Writers in the Storm

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August 5, 2022

The Yin and Yang Relationship Between Psychology and Storytelling

by Stefan Emunds

This new multi-part series at Writers In the Storm by Stefan Emunds examines the intersection of psychology and storytelling. Stefan, the author of the international bestseller, The Eight Crafts of Writing, is demystifying the how-to of applying psychology to storytelling to enhance your skills and the readers’ experience.

Why Do Writers Need to Know Psychology?

There main reason writers need to know psychology is to enrich their storytelling. Here are four more reasons:

1. Engagement. Knowing how readers think and feel allows you to leverage that knowledge to engage them more fully in your story.

2. Relatability. Understanding the psychology of experiencing helps writers create story experiences that have a real-to-life feel.

3. Truth. When writers design characters with plausible traits, flaws, talents, motivations, etc., the reader will believe in them.

4. Understanding. Writers need to know themselves — why they write, what they really want to write about, and how to get out of their own way.

The Eight Crafts of Writing

This entire series of articles is written with The Eight Crafts of Writing in mind. These eight writing crafts are:

  1. Big Idea (aka theme)
  2. Genre
  3. Narrative (including POV)
  4. Story Outline (aka plotting)
  5. Characterization
  6. World Building
  7. Scene Structure
  8. Prose (aka line-by-line writing)

Reader Investment and Engagement

Readers don’t just invest money — by buying your book — but also time and effort. They suspend their disbelief and invest trust, meaning they give you, the writer, the benefit of the doubt that you will deliver on your story and style promise.

They make efforts figuring out clues and blinds, twists and turns, and foreseeing climaxes. Last but not least, they invest emotionally by rooting for story characters and weathering conflicts and tension.

Reader investment is your goal. Reader investment means success.

Your story will be successful if you get total strangers to read the first chapter of your book and hook them enough to read the second. And the third. And so on.

Reader investment means reader engagement.

Creating Reader Engagement

What makes readers open a book and keep turning the pages?

These nine engagers:

  • Empathy
  • Curiosity
  • Tension
  • Inspiration and motivation
  • Sense of wonder and beauty
  • Emotional thrill
  • Excitement
  • Satisfaction
  • Feelings

Let’s have a closer look at the nine engagers.

Empathy

Empathy is the root engager. If readers don’t root for the protagonist, they won’t be curious about what will happen to her, nor get tense when the going gets tough. We’ll cover how to weave empathy in a later article.

Curiosity

Make the audience put things together. Dont give them four, give them two plus two. — Andrew Stanton

People are curious souls. They wonder how it feels to walk in someone else’s moccasins for a moon. Or in someone else’s high heels for a month. Is the grass really greener on the other side? How does it feel to have no garden? How does it feel to have an entire park as a garden? People read to experience situations they can’t or don’t want to encounter in real life. 

Curiosity manifests in two ways:

  • Expectation or anticipation (positive curiosity)
  • Worry (negative curiosity)

Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty. — William Archer

Curiosity is an intellectual/cognitive affair. You can maintain your readers’ curiosity by raising questions, in particular, the global story question: Will the protagonist succeed or not? But don’t just raise any question, questions need to come with challenges (no challenges, no story).

The antagonist (the agent of adversity) stands between the protagonist and the story goal. The greater the power divide between the protagonist and antagonist, the greater the curiosity:

  • Small power divide: Readers wonder whether the protagonist will succeed.
  • Large power divide: Readers wonder how on earth the protagonist can possibly succeed.
  • Optimal power divide and story jackpot: Readers are convinced that it is impossible for the protagonist to succeed.

In the case of series, writers give their protagonists an umbrella goal and keep them from achieving it. The Blacklist would end the moment Elizabeth Keen is safe. The 100 would end the moment these guys get a life. Tony Soprano better not succeed with his therapy, and Uhtred better not get his kingdom.

Many screenplays have seven or eight sequences, and each sequence begins with a challenge/question and ends with an answer: success or failure. You can do the same thing with chapters and acts.

You can boost reader curiosity with dramatic devices, for example, with a cliffhanger. A cliffhanger separates a question and its answer with a chapter, act, or even book break.

Tension

Tension arises from the discrepancy between want and reality. In order to feel tension, readers must empathize with characters.

Tension manifests in two ways:

  • Hope/anticipation: The reader wants something to happen, for example, that the protagonist succeeds
  • Worry: The reader wants something not to happen, for example, that the protagonist fails.

In other words, your reader must care what happens. Otherwise, he wont worry*, and worry is the big product that a writer sells. — Dwight V. Swain

* Worry = negative curiosity.

While curiosity is binary, tension arcs:

The antagonist and adversity stand between the protagonist and her success. The antagonist and adversity catalyze tension.

Empathy + Adversity = Tension

You can use dramatic devices to increase tension, for example, by:

  • Adding various types of adversity
  • Raising stakes
  • Complicating complications
  • Adding unexpected twists
  • Adding deadlines
  • Revealing hidden agendas

Tension and Curiosity

Tension and curiosity are the most effective story engagers — enabled by empathy.

Ever heard that stories are story-driven or character-driven? Best if they are both.

Oversimplified, character-driven stories engage readers with tension, and story-driven stories engage readers with curiosity. Writers design curiosity with Story Outline and create tension with Characterization and Narrative.

Inspiration & Motivation

Big Ideas inspire and motivate readers. Great stories deliver inspiring what-ifs, morals, or wisdom bytes. What if a vampire hates being one?

A protagonist who succeeds against all odds can inspire and motivate readers to follow her example in real life. That’s the power of narrative. Politicians, economists, and prophets engage in narratives to make that power work for them.

Sense of Wonder & Beauty

You can produce a sense of wonder and beauty with splendrous descriptions of characters and story worlds. Classical examples for the latter are Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings.

Ugly worlds can produce a sense of wonder and (dark) beauty too, for example, dystopian worlds and Nordic Noir.

Emotional Thrill

Readers engage with stories because they allow them to enjoy emotional thrill without the dangers that come with it in real life.

You can engage readers with emotional thrill through action beats and conflict-based dialogue.

Excitement

Stories are virtual adventures. What is more exciting than following a heroine on her heroic journey?

Satisfaction

We experience satisfaction when we succeed in endeavors and avert danger. The story resolution delivers poetic justice, and that conjures a sense of satisfaction in readers.

Feelings

Feelings and emotions are two different affairs. Thrill, excitement, satisfaction, anger, disgust, and infatuation are emotions. Love, happiness, a sense of beauty and purpose are feelings.

Feelings, aka aesthetic emotions, are somewhat elusive because, unlike emotions, experiences can’t trigger them. Feelings need to be cultivated, for example, in art or in a relationship (one could consider a relationship a piece of art).

How often do we express unconditional love in real life? Happiness? Beauty? Purpose? Stories are great opportunities to reveal, explore, and communicate feelings.

Emotions sell. That’s why romance, action, horror, and thriller are the leading genres. But readers have become more demanding and desire deeper stories, stories with existential depths that conjure feelings and touch the heart. Many stories that come out of Asia aim at readers’ hearts.

A Word on Conflict

True, there can never be enough conflicts in a story, but conflict is a sub-category of adversity, not an engager in its own right.

We experience adversity on five levels:

  1. Physical adversity (storms, droughts, etc.)
  2. Natural adversity (predators, sickness, etc.)
  3. Social conflicts
  4. Inter-personal conflicts
  5. Intra-personal/psychological conflicts, e.g. conflicts between thoughts and feelings

As you can see, adversity takes the form of conflict only on the social, relationship, and psychological levels.

Writers craft social conflicts through World Building.

Writers craft inter-personal conflicts through Characterization. Conflicts between people can assume two forms:

  • Physical (action)
  • Verbal (drama)

Conflicts catalyze curiosity and tension, which are the true engagers. Conflicts make it harder for the protagonist to realize the story goal, which engages readers with tension. Conflicts give also rise to the question whether the protagonist will prevail, which engages readers with curiosity.

Balancing Engagement

How many engagers should a writer use at any given time in her story?

Empathy needs to be present at all times because it enables curiosity and tension.

Too few engagers and your story gets boring. Too many engagers would stress out your readers.

Comparing a story with a cake, make empathy your cake’s base layer, use tension and curiosity to fill it with emotional thrills, ice the whole thing with inspiration, sprinkle on a splendor of wonder and beauty and excitement, light some feely candles, and place an all-resolving cherry on top. Or a lemon.

Thank you for reading! The next installment of this series covers the psychology of experiencing and how to apply that to storytelling.

Which engagers are you good at using and which ones are you struggling with? Which ones do you overuse? Which ones should you use more often? Please share in the comments below.

Note: You can buy The Eight Crafts of Writing here (available on Kindle Unlimited or in paperback) or take the course at the Lawson Writer’s Academy here.

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About Stefan

Stefan Emunds is the author of The Eight Crafts of Writing. He writes inspirational non-fiction and visionary fiction stories and runs an online inspiration and enlightenment workshop. Stefan was born in Germany and enjoyed two years backpacking in Australia, New Zealand, and South-East Asia in his early twenties. Prior to becoming a writer, he worked as a business development manager in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. At the moment, he lives with his son in the Philippines.

Leave a Reply

11 comments on “The Yin and Yang Relationship Between Psychology and Storytelling”

  1. Holy smokes, this is such an interesting take on writing. I especially like the way you are so purposeful about reading engagement. I definitely use Empathy and Tension and a whole lot of Feelings. I also use a bunch of humor, but I'm not sure what bucket that falls into.

    I will be reading this post multiple times to digest it all and I'm super excited about the series.

    1. Feelings are hard to put on the page, so kudos to you!

      I'm not sure humor is an engager. Humor goes with curiosity, meaning a joke builds up curiosity which the punch line releases through a surprising revelation. We release (emotional) tension through a catharsis which makes the reader cry. We release (the tension of) curiosity through surprising revelations or a humor hit. Laughter is then as cathartic as tears, just on the cognitive side. If the revelation has a humor hit, we laugh, if it doesn't the reader experiences a moment of awe. Does this make sense?

  2. Good gosh, there's so much brilliant here it broke my brain. I can't count how many times I caught myself staring at the screen and forgetting to scroll because my mind was processing and applying to my writing. This isn't a blog post, it's a reference and required reading. Sharing!

  3. I want to put these engagers on my wall and work on exploring each. I've definitely been working on a sense of wonder recently, but I also want to bring the feels, for sure. Thanks for this, Stefan. Fantastic post!

    1. Thank you Lisa! 🙂 A great book that engages with a sense of wonder is The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. I believe engaging with feelings is the art of arts.

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