INCEPTION: How to make a reader feel an emotion

Elsewhere, I’ve talked about the theory that causing people to think in a way associated with a particular mood can often cause them to experience the mood itself. Before today, I’d only really ever thought about that effect for the purpose of controlling my mood, but that changed this morning as I was reading this article by M. Morrison on using short, choppy sentences to help convey the frenzy of action scenes. It’s advice I’ve seen elsewhere, but this time, I began to probe the notion a little deeper, and what I came up with may be a powerful way to think about how writers can control the reader’s mood, too.

When you think about it, writing may just be the only art form in which the artist can directly cause the audience to think a particular thought. I don’t just mean to ruminate on a particular subject, but to actually think a specifically worded thought. Babies cannot juggle honey-bees. See? I didn’t just make you think about babies in the context of pollination, and I didn’t simply juxtapose ideas of circus performance with infants and beehives. I actually placed a very specific thought in your mind. Regardless of how temporarily the thought may have resided there, it was there. Even though you may not have agreed with the thought, you did think it.

So that’s our way in. Luckily for us, the world of pop culture has even provided a term for placing an idea into somebody else’s mind. We now call it inception, or perhaps I should say, I N C E P T I O N.

Whatever we choose to call it, it is clear that different emotions and experiences come with different idea/thought landscapes. For example, as was discussed in that article I was reading, action scenes are characterized by short, specific thoughts that are relatively devoid of analysis or reflection. This is well enough known to fiction writers, but I’m always looking for the science behind these things, so I asked myself, “Why should short sentences equal frenetic action?”

Maybe it’s because when we are excited and actually engaged in such action, our brains become more focused on threat detection. We jettison things like conscious reflection and analysis. Our rational forebrains get shunted to the side, clearing room for the less sophisticated, less intellectual thinking. Hind-brain stuff. We go into a sort of “Just the facts, Ma’am” mode, casting our senses as widely as possible, picking out whatever facts we can find in the sensory input stew around us, and rapidly assessing it for relevance to our current action dilemma. Will this kill me? Will that try to eat me?

So, by combining the Trope and Liberman observation about inducing mental states (you’ll have to go back and read my previous post to get the details) with this other idea of inception, we should be able to actually place a series of thought-statements into the readers mind, forcing them to think with a particular pattern, which will then actually induce the mood associated with that thought pattern.

Consider another example. When we are in a state of sudden disorientation or confusion, our thoughts build up in a sort of log-jam , with questions arising in our minds faster than we can process them, interrupting and stepping upon one another before they can even be completed, let alone answered. Our thought-scape becomes an accumulation of questions without answers. At least, it does for me. And how do writers typically signal such a state of disorientation for a character?

What… I mean, how… Did anybody else just…?

See? Questions. Rapid. Overlapping. Incomplete. Feels a lot like disorientation to me.

Obviously, I’m not claiming that these approaches to writing action scenes or confusion are new. Far from it. What I have been doing is using them as test cases to lead me to a more general understanding of the psychology at work behind these writing techniques, to see if that analysis can teach me how to employ it in other situations.

Does the generalization work? Well, I do think I’m on to something here. So let’s give it a try. Let’s see if this theory can offer a new suggestion about writing some particular emotion.

Oddly enough, the first example that comes to mind relates to the same example that we started with: action scenes. But it suggests to me a slightly different approach to what Morrison advised. Yes, we should drop into short sentences. And yes, we should omit rich and reflective commentary and long explanations and exposition, but she says we need to drop details not relevant to the action, too. From this threat-assessment psychology perspective, I have to disagree.  If the theory is that our brains go into threat-analysis mode during fast action sequences, then wouldn’t a more realistic interpretation actually include apparent non sequitur details? Not every detail we take in is going to be part of the actual fight. Some things have to be considered and then rejected. So not only do we need to comment on some irrelevant details, but we probably want to throw in a bit of that threat-analysis inner dialogue stuff as well. Something like this…

The pommel of Maladyne’s sword flashed past Henry’s face. Near miss. Back off. Blood roared in his ears. Getting tired. A grimace of fear on the barmaid’s face. Ignore. Flicker of red. A tuft of hair and gore, stuck to the cross-guard. Very near miss. Backpedal.

It’s a different approach to action, to be sure, but to my mind at least, these flashes of detail and quick analysis make me feel part of the scene – even the detail about the barmaid that turns out not to be relevant. Of course, I need to try this in a real writing situation or two – not just here in the contrived context of this article.  But I think I like this induction/inception technique and I’m going to play with it some more. I’ll let you know what I come up with.

But enough about me. What do you think?


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About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is underqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.