Margie Lawson

Make your writing soar


The Psychology of Storytelling

Life is a string of experiences. Stories are virtual experiences, presented in a string of scenes.

Who experiences? The mind does. Hence, writers need to know the psychology of experiencing and apply that to stories.

Janus the two-faced god - from psychology, representing the inner and outer lives of characters

Janus, the Two-faced God

We experience two worlds, the internal and external world. We are Janus, the two-faced god, who dwells on the threshold between the two worlds.

We experience and act in the external world, which is ruled by physical, chemical, and biological laws. The external world is severe. If we miss by an inch, we miss. The external world is a competitive place and out there, we can get hurt or even killed.

We imagine, dream, feel, and think in the internal world. The internal world defies physics. We can fly without wings, dive without gills, and shapeshift. It’s a merciful world because there are no limits to our imagination and we always get a second chance. It’s the place where the magic happens.

The same is true for stories. Stories have internal and external developments and writers need to tell the difference between the two, which is not always easy. Let’s take love and romance as an example. Usually lumped together, a romance is the external arc of a relationship, and love is the characters’ internal experience - besides infatuation, passion, or obsession.

Story characters connect the internal and external world and establish an experience-response rhythm: external event → internal response → external action → external reaction → internal response → and so on.

Dwight V. Swain put great emphasis on this rhythm. He came up with the concept of Motivation Reaction Units, MRUs. These are the rules:

  1. Motivation comes first, then the character’s reaction
  2. Characters’ reactions follow a sequence: (motivation) → visceral response → emotional response → thought → action → speech

MRUs are real to life and we go through MRU cycles a hundred times a day. For that reason, readers will notice when a writer gets it wrong, for example, by reversing motivation and responses, or by getting the internal response sequence wrong.

The Four Mental Faculties Involved in Experiencing

Simplified, experiences involve four mental faculties:

  • The senses
  • The self
  • Emotions
  • The intellect

The Sensual Stream

Our senses turn external experiences into a multimedia stream and project that onto the brain’s frontal lobe, which our self watches just like it watches TV or reads stories.

Prose or line-by-line writing emulates the sensual stream.

The Self

We have a natural ability to put ourselves into other people’s shoes, although we may not use that ability often. This ability is called empathy. Empathy is the root story engager. No empathy, no curiosity, neither tension.

Narrative and POV emulate the self.


Emotional-visceral responses are involuntary and come first (see above). Big and fast-approaching objects trigger fear. So does standing at the edge of a precipice. Without emotions, we would look at an approaching lion and we would be like, “Wow! Awesome! Beautiful!” And we would be dead.

Emotions can be pleasant and unpleasant. Examples of unpleasant emotions are disgust, fear, and anger. Examples of pleasant emotions are infatuation, arousal, excitement, and satisfaction.

The border between pleasant and unpleasant is fuzzy. Some people take pleasure in pain. Sometimes, we like to flirt with unpleasant emotions, for example, by going bungee jumping or parachuting.

In stories, we conjure emotions with prose - by writing internalizations. Every genre promises a particular emotional experience, for example, horror stories allow readers to flirt with fear and disgust, romance promises love and infatuation.

The Intellect

Intellectual responses are voluntary and come third in MRUs. The intellect analyzes experiences, ponders their meaning, comes up with solutions to adversity, and anticipates the future. 

The cognitive response to stories is curiosity. Curiosity is a major story engager. Crime stories make amply use of curiosity. Writers need to design curiosity. They do that with plotting: by raising and answering story questions, as well as adding twists and clues and red herrings.

Hormones and Tension

The brain continuously tracks the discrepancy between motivation and reality, for example, the motivation of finding food and its availability. Such discrepancies produce tension. Tension is a major story engager.

Hormones produce tension in three basic scenarios:

  1. In case the discrepancy between want and reality is small and not life-threatening, the brain releases endorphins. Endorphins motivate the self and off it goes, excited to find food. That's eustress or positive stress. Readers feel eustress when the heroine formulates her story goal and embarks on her heroic journey.
  2. In case the discrepancy between want and reality is great or life-threatening, the brain releases adrenaline, norepinephrine, and/or cortisol. While the story goal creates subtle but continuous tension, action, thriller, and horror scenes give readers adrenaline boosts.
  3. When the protagonist meets the story goal, readers will experience the release of serotonin, which gives them a sense of satisfaction. That’s what the happy ending and poetic justice are good for. Serotonin is not the only satisfaction hormone. In case the protagonist mates, it’s oxytocin, which will give readers a sense of satisfying affection and intimacy.

Writers are alchemists. They concoct endorphins, adrenaline, norepinephrine, cortisol, oxytocin, and serotonin in their readers’ brains.


Conflicting Voluntary and Involuntary Responses

We can be curious and frightened at the same time, for example, when we go parachuting or meet a snake in the woods.

Take your protagonist to such conflicting moments to boost tension.

Showing Visceral Responses

The brain and the nervous system conjures emotions with the help of the spinal cord and five more nerve centers in our body: at the base of the spine, behind the navel, at the solar plexus, at the heart, and in the throat.

In case of a dangerous or tempting situation, the brain will issue hormones that induce the spine and other nerve centers to summon particular bodily sensations that represent emotions.

In the case of fear, the nerve center at the navel may evoke the sense of acrophobia. Writers allegorize that with the expression pit of the stomach. Pride, grief, and anxiety may evoke the sense of a lump in the throat or the sense of being strangled. This article shows the bodily map of emotions.

Knowing the places where the body makes up emotions and what kind of physical sensations represent them helps to write engaging emotional-visceral responses.

Since different emotions can make themselves felt at the same location (see the above example of a lump in the throat), you may want to indicate the emotion with a tiny tell (tell underlined): My heart pounds with fear, usurping the space my lungs need to breathe.


Stefan Emunds

Stefan writes inspirational non-fiction, visionary fiction, and runs an online enlightenment workshop. Enlightenment and storytelling have interesting parallels, which enticed Stefan to write a book about storytelling - The Eight Crafts of Writing. Stefan was born in Germany and, after graduating, enjoyed two years backpacking in Australia, New Zealand, and South-East Asia. Back home, he studied general electro-technology and pursued a career as a sales and business development manager in Europe, Middle East, and Asia. Semis-retired now, he lives with his son in the Philippines.




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