Experience is the most effective teacher (I learned more Spanish in three days in Barcelona than I did in two years of high school Spanish class). But one of the most interesting things about the human psyche is that we’re wired to learn from other people’s experiences, as well. There’s something divinely intentional about the way we not only sympathize but empathize with others, the way we “take the journey” with them.
Your job as a storyteller–as a fiction writer, or as an essayist or teacher using a story illustration–is to take us there. Aristotle called this catharsis, the human tendency to process or “purge” our own feelings by identifying with another’s experience. Joseph Campbell called it “the hero’s journey.” But catharsis doesn’t just happen with epic heroes (Odysseus, Frodo, Luke Skywalker), it happens with down-to-earth protagonists, as well (Woody in Toy Story, Pony Boy in The Outsiders).
If a story feels real, the reader/audience will “suspend their disbelief” (their awareness that this isn’t really happening) and take the journey with the protagonist. Why? Because we’re predisposed to go beyond ourselves, to vicariously experience others’ lives. In fact, that’s how we become fully human. Hatred, for example, dissolves when we learn another’s story; it makes them too real to hate (this is the premise underlying my feature film and upcoming novel Healing River).
So how do we as writers make this happen? In a word: details. I can tell people that my father died of a sudden heart attack when he was 45, and while they may sympathize, feel for me, they generally don’t empathize, feel with me. Why? Because I’ve only spoken about the event. The old expression “God is in the details” may be truer than we think; it’s the details that bring a story to life. When I wrote about my father’s death in Love. Before It’s Too Late, I knew my readers would go there because I went there, i.e. I relived the experience as I recreated the details.
Any emotion–anger, fear, frustration, joy–can be invoked with evocative imagery. I recount a humorous incident involving my (at the time) toddler daughter Beth in one brief, visceral account entitled Always Look Before You… There’s just enough detail take readers there.
During the late Middle Ages, “morality plays” became popular. These were bare-bones stories with one-dimensional heroes whose sole purpose was to deliver a message. But when the Elizabethans, Shakespeare and company, rediscovered Aristotle, audiences quickly abandoned morality plays in favor of the cathartic experience. They were hungry to take the journey with the hero. And they still are.
So don’t just tell us, show us. Take us there.
Trust the story.