Three Prescriptions for Contagious Awe

What is your duty as a writer?

I used to think my duty was to publish my story my way. There are many writerly voices out there who seem to advise this. Don’t write for the market, write for yourself. Write what you know and tell your story.

When this approach seemed to leave me somewhat readerless, my story unsold (and therefore untold), I realized that thanks to social media we’re drowning in people telling their stories their ways.


When everyone’s talking, who’s listening?

And why would anyone care overly much about my story anyway? They have their own stories to live. So, I tried to do the opposite for a while.

I tried to tell other people’s stories the way other people hopefully wanted to read them. That didn’t work either. Not for me, anyway.

In the first place, it struck me as more of me talking without listening, and in the second, I simply couldn’t muster the sustained enthusiasm necessary to bring someone else’s novel to fruition.

So what is it we’re supposed to do? What is our duty as writers?

In my weekly goal meetings at Delve Writing, we’ve been discussing the book Contagious by Jonah Berger. It’s about the things that make ideas and stories so compelling and indelible that people feel they simply must share them. The topic this week dealt with emotion, and the emotions that most provoke sharing.

The Awe(some) Grand Canyon

Pretty awesome, no? Removed from daily exposure to such sublimities in nature, I think we hunger for that which provokes similar awe.

Berger named awe as one of the most powerful (and contagious) emotions. He defined it–quoting Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt–as “the sense of wonder and amazement that occurs when someone is inspired by great knowledge, beauty, sublimity, or might. It’s the experience of confronting something greater than yourself.”

And that clicked for me. Indeed, it struck me as one of the absolute best definitions of what we writers could be doing. It also struck me as a keen description of what some of the most successful writers regularly do.

They provoke awe. They amaze and humble and elevate. They surprise and delight. They expand our world, making us feel both vaster and more miniscule by comparison.

By that I don’t mean we writers need to put a god on every page or an apocalypse in every paragraph, but rather that we should fill our work with moments which inspire, captivate, and transport us.

Rather than serving our own needs by telling a story only we find interesting, or trying to make a story suit the imaginary needs of imagined others, what if we were to commit our time in equal parts–one part to discovering new and remarkable things that we can share, and one part to sharing them in vivid and evocative ways?

The writer in this sense should not just be a transcriber of plots, but also a seeker after the profound and mysterious. We must listen and explore until we ourselves are truly amazed and only then share what we’ve found.

Following that notion, here are three ways we might summon up awe.

#1: Reveal Truths

I am often fascinated by microscopes and telescopes and x-ray machines. It feels like magic to me to make something obscure or far away suddenly visible and plain. In the same way that a microscope can show us the universe in the proverbial grain of sand, we writers can carry our readers deep into interior or foreign worlds. If we treat the journey not only as a means to move a plot forward but also as a journey into the uncharted souls of our characters or of their private or fantastic worlds, I think we stand a good chance of provoking awe, and thus serving our readers something fresh and laden with value.

However, we will never be able to pull this off convincingly if we don’t spend a significant amount of time delving past the placid surfaces of the world and wondering what lies beneath.

Awe isn’t some cheap commodity we can purchase with a fanciful turn of phrase. It must be bought and paid for with our commitment to explore and understand.

The awe in a Jane Austen novel comes not from any grand action but from the insightful way she laid bare a society, while also piercing the flesh of that society and showing us the inner human workings beneath it. I doubt she just sat down and made that all up. Surely she investigated it deeply and observed it thoroughly first.

#2: Place veils

Yes, we love to penetrate mysteries, but only if they’re truly mysterious to begin with. Before you let us in, give us a sense of why we want or even need to be there. Rather than a single closed door we spend the whole book jogging toward, place a mazework of veils between us and revelation, so that we might experience building awe with every turn, and enjoy the agony and ecstasy of wondering as we move closer to the big reveal.

I had a writing teacher in college who said the most basic form of literature was the mystery story–and indeed that all great stories must be mysteries. Certainly the emotion of awe is triggered by surprise, but we only sit back slack-jawed and amazed when we realize that every single veil we passed through was part of a single overarching fabric–a lovingly crafted labyrinth designed to build our wonder every step of the way.

#3: Layer

It seems to me that most amateur writers either make situations too bland as they strive for believability or too impossible as they strive for impact. That said, the middle ground is not necessarily in the middle of those two poles.

Song of Ice and Fire Map

This map doesn’t even begin to express how tangled Martin’s epic is.

George RR Martin’s magnificent A Song of Ice and Fire provokes so much awe not simply because he’s unafraid to kill some of our favorite characters, or even because he’s able to make some of the worst villains into heroes. Rather, he intensifies every scene and every moment–even the blandest–by nesting them within incredibly intricate layers. There are the politics and battles of several competing houses in Westeros. Each of these is spurred by deep interpersonal dynamics and intimately revealed human arcs. There is the constant rising threat of darkness and terror coming from the north. There is the hard personal journey and rising power of an exiled former princess in the east. All of it is wedged so tightly together that any slight movement in one place threatens to unsettle the whole.

For our purposes, the lesson is simply that we should not hurry too fast into our writing that we neglect the world around our story. Investigate its complexities and impose these complications on your scenes. (That said, until Martin finishes the series completely, it remains to be proven whether he can pull off so much complexity.)

So…what is the duty of the writer?

Perhaps this: first to seek out that which can expand all of our worlds–either deep meaningful truths or lofty fantastic visions or both, and then deliver them to us through a mazework of veils and layers.

This may sound like a tall order, and it is, but shouldn’t it be? The world of social media has made everyone a publisher and every voice a part of the noise. Our duty as writers has to be to rise above that and share our awe. If you haven’t found your own yet, then perhaps the first best step is to seek it out.

4 thoughts on “Three Prescriptions for Contagious Awe

  1. Well said! When I first started writing, I had the idea in my head that I would write my story, it would be fantastic, an agent/publishing company would fall in love with it and I would make tons of money. Then I met other writers and began talking and learning with them. I’ve been re-writing the book I’ve been working on and I’m only getting more excited about it each and every day. Hopefully, one day I can experience the happiness that will come when others love my story just as much as I do.

  2. First of all, thanks for an excellent and thought-provoking blog post. I’ve been really enjoying Breaking Bad. I’m not caught up, and I didn’t get to see the season finale with the rest of America. I’m still finishing Season 4. That said, I’m transfixed and totally captivated (awed if you will) by the gradual destruction or dissolution of Walt’s ego. The self that he thought he was is destroyed, and every so often he has glimpses of surrendered brilliance where he seems to grasp…well, everything…often in fits of maniacal laughter. I’m always fascinated by these moments. It occurs to me that one of the ways narratives (books, tv shows, movies) create awe is that a series of events lead to the destruction of a character’s ego and suddenly, the character, usually the protagonist has a realization. Oftentimes it’s a moment of reckoning or tragedy, but it’s also a moment of liberation. The self that they believed was who they were is destroyed, and suddenly they see the world and reality for what it is. These moments are always “awesome” to me. It occurs to me that the process of slowly removing veils is very often the process that we all go through as we slowly realize the mind-identified ego isn’t really who we are. Sometimes, through life events, through stories, or perhaps through spiritual practice, we break out of ourselves and come into contact with a sense of Being that is larger than the self. Sometimes through events we’re broken free of the ego. It’s literally baked into Aristotle’s tragic curve and defined as the moment of “Anagnorisis” (think Oedipus realizing he’s killed his father and married his mother). As tragic as these moments are, they often tend to be profoundly liberating…the character finally realizes what’s truly going on and surrenders somehow to the truth. Perhaps this could be called “Breaking Good”, but I also think it’s an (here I go with that overused word again) awesome way to generate awe in your narrative. Again, thanks for a thought-provoking post.

    • Wow! Great comments and thoughts, Seth. I actually used Breaking Bad in my goal meeting as my primary example of generating awe, although I didn’t describe it with the same depth and clarity as you did in your comment. I love that perspective. Did you read my earlier post “Feedback and the Fool’s Journey”? It relates to that breakdown path as well and I’d be curious about your thoughts on it.

      Meanwhile, having just watched the series finale of B.B. on Sunday, I can tell you it finishes exquisitely. It’s an absolutely amazing ride all the way through.

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