In the July 2014 issue of Discovery Magazine (Hold That Thought, p 30-33), scientist Elizabeth Phelps, a past president of the Association for Psychological Science and a psychologist at New York University, is interviewed about memory. She speaks in the article that recalling memories shows activation in two parts of the brain. Recalling details about ‘physical locations and layouts’ activates the posterior parahipocampus. When we recall the feelings associated with memories, ‘we see more amygdala involvement.’
In tests, Phelps found that ‘we’re set up to capture time and place.’ That makes it easier to recall such details, an evolutionary advantage.
When I work with struggling authors, I often find a focus on those physical details of a time and place and much less a focus on the feelings of characters. I believe the way our brain functions makes it easier for new writers to come up with those details. Such a focus risks becoming tedious, however, reducing a story to a series of descriptions of events. I call this writing style ‘watch the movie and write down the details.’
A bigger problem with this style of writing is that readers often access a story’s characters through the feelings events generate. To leave out those feelings denies readers a prime entry point into a character’s inner life and goals. This is especially true when a main character becomes a kind of automaton, recording visual details.
To help such writers, I have them write out beside each paragraph the feelings of the main character in the scene and how the events of the scene impact and change that character’s feelings. If those feelings don’t change, nothing has happened in the scene to impact the character and, generally, not the reader, either.
The subtle trap here is that those situations and places might evoke feelings in the author, which makes them symbolic to the author and meaningless to the reader, evoking nothing (except perhaps irritation).
All hugely successful stories are journeys of feeling for readers, supported by details of time and place. If you’re telling a story, take care to convey those feelings in a way your readers can share the story journey.
Bill Johnson is the author of the writing workbook, A Story is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling, available on Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes and Noble’s Nook. One section of the book, Deep Characterization, helps authors to recognize the difference between telling themselves a story and telling a story to an audience.