Let's begin with a little mind palace experiment.
In her book, Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution, researcher storyteller Brené Brown writes:
Robert Burton, a neurologist and novelist, explains that our brains reward us with dopamine when we recognize and complete patterns. Stories are patterns. The brain recognizes the familiar beginning-middle-end structure of a story and rewards us for clearing up the ambiguity. Unfortunately, we don’t need to be accurate, just certain.
"Because we are compelled to make stories, we are often compelled to take incomplete stories and run with them." He goes on to say that even with a half story in our minds, "we earn a dopamine 'reward' every time it helps us understand something in our world— even if that explanation is incomplete or wrong."
On the "Tips on Filtering the Flood of Writing Advice Available to Authors" episode of The Taylor Stevens Show, the call to action was to share the best, worst, and most annoying advice you'd ever received.
Edgar Allan Poe, often cited as the inventor of the modern detective story, was one of my early influences. I don't know whether he was aware of the dopamine reward, but here was his strategy for engineering it:
A skillful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents – he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing his preconceived effect. If his very initial service tend not to be outbringing to this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of fullest satisfaction.
In my first website post, "Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn, and the Aha Moment in Mystery," I quoted story gatherer Joseph Campbell who described that dopamine reward this way:
In one of the Upanishads it says, when the glow of a sunset holds you and you say "Aha," that is the recognition of the divinity. And when you say "Aha" to an art object, that is a recognition of divinity. And what divinity is it? It is your divinity, which is the only divinity there is. We are all phenomenal manifestations of a divine will to live, and that will and the consciousness of life is one in all of us, and that is what artwork expresses.
"Creativity," The Mythic Dimension, p.154
So, how does it feel: that little dopamine rush you just got when you connected the dots that a modern neuroscientist, a nineteenth-century American writer, and some of the first people to write anything down in any language all use different terms to name the same effect?
The Walter Forbes Series consists of two stories (so far) with the familiar beginning-middle-end structure that I wrote with the dopamine reward, single effect, aha moment in mind.
I overheard the aha moment for the first story in the series Last Heartthrob on a popular late night radio talk show. I had the same reaction to this true life story of a very original twist of fate as the show's host. "Wow!"
Because the aha moment was about fate, I looked to the modern genre that explores fate: film noir and neo noir. Because the story had a twist, I looked to the master storyteller of the twist: Alfred Hitchcock.
To maximize the dopamine reward for readers of Last Heartthrob, I followed the credo of one of my favorite film podcasts The Next Picture Show, which compares current releases to classic films.
"We believe that no film exists in a vacuum, and that all culture is more interesting in context."
The bonus materials for Last Heartthrob includes a guided tour of many of the films that I watched while doing my research. The movie-loving characters directly refer to The Big Lebowski, The Narrow Margin, Double Indemnity, North by Northwest, In a Lonely Place, The Hitch-Hiker, and The Conversation. More subtle references include Laura, Vertigo, Night Moves, Mulholland Dr., and The Player.
While I was waiting to roll out Last Heartthrob, I gave Walter Forbes a second assignment that grew directly out of his first. This aha moment too was based on a moment of fate: when former US Congressman Anthony Weiner accidentally tweeted a message he had intended to Instant Message.
In The Catalonian Candidate, one of the minor characters in Last Heartthrob takes a more prominent role in hiring Walter Forbes to keep her candidate of choice from making the same mistake that Anthony Weiner did.
The link between the films, TV shows, and media coverage I followed in shaping this sexy political thriller was desire: for sex, for power, for ideological dominance.
The bonus materials for The Catalonian Candidate include connections to the musical Camelot, Dr. Strangelove, Carol, the third season of Homeland, a callback to North by Northwest (from the political side, not the fate side), That Obscure Object of Desire, and the mid-century update of "The Trojan Horse" tale, The Manchurian Candidate.
You can now read The Walter Forbes Series free online (word of mouth and/or tips appreciated but not required).
The Walter Forbes Series is also available in paperback.
What's your favorite mystery-related dopamine reward?
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