When readers of fiction open the cover of a new book, or turn on the switch of their e-reader, they are expecting several things. At the most basic level, they expect to be entertained, stimulated, perhaps amused or intrigued, possibly challenged. They are entering a different world, stepping out of their daily lives, and they expect to learn things about this world and experience what living there might be like. But what readers yearn for goes much deeper. They are seeking a biochemical cascade of emotions set into action by their brains.
Neuropeptides and other neurotransmitters are the biochemicals of emotion, and these molecules travel the length and breadth of the body. Receptors for these molecules are found virtually everywhere; there are multiple pathways for the conscious mind to access and modify both the unconscious mind and the body, and vice versa. Every change in mental and emotional state, conscious or unconscious, is accompanied by a change in the physiological state in a constant feedback loop.
Now, most readers would not think about their emotions in terms of brain chemistry. However, every response they have while reading is carried into emotional and physical experience through the neuropeptides that flood the body and brain: the molecules of emotion that make up brain chemistry. It is through this psycho-physiological process that writers engage and immerse their readers.
Have you had the experience of starting a new book, expecting to really enjoy it, only to find that it cannot hold your attention? If you wondered why, the answer is in brain chemistry. When a story captivates you and sustains your interest, the writer has accomplished these three essentials of activating your brain chemistry:
- Transportation, in which the story gets your attention and you become engaged with it and the character(s). You begin to care about the character and identify with her or him.
- Holding attention, in which your attention is heightened by elements of danger, novelty or surprise. The brain loves to problem-solve and categorize; it is always looking for the unexpected or unusual. Your attention is captured long enough for you to be transported.
- Learning lessons, in which you discover or better understand something that is life enhancing or life saving. You read to experience something new or challenging, and to learn the lessons embedded in the story that apply to your life.
Transportation is the secret of reader engagement.
Transportation takes the reader into the world of the story and sets up identification with the character. Through a compelling character that readers imagine is like them, there is a feeling of being connected via the process of “emotional simulation” or “emotional resonance.” They are able to feel what the character feels. Feelings generated by this include empathy and sympathy. The reader may identify with the hero through her humor, generosity, kindness, intelligence, courage, adventurousness, or other traits. The hero must also be vulnerable, not some flawless superhero. Being too perfect is a barrier to identification. But, he must also be active, not a coward or wimp, to inspire respect.
The plot of the story is the second path to transportation. There must be some type of conflict or struggle in the story arc. The story of struggle is the brain’s favorite; the hero must overcome obstacles in an ordeal with inward and outward challenges, and emerge transformed and wiser. The struggle must feel familiar, one that is common to most people. It has uniquely human, emotional themes such as loss, longing, love, overcoming fear, and fulfilling your potential. Then a good story throws in conflict and tension, with “high stakes” at issue. These stakes can be intrapersonal or affect the entire world; they must be very important to the character.
Brain chemistry of the story arc.
The basic story arc begins with an opening that captures interest, and moves into rising action with struggle, leading to climax with transformation, and finding resolution of the problems in the end. Each phase generates neuropeptides that produce distinct reactions and feelings.
Story opening – produces dopamine, adrenaline, and oxytocin.
The story opens with something dangerous, new, exciting, different, surprising, confusing or uncertain. The brain’s attention circuits perk up as it seeks meanings, identifies patterns and derives causal hypotheses. It wants additional information to understand relationships among characters and events. But, if the opening is too confusing or unbelievable, the brain cannot see patterns in the situation and loses interest.
Actions of the neuropeptides:
Dopamine – makes you feel good, associated with interest and pleasure.
Adrenaline – makes you pay attention, associated with threat and crisis.
Oxytocin – makes you feel love, empathy, willingness to help.
Rising action and middle section – produces dopamine, adrenalin, oxytocin, testosterone.
The greatest challenge for writers is keeping readers interested and engaged throughout the story. This is the infamous “middle section sag” during which readers can lose attention and put down the book. To hold interest, there must be rising action with anticipation, balanced by easing of the action. As action rises and falls, the reader needs to be convinced that something new is coming soon. This creates anticipation, which produces a dopamine rush as the brain looks forward to discovering things and finding clues. The brain loves this dopamine rush; it has often been said that “the pleasure is in the anticipation.” This compelling need to find out what will happen next creates the phenomenon of the “page-turner.” The writer doles out hints and clues, ratcheting up tension by implying that some big event is to come. The drama increased by a timeline that marches on inexorably toward the big event.
But the brain needs a rest from this relentless surge of neuropeptides. It gets exhausted with constant threat and ramping up of danger. Writers must give the reader’s brain a rest stop, where it goes into a sine wave, which fluctuates up and down between tension and emotional resonance. This relief or distraction can be done through humor, breaking away to another story line, moments of peace and happiness. Relief from tension actually allows the brain to absorb even greater drama as action rises again.
Actions of the additional neuropeptide:
Testosterone – makes you assertive and willing to take risks, provides drive, motivation, and aggression.
Climax – produces adrenalin, glutamate, GABA.
The story has been building toward the climax, the ultimate moment of truth. The climax begins resolving the main problem of the story, resulting in relief of tension and satisfaction. During the climax, the hero is transformed. She looks deep inside, sees how she must change to fulfill her destiny and become her higher self. She embraces change, carries out the task, makes the right choice, and moves forward onto her new path. She realizes what she needs to know and understand, and embraces her new state of being. Things now are different; the hero is ready to live the transformed life.
Actions of the additional neuropeptides:
Glutamate – makes you receptive to learning, opens new neural pathways.
GABA (γ-aminobutryric acid) – makes you feel calm, relieved, peaceful.
Falling action and ending – produces GABA, oxytocin, serotonin.
As the story moves to the end, the reader’s brain is looking for completed resolution of the problem and a good outcome for the hero. Readers want a happy ending, because they have identified with the hero – actually become the hero if the writer did a good job. The story’s dramatic action has propelled them through cascades of emotions, and they want things to work out well. It’s normal to desire a positive future. They are invested in the outcome, and if the story ends in misfortune or disaster, their brains hurt. They will be angry with the writer and disappointed in the story. Even if the hero dies, the reader can be satisfied when this fulfills his goals, he dies with honor accomplishing something important, and this ending feels in accord with solving the problem. Leaving loose ends also disturbs readers; they want all the strands reconnected and mysteries revealed.
Actions of the additional neuropeptide:
Serotonin – makes you feel happy, whole, complete, and enhances memory functions.
Visionary Fiction Fulfills the Story Arc
The purpose of visionary fiction is to inspire readers to an expanded view of their potential. Spiritual and esoteric wisdom are brought forth in story form, so readers can experience this through identifying with the hero. They are encouraged to live within a more expansive view of reality that expresses evolved consciousness. Growth of consciousness is central to the story, interweaving elements of suspense, conflict, romance, and mystery into a deeper layer that is the mystical inner journey of awakening.
By creating characters that readers can identify with, visionary fiction takes them on a journey of self-discovery. Characters may reflect the light or dark side of qualities, showing what readers want to express within them or avoid. As the hero faces difficulties and overcomes challenges, she is changed, learns about herself and the world, and may unearth abilities she never knew she had. The hero discovers strengths and calls forth courage, evolving him to new levels of consciousness and wisdom. Ultimately, the hero brings his learning back to his homeland, now relating to his people at a different level. His status has changed; he brings to them the gifts of his new knowledge and skills for their benefit.
Visionary fiction stories often have a mythological or archetypal quality. They often typify the hero’s journey, in which his experiences may include visions, dreams, psychic phenomena, and paranormal events. These serve as catalysts for radical shifts in perspective and are central to the hero’s transformation. Untold possibilities are revealed, through which pre-conceived beliefs can be shattered and a new universe envisioned. Through emotional resonance with the hero’s experiences, readers gain spiritual understanding and realize the archetypal metaphors that apply to modern times.
It might be that all truly captivating fiction has visionary elements. The transformation that must result from undergoing struggles and overcoming challenges is certainly a visionary process. The hero is able to envision her world, and her relationship to it, in a different way. At the end, as the story resolves with the hero attaining a different, higher level of being, the reader experiences that expansion typical of visionary evolution.
Jeff Gerke. The Irresistible Novel: How to Craft an Extraordinary Story That Engages Readers from Start to Finish. Writer’s Digest Books, 2015.
Candace B. Pert, Ph.D. Molecules of Emotion: Why You Feel the Way You Feel. Scribner, 1997.
Leonide Martin, DrPH, is a retired university professor, published many professional books and received a Writers’ Digest award for short fiction. She writes historical fiction about the Maya after years as a Maya researcher, living in Yucatan, Mexico and studying with elders and shamans. Taking apprenticeship, she became a Maya Fire Woman and Solar Initiate in the Itza tradition. Her trips to Maya sites, participation in rituals and archeological study bring factual accuracy to her writing, which blends scientific views with those of indigenous Mayas. Captivated by their unique arts, mysticism and cosmology, her writing about ancient Maya civilization brings the culture and people vividly to life.