Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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December 16, 2022

Tap Readers' Subconscious to Engage Them in Your Story

by Stefan Emunds

This is the third article of the article series The Yin and Yang Relationship Between Psychology and Storytelling. The first article covers reader investment and reader engagement. The second article explains how to create story experiences that feel real to life. This article takes a deep look at readers' subconscious responses to stories and details how to engage them with the eight writing crafts.

Why Do Writers Need to Know Psychology?

Writers need to know psychology for four main reasons:

  1. Know how readers think and feel and use that knowledge to engage them.
  2. Understand the psychology of experiencing so they can create story experiences that have a real-to-life feel.
  3. Design characters with plausible traits, flaws, talents, motivations, etc.
  4. 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 article is written with eightcrafts.com in mind. The eight writing crafts are:

  • Big Idea (aka theme)
  • Genre
  • Narrative
  • Story Outline (aka plotting)
  • Characterization
  • World Building
  • Scene Structure
  • Prose (aka line-by-line writing)

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 Two Neural Perception Networks

Our body has two neural perception networks:  voluntary and involuntary.

The voluntary perception network presents sense impressions to our self, which reacts consciously and voluntarily to experiences. An involuntary perception network produces visceral responses and emotions.

These two perception networks act independently and simultaneously.

The involuntary perception network is good news for writers because readers can’t help responding to stories if the writer knows how to trigger emotional responses.

The Four Parts of the Brain

Simplified, the brain has four parts or faculties:

  • The self
  • Intelligence
  • Creativity and feelings
  • The lower part of the brain that manages subconscious activities and produces emotions

Hormones and Tension

The brain continuously tracks discrepancies between motivations and reality, for example, the motivation for finding food and its availability. Discrepancies produce tension.

Tension is a major story engager. The inciting incident throws the protagonist’s life out of order. The protagonist responds by formulating the story goal. She believes that if she reaches the story goal, her life will return to normal.

Discrepancy between the story goal and the story reality produces the main story tension. The main story tension waxes and wanes as the protagonist fights adversity and moves closer to and away from the story goal. The climax resolves the main story tension.

On scene level, the POV character reacts to the scene stimulus by formulating a scene goal. The pursuit of the scene goal produces tension. Tension waxes and wanes as the POV character struggles with adversity until the climactic action resolves the scene tension.  

Hormones produce tension in three basic scenarios:

  1. In case the discrepancy between want and reality is small and not life-threatening, the brain releases endorphins. Endorphins motivate the self and off it goes, excited to find food. Readers get excited when the heroine formulates her story goal and embarks on her heroic journey. Excitement is an engager.
  2. In case the discrepancy between want and reality is great or life-threatening, the brain releases adrenaline, norepinephrine, and/or cortisol. Action, thriller, and horror scenes give readers adrenaline boosts.
  3. When the protagonist meets the story goal, readers will experience the release of serotonin, which gives them a sense of satisfaction. That’s what the happy ending and poetic justice are good for. Satisfaction is an engager. Serotonin is not the only satisfaction hormone. In case the protagonist mates, it’s oxytocin, which gives readers a sense of satisfying affection and intimacy.

Writers are alchemists. They concoct endorphins, adrenaline, norepinephrine, cortisol, oxytocin, and serotonin in their readers’ brains.

Emotional/Visceral Responses

Our body has evolved its capability to emote over millions of years. Most emotional-visceral responses serve survival. Big and fast-approaching objects trigger fear. So does standing at the edge of a precipice. Without emotions, we would look at an approaching lion and we would be like, “Wow! Awesome! Interesting!” And we would be dead.

Emotions can be pleasant and unpleasant. Examples of unpleasant emotions are disgust, fear, and anger. Examples of pleasant (and tempting) emotions are infatuation, excitement, and satisfaction. Together, they produce the dualism of good and bad times.

The border between pleasant and unpleasant emotions is fuzzy.

Some people take pleasure in pain. Many like to flirt with fear by going parachuting or by reading a thriller. People like to experience unpleasant emotions because it makes them feel more alive. Stories allow people to enjoy unpleasant emotions in a safe environment.

Genres promise readers emotional experiences. Action stories promise adrenaline kicks. Horror stories allow readers to experience fear and disgust. Romances promise love and infatuation.

Animals react emotionally only to experiences. No experience, no emotions.  Humans can react emotionally also to memories, thoughts, and imaginations. That's why humans react emotionally to stories.

Voluntary Cognitive Responses

Of course, our self also responds consciously and intelligently to experiences. Our self analyzes experiences, assesses their importance, comes up with solutions to adversity, and anticipates the future.

By nature, people are curious. Curiosity is a major story engager and tempts readers to engage with stories intellectually.

Writers design curiosity by raising and answering story questions, as well as weaving twists and clues and red herrings into the story. Crime stories make amply use of curiosity.

Curiosity and tension are the main story engagers. Together, they move stories forward.

Voluntary Feely Responses

Feelings and emotions are two different affairs. Emotions are involuntary reactions to experiences, like fear, anger, and disgust. On the other hand, feelings come from the heart or soul, for example, love, gratitude, and happiness.

Emotions only stir if external events, memories, or ideas trigger them. Feelings need to be cultivated. Love is a muscle. And we can love people and dislike them at the same time.

When feelings conquer emotions, heroes happen. Do you want to see that in action? Watch Better Call Saul on Netflix, Season 1, Episode 2 (Mijo), timestamp 34:30.


Saul, an ex-con man who pursues a career as a lawyer, persuades two guys to hustle a potential client. They end up hustling the wrong woman, who turns out the mother of a Mexican gangster.

The scene:

The gangster takes the three into the desert and interrogates Saul. After explaining himself and the mix-up, Saul gets to walk. The other two face their demise because they insulted the gangster’s mother. Saul has all the reasons to walk away and save his life, but his compassion overrides his fear. He turns around and risks his fresh-won life by trying to talk the gangster out of killing the other two.

The Emotional and Cognitive Responses of Story Characters

The most important products you sell to readers are tension, curiosity, and emotions.

When you write scenes, you need to keep in mind that your story characters are exposed to the action and should respond accordingly. At least the responses of your POV characters need to be on the page. Mind that story characters may respond differently than readers.

Reader Reactions vs Real Life Reactions

When a grizzly attacks, most readers will react with fear. A seasoned hunter story character may not. Stay in character.

In real life, responses follow the following sequence: reflex → emotional & visceral reaction → instinctive response → habitual response → thought → action → dialogue → feeling.

Reflex, emotional & visceral reaction, instinctive response, and habitual response are involuntary, the rest are voluntary responses.

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

The Eight Crafts of Writing and Reader Engagement

You have nine engagers at your disposal to pull readers into your story:

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

Big Idea engages the reader’s intellect. The reader's response to a big idea is curiosity. Example: What if an AI enslaves humans and uses their bodies as batteries?

Narrative engages readers by pulling them into a character’s POV. Narrative can also engage readers through mystery and suspense, which engages readers with tension and curiosity.

Genre engages readers with curiosity. Readers are always looking forward to fresh stories in their favorite genre.

Genres also create curiosity through their baked-in story goals:

  • Crime: How will the detective catch the culprit?
  • Romance: Will the girl get the guy?
  • Horror: Will the monster upend the world?

Story Outline milestones engage in unique ways. For example, crossing into adventure induces excitement, and the poetic justice scene at the end of the story induces satisfaction.

Characterization produces empathy, which is the major story engager. Characterization can also weave a sense of wonder and beauty, for example, the beautiful description of a wonderful character:

From Hard Times by Charles Dickens:

"He was a rich man, banker, merchant, manufacturer, and whatnot. A big, loud man, with a stare, and a metallic laugh. A man made out of coarse material, which seemed to have been stretched to make so much of him. A man who was always proclaiming, through that brassy speaking-trumpet of a voice of his, his old ignorance and his old poverty. A man who was the bully of humility."

World Building conjures a sense of wonder and beauty. Part of World Building is world conflict design. World conflict produces tension and curiosity.

Scenes are little stories within your story. You could rig your scenes with all nine engagers, but that would likely stress out your readers. You may want to reserve that for key scenes like the inciting incident, the all-is-lost moment, and the climax.

Prose produces emotional thrill through action beats and dialogue and summons feelings through internalization.

Readers enjoy a full-brain engagement.

Oversimplified, Hollywood productions bank on Big Idea and Story Outline, but they struggle with deep Characterization and putting feelings on the screen. Exceptions to the latter are movies like The Titanic.

Literary fiction excels in drama and Characterization, but at times lacks Story Outline, in particular, satisfying story climaxes. Some productions are great at putting the heart on fire but tend to lack proper Story Outline.

Long-form TV shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Alienist, and Umbrella Academy come with complex Story Outline, deep Characterization, and well-designed character conflict, and that's why they are so successful.

Which engagers do you use the most and which ones do you neglect? Which writing crafts are you good at and which ones do you need to improve? Do you tend to neglect voluntary or involuntary responses?

* * * * * *

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.

You can buy the book The Eight Crafts of Writing here or take the course on the Lawson Writer’s Academy here.

Top Image by Dr StClaire from Pixabay

14 comments on “Tap Readers' Subconscious to Engage Them in Your Story”

  1. Excellent piece. Gave me much to think about as I plot a new project. One odd little thing I picked up though: In the paragraph that begins, "You have nine engagers at your disposal to pull readers into your story", the article link at the end of the list just leads to Apple's website. I suspect it was just a placeholder that was meant to be updated before publishing, but was overlooked.

  2. I could just click away without telling you why, but I've come to appreciate the quality of your articles.

    I gave up looking for what the head line promised.

  3. Stefan, of all the information in this piece I resonate with the tension and hormones section. There's lots of angst in YA.

    Interesting article!

    1. The great thing is that we can use this knowledge on multiple levels: the Genre level, the Story Outline level, the scene level, and the beat level. That way our stories never run out of tension.:-)

  4. Interesting article. Your real-life response is in large part the same as what I use but is much more detailed in the expression of emotions and feelings. That will be helpful in writing this draft. Thanks.

  5. Well done, Stefan. This was a truly insightful post, utterly absorbing, and will serve me well now that I've left nonfiction books behind and find myself hip deep in my first novel.

  6. This isn't just a good post; this is a genius-level BRILLIANT post! Seriously. There are several crucial points I strive to teach my students.
    I absolutely loved this line, "Writers are alchemists. They concoct endorphins, adrenaline, norepinephrine, cortisol, oxytocin, and serotonin in their readers’ brains."
    And understanding this reaction chain to stimuli is so so SO brilliant: reflex → emotional & visceral reaction → instinctive response → habitual response → thought → action → dialogue → feeling

    Hats off, my friend.

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