Friday, August 24, 2012

The Storytelling Animal

by Sheila Connolly

My grandmother was fond of saying, "man walks in the direction in which he looks."  She wasn't far off:  if you can visualize your goal, you're closer to achieving it, and you're more ready for it when you get there.

That's one of the interesting ideas included in a very interesting book written by English professor Jonathan Gottschall called The Storytelling Animal, about why humans create stories—something we as writers should all pay attention to.  I read a review of the book and realized that it was something I needed to read, and I wasn't wrong.  The author provides much food for thought.

We all make up stories—not just writers, but everyone.  Take any pair of random facts and put them together, and you'll find yourself trying to create a reason why they're connected. Read any set of words in a novel, and you'll notice that not only have you absorbed the facts the author gives you (the sky is blue, the protagonist is a thirty-year-old male), but you've dressed him in clothes and set him in a three-dimensional universe.  If the author says he's in a forest, you fill in the trees, without any prompting from the author.

But the process is both reactive and proactive.  When we read, we insert the details into the story based on our own life experience.  At the same time we also create:  we project, we envision, we try out scenarios in our minds, in preparation for potential future experiences.

There is a growing body of scientific evidence that corroborates these observations.  For example, scientists can now demonstrate that reading about an event or experience stimulates the same areas of the brain that actually participating does.  That goes a long way toward explaining why we read (particularly romances!), and why we watch scripted television shows (including the so-called reality shows) and movies.  We empathize with the characters we see, to the extent that our physical responses mirror theirs—our hearts pound, our blood pressure goes up, we gasp or even shriek (tell me you've never done that!).  And this happens not only when we're alone, but when we're in a crowded movie theater—we are all linked by a common response to what we are seeing. And we carry that forward.

What's more (and here's where it gets interesting for mystery writers), we as readers/viewers anticipate a positive outcome.  We want our stories to have moral weight; we want to believe we share a core set of social values.  There is almost always a conflict to be overcome. When someone is killed (in fiction), the violence is condemned, and the villain must pay the price.  However, if the hero(ine) kills in the name of justice, it's acceptable—as long as it's done for the right reasons, to protect the good and the weak from evil.

Which makes murder mysteries the epitome of the general case. Who knew?

Gottschall believes that despite the flood of electronic media, stories will survive, although not necessarily in forms that we will recognize (consider, for example, interactive online games).  He tells us that fiction "will make you more empathic and better able to navigate life's dilemmas"—because we've already visualized them.  Stories reinforce our shared cultural values and bring us together. 

And don't feel guilty about daydreaming, because we learn from our own imagination.  Give yourself permission to imagine—and keep reading!


Anonymous said...

This is most intriguing. I plan to reread it so I can let the wisdom really sink in! Thelma Straw MWA-NY

Gayle said...

Terrific post, Sheila! Now I want to read this book too. I plan on looking for it today.

Stephen Jennison-Smith said...


Stephen Jennison-Smith said...