Previously, on Storytelling: “Crafting a style that allows for discovery-reading takes bravery. You will have included access to depths that you can’t be sure anyone will explore. In your imagination, every reader skims over the story on the most surface level and everything you intended is missed. This is a terror we must learn to control. Let it be.”
In a 2012 study,1 researchers demonstrated that textural metaphors like leathery trigger the regions of the brain associated with touch. Another study demonstrated that words with a strong association to odor trigger the olfactory cortex.2 Our words have the power to engage parts of the brain beyond those used for understanding language.
The 2012 study showed that textual metaphors had this effect even when the metaphor was well known. It didn’t have to be a unique use to maintain that connection. In contrast, other studies have shown how cliches have no impact on the reader. They become noise, words without meaning.
This is highly relevant to our discussion, but while the writing advice one would draw from this is sound, it does bring us into the realm of the writing books I assume you’ve already read. I make an effort to avoid repeating such advice here, but while you know to bring in your other senses and avoid cliches, there is an application we may not have considered before.
Memories are linked to sensual perception.3 Senses trigger memories, and smell especially is known to trigger vivid memories. Our brains mimic an experience when reading about it, and even solitary words with strong odor associations trigger the olfactory cortex. All of that being true, we can create and trigger literary memories.
First, we link a strong emotional moment in our story to a specific sensory perception: our character experiences profound emotion in a scene linked to the scent of freshly mowed grass. Later in the book, we set a suspenseful scene of our character creeping through the house in the dark, half believing he’s heard the sound of footsteps. He comes upon an open window and in the breeze that billows the curtains is the scent of freshly mowed grass.
If the smell is tied to suffering, then the suspense intensifies, but if the smell is tied to joy, then the scene has just taken a dramatic turn.
There’s nothing logical that links one scene to the other, but we’ve brought the emotional memory of one scene into the other through a sensory trigger. The criteria necessary are 1) an emotional scene that is sufficiently connected to this scent, and in most cases that will mean weaving the scent into the scene, not just mentioning it once. Then 2) we will be careful to avoid that particular scent until we want to trigger the memory. If we have a book full of freshly mowed grass, the link will become diluted. Finally, 3) we bring the scent back into the story at the chosen moment.
(The article continues below the references.)
1S. Lacey, R. Stilla and K. Sathian. Metaphorically Feeling: Comprehending Textural Metaphors Activates Somatosensory Cortex. Brain & Lang. (2012)
2González, Julio, et al. “Reading Cinnamon Activates Olfactory Brain Regions.” NeuroImage, vol. 32, no. 2, 2006, pp. 906–912., doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2006.03.037.
3Hopkin, M. Link proved between senses and memory. Nature (2004) httos://doi.org/10/1038/news040524-12
Of course, sensory triggers will bring up the reader’s own memories, as well, and it is tempting but not entirely true to suggest that what the reader remembers is beyond our control. We have no say in what her memories are or what scents are linked to them, and because of the variation from one reader to the next, our work will impact readers differently. Still, if one chooses to be intentional in this area, there are steps we can take.
To address this, let’s first explore some Jungian-inspired archetypes, discuss their potential roles in our fiction, and then consider how sensory information can be used to conjure relevant memories within the reader.
When asked what factors influenced the German people to embrace Hitler, a common answer is the damage done to the nation by the treaty of Versailles after the first world war. One facet of this answer points to the injury inflicted upon the psychology of the nation. When Jung asked himself this question, the answer needed to be within the limits of his theory of depth psychology. After all, when experts like Jung address such issues, it is less about announcing the definitive answer than it is addressing how the expert’s own theories would be applied in such a case. Jung’s answer was the the archetypal figure of Wotan (Odin) in the German collective prepared them to receive such a figure. While the ramifications of the first war were the external cause, they were acted upon in the context of the Wotan archetype.1
Wotan is a restless wanderer who creates unrest and stirs up strife, now here, now there, and works magic. He was soon changed by Christianity into the devil, and only lived on in fading local traditions as a ghostly hunter who was seen with his retinue, flickering like a will o’ the wisp through the stormy night. In the Middle Ages the role of the restless wanderer was taken over by Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew, which is not a Jewish but a Christian legend. The motif of the wanderer who has not accepted Christ was projected on the Jews, in the same way as we always rediscover our unconscious psychic contents in other people. At any rate the coincidence of anti-Semitism with the reawakening of Wotan is a psychological subtlety that may perhaps be worth mentioning.2
Any Jungian reader will protest when I suggest that his approach to the unconscious is limiting, and they would argue well that each application of his ideas in personal. Jung’s controversial interpretation of Hitler, if nothing else, demonstrates a unique application of depth psychology to a nation.
My motivations and my goal are different, however. I entered my studies in psychology with the express hope that it would help me understand my characters better, and for many years, I found my hopes frustrated. Jung interested me, but the more I read, the less it allowed for an application to my fiction. I turned to the surrealists, but pure surrealism spurns storytelling. The connection to the unconscious is their goal, and that connection does not serve another creative endeavor. Those who break this rule were shunned and were only called surrealists by the broader public.
(This article continues after the references.)
1in History, Psychology | November 1st. “Carl Jung Psychoanalyzes Hitler: ‘He’s the Unconscious of 78 Million Germans.” ‘Without the German People He’d Be Nothing’ (1938).” Open Culture, http://www.openculture.com/2017/11/carl-jung-psychoanalyzes-hitler.html.
2Jung, Carl. “Wotan.” Essays on Contemporary Events, Translated by Barbara Hannah, 1989, pp. 10–24., doi:10.1515/9781400859924.10.
In this blog, I will outline my solution, a process for engaging and applying the unconscious in the artistic endeavor of storytelling. I will make my recommendations as universal as possible, hoping to provide something relevant to any writer. Part of that is the question of our core, unconscious patterns, which provide a poker-hand of patterns for the writer looking for a concrete place to begin.
Next time, I will address some of those unconscious patterns and the role they can play in our fiction.
See you then.
P.S. — Say hi on Twitter, and let me know if you have blog posts touching on the themes covered in this series. I will close the series with links to the best and most relevant.
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The Dream (1910) Henri Rousseau