Recently, Netflix and Amazon Prime adapted two best-selling series of novels; the Gray Man and Jack Reacher, written by Mark Greaney and Lee Child respectively. Jack Reacher has already been adapted into a movie twice and now sees new life as an Amazon Prime series.

Here’s what these two protagonists have in common.

They are extraordinarily good at what they do. They are incredibly skilled fighters. They are vastly intelligent, and resourceful, able to assess any dangerous situation and come up with a risky plan which they would then follow through while solving problems on the fly.

I’ve always been a fan of action movies from John Wicks, to Fast And Furious, and all Donnie Yen movies. I still remember the visceral joy of watching Donnie Yen take down 10 Japanese fighters in the classic Ip Man movie.

But that joyous feeling lasted at most two hours.

Compare the experience I had while reading my first Jack Reacher novel. Lee Child’s method of writing action was to write the slow stuff fast and the fast stuff slow. What Lee Child did was to break down a typical fist fight scene, into extreme slow motion, putting you right in the eye and mind of the main character, Jack Reacher, as he watches and assesses the threat, calculates angles, the physics of combat, how he should block, where he should aim his fist and feet, who he should attack first, and then decides on the best way of wreaking the most damage with the minimum number of moves. In real life, this entire calculation would have happened in seconds. But in a novel, Lee Child can slow down time so that he’s able to involve the reader in a series of specific details, to make the scene come alive in the reader’s head. By doing so, you, the reader, felt as if YOU were Reacher. You were smart. You were strong. You could kick all kinds of ass.

The connection was deeper and lasted far longer.

When Reacher was adapted into a movie, there were inevitable comparisons between the film and the book versions. I thought both had merits. I shan’t discuss the comparisons, nor whether Tom Cruise fitted the role of Reacher as described in the books. But I would vouchsafe that fans who watched the Reacher films and the upcoming Gray Man film, would be watching out for the action sequences and the set pieces, as described in the books.

Would it shock you to know that the mental experience of watching the set pieces, and reading about them, may not be that different after all? And this is because of…..

Mirror Neurons

The brain weighs 3 ounces.

But what a weight of mystery and wonder it bears. Inside the brain, there are neurons, which are like mental wiring circuits. Amongst these neurons is a category known as mirror neurons, which are so-called because when you view an activity, these neurons fire and cause you to feel a sensation. When you watch a daredevil or an action stunt on the screen, these neurons light up, causing you to feel thrilled.

Here’s the insight.

Mirror neurons become activated not only when we’re observing other people’s behavior, they even fire when we’re reading about someone performing it.

Research scientists used a fmri to scan subjects’ brains when they read phrases like “biting a peach” or “grasping a pen.” When the same subjects observed videos of people performing those two simple actions, identical regions of the brains lit up.

If I were to write “nails scratching on a chalkboard”, chances are good that you will wince and squirm. Your mind automatically conjures the visual and you “hear” the painful screech of nails raking across the board. These are your mirror neurons at work.

What I am getting at, is this. What you write affects your reader’s brain, in ways you can’t imagine. Knowing that gives you a powerful tool as writers and storytellers. It is how you create empathy, for your characters. It is how you connect your readers, to your characters. It is how Lee Child makes his readers feel like they ARE Reacher, with the intellect of a Sherlock and the brute strength of a Terminator.

Final Takeaway

In my past life as a screenwriting lecturer, I’d advise my students to avoid writing scenes with their main characters, yawning, or slouching.

Keep doing that and you will activate the mirror neurons in your reader.

You will induce a yawn.

Reacher does not yawn. The Grey Man does not yawn.

Induce a yawn, and you will put your audience to sleep.

You will bore them.

And boring an audience is the worst sin a storyteller can commit.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Andrew Ngin

Man In The Arena . Once a lecturer. Written television, films, short stories. Older. Singaporean. Still writing. Always with love