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The Romance Novelist’s Secret Weapon by Angela Knight

It’s tough out there for a romance novelist.

Competition in the crowded field of self-publishing is ferocious, and the New York publishing world is even more cutthroat. That’s aside from the distractions provided by YouTube videos and blockbuster movies with dazzling visual special effects.

How can a poor writer compete?

By using our ultimate secret weapon: the reader’s brain.

Once you understand the brain’s reward system and how it works, you can use that knowledge to hook readers from the very first sentence and build a successful career. Every reader who discovers your work will spread the word, and you’ll capture the attention of reviewers and editors alike.

Here’s the key thing to remember: we evolved tell stories, and they serve such an important purpose, the brain rewards us for reading them.

That’s because storytelling isn’t just entertainment — it’s a survival strategy, as revealed in Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. I picked that book up several years ago, and I’ve found it invaluable in understanding what drives readers to read, and how to give them what they’re looking for.

Author Lisa Cron writes that storytelling served a vital survival purpose for our ancestors. What’s more, it continues to do so for today’s readers, whether we’re consciously aware of it or not. “Before there were books, we read each other…We instinctively know everyone has an agenda, and we want to be sure that agenda is not to clobber us.”

“Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution, more so than opposable thumbs,” she continues. “Opposable thumbs let us hold on; story told us what to hold on to.”

In those preliterate days, she says, people used storytelling to educate children and each other. They passed on knowledge of dangerous predators and tasty prey, and used stories to teach by engaging the emotions of their audience.

Cron speculates that hair-raising tales of sabretooth tigers taught kids to take precautions so they didn’t end up on the cat’s menu. The same techniques work with today’s readers.

Storytelling is the brain’s way of pulling information out of the sensory storm around us, connecting it together, and turning it into a story we can use to predict what may happen next, she says.

“When a story enthralls us, we are inside it, feeling what its protagonist feels, experiencing it as if it were indeed happening to us.”

We can then apply the same reasoning to our own problems – and the brain rewards us for doing so. Science illustrates how this works, Cron explains. Brain scans show when we watch someone playing a sport, the same areas light up in an observer’s brain as the player’s. It’s as if she’s the one playing. Neurologists call this a “mirroring” reaction.

Have you ever watched a movie fight scene and found yourself half-punching along with the hero? Maybe you’ve even winced in pain when he’s hit. That’s mirroring.

Cron writes that brain scans show the exact same reaction in people who are reading an engaging book.


The effect on the reader can be literally life-changing.

“Even more exciting, it turns out that a powerful story can have a hand in rewiring the reader’s brain — helping to instill empathy, for instance – which is why writers are, and have always been, the most powerful people in the world.”

But how does storytelling do that? How can a writer use brain science to write a better book?

When you read an engaging story, Crone writes, your brain gets a rewarding shot of a brain chemical called dopamine. This is the same neurotransmitter that drives all kinds of addictions, ranging from cocaine to chocolate. It also rewards more positive activities, like reading and being with a loved one.

For writers, the secret is to trigger the brain’s reward centers by establishing in the first chapter that A.) an interesting person has B.) an interesting problem, that will C.) have serious consequences if she doesn’t solve it. Then you quickly reveal that D.) she also has internal issues that make solving that problem almost impossible.


By creating that kind of set up, you can get the reader deeply involved in the story.

As she reads, she makes predictions about what she thinks is going to happen next. Cron writes that every time a reader learns something she expected to learn, she gets a little zap of dopamine. But when she learns something that surprises her, that zap is more intense and pleasurable.


Now, what’s the implication of that for romance writers?

Just recently, I picked up a book by one of my auto buys — a talented novelist who writes some of the most exciting books I’ve ever read. I bought this book the minute I saw the ad for it and settled in, happily anticipating the absorbing read she usually provides.

Two chapters later, I quit reading. The writing was as smooth as always, featuring the kind of characters I delight in. The heroic couple met and went on a date, exchanged witty banter…

And I did not care.

Remember that checklist I gave at the beginning? A.) An interesting person has B.) an interesting problem, that will C.) have serious consequences if she doesn’t solve it. D.) She also has internal issues that make solving that problem almost impossible.

The book had a pair of interesting characters, but what the author didn’t do is in those first chapters is provide the interesting problem with serious consequences and the internal issues that would make solving it impossible. For a romance, that means a romantic conflict – something that would keep the characters from their Happy Ever After ending.

She’s a good author, so I feel sure she would have gotten around to establishing a romantic conflict sooner or later. Unfortunately, I didn’t care enough to stick around. The world is full of books, so I went off to find the one that would give me that lovely dopamine buzz I was looking for.


And that’s exactly the reader reaction that you do not want.

Now, that won’t stop me from buying her next book, because this author really is one of my auto buys. I’ve read twenty or so of her romances, and she’s always delivered every time before. But if that had been the first time I’d bought one, I probably wouldn’t have bought another.

I’m sure you see the moral of that story. From the very first sentence on the very first page, you need to engage the reader’s curiosity and promise plenty of dopamine.

But there’s more to it than just creating a serious problem and interesting characters who are desperate to solve it. You also need to surprise, because surprise is the key to the very best dopamine buzz.


That means you need to decide what the obvious solution to the problem is — and do something completely different.

Note that different doesn’t mean dumb. The actions your characters take must make logical sense. If, for example, it would be logical for the heroine to call the cops on her nasty stalker, you must give her a good reason to call the hero instead.

The worst thing you can do is make your heroine Too Stupid to Live. Maybe she can’t call the cops because she’s a vampire and doesn’t want to attract their attention. Maybe her stalker is a cop, and she knows they won’t believe her.

Then, once you have the character, her problem, and the internal conflict that makes it difficult to solve, you must keep making the situation worse.

Maybe the stalker graduates to cutting the brake lines on her car. After that, he sets her house on fire. Every time the threat increases so does the reader’s interest as she tries to predict what happens next.

Then, when the book hits its climax, the heroic couple’s situation really goes to hell. Everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and the reader flips pages frantically, trying to find out how the characters survive and get their Happily Ever after.

At that point, you need to solve the problem in a way the reader doesn’t see coming. You want to delight and surprise her so much, she goes looking for every book you have ever written.

Why? Because she knows you give great dopamine.

Happy writing!

Angela Knight

Love this article? Check out Angela’s class  Braiding Conflicts to build the Perfect Climax with Angela Knight From April 2 – April 29

[box type=bio]

Angela KnightAngela Knight is the New York Times bestselling author of the Mageverse paranormal series for Penguin Putnam’s Berkley imprint. She started out as a comic book writer in 1988, but was first published in erotic romance in 1996 in Red Sage’s Secrets anthology series. Since then, she has written 50 books, including 18 novels and more than 30 novellas and ebooks.

She has also won a Career Achievement Award in Paranormal Romance from Romantic Times Bookclub Magazine, along with two RT Critics Choice awards for Best Erotic Romance and Best Werewolf Romance.




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Olivia Flynn finds herself on the brink of death, unable to call upon her Sidhe magic, when a handsome stranger rescues her. But this male is no ordinary human, and Olivia wants nothing to do with him. The foreign magic boiling around him is far beyond the power of even the Sidhe.

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Here’s an Excerpt.

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