If you’re anything like me, you rave about the kinds of stories that take you somewhere special or make you feel something different. I like the fiction I read to tweak my internal settings and show me new things. Animal Farm made me feel anger and sadness, but taught me something important about life. American Psycho gave me fear and confusion, but also introduced me to the joy of experimentation. Birdsong passed into me a strange mix of loneliness and happiness. The Gathering, melancholy, but also wonder. Different pieces of writing cause different emotions within us and amongst us. No two people ever really read the same story or feel the same things when they do. It’s the paradox that makes reading such a memorable pastime. The moment a writer manages to convey their experiences and feelings into a reader’s imagination is the moment I believe they’ve created true art.
Some argue that art can only be art if it alters our emotional landscape, triggers inside us sensations that weren’t there before – and I agree. An interesting result of this theory is that a story, artwork, piece of music or even a theatre performance can still be respected as art even if we don’t like it. I don’t like (most) sci-fi books, The Rocky Horror Show or the paintings of Milton Avery, but I still appreciate the underlying emotional messages in each and accept that all three are ‘art’. The best art, fiction or performance generates a simultaneous mixture of emotions – the “meta-emotions” – all triggered at the same time in the observer. What’s fascinating is that complex, poorly-made art or art that is well-made, but lacks complexity does not generate these so-called meta-emotions. Only well-made art, with sufficient depth, leads to their triggering inside us.
I found this really interesting and decided to come up with my own emotion experiment – if you want to take part, read on.
Ok, you’re now going to experience a very short story, told in two different ways. Just read both paragraphs that follow and then see what you think. You can post a comment, if you like, to share your experiences.
So, here’s story version 1:
Today, a vehicle exploded in a tunnel killing the driver and two passengers and injuring twenty other road users. The incident was believed to have been caused by the driver losing control of the vehicle and crashing into the wall of the tunnel at high speed. Investigators are looking into the possibility that the driver was under the influence of drink or drugs. Of the eight people taken to hospital in ambulances, five are said to be in a stable condition. The other three are receiving specialist treatment, but are expected to make a full recovery. The car involved was a Toyota Corolla, blue in colour and with a specialised numberplate. Witnesses are asked to contact police.
And now for story version 2:
Nurse, Steph Baker, was travelling across town to pick up her youngest daughter from day nursery when she witnessed a car accident up ahead of her. She recalls hearing bone-chilling screams after the initial explosion and seeing huge flames leaping into the air. With a ball of emotion in her throat, Steph remembers seeing another young woman jumping out of a nearby car and rushing closer to the accident, risking her life. It soon became clear that a boy was trapped in a burning car. Instinctively, Steph knew she had to help, regardless of her fears and, together, the two brave women saved the lives of two, innocent children – the terrified boy and his baby sister.
Now, thinking back over what you just read, try to answer these simple questions:
What did you notice, if anything, when you read each version? How did you feel? Did either version affect you in any way? How? What similarities and differences did can you find between the two versions?
Let’s look at some facts. Both stories are exactly 117 words long. In both versions, the same basic incident is described, but I’m guessing you’d agree – that’s where the similarities end. Version 1 is a factual description of events that probably didn’t elicit a huge range of emotions, even though the incident described is horrific. Version 2 probably created a stronger tug, leaving you feeling a mix of sympathy, fear, concern etc.
It’s a simple, subtle experiment that illustrates how any piece of writing can be made exponentially more engaging, emotional and personal by the inclusion of people’s names, their family situation, a description of their contribution to society, their thoughts, feelings and fears and any mention of how they overcame a challenge to help another person, especially a vulnerable child. Writing that conveys sympathy, care, kindness, bravery, intrigue or daring doesn’t add anything to our factual understanding of a situation, but expands our capacity to appreciate the pain or joy the person in the story is experiencing – our capacity for empathy. The experiment shows that, even when two scenarios are identical, the way they’re written, the devices used to evoke emotion within us and the addition or exclusion of that much-lauded personal touch really makes a big difference to the result in terms of impact and engagement.
Your personal take on this topic would be of great interest – share your experiences and opinions in a comment or with me directly @carlahkrueger.