics. I wanted to see how I could use cognitive psychology and the subtle effects of language to improve my stories.

That’s when I discovered Schema Theory. 

Your Brain On Patterns

You might already intuitively understand schema: it’s the blueprint for living that we’ve built throughout our lives; an instruction manual based on various experiences that helps us navigate our current situation.

Literary researcher Guy Cook explains that schema theory is “a new experience… understood in comparison with a stereotypical version of a similar experience held in memory.” (Cook, 1994, pg. 9).

Now, here’s the important part: “The new experience is then processed in terms of its deviation from the stereotypical version, or conformity to it.” (Cook, 1994, pg. 9).

Example time: Think about grabbing a coffee this morning. You walk into your usual cafe and expect to get into the usual queue. 

But what if, instead of a queue, the cafe has implemented a tallest-person-gets-served-first rule? 

Crazy, I know. If you’re short (like me) you’ll probably feel insulted and annoyed. Those lucky tall people might feel a little awkward. The sensation we all probably feel? Confusion. 

That’s our brains processing what they expected to encounter (first-come-first-served) based on conditioning, versus what they actually experienced (an unprecedented and potentially body-shaming new rule). Or, schema disruption. 

In your experience, a queue at a cafe is considered “normal.” We generally need this normal, predictable pattern —  otherwise known as schema preservation  —  in order to function. 

But what about when we want to escape those patterns? 

This is where fiction comes into play. When we want to test out new ideas or behaviours, what’s safer than reading, watching, or hearing a story about someone else who has already tread that path? 

If reading is considered a “safe place” to test new schema patterns, then we can argue that a specific type and amount of schema disruption is important for your readers to enjoy your story. Too much schema preservation, and you risk losing reader interest.

Let’s look at an example of a scene with too much schema preservation, using that cafe again, and assuming you’re a Western reader:

Dan opens the cafe door. He steps inside and sees the menu on the wall behind the barista station, which is a long desk with a cash register and a glass display of croissants, carrot cake, chocolate cake, ham sandwiches, turkey sandwiches, and jars of overnight oats with chia seeds. He reads the menu, which is written on a chalkboard. He decides that he wants a latte, or a shot of espresso with steamed milk. Specifically, he asks for soy milk, because he has some pretty uncomfortable IBS. Dan waits in the queue as others order their drinks. Finally, he gets to the front of the queue. The barista says hello and asks what she can get for him. He orders the latte and takes out his wallet. Inside his wallet is his credit card, which he pulls out to hand to the barista…

You get the picture. Boring, right? That’s because we use our schemas so often and so unconsciously that being told the minutiae of every detail becomes redundant. Arguably worse, this level of description destroys reader engagement.

Have you noticed that when you’re reading a good book, you’re visualising scenes based on your own past experiences? Reading isn’t actually passive. We want — and need — to engage with the text. An engaging scene leaves out just enough information to allow the reader to fill in their own memories or knowledge.

Alternatively, a reader who’s given too little information may become confused and unable to depend upon his or her own schemas to fill in the gaps.

So, we need a good balance between preservation and disruption. Enter: Schema Refreshment.

Essentially, schema refreshment occurs when “a schema is revised and its membership elements and relations are recast.” (Stockwell, 2002, pg. 80).

This is a more simplistic example, but let’s go back to the cafe (because clearly I’m a coffee addict), and assume that you’re a reader who has only ever had experiences with cold, bored, or otherwise inattentive baristas. You may also have the assumption that baristas are uneducated or unmotivated. 

For our character, however, his experience is the opposite. The barista knows his name and asks how his day has been, asks about his dog, and seems genuinely interested in his life. She also makes a killer latte.

The author may even add some background story about the barista — maybe she wants a career in coffee, and she went to a special barista school to hone her skills. Now, she’s saving up to buy her own cafe. 

Back to you, dear reader. The literature may have altered your perspective about baristas on a subconscious level. Maybe, without thinking about it, you go into the cafe tomorrow and strike up a conversation with the guy taking your order. 

So, what happened? Schema refreshment. Or, as I hypothesised, one of the biggest goals for any fiction writer.

Schema refreshment can come in many forms, but the main takeaway is that something about the story sticks with you for a period of time after reading. 

You’re probably saying, “Sarah, you wasted your time. Writers already know that the goal is to keep their stories in their readers’ heads. That’s how they make money on the next book, duh.”

Yeah, I already had a pretty good idea that something like Schema Refreshment was the goal. But what I really wanted to delve into was the methods for attaining that refreshment.

So, How Do We Trigger Schema Refreshment?

This is where things get tricky. Since schema is highly individualised —  almost as variable as DNA — it’s pretty much impossible to incorporate a one-size-fits-all template to the perfect experience of refreshment.

But, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few broad sets of schema that larger groups share. For example, many of us would probably cringe at the thought of a society that farms humans for organ donation. Enter Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. We follow Kathy, a young woman who was raised in what initially seems like an orphanage environment. Over time, we learn the truth: she and her friends were created solely for the use of their organs.

Throughout the novel, Kathy is always calm and complacent. She doesn’t seek to fight the status quo. It’s eerie, but my research has suggested that it also helps the readers’ schemas to acclimate to the new society Ishiguro built. I argue that the readers were cognitively primed and prepared for the concept of cloning and organ donation long before Ishiguro revealed it. In fact, he balanced this upsetting situation with extremely mundane wording. Some readers even complained that the book was all “telling” rather than “showing.”

However, Never Let Me Go was far more popular than the other book I researched: J by Howard Jacobson. Both of these books were similar in their author backgrounds, genre, publishing date and awards. They both involved some pretty heavy subject matter and schema disruption, however, Never Let Me Go was the clear winner with the wider audience.

Why is this? Based on my research, which I really don’t want to bore you with (you can read my full dissertation here), Never Let Me Go was able to balance both schema preservation and disruption to achieve the holy grail of schema refreshment.

Again, though, it’s important to note that this didn’t occur for every reader. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that that’s pretty much impossible. However, if we want to impress a wider audience, it’s important to find that balance between schema disruption and preservation.

My thesis didn’t have the scope for this step, but I’ve begun reading other books and doing similar comparisons to see how often schema disruption and preservation occur, and how it affects the reader. I don’t have enough data yet to give you an exact formula, and even then, I’m not sure that there is a formula to begin with.

The main takeaway is that we want to keep schema disruption and preservation in mind while we write. If we’re tackling heavy concepts like J and Never let Me Go, we should try to focus on schema preservation as much as possible, as that leads to readers more readily accepting major schema disruptions.

This was only the gist of my research, so if you want to get more details, check out my dissertation.

What are your thoughts on schema disruption, preservation, and refreshment? Leave a comment and let me know!

Bonus for fellow creatives: I compiled my research into a writer’s cheat sheet for Schema Theory, which includes some outlining suggestions to help you visualise the balance of disruption and preservation in your story, plus extra tips to help achieve refreshment. Just sign up to my mailing list and you’ll get that cheat sheet right now:

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