Writing and Empathy

We’ve all tried our hand at acting, music, or the visual arts at some point in our lives, even if it was only in art class. They all have one thing in common: instant feedback.

Writing stories has no instant feedback. I’m not talking about grammar or sentence structure. I’m talking about whether or not you’ve written a story worth reading. When you’ve written a story, it’s extremely difficult to know if your story is good or not. In fact, you’re deluded into thinking it’s good. Why?

Well, when you tell a story, you’re turning the images in your mind into words. These words allow someone else to see the same things you do.

Here’s the catch — you already know what the images look like. You already know the story.

This means that when you read your own words, you can’t help but see the vivid images that inspired you to write in the first place. And the images are always vivid to the author. Otherwise the author wouldn’t have been compelled to write them down to share them with the world. This leads to what I call the delusion factor, or an innate inability to objectively read your own work.

Unless you have intuitive talent, the reader won’t usually see what you see. Many people have this talent in some form or another simply from reading a lot. But I don’t think this unconscious, intuitive talent is enough. I think it’s important to understand why a story resonates with an audience. Being able to write the best story in the world doesn’t mean you know how you wrote it. That might sound counterintuitive. How could someone not know how they produce their work?

Pretty easily, actually. One can know what works without knowing why it works. We know that getting food from the grocery store works, but I doubt most of us know the inner workings of that store. We know talking to each other on cell phones works, but how many know exactly how a cell phone works, and why? Same with television, the internet, and hundreds of other examples all around us.

Generally, people try different options until they find one that works. Once they find the one that works, they tend to stick with it. In fact, people tend to stick with what works even if better options are available, simply because they know it works.

Something might work, but that doesn’t mean you know why it works. It is my belief that the author who knows why stories work will produce work much richer than one who doesn’t. Principles, not methods, are what should be focused upon and mastered.

In the quest to uncover the principles of good storytelling, I think it’s very important to develop an empathy for the reader. Best case scenario, you must completely forget you even wrote your story. When you read the words you wrote on the page, you have to see ONLY those words and know ONLY what they tell you. You have to free yourself from as much bias as possible, and, even though it’s impossible, forget as much as you possibly can about your story.


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