Story Psych: A Semi-Scientific Look at What Makes a Good Story

As a psychology major and someone whose day job regularly draws on psychological principles (I’m a behavioral therapist for children with special needs), I thought it’d be interesting to do a series of posts examining how the science of the mind might be applied to the world of literature.

To start things off, I’ll be tackling one of the biggest questions there is: just what is it that makes a story “good”? From a psychological perspective, that is.

One of the biggest factors, I’d guess, is memory.

Memorable does not necessarily equal good, but it would make sense that a story with scenes and characters that stick in readers’ minds would be far more likely to become a success than one without that sticking power. While you’re reading, you’ll enjoy a story more if you have a clear memory of what came before and how the events are building to the climax. And afterward, if you continue to remember and think about the story, there’s a sense that you’ve read something powerful. You’re certainly more likely to recommend that story to others than one you’ve already forgotten.

How does a story—or anything else, for that matter—become memorable? Well, to begin with, it has to avoid interference. Whether information stays in your memory long enough to stick depends a lot on whether it gets displaced by new information before that can happen. So you’re more likely to remember three characters who are introduced across three separate chapters, for example, than three who are introduced on the same page. A story that gives its important events and people due time on the page before moving on is more likely to be remembered than one cluttered with overlapping actions and introductions.

Simply not providing immediate interference isn’t necessarily enough, though.  For a story to be remembered, it helps if it’s original, too.  If you already have memories of similar information, they can make the formation of new, related memories more difficult. Have you experienced one of those moments when you can’t recall whether a specific event or character appeared in one book or another (when those books have similar tones and/or plots)?  That’s this effect in action. Studies have also shown that people tend to remember events that involve actions and locations they’ve experienced infrequently better than those where the situation and setting are more familiar to them. So the more distinctive a story is, the less likely your memories of other stories will interfere with it, and the more likely it will stand out in your mind.

But while unique events, characters, and settings can make a story more memorable, an unusual structure may throw readers’ memories off. It’s been suggested that people have a sense of story grammar that dictates what sort of events they expect to happen in any given story, in what sort of order: for example, a beginning with an introduction of characters and setting, a series of attempts at goals and the outcomes of those attempts in the middle, leading to a resolution at the end. Researchers have found that people remember stories that follow this expected structure better than those that stray from it. In fact, readers may inadvertently misremember the events in an “ungrammatical” story so that it better fits the structure they expect.

One final memory aid is visualization. Most psychologists believe that people can recall information more easily if it’s encoded in their memory both linguistically (what it means) and through imagery (what it looks like), simply because that means you’ve made more mental connections and have more avenues by which to access those memories. Anyone who’s tried using mnemonic tricks to improve memory knows that many of them involve associating information with images, and this is why.

So what does that mean for storytelling? I’d say that a story told in a way that evokes images in readers’ minds is more likely to be remembered than one that doesn’t, or does so less. When you think about your favorite novels, do you have some sort of visual impressions that go with it? I would guess most of us bring images to mind when we think of the scenes that resonated the most with us—images that skilled words on the page conjured for us. Maybe that’s why so many authors are now using book trailers to get word out about their newest works: the hope that a dynamic visual will stick in the minds of the reading public longer than a simple cover and description!

Those are a few of the ways memory might influence which stories are lauded and which are not. Over the next few days I’ll examine how behavioral principles and persuasive techniques might come into play as well.

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.


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