My college creative writing professor, author Dr. Jonis Agee, agreed with Aristotle.
In Poetics, the Greek philosopher wrote, “A story that is whole has a beginning, middle and an end … It is necessary that a well-constructed tale does not begin or just end anywhere but will apply the conditions I have described.”
Dr. Agee narrowed her eyes, wagged her index finger at us and said, “If you hand in any composition that doesn’t have this, it’ll affect your grade.”
Neuroscience is begging to differ.
Plot Is Not #1 in Our Brains
Recent research indicates that characters are more important to us. This is true across all three ways of telling a tale: speech/writing, pantomime or drawing.
You—and your audience—have a “narrative hub” in the brain. It includes these three areas:
- Temporoparietal junction (TPJ), which processes socially relevant cues and is involved in attention
- Posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS), which understands language and simulates the mental processes of other people
- Posterior cingulate cortex, which is involved in learning, memory and pain
According to functional MRIs (fMRI), this hub is activated when you’re telling or exposed to stories. And none of these parts of your brain care about plot.
Instead, researchers found, “These areas are strongly associated with ‘character’ processing, as related to both mentalizing and emotional expression …”
What This Means for Your Stories
You, and the people experiencing your story, are focusing on what the main character believes, intends, is motivated by, feels and acts on. A good story will share all of these.
Know, too, that people will “fill in the blanks” if you don’t provide it. Something called the “Theory of Mind” (ToM) indicates our brains pay attention to all of the areas just mentioned and try to identify these things in others.
And what we don’t know, we make up. That happens when our subconscious mind makes quick judgments based on the information we have.
If the characters in your story are too poorly drawn, people will make their own assumptions about them—and this may not be what you intended.
We All Want to Be Heroes
You’ve likely heard that you need to make your story about your audience rather than yourself. Now you know why. Our brains are all identifying with the protagonist in a story. The more details we provide, the easier it is for people to do this—and make the story their own.
Complement your “beginning, middle and end” with character development. I’m betting you’ll get a better grade from Dr. Agee—and the rest of us—if you do.
Need to use stories as a way to build rapport and connection with people inside and outside your organization? Let’s talk.