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Empathy – the key to drawing the audience into your story

There is no denying that we human beings are social creatures. Empathy is important for us to be social, so that we can understand how others might react to us or to certain situations they face. In a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article called “Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling’, the author talks about a neuro-chemical in our brain called Oxytocin which is responsible for that empathy we have for others. The author goes on to say that - Oxytocin is produced when we are trusted or shown an act of kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others. It does this by enhancing the sense of empathy, which is our ability to experience others’ emotions. Oxytocin, the author says, is a key “it’s safe to approach others” signal in the brain.

Empathy has a lot to do with how you as a story-teller can emotionally connect with your audience. Your story must emotionally resonate/connect with the audience, through some part of the story – particularly involving your protagonist or at least one of the central characters in your story. If you are able to do that successfully, the degree of empathy is so strong that you will draw the audience into the story universe you are creating and they will start to live vicariously through that character’s life in your story.

The author in the HBR article referenced above continues to say that – “We discovered that, in order to motivate a desire to help others, a story must first sustain attention — a scarce resource in the brain — by developing tension during the narrative. If the story is able to create that tension then it is likely that attentive viewers/listeners will come to share the emotions of the characters in it, and after it ends, likely to continue mimicking the feelings and behaviors of those characters. This explains the feeling of dominance you have after James Bond saves the world, and your motivation to work out after watching the Spartans fight in 300.”

We notice that, empathy by itself does not necessarily result in our ability to narrate a compelling story. Your story must include some degree of tension/conflict. Tension, we know only too well, creates drama. So we have to have realistic intensions or motivations for our protagonist, with the corresponding and believable obstacles to overcome. This is what creates tension in our narrative. The resolution of this tension in our story provides a sense of emotional satisfaction for our audience.

As a story-teller, it is intriguing to know how a chemical reaction in our brain becomes the basis for emotions and empathy in us human beings. We have to use our empathy for the characters in our story to create the tensions. Our narrative should incorporate believable goals, intentions and motivations with relevant obstacles that the lead characters in our story must overcome creating tension through a transformational journey. This in turn will draw the audience into our story, with their empathy for the same characters. So the more empathetic we are to our lead characters, the more empathetic our audience will be and get drawn into our story.

Who would have thought that it was all due to a neurochemical that we human being share, in our brains called Oxytocin!

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