by Stefan Emunds
This is the second article of the article series The Yin and Yang Relationship of Psychology and Storytelling. The first article covered how to engage readers. You can read it here.
Why Do Writers Need to Know Psychology?
Writers need to know psychology for four main reasons:
- They need to know how readers think and feel and use that knowledge to engage them.
- They need to understand the psychology of experiencing so they can create story experiences that have a real-to-life feel.
- They need to design characters with plausible traits, flaws, talents, motivations, etc.
- They need to know themselves — why they write, what they really want to write about, and how to get out of their own way.
This article explains how to create story experiences that feel real to life.
The Eight Crafts of Writing
These articles are written with The Eight Crafts of Writing in mind. The eight writing crafts are:
- Big Idea (aka theme)
- Narrative (including POV)
- Story Outline (aka plotting)
- World Building
- Scene Structure
- Prose (aka line-by-line writing)
The author will refer to the eight writing crafts throughout this article series.
Note: To avoid confusing readers, the author of these articles avoided the alternation of she and her and he and him. Instead, he uses the nonexclusive she and her to mean writer and reader. The Psychology of Experiencing & Storytelling
Life is a string of experiences. Stories are virtual experiences, presented in a sequence of scenes.
Who experiences? The mind does. Hence, writers need to know the psychology of experiencing and apply that to stories. This allows them to conjure an engaging and immersive reading experience for their readers.
It’s your job as a writer, to make your book real.
– Margaret Atwood
Simplified, experiences involve five mental faculties:
- The senses
- The self
- The intellect
A. The Sensory Stream
In real life, our senses turn external experiences into a multimedia stream and project that onto the brain’s frontal lobe. Our self watches that projection as it watches TV or reads stories.
In storytelling, prose or line-by-line writing emulates the sensual stream.
B. The Self
In real life, the self relates experiences to itself, reacts to them, and evaluates them.
In storytelling, POV emulates the self.
Our nervous system has two independent neural perception paths. The first reacts involuntarily to experiences. The second responds voluntarily to experiences.
Visceral responses and emotions rule involuntary reactions, such as fear, aggression, disgust, infatuation, or joy.
Writers need to emulate emotions. Writing visceral/emotional reactions puts tension on the page. Tension is a major story engager.
Advanced Writer Tip: We can be curious and frightened at the same time. Conflicting emotions boost tension.
D. The Intellect
In real life, the ego also responds voluntarily to experiences — with the help of the intellect.
The intellect analyzes experiences and assesses their significance. This is the self’s cognitive response to experiences.
Writers can take advantage of the fact that the intellect is super curious. Curiosity keeps the reader turning pages.
Feelings and emotions are two different affairs. The body conjures emotions, but feelings come from the heart or soul.
Examples of emotions are fear, anger, disgust, arousal, and excitement. Emotions are dualistic, for example, like and dislike, or sad and joyful.
Examples of feelings: love, a sense of beauty, a sense of purpose, and happiness. Feelings are not dualistic. They increase and decrease.
Janus, The God With Two Faces
The human self experiences two worlds: the internal and external world. The human self is Janus, the two-faced god, who dwells on the threshold.
We experience and act in the external world, which is ruled by physical, chemical, and biological laws. The external world is severe. If we miss by an inch, we miss. It’s a competitive place and out there, we can get hurt or even killed.
We imagine, dream, feel, and think in the internal world. The internal world defies physics. We can fly without wings, dive without gills, and shapeshift. It’s a merciful world because there are no limits to our imagination and we always get a second chance. It’s the place where the magic happens.
The following line of thought demonstrates how in-connectible the two worlds are: We can measure social progress on people’s success in manifesting internal (human) values in the external (inhuman) world, like love, beauty, a sense of purpose, and happiness. But feelings don’t make it into the external world. We create external circumstances — for example, a relationship — that allow us to experience feelings. Stories are virtual circumstances that allow readers to (re-)experience their inherent humanity.
The Rhythm of External and Internal Experiences
Like in real life, stories hav internal and external movements, and writers need to distinguish suavely and with great ingenuity between the two.
Let’s take love and romance as an example. Usually lumped together, a romance is the external arc of a relationship, and love is the characters’ internal experience — besides infatuation, passion, obsession, and other emotions.
Story characters connect internal and external movements and establish an experience-response rhythm: external event → internal response → analysis → decision → action → external reaction → internal response → and so on.
Our self judges external events according to internal references. For example, we may judge an external reaction according to whether we got what we wanted. Or we may judge information according to how true it is. Other internal references are desires, morality, religion, feelings, and fixed ideas. The protagonist’s internal reference is her story goal.
Everybody goes through this experience cycle a hundred times a day. For that reason, readers will instantly notice when a writer gets it wrong.
The Stimulus-Response Mechanism
On the scene level, the experience cycle becomes the stimulus-response mechanism, aka Motivation Reaction Units (Dwight Swain).
The external experience is the stimulus to which the POV character responds. The response has the following sequence: reflex → emotional and visceral reaction → instinctive response → habitual response → thought → action → dialogue → feeling.
Reflexes, visceral responses, and emotions are involuntary. The body executes them without our doing and the self can just watch them come and go.
- Example of a reflex: Pulling back when a snake strikes at us.
- Examples of visceral responses: a hammering heart, a tightening stomach, and a wave of nausea.
- Examples of emotions: fear, aggression, infatuation, and disgust.
- Example of an instinctive response: Scratching the head in case of confusion.
Mind the difference between reactions and responses: we can’t do anything about reactions, but we can suppress and train responses.
Habitual responses are trained responses. An instinctive response to a punch is dodging. A habitual, trained response is blocking the punch with an arm.
Mind that the stimulus-response mechanism is a mix of internal and external movements:
- Stimulus: external event
- Reflex: external event (can cause an external reaction)
- Emotional and visceral reaction: internal event
- Instinctive response: external event (can cause an external reaction)
- Habitual response: external event (can cause an external reaction)
- Thought: internal event
- Action: external event
- Dialogue: external event
- Feeling: internal event
Why is it important to know these detailed responses?
To create story depth. Writers can make their story characters react in different ways and thus create a more splendrous reading experience. When a scene feels dull, have a closer look at your stimulus response elements and add some or write some fresh.
Divorcing stimuli and responses is a storytelling sin. If you put a stimulus on the page, you need to put the response on the page too or you leave the rea