Why do we spend time reading a book or watching a movie? Why do we invest ourselves in a good story? The reasons tie into the same motivations that spur us to eat, build a shelter over our heads, and make babies. Survival—and because it feels good. In fact, these survival tactics feel good to us to ensure that we will engage in these behaviors.
The same goes for absorbing a good story. We think we’re doing it because we enjoy it, and that’s true. But we enjoy it because we need it for survival, and what makes it vital to us is the emotion it evokes. Think about it—a book or movie does nothing for you if it doesn’t make you feel something.
To feel is to be alive
Emotion is critical to our well-being, our ability to learn, our very survival. Story guru, Lisa Cron, points out, “Neuroscience has revealed that every decision we make and every reaction we have, is based on emotion. Emotion comes first, and reason follows.”
A good story is like a simulator, creating an emotional environment for the reader to experience. The reader feels what the protagonist feels, and through that involvement learns something about themselves and the world we live in. For this to happen, the reader has to identify with, and care about, the protagonist so that their emotions are wrapped up in that character.
Falling in love again, and again
Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi teamed up to write a series they call Writers Helping Writers. In their book, Emotion Amplifiers, they have this to say: “When readers are pulled in by emotional intensity, they can’t help but fall in love with our characters and their stories.” It’s the emotion that does it.
As a writer, I know I must do more than just show a character’s physical reactions to get an emotional response from my reader. I have to get inside my character’s head and share their thoughts and memories, the impetus behind the emotions they feel. As humans, we share certain universal experiences. Each of us can recall a time when we felt the pain of rejection, or the spark of enthusiasm that prompted us to start a project. We’ve all felt the crushing disappointment of failure and the rush of pleasure that comes from reaching a long-cherished goal.
Digging for story gold
Tapping into this vein of universally shared experiences and evoking the emotions tied to them is where story gold is found. This is what brings readers to the page and movie viewers to the cinema. It puts us in touch with the beating heart of humanity and teaches us deep truths of the sort we can never learn without emotion.
Being alive on the planet means engaging in story, so next time you curl up with a good book, remind yourself that you’re not just being self-indulgent. Your story enjoyment is ensuring the survival of our species!
What book or movie really engaged your emotions? Which characters do you most identify with?
Please share your thoughts in the comments.