Mon
Nov 2 2009 3:02pm
Story Psych: What Makes a Good Story (Part 3)

Last week I talked about how memory and behaviorism might affect readers’ enjoyment of a story. The final area of psychology I’m going to discuss is persuasion.

When psychologists study persuasive techniques, they are usually focusing on topics like advertising and politics. How do people persuade other people to trust them and believe the message they're conveying (whether it's “Buy this product now!” or “Vote for me!”)? But persuasion plays a role in many other areas, including stories.

After all, a lot of story-telling is about trust and belief: the trust that the author will fulfill the promises his/her story makes as it’s told and that the author’s choices are meaningful (even if they’re confusing to the reader), and the belief that the story’s events are in some way “true” despite being fiction—the suspension one’s disbelief. If readers start to doubt an author or a story, they’re more likely to give up on it, and less likely to recommend it to others. And there are a number of factors that can influence readers’ trust and belief.

One of the first things people take into account when presented with some sort of message is who is doing the telling. So it makes sense that knowledge about the author him/herself would affect how readers approach a story. Sometimes there’s an obvious connection: readers may trust John Grisham’s ability to tell his stories well before they even begin reading because he’s a lawyer writing law-related thrillers. Sometimes it’s more tenuous: books by celebrities fly off the shelves even if the authors have little experience with the topics they’re writing about, simply because the they’re famous and therefore appealing. Sometimes it’s based on reputation: having heard that a certain author is excellent at crafting characters or spinning mysteries.

But even people who aren’t known experts (or celebrities) can persuade others to trust their messages as if they were one. One of the most important factors here is how confident they sound. Thus, in the realm of storytelling, if the prose of a story is filled with “seemed like”s and “maybe”s, readers may wonder if how sure the author is of what story is being told, and start to question the quality of the book. Clear, direct writing gives the sense of an author who’s in control of the story—and who can provide the reading experience the reader’s hoping for. Another way authors can appear more expert is to receive endorsements from better known writers (i.e., blurbs), which may raise readers’ confidence in the story.

That said, people do of course consider the actual message or story. At which point, regardless of how readers feel about an author, they may find themselves more or less persuaded to suspend their disbelief and get wrapped up in any given story. Both reasoning and emotions play a role, depending on the personality of the reader.

For some, the presentation of undeniable facts is powerfully persuasive. If one TV costs less and has a higher resolution than a second TV, obviously you buy the first! With stories, this is often where authors’ research and background knowledge comes into play. Including facts about key elements of the story (location, science, historical events, mythology, etc.) in the narrative, that match what readers know or can look up, may give readers a sense that they’re in good hands. Even if the story deals with completely made up worlds, magical systems, or species, specific consistent details give the impression that the author has thought everything through and won’t break the rules they’ve established.

For others, persuasion by emotion works far better. Psychologists have seen that even if a message is short on facts, if it evokes joy or fear, it’ll convince a large number of people. After all, most people instinctively trust their emotions and let them influence, at least some of the time, what they believe. So if a story moves people to laughter or tears, or keeps them up at night unable to sleep, they may feel it rang true despite inconsistencies in the world-building or mangling of facts. And the more vivid and powerful the emotions conjured up by the story are, the more those readers will praise it.

There are also persuasive effects that have little to do with who or what, but depend on when. Researchers have found that when presented with two different messages on the same topic, the order of presentation and the time between affect which message people trust more. When the two messages are presented back to back, people tend to prefer the first message they heard. Once they’ve got one idea in their head, they aren’t judging the second on its own merits, but in comparison to the first. But when there was a significant gap of time between the two messages, people preferred the second—presumably because the first had faded in their memories and the second one was fresh. This suggests that when given two stories with similar content, readers may prefer the one they read first (if they’ve read one after the other) or the one they read later (if other books were read in between), even if otherwise the stories are equal on every other measure of quality.

That’s my take on the psychology of persuasion and storytelling. I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of posts! Keep an eye out for a new Story Psych topic later this week.


Megan Crewe is a Canadian young adult author whose first novel, Give Up the Ghost, was recently published by Henry Holt Books for Young Readers.

2 comments
JJD
1. JJD
Thank you again. I've noticed I do use a lot of "seemed like"s and "maybe"s. It's hard to get out of the habit, but this will help kick me in the pants to find stronger writing.

Really great. Thanks for all the articles. I found them very helpful.
JJD
2. p2p_editor
Credibility is important, but IMHO, you left out the strongest of all sources of credibility that the author can draw on: the reader.

Everyone is his or her own most-credible-person-in-the-world. If you have a thought or an idea or a belief, it's YOUR'S. You own it. You inherently believe and trust it because it came from you.

Writers can draw on this to great benefit by writing in such a way that we invite readers to fill in MORE of the story, rather than less, with whatever works for them. There is an article on this very subject here:

http://wordplay-kmweiland.blogspot.com/2009/09/guest-post-good-writers-are-so-lazy.html

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