Stories with a dramatic arc ‘change the way our brains work’
Some amazing research shows why you should give careful consideration to the structure of your story.
In this short film, Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies in California, explains how he found that stories can trigger the release of neurochemicals in your brain. He also found that they only do this if they follow the classic dramatic arc outlined by the German playwright Gustav Freytag.
Freytag’s story structure is: exposition -> rising action -> climax -> falling action -> dénouement. It’s found in everything from Shakespeare’s plays (As You Like It is a classic example of a comic dénouement) to blockbuster movies. The University of Wisconsin has a good step-by-step example of a story that follows this structure.
The important point for Zak’s purposes is that if your story is engaging and follows this structure, it can elicit a powerful empathic response by triggering the release of neurochemicals like cortisol and oxytocin. And these chemicals can change your behaviour – by getting you to donate money to charity, for example.
Cortisol focuses our attention on something important and oxytocin is associated with care, attention or empathy. So if you want to get people to empathise with your story and take action, pay attention to your structure.