Writing and the Creative Life: Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling (Part 2)

Freytag’s pyramid, Cortisol, Dopamine, and you!

In Part 1, we considered a Harvard Business Review article about the influence of stories on the brain. My thoughts on the article:

For years, I’ve used the term audience identification. Something about your story, most particularly involving your Protagonist, must resonate with a reader. What that boils down to is creating a sense of empathy on the part of the reader with at least one of your central characters. If you do that, you shrink the distance between the reader and the story universe you are creating. Indeed, the reader can begin to live vicariously through the experiences of the Protagonist, the degree of empathy so strong as to pull the reader into the story.

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It’s not enough to create empathy. Empathy does not necessarily translate into a compelling story. To do that, we need to craft a narrative that involves some sense of tension. You’ve heard the saying, “You can’t have good drama without conflict”? That is the same sentiment as what is at work here. There have to be problems to solve and obstacles to overcome in order for a narrative to create a sense of tension in a reader. Of course, the presence of this tension presupposes a resolution to it which in turn provides a sense of emotional satisfaction.

The intriguing thing here is that while we, as writers, are thinking about emotions and psychology, much of it apparently boils down to a chemical reaction in the brain.

That chemical is called Oxytocin. This discussion led me to another Harvard Business Review article: The Irresistible Power of Storytelling as a Strategic Business Tool.

It’s not often that you hear Budweiser and Shakespeare mentioned in the same breath. But according to new research from Johns Hopkins University, the Bard’s deft application of storytelling techniques featured prominently in the beer company’s Super Bowl commercial.

In “Puppy Love,” a perfectly adorable yellow lab becomes inseparable friends with a Clydesdale. Sneaking out of his pen, the pup and the horse “talk” in the stables and cavort on an idyllic farm –until someone comes to adopt the dog. The distressed puppy whines and places his paws against the window of the car set to take him to his new home. All seems lost until the Clydesdale rallies the other horses to stop the vehicle from leaving. Reunited, the two commence frolicking in the horse pasture and, we assume, live happily ever after.

Here is the commercial:

Currently at 53M+ views on YouTube, so clearly something at work here in terms of the story. But what?

If Keith Quesenberry were a betting man, he would have cleaned up. The researcher at Johns Hopkins predicted that the Budweiser spot would be a winner after conducting a two-year analysis of 108 Super Bowl commercials. In a paper that will be published in the Fall 2014 issue of The Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice, Quesenberry and research partner Michael Coolsen focused on brands’ use of specific strategies to sell products, such as featuring cute animals or sexy celebrities. But they also coded the commercials for plot development.

They found that, regardless of the content of the ad, the structure of that content predicted its success. “People are attracted to stories,” Quesenberry tells me, “because we’re social creatures and we relate to other people.”

It’s no surprise. We humans have been communicating through stories for upwards of 20,000 years, back when our flat screens were cave walls.

“Especially in the Super Bowl, those 30-second ads are almost like mini movies,” he says. Quesenberry found that the ads that told a more complete story using Freytag’s Pyramid — a dramatic structure that can be traced back to Aristotle — were the most popular.

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Shakespeare had mastered this structure, arranging his plays in five acts to include an exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and a dénouement — or final outcome. The “Best Buds” story also uses these elements to great effect. The more of the acts each version of the ad had, the better it performed.

Storytelling evokes a strong neurological response. Neuroeconomist Paul Zak‘s research indicates that our brains produce the stress hormone cortisol during the tense moments in a story, which allows us to focus, while the cute factor of the animals releases oxytocin, the feel-good chemical that promotes connection and empathy. Other neurological research tells us that a happy ending to a story triggers the limbic system, our brain’s reward center, to release dopamine which makes us feel more hopeful and optimistic.

We can now add Cortisol and Dopamine to Oxytocin, all chemical reactions in our brains related to storytelling. But to get there via a story, we have Freytag’s Pyramid. Looking at it, I still see three movements with concurrent chemical reactions:

Empathy [Oxytocin]: Establish a point of emotional resonance with characters.
Tension [Cortisol]: Create a dilemma that arouses disunity.
Release [Dopamine]: Resolve the dilemma that brings about unity.

Yet another way of looking at Three Act Structure.

Of course, this approach assumes we want to write a story that leaves people in a happy place. Obviously there are stories that do not do that. Which is, of course, completely fine.

However there is a reason why a vast majority of mainstream Hollywood movies have happy endings. Actually two reasons: Meet Mr. Dopamine and Ms. Oxytocin!

For the rest of the article, go here.

For Part 1 of this series, go here.

In Part 3, we delve into the science of a well-constructed plot.

Writing and the Creative Life is a weekly series in which we explore creativity from the practical to the psychological, the latest in brain science to a spiritual take on the subject. Hopefully the more we understand about our creative self, the better we will become as writers. If you have any good reading material in this vein, please post in comments. If you have a particular observation you think readers will benefit from and you would like to explore in a guest post, email me.

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