Have you ever spent hours working on a story, only to read it back and find it feels like a formulaic series of events that happen to your characters, who don’t even seem to care that much, bolted together with some dialogue? Have you read a story with almost the same series of events, told a little differently, and find it so deeply moving that it stays with you for weeks afterwards? As writers we are aware that we are writing something that feels flat and fails to push any emotional buttons, but sometimes we struggle to understand why that is.
There is some insights from psychology that can help us with that: Fiction as Cognitive and Emotional Simulation Theory by Keith Oatley. This was described in his paper ‘Why fiction might be twice as true as fact: Fiction as Cognitive and Emotional Simulation.’ This peer reviewed paper was published in the academic journal Review of General Psychology in 1999, and can be accessed for free here. It is also the source I have used to write this article.
Fiction as Cognitive and Emotional Simulation
The core idea of this theory was that fictional stories and poetry, particularly the kind of stories that get badged under the term ‘literature’, could provide readers with a kind of virtual simulation through which to explore their emotions. This happens when a reader becomes wrapped up in the emotions of the characters as they make the journey that their particular story takes them on.
Fiction as a simulation
In his explanation of the first core element of his theory, that people may experience a story world like a computer simulation, he suggests that fictional stories do not try to create a perfect imitation of life. Instead, writers create a convincing simulation by describing scenes and events in a way that include the necessary contextual information about the goals and motivations of a character, and details about the setting and how those events occur.
This extra information allows the reader to construct a mental picture of a characters interaction with their story environment and with other characters within it. In doing so they may understand how actions taken may lead to consequences, and the emotional fall out that follows.
In his work he described two forms of information that the brain uses to create a simulation of a fictional world:
- The event structure — the series of events that happens in a story.
- The discourse structure — which I interpret as the creative and artistic decisions that a writer or artist makes which tell the reader how those events will unfold.
I like to think of this as a good way of understanding how, while they say there are no new ideas under the sun, we still encounter stories that feel new because of the way the particular writer or artist decides to tell them.
Fictional simulations as an emotional laboratory
In the second core aspect of his theory, he suggests that the simulations fictional stories provide us are so involving that they may allow readers to experience some form of personal truth, that may lead to personal insight.
This is because readers are likely to flesh out a story world with material from their own memories and experiences, and so build a personalised version of whatever story is put in front of them.
His main argument, which he describes in far more detail with than I have space for here, is that fictional worlds provide a kind of emotional laboratory in which people can experience emotional responses to a range of simulated events. Through that process they may experience both expected and unexpected emotional responses to things, and may come to understand themselves, and other people, better.
He suggests that there are three different ways in which stories evoke emotions in readers:
- Identification — Where the reader identifies with the protagonist of the story, takes on their goals and effectively feels what the character would feel as if the emotions were the readers own.
- Sympathy — Where the reader doesn’t necessarily identify with the character, but is none the less moved by their journey as it is described in the story.
- Memory — Provoking the reader to recall their own emotional memories in response to events occurring in the story.
Why does this matter to writers?
At the beginning of this piece I asked why some stories were convincing on an emotional level, while others were not. What this theory does is direct us to pay attention to how things happen to our protagonists, and how they respond to those things while we are crafting our stories. Do events happening to the character feel consistent with the story world? Does the character have reactions to those events that feel authentic to them?
I know that personally, if I feel that a character has done something or said something simply to service the plot (or event structure), that seems a bit silly or out of character, I tend to put books down or disengage from a film or TV series. For me it doesn’t matter what genre this is happening in, it can be some deep fantasy or complicated science fiction, but if the characterisation feels insincere I’ll often switch off (if this rings a bell for you, you may also be interested in the idea of false notes, mentioned in this article).
This idea has been influential in the way I try to write now. I try to ensure that my characters, made up as they are, have some kind of emotional truth within my stories. Sometimes I miss this a bit on my first pass and need to give a story a bit of time to ‘rest’ so that I can come back to a story and really decide if I’ve made the right aesthetic decision, but I think they are better for it.
Sometimes, on a bad day as a writer, it’s easy to think ‘I’m just making stuff up, it’s not like I’m doing anything useful’. What this theory suggests to us is that good writing is important, perhaps essential, to how readers may view and understand other people, and that may influence their relationships with other people in the real world.
Exciting stuff, huh?
A note on the source text:
The way this theory is described in the original paper is more complicated, and has many more implications than I have described here. On top of that, this paper was published more than twenty years ago, since then a lot more work has been done on this idea. I do plan going to circle back to these themes at a later date, but if you are interested in psychology, storytelling, reading and writing I suggest you may want to take a bit of time to read the whole thing here.
This article was first published on Medium, where I regularly post content from this blog.
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