Writing Stories that Transform Readers, Part 2

Two weeks ago, I mentioned that I was going to write a series about how the best stories don’t just entertain readers, they also transform them, helping them to grow intellectually and emotionally. The story takes the reader through a vicarious journey, where the reader’s identity merges with that of a protagonist, so the reader tends to unconsciously consider the world through the protagonist’s persona, and as the protagonist grows, so does the reader.

Stories that do that tend to work in three phases—the Identity Phase, the Transport Phase, and the Transformational Phase.

The Identity Phase

A story does not begin until you have a character, in a milieu, with a conflict. Now, many writers will begin a story just hoping to hold the reader’s attention with a bit of information—so they might spend five pages just trying to capture a setting, or they might spend a few pages describing a character. But the story typically won’t intrigue a reader until all three elements—character, milieu, and conflict, come into play.

Many writers struggle to figure out how to hook the reader long enough to get them immersed in the story. This is a great goal, and you have to do it in order to entertain the reader, but if you are struggling to educate and transform the reader, you have to go a bit deeper. (I’m sorry about this, but this article is touching on matters that are very deep. I feel like I’m just describing the tip of the iceberg here.)

So in the Identity Phase of your story, your goal is threefold: 1) Create a character who audiences will identify with so that they can easily slip into the persona of the protagonist. Give the character a problem that the reader will feel for or respond to; 2) Create a setting that is so visceral that the audience forgets that they are reading and are transported fully into the story; 3) Depict conflicts that engage the reader.
Note: the hormones stimulated in this opening phase of storytelling are cortisol and adrenaline as we introduce the conflicts and dangers, and of course dopamine is stimulated as we use intrigue to get the reader going, but we also stimulate oxytocin as the reader begins to care about and identify with the protagonist.

I’m not sure if you can see it, but the goal of this phase of the story is simply to ease the reader into your fictive universe. That’s often a difficult thing to do. Sometimes, we tell readers stories that promise to be . . . deeply disturbing. And so getting the reader to stay in that fictive universe can be a struggle.

Think of it this way. Imagine that your reader turns on his television. He’s sitting in a comfortable recliner, watching a busy screen with characters and scenery, and he is leading a comfortable life. He has his own identity. But your job as a storyteller is to get him up, get him out of his chair, and convince him to step into the television, to leave his world behind.

There are a number enticements that you can use. For example, some people have been to fictive worlds that they’ve really enjoyed before. So, if your reader loves Jane Austen, you might be able to convince that reader to leave her world behind just by displaying a setting that is similar to a world she has enjoyed before. Or if your reader is very interested in politics, then having a conflict with subtle political connotations might draw the reader in. In fact, many conflicts promise powerful emotions such as romance, wonder, hope, or horror, and so genre alone can predispose a reader to enter your universe.

Of course on the level of character, I’ve spoken about this before: We can create a protagonist who is “likeable,” almost always by putting the character into some kind of pain or by having them sympathize with or care for others. (Both of these techniques stimulate the reader to release oxytocin, the hormone that is at least partly responsible for human bonding.) But there are many other ways to create a protagonist that draws a reader in. For example, a very talented or “capable” protagonist can be fascinating, as can one who is mysterious and promises surprise.

The point here that I want to make, though, is that in the Identity Phase of the story, the reader is holding on to his own identity and recognizes the story as something foreign—a story. He is observing it from a distance, as if examining an object. But the goal is to get the reader to “step through” the portal, to psychically enter the story and let his or her identity begin to merge into that of a protagonist in the story.

Once the reader engages in the story, the Identity Phase is ended. The reader’s identity and the protagonist’s identity begin to merge, and now we can begin the Transport Phase, where the reader begins to “live” through the events of the story vicariously.

Now, as a writer, you know that at any time, the reader is free to back out of the story. He or she can set your book down, and they will do it if they get bored, or confused, or offended in some way.

If you understand what I’m saying, then you’ll see that the larger objective of the opening of your story is to offer the reader ample emotional incentives and rewards so that he or she voluntarily steps through the portal into your story and begins to live in your fictive universe. The goal of the Identity Phase is to get the reader to abandon his own identity and merge with your protagonist, using just about any means at your disposal.

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