Story Psych: What Makes a Good Story (Part 2)

Earlier I talked about how the psychological study of memory can give us clues about what qualities cause a story to be considered “good.” Today I’d like to examine the role behavioral psychology might play.

When people talk about behavioral psychology, the name that most often comes up is B.F. Skinner. Anyone who’s taken an introductory psychology course will have heard of him: he’s best known for his experiments with pigeons and rats in which he investigated how environmental stimuli affected their behavior. The principles he wrote about—particularly, that giving a reward (reinforcement) increases a behavior, while introducing a punishment decreases it—are widely used in many parts of our lives. Kids in school get stickers for good work and detention for bad behavior. An employee may get a raise for excellent performance and a reprimand for carelessness. Stop for a moment and think, and you can probably come up with a dozen ways you are reinforced (directly or subtly) for behaving “correctly,” and punished for a misstep.

But what does all that have to do with stories? I’d say rather a lot.

When readers first pick up a book, they’re looking for certain experiences. To be entertained, to discover another world, to see things through someone else’s eyes. They also often have more specific expectations, such as a humorous tone, or accurate depictions of technology. And they may have hopes they are not even conscious of, for the sort of story they’d most like to read.

If the book provides those experiences and meets those expectations, it’s rewarding the readers, and they will probably keep reading. You know the feeling when a certain scene fills you with a surge of excitement, wow, this is shaping up to be an amazing story, and from then on you can hardly put the book down? That’s reinforcement at work. But on the other hand, if a book fails to deliver what you’re reading for, or forces on you something you dislike, in effect it’s punishing you for reading, and you’re more likely to put down the book without finishing. Readers may still make it through a punishing read, but only if it’s got enough rewards to counterbalance the bad parts. Certainly they’re likely to praise a book more the more it’s reinforced them for taking the time to read it.

Sounds simple, right?  Write a good story, readers will be reinforced and keep reading.  However, reinforcement is not completely straight-forward. Just as important as the rewards themselves are when they are given, and how often.

See, one of the patterns Skinner discovered was that any behavior that’s reinforced may be extinguished if the rewards stop coming. How long it takes for the behavior to stop depends on the schedule with which the subjects were reinforced. You might think behavior that’s consistently, frequently reinforced would stick around longer than behavior that’s only sporadically and unpredictably reinforced, but the opposite is actually true. If a rat, for example, receives a food pellet every time it pushes a lever, and then the pellets stop coming, it’ll give up on the lever after a few more tries. But if it’s only gotten food every 5-15 times it’s pressed that lever, it’s likely to keep at it for a long time before it finally turns away. The fact that the reinforcement was unpredictable means that the subject is willing to wait longer, and try harder, for it to come. Which is why, if your employer stopped sending your regular paychecks, you’d complain pretty quickly, but people will happily play slot machines for hours with only occasional winnings.

It’s also why many authors will say that they think it’s better not to give readers everything they want; at least, not all at once. If readers’ hopes and expectations for the story are met on every page, then the story becomes predictable, and as soon as their expectations are stop being met (unless the story is rewarding in some other way), they’ll set the book aside. I suspect the most successful stories are the ones that provide little bits of reinforcement here and there—a lovely passage of description, another clue, a long-awaited kiss—which prove to readers that the author can be trusted to deliver, while keeping them hanging on certain issues, like whether this unresolved sexual tension will develop into a full relationship, or just what secret the main character is hiding. The unpredictable nature of the rewards, the never quite knowing what to expect or when the author will resolve a conflict or deepen it, can glue readers to the page for an entire book or series.

Unfortunately, the other main way I believe behavioral psychology comes into play for stories is mostly beyond the writer’s control. At the beginning of the post I talked about reader expectations and hopes, and how having those met was reinforcing. But the thing is, there’s no one element that will always be rewarding to any given reader at any given time. Reinforcement is only truly reinforcement if it provides people with what they want at that moment, regardless of what they wanted when they read some other book yesterday.

How do readers try to find a book that will reinforce their current desires? Often by looking at the cover and reading the jacket copy. If those accurately portray the tone and content of the story, great! But if readers pick up a tear-jerker with the impression it’s a comedy, or a plot-heavy page-turner assuming it’s a thoughtful character piece, they’ll feel punished as soon as they realize the story’s not what they wanted. Will they keep reading? Maybe. But it’s highly unlikely they’ll find the story as reinforcing (and thus as “good”) as if it was the sort of story they were looking for, even if at another time they might have loved it. I suspect most of us have had the experience of starting a book, realizing we’re really not in the mood for it, and setting it aside, only to read it and adore it years later. So a book that’s presented in a way that obscures what it is will have a lot harder time appealing to readers than one that clearly states what it’s going to offer. Thankfully, those former stories may still find an audience if enough people discover them and appreciate what they truly are, and then spread the word.

So those are my thoughts on behavioral psychology and good stories. Keep an eye out for the third (and final) post on this subject, in which I’ll take a look at the role of persuasion.

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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