What stories do
To connect with others is one of our most primary needs. The worst punishment you can give a person, aside from execution, is isolation. Scientists have documented the effects of social isolation extensively. Even those strongest of character begin to hallucinate soon enough. The mind deteriorates and they cannot distinguish reality from fantasy any more.
Secondly, being in touch with others allows us to be in touch with ourselves more deeply. Anyone who picks up your story is seeking an experience. Usually, preferably, an experience that is completely different from the world they know day-to-day. We get to know ourselves better by being around other people and having new experiences. The purpose of stories is to allow a person to connect through identification and be more in touch with themselves as a result.
Fiction provides us with a mental catalogue of dangerous situations we might face some day and the outcomes of several strategies we could use. Stories give a dress rehearsal that prepares us for possible future events.
How they do it
They are fascinated and threatened by significant change;
We expect to discover someone with a clear goal in a bad situation that keeps getting worse. We crave to experience how they navigate these waters. We want to know what the struggle feels like, without leaving the safety and comfort of our chairs.
Any significant change can and probably will threaten the self-concept. it’s been psychologically proven that the self-concept is so deeply engrained, and so devoutly protected, that most people will go to almost any lengths to protect it as it stands today.
Now consider your reader’s psychological reactions when confronted with a concept-threatening change in the opening of your novel. Mr. Reader begins to worry. So far, so good; he may be willing to worry for a long time. But in today’s hurried, impatient world, that Reader can’t be expected to worry passively about the same vague and unchanging bad situation for several hundred pages. He needs something a bit more concrete to worry about. You meet that need at the outset of your story when you show your character coming up with a vital intention or story goal, designed to “fix things” for him in terms of his sensation of being out of equilibrium with his environment. Every good fiction character is thus goal-motivated.
They want the story to start with such a change;
What does this say to you as a writer? Simply this: For maximum effectiveness, you should start your story at the time of the change that threatens your major character’s self-concept. You will determine what this change will be in your story by thinking about your main character in considerable depth. Having done so, you will then write down his self-concept in a maximum of ten or fifteen words. You will then devise a fictional event that will represent threatening change to him, make him feel miserable and out of sync with his environment – and ready to struggle to make himself “feel right” again.
They want to have a story question to worry about;
The moment your character thinks or says aloud what his goal is – as a result of the change and the need to fix things – you can count on your reader to latch onto that stated goal like a lifeline. The moment your character states his goal, the reader will begin to worry about that – will follow every later story incident and interpret its meaning in terms of your character’s struggle toward that goal – will turn the goal statement into a story question – and keep reading avidly as long as the action relates to the question. So a story starts with change, which leads to a goal, which raises a story question in the reader’s mind.
They want the story question answered in the story ending;
But how do you end the novel? You do so by answering the story question you posed at the outset.
They will quickly lose patience with everything except material that relates to the story question.
Cleaver, J. (2002) Immediate Fiction.
Cron, L. (2012) Wires for Story: the Writer’s Guide to using Brain Science to hook the Readers from the very First Sentence.