Are Fictional Stories Like a Computer Simulation For Our Emotions?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Final thoughts

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.

Thank you for reading. I also write, make art and films. You can read my short fantasy stories here on Simily. If you are interested in the process of creativity and want to get a copy of my free short book of creative prompts, and to hear more about my writing projects please join my mailing list here. You can see my films at my YouTube channel here. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon page here.

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YouTube as a medium for long form storytelling

For someone who is really into reading and writing, I watch a lot of telly. Over the last few years I have found myself being more and more drawn into the potential of YouTube as a medium for long form storytelling. To begin with I was very put off by the prank videos and found the ‘five tips to…’ format of video particularly uninspiring. However, my partner is a bit of a genius at finding interesting channels to watch, and I’ve recently found myself a bit addicted to the stories that Morgan of Gold Shaw Farm tells (see his video above about his dog for a good example). Baby Magpie, who has just learned to wave, likes to watch the ducks and geese before bedtime, and to chat to them in a sing song voice. Sometimes he gives Morgan and Toby Dog a wave.

In my twenties I did a PhD in psychology and I was particularly interested in how stories affect us. It is an interest that still intrigues me in a variety of different ways, although it has been a while since a did any comprehensive research. However, during my reading for my PhD I came across the idea that a story, whether fact or fiction, needs to have an emotional truth to really move the reader. Of course what constitutes that truth will be different for different people. As a reader and writer of fantasy, I am fully aware that not everyone is able to identify with the perspective of an elf.

Which brings me back to Morgan and his stories about Gold Shaw Farm. I’m not a farmer, and while I try my hand in the garden now and then, I do not claim to want to start a farm. However, I still find my self wanting to know more about the ducks, and geese, and Hobo Barn cat. I think that Morgan is doing something really interesting with YouTube as a medium for long form story telling. In each video he picks up a different thread of the story of his farm, and he has an instinctive understanding of emotional truth in the stories he tells about his animals. While he delights in the new life that comes on to his farm during hatching season, he also does not shy away from the loss and sorrow that farming also necessarily involves. I know that some of the readers here are very interested in storytelling in it’s many splendid forms, and if that is you I would encourage you to spend some time with this channel.

As regular readers of this blog may know, I have a bit of an issue in being interested in too many things at once, and potentially diving into too many different types of media. The consequences of this are that it’s difficult to actually finish anything. My current fantasy work in progress features a character who is a YouTuber, and as part of that process I started a YouTube channel of my own a while ago. I imagine it will surprise absolutely no one to learn that it is now sitting, unloved, waiting for me to do something about it.

At the moment I am finding that the time I need to devote to my gorgeous toddler make it very difficult to maintain a film making practice, but I hope to return to it when the demands on my time ease a little bit. One of the ideas I’m thinking about at the moment is trying to interview YouTubers who I like for my own channel as a form of research to inform that character, and to understand what it is that people enjoy about making the films they do. Let me know if this is something you would be interested in and I will try and make it happen, when I have a moment…

Thank you for reading. I also write, make art and films. If you want to hear more about my writing projects please join my mailing list here. You can see my films at my YouTube channel here. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon Page here.

Sunday Funday: Story Prompt

While away at my parents a number of weeks ago I came across this tiny little hidden street with a great name – Shin Bone Alley. It sparked my imagination as it sounds a bit Dickensian.

So, just for fun, what’s the story with this alley? What kind of tales happened here? Ideas or flash fiction welcome in the comments below, or turn it into a post on your own blog and let me know.

I’m not a huge fan of creative exercises, so it’s not my habit to tell people what to do with these prompts. There are lots of options – a scene, some flash fiction, a short story, an idea for a short film or a physical piece of art. If you do have a go with this one and would like to drop the result in the comments please do so. I would be very interested to see what people

Thank you for reading. I also write, make art and films. If you like these prompts and want to get a copy of a free short book of them I wrote, and to hear more about my writing projects please join my mailing list here. You can see my films at my YouTube channel here. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon Page here.


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New story board attempt.

It’s been a while since I’ve had time to sit down and draw. After we moved and adopted the cats it’s taken a bit of time to settle in to doing creative things with paper. I’ve now been through a full cycle of ivf which was exhausting but ok. We are waiting on the outcome now. I also had quite a lot of animation work left to do on the computer and so prioritised getting that done.

But today I had some time to sit and draw some mini story boards for a documentary I’ve been working on for some time. I have some audio that needs visuals to go with it and I’ve been animating those sections among others. It feels really nice to be drawing again.

In other news I’ve started a patreon. There isn’t much on there at the moment but I’m planning to post pictures and updates on my drawing and writing which I’m less happy to put out in the public lest the ideas get pinched. I’d really appreciate it if people would be interested in following me there.

You can follow me here: Magpie

Quote Challenge – Day 2


OK day 2 of the quote challenge. I was nominated by the lovely Laurie from the lovely blog Meditations in Motion. As well as blogging brilliantly about range of things, including running, she also wrote this lovely post about her mother’s ring as one of her ‘objects with meaning’. Well worth a trip over there to have a read, that’s all I’m saying.

So here are the rules:

  1. Thank the person who nominated you.
  2. Post a quote for three consecutive days.
  3. Nominate three bloggers each day to do the same.

Today I would like to nominate:

  1. Bjorn the Stormborn who runs a lovely blog in which he blogs about his artistic hobbies which include table top gaming and digital art. It’s such a quirky interesting blog – well worth a visit.
  2. Yolanda Chavez Sherma from the blog Yochet. This is a great blog about all of the interesting crochet project Yolanda has on the go, and more.
  3. The Frugal Veggie – who’s blog includes some great veggie recipes and tips for keeping down those costs, which are useful to most of us I think.

So here’s my quote for today. It’s from a book called ‘Letting stories breathe: a Socio-narratology’ by Arthur Frank.

‘The all too human dilemma is that by accepting being a story, a person at least provisionally accepts being what the story casts him or her to be, it’s interpretation’

So I think this is probably a geeky choice for a quote, but I really like it. I have been working on a documentary about someone for quite some time and this is one of the things I am troubled by, as I try to get anywhere near finishing it. I am telling someone else story – the finished result will necessarily be my construction or interpretation of what happened. That’s quite a big responsibility if the aim is for other people to see it, which it is. so I have been thinking on this for quite some time.

Experiments in paper cut walk cycles

I’ve been putting a lot more thought into my documentary film recently. I’m really interested not just in telling a story but in using the film to look at how you can choose to tell stories about trauma and mental health. I’m also interested in working out how you tell stories about people in a way that doesn’t reduce them being ‘that guy that the thing happened to. I’m not sure I’m there on that yet.

At the moment the majority of the actual film footage I have is of interviews. Personally I really like the style of doc where the film maker lets a person tell their story like this. However it’s visually not that interesting to look at. One of the aesthetic decisions I have made is to try to animate some sections of the interview footage, and to animate where I only have audio material. Here’s a photo of an experiment with papercut walk cycles. I’m going to photograph these, and then feed the images into adobe animate to create a couple walking. I’ll let you know how I get on with that. 

Animation, especially using a papercut style imagary that I really like to work with, is a really time hungry process. As I’m squeezing in an hour here and there around a full time job it’s taking me weeks to produce a few seconds worth of footage. It’s slow going but I’m pretty happy with this. I like using sections of footage that visually suggest the story is a construction – as much as the footage is of someone telling their own story in their own words, it’s still it’s my take on it. There could be other ways of telling the same events.