In my last blog post from this series I introduced the Transformation-Imagery Theory of narrative persuasion which was developed by Melanie Green and Timothy Brock in the early 2000’s. If you haven’t already read that I suggest you do that here, as what comes below may not make a huge amount of sense without that context.
In this follow on blog I’m going to suggest a few ways in which it can be helpful to writers, especially those who want to create work that has a message that is persuasive, and also to suggest, from the perspective of being a writer, a few ways in which the theory feels like it falls short.
I’m drawing here on the ideas they had when they first described the theory over twenty years ago, so it’s likely that there has been work to refine this since. I will circle back to that at a later date.
How is this helpful to writers?
I think there is some merit in looking at this theory from the perspective of thinking about how to create a story that is highly transporting (of achieving that sense of ‘losing oneself’ in the story for readers).
Green and Brock describe a process that is a meeting between the reader and the story itself, so that while there are important elements in the text that may (or may not!) make it a transporting read, the reader will also bring with them skills, abilities, and previous experiences that will also have an impact on the extent to which they become ‘transported’ into a particular story.
For example, some people may naturally be more skilled at imagining ‘story worlds’ than others, and so are more likely to be transported into any story they read. That said, while there is little we can to to impact on what the reader brings to the reading experience in terms of natural abilities, as writers there are things that we can think about to help them along.
Use of Imagery
While Green and Brock weren’t aiming at giving advice to writers in their early papers (which are the ones I am most familiar with), there are a number of clues for us in the way they framed their theory. In particular they suggested that imagery was key to the experience of transportation, so much so that they included it in the title of their theory.
My interpretation of their writing on this is that the use of language that evokes vivid imagery, interwoven through a clear plot, is key to the experience of transportation, which probably won’t be news to many writers, or indeed readers out there. Many writers will have spent time reading and re-reading passages from particularly well written books, just to try to work out how the author evoked that particular time and space.
But I would be inclined to expand on the idea of imagery to include other sensory information such as taste, smell, temperature and sound. These things don’t seem to feature in the theory, but can be essential in creating the sense of a location in a story. A lot of other better writers than me have written on this topic, but personally I feel that stories that rely on images alone create a story world that feels a little flat, and is not always persuasive.
The theory also suggests that stories that evoke strong emotional reactions may be more transporting, although interestingly they don’t really talk about understanding the emotional journey of the characters. Instead they seem to link the emotional responses of readers with the events in the story, i.e. what happens to the characters, and the readers ability to ‘see them’ through imagery.
But if we fill in the gaps here, we can think about stories where characters go on an emotional journey on comparison with stories where this doesn’t happen, and draw our own conclusions on which are more emotionally engaging. For me this feels like a missing link, but luckily for us there is another theory from psychology that can help us here, and I will write about that in my next post.
Adhering to narrative formats
Perhaps of interest to genre writers (like myself) in particular, they pointed out that people often like particular forms of stories (the example they draw on here is the suspense story) and will protect their experiences of it. In today’s money that means avoiding spoilers.
They didn’t go into great detail on this, but it reminded me of conversations I’ve heard else where about breaking, or not breaking your contract with the reader. If you kill a banker on page two, and bring in a detective as a main character on page three, the reader will expect a series of clues, setbacks and revelations until, at the end of the book, they ‘guy who done it’ is caught.
So my interpretation of what they were saying here is, don’t disappoint the reader, or it will damage their experience of the story and reduce likely transportation into it.
Avoiding false notes
One of they things that Green and Brock did explicitly mention as being potentially damaging to the experience of transportation was the existence of ’false notes’ within a story. By this they meant aspects of a story that ‘did not ring true’, they contradicted other aspects of the story or generally didn’t make sense.
While they didn’t mention this specifically, for me false note could refer to those moments where a character does something that simply seems wrong, and that doesn’t fit with the picture you have built up of the character. Something that does not seem to hold emotional truth. I have frequently put down books and stopped watching shows and movies where I like a character and then they suddenly do something that I think is really stupid.
So I think this bit of their work can be particularly helpful at revision time. Is everything consistent? Does everything make sense? Does my fictional story carry emotional truth?
I hope you have found this interesting, in my next post I’m going to move on to some of the work by Keith Oatley about literature providing a kind of emotional simulation. I hope you will follow along if you are interested in these kind of ideas.
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