googlead166c37c697d4d3.html Glenn Ashton Author Blog: Writers: Our brains give you the Rule of 3 for your scene descriptions


Monday, September 12, 2011

Writers: Our brains give you the Rule of 3 for your scene descriptions

It was inevitable that the sciences would scuttle across from whatever they were probing to examine more closely what makes the fiction of novels work.
Keith Oatley

Welcome now to the results of an MRI study of readers' brains while they are reading a scene description in a novel.  This study leads to the simple Rule of Three:
When psychologist and author Keith Oatley writes his next novel, he can make sure that each description of a scene includes three key elements – to better help the reader create a vivid mental image. Not one element; that would be forgettable. Not six elements; that might be boring.

He could have learned this from Anton Chekhov, master of the short story. Oatley, a great admirer of the Russian writer, recalls one Chekhov story that includes a description of a pond under snow. With a factory. Across from a village.

In fact, Oatley learned the lesson from a study that used MRI scans to show brain activity in readers: The area of the brain used to create a mental image was best activated when descriptive passages used three elements.

There you have it: the Rule of Three elements for your scene descriptions. Next time you lift pen or poise fingers over the keyboard, think of Chekhov and his three elements: a pond under snow; with a factory; across from a village.

Who is Oatley? Here's the website of this professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto.

He is also the author of three novels, including The Case of Emily V. which won the Commonwealth Prize in 1994. His latest work is Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction.
Contrary to the notion that art merely copies life, Oatley's argument is that a movie, play, story, poem or novel creates a mental model in which readers can try out ideas about themselves and others.
Anton Checkhov

Oatley also has some bad news for writers of genre fiction – you are really an engineer of a roller coaster, and not a true artist:

For his part, Oatley is convinced that the better the writer, the more powerful the simulation, and he makes a distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction.

“You can have a good read, but it is sort of like going on a roller coaster. The engineers have constructed it so you have a particular set of experiences. You get off, your heart is beating a bit, but you are still the same person,” he says of reading a thriller or detective story. On the other hand, “Chekhov was a great artist: The effect is different – the extent to which [the reader] can really inhabit another mind.”

The roller coaster may be fun, but the flight simulator … now that's art.

Them's fighting words, not so?

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