Emotional grounding in world building via “the orienting effect”

The following is the work of Alex Berg, excerpted from this blog. He talks about using emotions to ground, frame and orient a reader in insane fictional worlds. I think every writer should read this one.

“The example I’ve been using for years to demonstrate the benefits of emotional heightening is a fictional scene titled “The Land of the Weird Dragons.” In this scene, let us suppose that we had a dragon who breathes penises instead of fire. One can easily imagine making a move to heighten the game of this scene by introducing a dragon that breathes vaginas instead of fire. However, this is a lateral move, in that a dragon that breathes penises instead of fire is neither more or less absurd than a dragon that breathes vaginas instead of fire. The absurdity has reached a saturation point…”

…Let us now imagine that there’s a dragonslayer, set out to fight these weird dragons. We can now judge whether or not one of these dragons is a weirder, more heightened dragon based on the strength of his emotional response. If he responds to the penis dragon with “Oh dear… a penis dragon,” and the vagina dragon with “WHAT?!? A vagina dragon?” then we can say that the vagina dragon is indeed weirder. However, if he responds to the vagina dragon with “Oh no… vagina dragon!” and the penis dragon with “EGADS!!! What madness is this penis dragon?!?” then we know that the penis dragon is weirder. But note that we haven’t changed anything about either dragon, the stimuli in this example have remained stable. We’ve simply introduced a trustworthy emotional proxy for the audience, and we’re evaluating the intensity of his emotional response.

That the intensity of an emotional response is positively correlated to how unusual a stimulus is well documented in psychology, and is called the Orienting Response. Here’s a quick quote from our modern day Lighthouse of Alexandria, Wikipedia:

The orienting response is a reaction to novel or significant stimuli. In the 1950s the orienting response was studied systematically by the Russian scientist Evgeny Sokolov, who documented the phenomenon called “habituation”, referring to a gradual “familiarity effect” and reduction of the orienting response with repeated stimulus presentations.

Really, just read the blog in its entirety.

Published by Matt Lazarus

WGA screenwriter offering in-depth writing instruction, notes, critique, and assistance.

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