What is it that makes people suspend their disbelief? Why can you sit in a movie theatre for three hours while people who never existed use their powers that are impossible to fight enemies that have never, and will never, be? Neuroscience and sociology, psychiatry-all have tried to explain this phenomenon one way or the other. But I love metaphors, and I’m not a doctor, so I think the answer is a lot simpler-we are all little kids at heart. We all want to feel like we are more than we are, like that could be us on the screen with laser beam eyes and diamond skin. Listen to a child sometimes; they haven’t been taught not to say the word “need” yet. Society has trained an adult to believe that emotions aren’t needs and that it’s socially unacceptable to say you need something that isn’t food, water, shelter, or health. But a child is honest in ways that adults are not. They will use the word need to express that emotion. I need a scoop of ice cream because it makes me happy. I need that dress that has the sparkles on it like my friends’ clothes. I need to go to the party. Parents slowly wean kids away from using these words, but we are all human, and our needs don’t stop at sustenance and shelter or sleep and climate.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a classic pillar of psychology. Basic needs for the base of the pyramid- physiological needs and security. Even at the bottom, though, we see security and safety needs beyond simply what our physical bodies need to function. While a good story can’t literally put calories in your body, it can feed you in other ways.
Just look at the references to sustenance in literature. You can go all the way back to the Bible, or perhaps the more modern Chicken Soup for the Soul. Emotion and needs go deep into our understanding of each other. Instead of greeting people by asking how they are, cultures in the Philippines and China instead ask, “Have you eaten yet?” This link between need and emotion worked into the fabric of a story, is what feeds an audience’s ability to believe fantastic things, as long as those things meet their needs. Farther up the pyramid of needs is where the best stories lie. By inviting an audience to experience a feeling of prestige and accomplishment vicariously or even fulfilling their potential, storytellers can meet their audience’s self-esteem and self-actualization needs.
Take the power of fantasy, of emotional need. There are passing few people who had a deep, emotional connection with the content of their math textbook in primary school, but everyone who read Of Mice and Men as a youth will feel a tug deep in their chest when reminded of Lenny and his rabbit. There, did you feel it? That’s emotional storytelling. Where the Red Fern Grows. Old Yeller. The Giver. Depending on your history, one of these stories may have tugged you into the narrative by your heartstrings.
None of these tales are purely factual accountings of objective truth, and none of them would work without a fantastic element, a sense of emotion. They all feed that need within us to believe.
And this phenomenon, this triggering of emotion by fulfilling needs, isn’t the end of the effect of a good story. Emotions are tied to memory, and when the content of a good story evokes emotion, it creates strong memories. So if you want to use your story to teach, you absolutely have to know what your audience needs to feel fulfilled, to feel an achievement of full potential vicariously. When you feed this need and evoke that emotion, you can teach a powerful lesson, deliver powerful messages, and build powerful movements. Emotion is memory.
But emotion isn’t the only thing in a truly good story. It can’t be-humans are both creative and critical. Logical and artful. Logic lives in a different part of the brain than creativity, but it’s not a binary system for every person. In fact, there’s evidence that even something like the culture and language an audience lives in can influence their thought patterns. There are ways to invoke the artistic bent in all of us and ways to appeal to our logical brains. Logic in an audience is like a bear. What does this mean to the storyteller? You leave it alone, and it’ll leave you alone. As long as you aren’t blatantly contradicting yourself in plot, character, or setting, your audience will give you the benefit of the doubt. But as soon as a storyteller commits that first non-sequitar, it’s over.
In storytelling, don’t be overtly illogical. Whatever the rules you work with, they have to follow each other and nest, and they have to be in line with the initial contract you make with the reader. Is there magic in your science fiction story? Great. It probably has rules. Is there religion in your historical fiction? Better get that right. Is your character a psychopath? Time to read up on psychology. All those details, all those contracts, they all have to fall under the umbrella of axiology.
So a study of logic is essential to good storytelling of all types. If you haven’t put in the practice, the audience simply falls like a dropped ball at a juggling show.
The desire to believe fantasy and the need for logical frameworks are two forces that the storyteller must hold in creative tension. Without capturing the audience’s emotion, you can’t hope to build any sort of relationship. Without the framework of logic to rely on to guide the audience through a story’s emotion, the narrative descends into chaos. So remember to feed your audience and support them, and you’ll find your way through the maze of a good story.