Writing and the Creative Life: Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling (Part 5)

Of Transactional Purpose and Transcendent Purpose.

In Part 1, we looked at a Harvard Business Review article about the influence of stories on the brain, how much of it apparently boils down to the reaction of a chemical called Oxytocin.

In Part 2, we considered additional chemical reactions in the brain related to storytelling: Cortisol during tense moments, Oxytocin which promotes a sense of connection to what is happening in the story, and Dopamine which makes us feel more hopeful and optimistic. So a new way of thinking about Three Act Structure:

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.

In Part 3, we explored another HBR article and came away with three important questions to ask as part of the story-crafting process:

* Who is my audience?

* How can I make the script reader feel like the hero?

* How can I imbue my story with conflict?

In Part 4, we explored a pattern common to stories: “By reminding people of the status quo and then revealing the path to a better way, they set up a conflict that needs to be resolved.”

This dynamic tension between What Is and What Could Be can be visualized this way:

This interplay between events in the External world and reactions in the Internal World of a Story Universe — the Physical Journey and Psychological Journey — are the basis for the Protagonist’s metamorphosis. But why does this appeal to the human brain?

We explore that in the last part of this series with this excerpt from the Harvard Business Review article cited in Part 1:

We know that people are substantially more motivated by their organization’s transcendent purpose (how it improves lives) than by its transactional purpose (how it sells goods and services). Transcendent purpose is effectively communicated through stories — for example, by describing the pitiable situations of actual, named customers and how their problems were solved by your efforts. Make your people empathize with the pain the customer experienced and they will also feel the pleasure of its resolution — all the more if some heroics went in to reducing suffering or struggle, or producing joy.

As a writer, we can look at Transactional Purpose as the story’s Plotline, the domain of the External World where the narrative’s events take place. Those events equal transactions.

We can look at Transcendent Purpose as the story’s Themeline, the domain of the Internal World where characters experience psychological and emotional change. Tied to the destiny of each character, it can be a negative change, a positive change, or anything in between, but that transformation speaks to the transcendent nature of the narrative as it plays out on a personal level for each individual involved.

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Joseph Campbell said that the whole point of the Hero’s Journey is transformation, suggesting this narrative dynamic resonates with humans at a universal level, and I think this idea of Transcendent Purpose goes to the heart of why that is the case: We like to be engaged and entertained by what transpires in the plot, but more important we want to find meaning in the characters’ experiences, and see change manifest in their lives. From the same Harvard Business Review article:

Many of us know from Joseph Campbell’s work that enduring stories tend to share a dramatic arc in which a character struggles and eventually finds heretofore unknown abilities and uses these to triumph over adversity; my work shows that the brain is highly attracted to this story style.

This series has explored ways in which good stories connect with and impact our brains. From narrative elements that induce chemical reactions to story dynamics that engender a sense of empathy, tension, and release to metamorphosis arcs which create visions of what could be in the lives of characters and by extension our own lives.

As writers, we can use these storytelling principles to engage a reader’s brain and beyond that, their psyche.

For the rest of the article, go here.

For Part 1 of this series, go here.

Part 2, go here.

Part 3, go here.

Part 4, go here.

Writing and the Creative Life is an ongoing 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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