Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Lose yourself…in a novel.

I just read about a most interesting study by researchers at Ohio State University. They were studying the way fictional characters affect readers.  (The complete study will be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology).

We all know how wonderful it is when you lose yourself in a book. Being fully transported to another time and place, “experiencing” another life so deeply that you don’t want the story to end. It’s what the twitter-universe has taken to calling #unputdownable. These are the books you tell your relatives they absolutely must read, the books you talk about at lunch with your friends. The novels you just can’t wait to read again.

What struck me about the article, though, is that the researchers were studying how and when “losing yourself” in a book translates into actually changing your behavior and thoughts to match that of the character you are reading about.

It’s a process they call “experience-taking” as opposed to “perspective-taking.”  Perspective-taking, as the researchers define it, is when the reader tries to understand what someone else is going through without losing sight of their own identity. Learning about others by becoming more emphatic, if you will. It is a worthy goal and one that is the most-often cited reason for the existence of literature over the last oh-so-many-centuries. The first book that I clearly remember “perspective-taking” was To Kill A Mockingbird.

As a New York kid, the experience of reading about the South, and the book’s take on both racism and true courage, definitely showed me a different perspective.

Experience-taking is a term I’ve never heard before.  Lisa Libby, assistant professor of psychology at the university and co-author of the study, describes it as “much more immersive––you’ve replaced yourself with the other.”

Wow! Read a book and get so into it, you become the author’s character! But hold on, writers, before you get too excited, it turns out that it’s not so simple. Libby states that you can’t plan for it. Experience-taking happens spontaneously.  For the most part, readers don’t even realize it’s happening—which is why it’s so powerful.

During the experiment, if subjects were given something to read in a mirrored room, they couldn’t get out of themselves enough to “experience-take.” That means that some of the losing of oneself in a book has to do with the actual experience of reading, which obviously an author cannot control. I imagine that the mirror could be replaced by emails, Facebook, tweets, or any of the myriad multi-tasking activities one does in-between page-turning. Just like love, there may a better chance at truly immersing yourself in a book when you give into it totally.

I grew up in a family of four rambunctious kids. It was a loud house, to say the least. From the time I was eight, I learned to shut out the noise around me whenever I picked up a book. To this day, if I am reading or writing, I do not hear anything else. The TV could be on, I have no idea what’s happening on that screen. My own children can—and have—yelled, “Mom!” and I don’t respond. It’s why I don’t play music when I write; I’ll only tune it out.  It never occurred to me that what I’ve been doing is trying to create my own “experience-taking” situation. An echo-chamber in which the only echo is that of characters speaking and living fictional lives.

There were other interesting points the study made, but there was one that related specifically to me as a writer. When I first started writing dancergirl, I wrote in third person: Ali said, she thought. After several chapters, writing the novel that way felt very removed. I changed it to first person: I said. I thought.

About halfway through the book, I still wasn’t happy. The immediacy that I was hoping for still wasn’t there. I rewrote chapters, I cut scenes. Nothing worked. One morning. I woke up and thought: present tense. Although I’d been writing in first person, it was still past tense.

I went through and changed everything to I say, I thought.  Eureka! The tension grew exponentially because it felt like the action was happening right here, right now. Since my upcoming book, Circle of Silence, is also a thriller, I began writing in first person, present tense––and never changed.

It turns out that what I’d discovered by trial and error has a basis in the science of reading. To quote Libby again: “When you share a group membership with a character from a story told in first-person voice, you’re much more likely to feel like you’re experiencing his or her life events. And when you undergo this experience-taking, it can affect your behavior for days afterwards.”

Writing in first person, of course, is not the only way to get readers to reach experience-taking nirvana. It would be a boring world if every book was written the same way. Readers will soon tune out.  But for the kind of contemporary YA thrillers that I write, first person, present tense is the easiest way for a reader to truly feel the story.

There is also literature that does not want you to experience-take in any way. Stories that need distance. The most famous example I can think of is the work of Bertold Brecht, who wanted his plays to “alienate” the viewers. Here is a clip of Meryl Streep in Brecht’s play, Mother Courage and her Children. 

So, keeping perspective, alienation, or experience-taking. Is one really more powerful than the other? Regardless of the answer, it’s a fascinating way of viewing, and understanding, literature! If you have examples of books, or plays, that gave you any of these experiences, I’d love to know.

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