You hear a lot that emotion matters in your novel and that you want to make the reader feel things. There’s even scientific proof that people do this. Paul J. Zak wrote How Stories Change the Brain and said that character-driven stories with emotional content caused oxytocin synthesis. He backed it up with science.
According to Pamela B. Rutledge in Psychology Today,
“Stories are authentic human experiences. Stories leap-frog the technology and bring us to the core of the experience, as any good storyteller (transmedia or otherwise) knows. There are several psychological reasons why stories are so powerful.”
According to her those reasons are:
- Stories “connect us to a larger self and universal truths.”
- Stories connect us and sometimes they are collaborative. “Through stories, we share passions, sadness, hardships, and joys. We share meaning and purpose.
- Stories are the common ground that allows people to communicate, overcoming our defenses and our differences. Stories allow us to understand ourselves better and to find our commonality with others.”
She also says that stories help shape how we think and make decisions, provide order via narrative structures that are familiar. There is comfort in that familiarity. We know the story will be resolved and that makes us feel safe. And she believes that our brains are wired for them because they engage parts of our brain and spark our own imaginations.
So, we know that stories are meant to move us, but as writers how do we do that?
For a story to be good it needs to create emotion in the reader.
To do that, stories almost always have:
- Character (who your story is about. It can be about a condom as long as that condom is a character.
- A Big Want. Something that your character wants more than anything else, something that compels your character to action in order to get that big want.
- Conflict. Something that keeps the character from getting that want right away (or possibly ever).
That’s super simplistic, right? But those three elements are essential to story. Readers want to cheer on characters and sob with them. They want to feel the character’s transformation as they/he/she meets obstacles as they try to achieve those damn goals.
The best stories (especially in the YA genre) involve a change in the character, a metamorphosis, a transformation.
Who the character is at the beginning of the story often shouldn’t be who they are at the end of the story. There are two main different levels of transformation.
- The outside world changes. They have a car or a house now. The villain is gone and they are safe. This is the easy transformation.
- Their personality changes. They are no longer reactive, but proactive, not a wall flower but an exhibitionist. They are brave now. They are a coward now. This is true for Bilbo Baggins or Harry Potter or Anakin Skywalker. They realize that they were wrong about something (a big lie that ruins their personality/life) and then they transform because of the truth. Sometimes that transformation is negative (Anakin, we’re looking at you!) and sometimes it’s positive.
There are other possibilities for smaller transformation. The character might grow but not change like Nick Carraway in the Great Gatsby. This is called a growth arc usually. They have grown and learned some shit, but they are still their essential selves.
And there are also the no-transformation arc. Sherlock Holmes, Indiana Jones, every sitcom character experience life, but they don’t really transform because of the experience.
(Paul J. Zak. “How Stories Change the Brain.” Greater Good. 27 July 2016).
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