When I was probably eight years old, one of my mom’s friends gifted me the Star Wars Roleplaying Game and its accompanying sourcebook. As an intense Star Wars fan, I was immediately wrapped up in the pictures and the cool details of everything in the Star Wars universe. Years later, I discovered that the books were really the instructions for the Star Wars version of Dungeons and Dragons. Nerd alert. I tried to play it a couple of times with my little brother, but I didn’t have the patience to actually read all of the rules. I was just a kid after all.
Much later, during my first year in college, my older sister invited me to come play Dungeons and Dragons with her husband and their friends. I was really skeptical, but she assured me they took a lighthearted approach to it, and their friend made life very easy as Dungeon Master. He took care of all the boring details and kept things fun, and they just had a good time playing make believe.
Fearing for my reputation, I secretly agreed, and stole away to their apartment by the cover of night. I was not prepared for what I would experience there. The evening was eye-opening, and, having played many times since, it has taught me a lot about storytelling.
Dungeons and Dragons, or the Star Wars Roleplaying Game, or even board games, fantasy sports leagues, books, movies, etc… all call upon a very unique experience of collective imagination. It’s a little intuitive, but I hadn’t realized just how deep this phenomenon ran until that night with my sister’s group.
The reality of the situation was simple: five of us, dressed in jeans and t-shirts and surrounded by Doritos and Mountain Dew, sat there talking. An outside viewer would think it was the most boring evening ever. And yet for the participants, all five of us experienced collective emotions. Sometimes we all felt our heart rates speed up or our muscles tense as we responded to certain in-game events. Other times, we all collectively laughed, not at a joke, but at the common, imaginary experience we all shared. We successfully split our minds into individual thought and collective imaginary thought with the others in the room.
I’ve experienced this collective imagination several times, and sometimes it’s stronger than others. I typically find when one or more people seem reluctant to buy into the experience, the overall collective world weakens. It’s almost like a circuit, and the more willing conduits that exist the stronger the current gets.
I’m still trying to figure out how to take full advantage of this phenomenon when it comes to crafting stories. Good writers know how to persuasively invite readers to take part in the collective world. They don’t indulge in vain, ego-driven writing gimmicks because those invite readers to check out of the world. Once readers are fully committed to the world, the job gets easier. I guess that’s why the first ten pages of a book are so important. The task is three-fold:
- Invite the reader into the story world
- Earn the reader’s trust so they feel comfortable suspending disbelief and buying in
- Begin to deliver emotional payoffs for the reader’s investment.
Have any of you ever experienced this yourself? What was your experience like?