Story and the Power of Connection

by James Scott Bell

In an article over at Aeon, Elizabeth Svoboda writes,

The careers of many great novelists and filmmakers are built on the assumption, conscious or not, that stories can motivate us to re-evaluate the world and our place in it. New research is lending texture and credence to what generations of storytellers have known in their bones – that books, poems, movies, and real-life stories can affect the way we think and even, by extension, the way we act. As the late US poet laureate Stanley Kunitz put it in ‘The Layers’, ‘I have walked through many lives, some of them my own, and I am not who I was.’

As storytellers, don’t we all have that hope? That what we write will have this kind of impact on a reader?

Even if our genre is a commercial one, we ought to consider the power of the wiring in our brains, which seems to be uniquely designed for the reception of a story. It has always been so!

One reason the epics had such staying power was that they instilled values like grit, sacrifice, and selflessness, especially when young people were exposed to them as a matter of course. ‘The later Greeks used Homer as an early reading text, not just because it was old and reverenced, but because it outlined with astonishing clarity a way of life; a way of thinking under stress,’ wrote William Harris, the late classics professor emeritus at Middlebury College, Vermont. ‘They knew that it would generate a sense of independence and character, but only if it were read carefully, over and over again.’

When our writing hooks into these universal themes (e.g., grit, sacrifice) there is a connection with readers that is an essential component of long-term writing success. Again, genre does not matter. To Kill a Mockingbird makes that connection, but so do the Perry Mason novels. Erle Stanley Gardner, Mason’s creator, recognized this early on. He called it finding a “common denominator” for the reading public, and boy did he ever get rewarded for that! Perry Mason was a “knight” fighting “injustice,” Gardner once wrote. The same can be said of Atticus Finch.  Perry Mason

There is scientific proof that our brain circuitry works exactly this way:

When the University of Southern California neuroscientist Mary Immordino-Yang told subjects a series of moving true stories, their brains revealed that they identified with the stories and characters on a visceral level. People reported strong waves of emotion as they listened – one story, for instance, was about a woman who invented a system of Tibetan Braille and taught it to blind children in Tibet. The fMRI data showed that emotion-driven responses to stories like these started in the brain stem, which governs basic physical functions, such as digestion and heartbeat. So when we read about a character facing a heart-wrenching situation, it’s perfectly natural for our own hearts to pound.

The late Dallas Willard, whom I was privileged to know, spoke of the power of Jesus’ parables thus: “He ravished people with the kingdom of God.”

Ravish is the perfect word. It means to overtake with indescribable delight. Jesus wooed the crowds with stories, like The Prodigal Son. He taught what love looks like in The Good Samaritan. These stories tap into circuits that pre-exist in our brains and zap us with emotion.

Maybe the other way to put it is that readers, being actual people who live in this world, seek connections –– with friends, family, and at the table of a worthy cause. A cynic may manage to convince himself he needs none of these things, but he will be the unwitting foe of his own wiring. Get him into a ripping good story, though, and at the very least he’ll be out of the abyss for awhile. And maybe that story will be the lifeline that pulls him back into the light to stay.

When Abraham Lincoln, a first-rate storyteller himself, met Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in 1862, he reportedly said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” Stowe and Lincoln both knew how to unleash “the better angels of our nature.” They used story power.

Do you ever think in those terms when you write? Do you have a potential reader in mind, knowing he or she desires connection? What “common denominators” do you think about when you write?

15 thoughts on “Story and the Power of Connection

  1. I’m currently reading “Wired for Story” by Lisa Cron which touches on this issue.

    It’s fascinating and complicated at the same time. I don’t doubt that every book I read, whether I like it or not, is written by an author who is trying to connect with me and has a point, a theme, a method they use to connect me with their characters & story in a way that feels real to me (if not the actual events then the emotion behind them). But it reminds me of something like asteroids in space travel–many are going to go by and not make a dent in the hull of your ship but some are going to hit it–or maybe even become embedded (the writer’s ideal).

    Since different things move different people I stick to things that strongly move me personally, in order to connect with readers who are moved by the same things. I know the value of fathers comes up a lot in my work–the impact they have on children whether good or bad. Testing friendships comes up a lot as well in my work. And a few others.

    I just keep trying to remember that if the readers can’t feel that connection through my protag, they’re not going to feel at all. I’ve certainly set aside my share of books because I couldn’t connect with the protag.

    The power of story and connection is awesome, but not easy to achieve. Thankfully we live in a world where you’re not limited to publishing just one book. You may not get it right the first time, but there’s no limit on the number of do-overs. 😎

    • Since different things move different people I stick to things that strongly move me personally,

      That’s crucially important, BK, because it translates to the page. Don Maass calls this the “fire in fiction.” That’s what I’m looking for when I write. I need to feel the heat.

  2. Wow, Jim, what a powerful post.

    When I saw the title and the picture with the wave forms, I thought today’s lesson was going to be on resonance and how the STRUCTURE of the story lines up with “the power of the wiring in our brains, which seems to be uniquely designed for the reception of a story,” like soldiers marching across a bridge, setting up vibrations (waves) that can eventually effect the bridge.

    But you’ve gone deeper with “connections,” “common denominators,” and themes.

    Those of us who write faith-based fiction usually strive to do just that. For us, the challenge is to keep the “message” in the theme and in the connections, and stay out of the pulpit. For me, the most powerful connections are sacrifice, selflessness, and working to rescue those who are trapped or helpless (like Sister J).

    I like to think the way to achieve maximal resonance is to build a story on the structure that you and Larry “preach.” And then infuse that story with those themes and connections that will inspire and maybe even change lives.

    • You bring up a good question, Steve. How does structure relate to all this? I call structure “translation software for your imagination.” You need to translate the feelings you have about the story into a form that enables readers to get it into their own brains. The powerful connection won’t happen unless they are relating to the story, which is what structure is about.

  3. That visceral connection was precisely what hooked me on reading at a very early age. And I still remember, more than 60 years later, many of those stories, and I can still get that ‘connected’ feeling thinking about them even now.

    We talk about theme, and there are various takes on the importance of it, how to develop it, and how to avoid ‘preaching’. But I take theme to be that connection to core values that define the best parts of our natures. If, as writers, we don’t address something higher and better, then too often we only address average and lower. That’s a disservice to readers, and, as you’ve discussed, perhaps to our obligation to humanity.

    • I remember the same experience, Stephen. As a kid I was drawn to pirate stories, knights, Robin Hood, Zorro. Maybe I should have gone into fencing.

  4. Another terrific blog, Jim. But I have a question for you. You wrote, “Even if our genre is a commercial one, we ought to consider the power of the wiring in our brains . . .”
    Shouldn’t that be “Because our genre is a commercial one . . .” Commercial means readers part with their hard-earned money to read us, which gives us special powers of influence.

    • You have a great point coming at it from the other side, Elaine. What I had in mind was someone who thinks of just dashing off a genre plot and thinking that’s enough. It’s like when Samuel Goldwyn tossed a script aside and said, “This has too much plot and not enough story!”

  5. Talk about synchronicity….
    I got an amazing email from a reader the other day, quite long and passionate. He talked about how he “met” my character Louis when picked up an old back list book when he was in 12th grade because he liked the color of the cover. (ha!) But he went on to read them all and said they “played a pivotal role in my life over the last 15 years.” He had a friend who discovered he had a daughter (as does Louis), became involved with a woman who had left an abusive relationship and he stepped in to become a “father” to her daughter and how this is changing him. Now the young man is about to go into law enforcement. He wrote to me: “When I look back at that moment in my life, I realized that part of me wanted to grow and become a man over night, that I wanted to be more than what I was.” He said he related deeply to my character’s experience in that regard.

    You don’t know, when you sit down and write, if you ever will really connect with anyone out there. You have to just want to tell your stories, whatever they are. But when you get a letter like this, well…I can’t even say how much it means.

    I don’t know if I consciously try to “connect” as you say. I don’t think I do. But I do know theat I always have, in the back of my head, a driving need to get to the emotional core behind the story. It is always always about the character.

    • Wow, that is powerful, Kris. We love what we do, but when a reader writes something like that it makes that love deeper.

      And your last paragraph is the key. We don’t need to think about connection if we get to that “emotional core,” because that’s what gets us there.

  6. I very much enjoy all the guest posts you write for various blogs as well as your books, James. This latest one goes beyond craft and into the heart of why we read and why some of us are crazy enough to write. Please know that your work has a positive impact on many developing writers like me.

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