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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Ideas from science to boost your art: The psychology of curiosity

This is the first post in a series of blogs I’m tentatively calling ‘Ideas from science to help your art’. I’ve been increasingly interested in the science of creativity and storytelling for a while as my own adventures in creativity have developed over time. When I completed a PhD in the psychology of storytelling back in 2009 I was very interested in related work, but I haven’t really had the opportunity to return to that area in my professional life since then as my research career took a number of turns away from it.

Since I completed my film a couple of weeks ago I’ve found I have a bit more head space now, and am planning to write a series of longer blog posts about ideas in science that are related to the creative process and to storytelling. I imagine these posts will be a bit intermittent to begin with, as each post will require more research than I currently indulge in, and it’ll take a bit of time to work out how to fit everything in. But I am looking forward to the challenge or re-engaging with this area.

I came across the first idea I wanted to pick up while listening to ‘The Science of Storytelling’ by Will Storr on Audible (affiliate links – if you use these links to make a purchase I’ll get a tiny commission). I’m a bit of the way through chapter one at the moment and am finding it interesting. He has covered quite a bit of ground that I’m partially familiar with from my own psychology studies, and I think his way of communicating the science is clear and engaging. He has spent some time explaining how none of us truly know what reality is, rather we all live in a virtual simulation constructed in the brain from the information we gain through our five senses. Story is effective in tapping into the process through which we do this to create imaginative simulations.

I was particularly interested in a section he has written about curiosity, in which he draws on the work of George Loewenstien. I’ve not been able to access the papers that Storr references (they don’t appear to be available as open access sources and are expensive to purchase) so what I say here is based on how Storr presents this work, rather than my direct reading of the original science.

In this section Storr explains that curiosity works through the brain’s reward system, so the same bits that respond to cake and wine, creating a desire for answers to questions. He then goes on to describe how good stories incorporate curiosity into their structures. A story poses questions, and then allows answers to unfold slowly over time. He quoted Loewenstien’s paper ‘The Psychology of Curiosity’ to list four ways in which it is possible to induce curiosity:

  1. The posing of questions or the presentation of puzzles
  2. Exposing someone to a sequence of events that have an anticipated, but unknown resolution
  3. Violating a person’s expectations of something, causing them to search for an explanation
  4. Knowing that someone else of possesses information that you don’t have

He then goes on to describe how this is also the basic structure of any good crime drama. The harnessing of natural human curiosity is essential to making this genre of stories, and many others, work.

I found this section of the book very helpful. I don’t think I am always that good at posing questions in my own fiction writing, which may be why I have struggled to progress with my new draft of Feeding Jasmine Valentine, my WIP. As a mechanism for hooking readers in, this use of curiosity is effective.

But I also think that understanding how curiosity works is helpful for the creative process, for writing or making art. An unanswered question can drive a writer or an artist as much as it can a reader. Many of my own scenes or mini projects start with “why is that like that?” Or “why did X do Y?” questions, and from there the process of writing is also a process of discovery.

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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Creative Prompts: A Mystery Box

I’ve been listening to The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr on Audible recently (affiliate links – if you use these links to make a purchase I’ll get a tiny commission). I’m not very far in and wouldn’t want to say at this point whether I reccomend it or not, but I’m finding it interesting. My attention was caught in particular by a section about curiosity and storytelling, and I am planning a longer post on that for later this month. Towards the end of this section he wrote about how the film maker JJ Abrams has described his “controling theory of storytelling’ as the opening a series of mystery boxes. This thought in particular was in my mind when I stumbled across this week’s creative prompt.

I saw this little package sitting on a wall in the sunlight a few mornings ago. Inside the bag you could see a collection of cans of Fosters Larger. I didn’t touch the bag, so I don’t know if they were full or empty, but the way the bag is tied neatly, with the ‘thank you’ massage emblazoned on the side gave me the impression that someone had left a thank you gift for someone else. The little package was left on a side street next to a play ground, not on someone’s doorstep or front fence, so it peaked my curiosity a little.

Who would leave such a thing? Who was it for?

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 make of these so please do link to blog posts or comment below.

If you like the photos featured in these creative prompt posts you may be interested in my latest collection of prints and other things on Redbubble which feature a small selection of my best shots.

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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