The Psychology of Story Physics

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by Larry Brooks on April 25, 2013

A guest post by Kerry Boytzun

There are writers — some who claim to know, others who simply don’t know — who aren’t buying into the notion of a “first plot point” as a useful or even necessary story milestone.  Those who believe that an earlier inciting incident is sufficient, wherever it appears, and that a gentile dramatic slope from that point onward will suffice.

What these people are missing is an awareness that the human mind thrives on figuring out life experience in a manner that aligns with the principles of story physics, including a moment when “everything changes.”

Which is the reason the FPP exists.

A story without proper, optimized story physics – on this and on other levels – feels flat.  Because we, the humans reading it, are not drawn to it (empathy and vicarious experience, also elements of story physics) at a basic psychological level.  It’s like food — if it smells bad, or simply doesn’t smell good, we aren’t as hungry.

Story physics aren’t random suggestions.  As Larry suggests, they are natural law.  The reasons they work align with the reasons we’re alive in the first place — to discover, to experience, to learn, and most of all, to feel.

And when we feel, we adapt, and we survive.

And so it goes… our stories contribute to life itself.

For example, one can only completely experience water by getting wet, drinking it, swimming in it, using it, and in the extreme, drowning in it or even dying of thirst.  These are all experiences, things we can relate to emotionally even by simply imagining them, without actually going through them.  When a story delivers a heightened level of perception (the realm of vicarious experience), we experience it on a level that becomes intimate… and thus, the story works.

And you, the writer, have just tapped into the psychologial power of story physics.

The six realms of Story Physics provide a framework to understand what we are experiencing, and thus attract us to a story that delivers them.

Say you wanted to understand the circle of Victim-Victimizer, which is a life principle that touches us all.  

Those two words — victim-victimizer — are one and the same. The Victim refuses to be responsible for themselves, regardless of what the cost. For example, a “victim” decides to go hiking without wearing the proper attire to protect themselves from the elements and, due to a late spring snowstorm, freezes to death in the mountains. Let’s say the victim was ignorant of late spring snowstorms. Okay, maybe, but did the victim seek to learn about mountain weather before going hiking, or just decide to wing it? This is what the people at the funeral will think about, and perhaps the victim pondered up until the moment of his death.

Maybe even after that, too… a story we have less empathy with because, well, nobody can say what that’s like.

Note how Story investigates at least part of what the victim will ponder up until his death and what the funeral attendees will be wondering.  Story trumps real life in that regard… in a story we get to do it right, or at least to strive to understand where and why it goes wrong, without actually suffering.

The above example may not be the most elegant, but it should show that a Story has a mind of its own and the Story Mind is working to resolve things as if it were an advanced consciousness, using different “characters” to play different roles to figure things out.

This is the psychology that makes vicarious experience — one of the six realms of story physics — so effective.  And why empathy is the stuff of bestseller.

I’m not alone in these thoughts. The creators of Dramatica said this very thing regarding the Story Mind.

The storytelling options in this regard are wide open.

To dismiss a proper FPP by claiming that the story “started” on page 4 is to not mine the gold of the story physics involved.  Or get confused in a jungle of jargon and rhetoric relative to story structure.

Let’s say you and I were at the funeral of poor Bob, who died of hypothermia on that mountain. How far back in time will we go in discussing Bob’s predicament in order to make sense of it? That’s the key when it comes to storytelling. For Bob, there was the point in time that he was too far up the mountain to make it back before he froze to death… what did he do in order to try to survive in that moment? How did that moment of realization feel?  The moment when everything changes, and now you must respond to the new problem before you.

That would be the First Plot Point in Bob’s tragic story.

Let’s say the searchers that found Bob said he back-tracked the way he came but he either ran out of time, or it got too dark and he fell down a ravine and was too weak to get out.  The obvious question now is: why did Bob go out without adequate clothing in the first place, and did anyone see him before he headed out? In trying to make sense of it, we’re going farther back in time, BEFORE the FPP in order to figure out and make sense of Bob’s FPP.

Why?  To tap into story physics.  To enhance our empathy.  To make the vicarious experience more visceral. To feel the dramatic tension of it.  To ride along (pace).

To me, anyone saying their story starts on page 4 just doesn’t get what a story really is, and without story physics on their side it will be hard to enlist the reader at the emotional level required.

Shakespeare said, “what’s past is prologue.”  Amen to that.

Life is about making sense of experience and the feelings that attach to them…  and taking that understanding with you.

Ultimately,  so are stories.



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