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.
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?