Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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October 7, 2022

3 Principles to Make Your Story Experience as Real-to-Life as Possible

by Stefan Emunds

Image illustrates Storytelling and Psychology — The Yin and Yang of Storytelling with a photo like picture of a bald head with two faces, one red and one blue.

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:

  1. They need to know how readers think and feel and use that knowledge to engage them.
  2. They need to understand the psychology of experiencing so they can create story experiences that have a real-to-life feel.
  3. They need to design characters with plausible traits, flaws, talents, motivations, etc.
  4. 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:

  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)

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:

  1. The senses
  2. The self
  3. The intellect
  4. Emotions 
  5. Feelings

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.

C. Emotions

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.

E. Feelings

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.

External World

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.

Internal World

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.

Figure eight illustration of  rhythm of external and internal experiences with external on the left and internal on the right in this order: external event →internal response→ analysis → decision →action →external reaction →internal response →and so on for Storytelling and Psychology — The Yin and Yang of Storytelling.

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 reader hanging (the famous gun on the wall). If you put a response on the page but leave out the stimulus, readers will get confused.

You can let a character respond with one, a few, or all response types, you just need to get the sequence right.

Here is an example:

Harriette approaches the snake aquarium. The sign reads King Cobra. The cobra rises, spreads its collar, and sways left and right, black eyes on Harriette, split tongue twitching.

Harriette taps on the glass.

The cobra strikes [stimulus]. Thumb.

Harriette’s hand pulls back [reflex]. A jolt of fear crackles through her backbone like lighting [visceral response and emotion]. She takes a step back [instinctive/habitual response]. Good, there’s gorilla glass between her and the cobra [thought/cognitive response].

She wags her finger [action]. “Hey, you scared me.” [dialogue]

Harriette turns her back on the snake and makes her way to the lizard aquarium. After a few steps, empathy [feeling] laces into her fading adrenaline. Harriette looks back at the cobra who still sways, predator eyes fixed on her, probably dreaming of one last deadly strike.

Further reading: Lynette Burrows' article on the Motivation Reaction Unit is a great addendum to read.

More Storytelling and Psychology

Thank you for reading the second article of the article series Storytelling and Psychology — The Yin and Yang of Writing. The next installment will cover how to design characters with plausible traits, flaws, talents, and motivations.

Do you balance stimuli and responses? What is your ratio in writing (external/internal)? Do you overuse or underuse certain reactions and responses? Do you know how to write responses fresh? Please share an example in the comments below.

Note: You can buy The Eight Crafts of Writing here or take the course on 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 has worked as a business development manager in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. At the moment, he lives with his son in the Philippines.

11 comments on “3 Principles to Make Your Story Experience as Real-to-Life as Possible”

  1. Stefan, I am a huge fan of Dwight V. Swain's MRU and other techniques so was delighted you referenced them and my article. I like how you distinguish between the internal and external. I'm also fascinated by the distinctions you make between feelings and emotions. Thanks for adding tools to my writer's box of tricks.

    1. That was actually me referencing your article because the fit was perfect! I have Dwight Swain's book but I wasn't ready for it yet when I bought it. (I was still a super new writer and I didn't understand it then.)

      After reading both your posts, I feel like I'm finally READY. *wiggles fingers*

    2. Thank you for liking the article, Lynette. 🙂 Dwight's MRU or the stimulus response mechanism as I call it, is the weaving technique of scene writing. It weaves the six scene building blocks (narrative, description, action beats, dialogue, dialogue tags and beats, and internalization) into a causal pattern. That keeps the reader reading.

  2. Hello Stefan,

    Interesting blog post!

    Regarding understanding the psychology of a character, to be sure I had the characteristics correct for my antagonist I spoke with a forensic psychologist about him.

    Writing his character was not easy and brought up bad memories, but he is believable.

    1. Thank you, Ellen! 🙂 You brought up a good point. We should not neglect the psychology of the antagonist. The antagonist produces the inciting incident, drives the middle, and throws the protagonist into an all-is-lost moment. When the antagonist's motivations, wants, and goals are superficial or forced, the entire story suffers credibility.

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