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Book Summary: The Write to Happiness – How to Write Stories to Change Your Brain and Your Life

Writing stories is great therapy because you’re finally speaking the same language as your brain. Veteran screenwriter Samantha Shad finds that stories are fertile ground for working out problems because narrative is the essential language of the brain.


Veteran screenwriter Samantha Shad finds that stories are fertile ground for working out problems because narrative is the essential language of the brain. She packs a lot into her short, readable two-part book – showing first how to “write to happiness,” and then giving the scientific reasons why storytelling works for your brain. By pairing a step-by-step guide on how to write fictitious, therapeutic stories with a survey of neuroscience and storytelling conventions, Shad shows with great empathy that making up stories is how humans compose and understand their lives. The brain is geared for stories, so writing one – yes, now you can – is a powerful way to understand and resolve life’s dilemmas.


  • Writing a story is a personal journey.
  • Stories require conflict. The protagonist and antagonist you create represent opposing forces.
  • In the 1990s, researchers found that “expressive writing” could be therapeutic.
  • As pilots safely practice flying in a flight simulator, writers can practice real-world skills in the simulated setting of story writing.
  • Stories are how humans understand life, synthesize experiences and learn. They are powerful because they arise organically from deep within the brain.
  • The idea of memory as a vault of experiences in the brain is an illusion.
  • When you daydream, the brain switches to the “default mode network” – which imagines scenarios.
  • Humans depend on seeking patterns and telling themselves stories to find meaning.

Book Summary: The Write to Happiness - How to Write Stories to Change Your Brain and Your Life

Writing a story is a personal journey.

Each story you create is an experience of “writing to happiness.” A writer can find both personal answers and universal insights by plying the craft of storytelling.

To begin, identify the “arena” or setting for your story. The story’s “nub” usually will be a subject that is bothering you. Conjure a main character with a goal, and imagine the obstacles he or she must overcome to achieve that goal. Then follow the basic rules of writing to happiness:

  1. Follow the rules of storytelling” – Stories have a beginning, a middle and an end, a hero and villain, helper characters, hardships the main character must beat, and a theme.
  2. Stay focused” – Tell a simple story. Don’t let multiple characters and subplots distract you.
  3. Make friends with your subconscious mind” – The essence of your story is within you. Let the words emerge, and you will find it.
  4. Finish the story with a real ending” – No sudden inventions, heroes or train wrecks.
  5. Your first draft is a car that can only go forward” – Don’t worry about making it better as you go. Write your entire first draft, without second-guessing or editing. Get to the end, and then review it.
  6. Typing isn’t writing” – Putting a million words on your screen accomplishes nothing. Choose your words with care.

To create a process that changes your life, you must allow material simmering below your consciousness to come to light in a way that doesn’t frighten you. Look for subconscious clues and follow them. Dig into research, or wait for a great idea to come to you while you’re gardening, taking a walk or daydreaming. Ideas come from many sources, including dreams, journaling and meditation. Writers should ignore the directive to swat away thoughts that arise while meditating.

“The material that has to sneak up on you because you really don’t want to deal with it right now is exactly the material you need to deal with right now.”

Create a main character who is like you, but not you. Maybe he or she is a little smarter, or dumber, or younger, with a different name. What does that character want? Explore your character to pin down specifics. Find the “but” – the obstacle that stops your character from achieving his or her goal.

Stories require conflict. The protagonist and antagonist you create represent opposing forces.

Conflict adds drama. A character’s “internal landscape” can define him or her as clearly as physical or objective attributes, and it dictates behavior. When you’re building your story idea, flesh out the protagonist and antagonist. They will set up the central conflict. Other characters support them. The antagonist personifies the obstacles keeping your main character from reaching a heartfelt goal. The audience roots for the protagonist and must bond easily with him or her – or it, if your protagonist is an animal. Interview your character to uncover his or her motivations.

“Your protagonist will be someone who is broken in exactly the place where your story will challenge him or her.”

The human brain recognizes story patterns. Create a structure that lets others enjoy your story and learn from it. If your story’s structure is off, people won’t follow it. Your story must have a beginning, a middle and an end. Movies follow a “three-act structure”: Act One introduces the main character and lays out the situation. Something big happens to send the hero on his or her journey in Act Two, when the hero faces obstacles, confronts the antagonist and, after ups and downs, is in utter despair. In Act Three, the hero revives after seeming defeat to face the biggest conflict and prevail.

Put the major events of your story in the order you think is best. Screenwriters use a “beat sheet” to lay out the events in a story. Each beat changes the way the tale unfolds or changes the main character. Put your beats on index cards to make them easy to rearrange. Now, write through your first draft to the end, without second-guessing or editing. One scene should propel the next. If a scene doesn’t push the story forward, cut it. By the end of Act Two, your character should be in such deep trouble that you’re not sure how to dig him or her out. Eventually the solution will come to you. The answer will be creative and novel, and will spin your story in a different direction. Jump-start the process by rewriting your Act Two ending from the point of view of a different character or by deepening your character’s goal. Resolving this problem is the alchemical work of transformation through story-writing.

In the 1990s, researchers found that “expressive writing” could be therapeutic.

Psychologist James Pennebaker urged his clients to spend 20 minutes daily for four days writing about something traumatic or emotional. For two days, he suggests, you should write about the experience. On the third day, write about the event from a different perspective so you can explore how it affected you and your life. On the fourth day, reflect on your writing and encapsulate the event into a memorable story. When considering your work, notice whether you use more negative or positive words. Positive words lead to a more optimistic perspective. As you shape your story structure with “cause-and-effect” moments, you gain insight about how to avoid pain in the future. You build hope.

Pennebaker found that people who completed his expressive writing experiment had fewer illnesses over the following six months. As researchers experimented with expressive writing, positive results stacked up: The exercise boosted immune systems, helped reduce pain in cancer patients, relieved stress and led to lower blood pressure. This exercise helps those who are comfortable with writing more than it does those who aren’t, and it supports those seeking change. However, it didn’t help veterans suffering from PTSD or victims of childhood abuse. For them, it made things worse. What helps non-writers is the shaping and reshaping of the story, something fiction writers do naturally, to tease out meaning.

Researcher Timothy Wilson developed techniques to tap into “unconscious narratives” through writing. In “story-editing,” people start with expressive writing techniques, but “redirect” their narratives for lasting positive change. “Story-prompting” nudges subjects to look more positively at their narratives. For instance, instead of telling the story that you did poorly on a test because you’re a failure, substitute the idea that if you study more, you’ll improve your grade. It’s more hopeful; your future grades are more in your control.

Keep a gratitude journal in which you list 10 things you feel grateful for each day. Write about your perfect future and outline the steps you took to get there. This tells you where to start to change your behavior. Read fiction to stimulate your creativity, reduce stress and keep your mind agile. It improves your relationships because it boosts empathy.

As pilots safely practice flying in a flight simulator, writers can practice real-world skills in the simulated setting of story writing.

When people sleep, they create scenarios and tell stories in their dreams, the ultimate simulation space. Dream stories feature you as the hero, meeting obstacles. Something similar occurs when you write fiction. In a story, you’re the protagonist. You order events in a way that makes sense to you. Other characters help you reframe situations, empower you within those circumstances or challenge you to uncover deeper meaning. By explaining events to your readers, you explain them to yourself. Social science approaches may fall a bit short for you; if so, the remedy is to “go big.” For scholar Joseph Campbell, the point of living was to be fully alive. He discovered “the hero’s journey,” the basic structure of heroic stories since antiquity.

“The archetype Hero, who is an innocent at the beginning of the story, goes forth and faces a series of trials until an ultimate ordeal tests his ability to transform into a stronger, wiser being.”

Campbell showed that the structure of the hero’s story is universal: The hero confronts a “Supreme Ordeal,” in which everything looks lost and none of the old tricks work. The hero is stuck. A lot of writers stop writing at this point, but it’s the “Golden Moment” when you should press forward. This in when the hero transforms, and the hero’s world changes, too. You can experience these travails and triumphs by writing stories. Pay attention to how you solve problems and bring your hero through your story’s challenges.

Stories are how humans understand life, synthesize experiences and learn. They are powerful because they arise organically from deep within the brain.

Daydreams, music, the daily news, personal narratives and gossip – stories – make up most people’s days. Sports and religion offer their own sagas. People live in “Storyopolis,” because that’s how they understand life, synthesize experience and learn. Stories deliver messages or useful information in a compelling way. Narratives transfer knowledge.

“When we dream, we present ourselves with versions of real-world problems, and our brains fire neurons in a pattern or network that embodies reactions to these challenges. We practice and learn optimal reactions to actual threats.”

Brain cells called neurons communicate information electrochemically through networks in the brain. When neurons fire in a specific pattern, it relates to a particular bit of information. People have around 100 billion neurons, each making up to 10,000 connections and constantly firing. The “sympathetic branch” of your nervous system reacts with fight-or-flight neurotransmitters if it senses danger. The “parasympathetic branch” runs oversight on physical systems like digestion, and makes adjustments if necessary for instance, in response to danger. When you’re under stress, your hypothalamus sends out adrenaline to make you alert. Cortisol levels rise to prepare you ready to respond.

When you formulate a story, your brain also releases cortisol, which grabs your attention like a fast-paced, suspenseful opening scene. Next comes a sense of reward fed by dopamine. This heightens engagement. If you bond with a character, you might generate oxytocin, which heightens connection. The brain’s amygdala harnesses strong emotions to turn moments into memories. This is the same brain that dreams. A lot of processing isn’t conscious, and it’s up to the conscious part to figure out what may be going on subconsciously. The rules of fiction give you rational tools that weren’t available to you when real-life traumas happened.

The idea of memory as a vault of experiences in the brain is an illusion.

The brain creates past and present reality on the fly. Memories are mutable. People can change their minds by changing their brains. Repetition and training influence “neuroplasticity,” the brain’s ability to learn. If you don’t repeat new behaviors or skills as the brain rewires changes, they won’t stick. With persistence, you can rewire your neural pathways.

“Neuroplasticity is your brain’s way of growing your knowledge, adjusting your behaviors, toning your mental muscles and staving off the degeneration of your mind. It is what changing your life looks like in your brain.”

“Mental rehearsal” and even dreaming can amplify the new connections you want to make. In effect, “writing is applied neuroplasticity.” By focusing on your story until you resolve your character’s problems, you rewire your brain for the solution.

When you daydream, the brain switches to the “default mode network” – which imagines scenarios.

When you’re doing nothing, the brain’s “default mode network” (DMN), a sort of “low-power” mode, engages. You activate it when you read. Writing creatively also activates the DMN as well as other conscious networks which manage your story and its parallels in your personal history and social thinking. When you watch someone else do something, the brain’s mirror neurons activate as if you were the one doing it. They explain empathy. Movies change between objective and subjective points of view so viewers can experience how the characters feel. When friends talk and truly listen, their “neural circuits” synchronize. A story engages their brains so much that their minds “meld.”

Humans depend on seeking patterns and telling themselves stories to find meaning.

The brain uses patterns to reconstitute a memory. “Superior pattern processing” forms the brain’s basis for communication and, ultimately, progress. The brain’s “interpreter” sorts massive sensory input, figures out what to keep and condenses information to fit in patterns for easy recall. It creates patterns out of random stimuli and convinces you that these patterns exist. The organizing left brain fills missing information with plausible – though not necessarily true – information. Your brain turns information into stories.

“As people who are writing for happiness, we are writing alternatives to our pre-existing, already embedded pattern.”

When a story absorbs you, it changes your perspective and behavior. Writers inhabit the mind of a character to decide what he or she will say and do; then they inhabit the mind of another character to see a reaction or a more objective perspective. Writers experience obstacles from multiple perspectives – and that changes them. As writers engage their whole brains, they increase their neuroplastic capacity, and that helps them learn and grow.

About the author

Former entertainment law attorney Samantha Shad has written more than 20 screenplays for major Hollywood studios, including Class Action. She is also the author of Write Through The Crisis: How To Make Good Use of Bad Times.


Writing, Research, Publishing Guides, Popular Psychology Creativity and Genius, Creativity, Fiction Writing Reference


Why not write your way to happiness?

What happens when avid readers and aspiring writers compose stories? Writing stories transforms their brains and their minds. The Write to Happiness is a miraculous tool that can help readers and writers change their lives in the direction they choose. In her strikingly original writing manual, Samantha Shad teaches them not only how to write great stories, but also how writing will change their life for the better. The process of changing the brain and the process of writing a great story are the same in her skilled hands –– and now in yours. The Write to Happiness teaches professional story structure to help them understand and use the power of storytelling. They’ll also learn why gossip is central to survival, how forgetting creates meaning, and why accurate memory is a joke.


“Put Samantha Shad’s book at the top of your reading list. Not just because of the masterfully delivered scientific data that demonstrates how the act of writing can provide solace for heart, body and soul but especially for the hard-won wisdom that teaches how we can all manifest the confidence to create conscious choice in our lives.” – Georgia Jeffries Author, Screenwriter and Professor, University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts

“Readers prepare yourselves for an adventure. You are facing a master storyteller who challenges the reader with a book on reading and writing fiction. Things get even more exciting when Samantha Shad dives headfirst in brain sciences that participate in the creative process. This should be a warning for the reader to buckle their seatbelt for what Joseph Campbell once called the hero’s journey. Ms. Shad is a storyteller (or mythmaker) on a hero’s quest through a jungle of dangerous facts and poisonous footnotes. Follow her path and you will definitely enjoy, and perhaps profit immensely by following her on a journey into creativity and imagination.” – Jarrett Barnhill, MD, DFAPA, FAACAP, Professor and Director, University of North Carolina Developmental Neuropharmacology Clinic

“This treasure of a book is a delight-to-read tool that shows how we can use our innate talent to tell stories to reprogram our lives. First prescribing the elements of a good story and showing how we can find them in our own lives, Ms. Shad then points to the latest scientific studies to authenticate her methodology. If you have a problem in your life that you can’t seem to solve, this is the book for you.” – JoAnne O’Brien-Levin, PhD, Coaching To Wisdom Developmental Editor

“Wish I’d read this book forty years ago…. I could’ve spent a lot more time on the Riviera!” – Arnold Shulman, screenwriter, A Chorus Line, And the Band Played On.

“An intelligent, thoughtful, and thoroughly entertaining presentation of the best strategies and tactics for crafting the best stories. Samantha Shad is a master storyteller who now shows she is a master teacher as well. She knows how to unpack the powerful magic of story to help us all improve our use of story. I will refer to it time and again in my own work.” – Carl Nordgren, author Becoming a Creative Genius (again).

“This brilliant book takes Story from its source in human development, through its connections to neuroscience. It is the most comprehensive melding of current thoughts on brain plasticity and Story’s ability to affect our lives. I’d recommend The Write To Happiness to anyone who is serious about being a writer as well as to anyone who is serious about becoming a happier person.” – Beth Sullivan, creator and executive producer Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman

“…does a wonderful job helping the writer become their most effective storytelling self.” – The Independent Book Review

“There are so many ‘how to write’ books on the market that a wannabe writer might wonder at the need for yet another, let alone how to make a choice between them. Wonder no longer, because The Write to Happiness is a standout on the subject. It is distinctive because of its ability to cover the basics of crafting ideas into plot, character, setting, and premise into a wider-ranging analysis of what writing ultimately teaches both reader and author.” – Publisher’s Daily Review

“Samantha Shad shows us how each character in our story reflects a little part of ourselves and gives us the opportunity to sort out multiple approaches to our lives as we inspire the lives of our readers. As Shad writes, “Stories are problem-solving machines for the audience.” If you want the rules for writing to happiness this is the book for you. Not only does Shad show you how to do it, she also explains what’s happening in your brain as you engage your story, create your characters, follow them on their journey and, at the same time, have fun in the process.” – Maureen Murdock, author,The Heroine’s Journey and The Unreliable Truth: On Memoir and Memory.

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