The science of awe.

According to a review of one study, awe-inspiring sights elicit global activity of the autonomic nervous system, but shuts down parts of our parietal lobe, which contains our sense of self and our own boundaries and those of the world around us. In short, our brains are broadening their sense of scale, trying to encompass the vast and beautiful world. This is perhaps why awe also makes our own problems and worries seem insignificant in the grand scope of things. This same review cites a 2012 study showing that awe alters our sense of time, making us feel like we have more of it to spare, and even motivates us to spend more of that time helping others.

We also use awe to describe a sense of fear. This is also a process involving the autonomic nervous system, causing our heart and breathing to speed up, and in some cases, freezing us in place even as danger barrels toward us.

Becoming numb to awe.

Last month I was sitting in the middle seat on a flight to Atlanta from Seattle. I fly a lot, but certainly not as much as the man sitting in the window seat next to me. At one point during the flight, he lifted the blind and peered out for a few seconds before starting to close it again. The one and only time I spoke to the man was to keep him from closing it and to ask if I could take a picture. How he could have peered out the window at such a sight without taking the time to appreciate it was beyond me. The picture barely does it any justice.


The ability to recognize beauty and feel fear is something most of us have. Unfortunately, it is also something we can become numb to with repeated exposure. In my novel, Quotidian, the day is repeating, but not just any day, the last day, the end of the world. The characters experience danger and destruction every day and have ceased to be awed by it, and even death has become something routine.

Make their jaws drop.

From a sun setting over a field of flowers to the plume of a radioactive mushroom cloud, these sights, like so many others, can inspire awe. But there are different levels of awe:

  • There is the kind that makes your jaw drop and stare speechless for a time.
  • The kind that gives you chills.
  • The kind that deserves a nod of appreciation
  • And the kind we assign to everything else that barely warrants noticing (in the words of Emmet from The Lego Movie: “Everything is Awesome!”)

It is important to aim for the mind-blowing sort of awe in writing. Why? Because readers have become so overstimulated, that anything less than that will barely register. This concept is important for writers to grasp. If our target audience experiences the same conflicts, the same wonders, love stories, horrors, scifi dramas, etc. they will lose that sense of awe.

Some strategies.

Nowadays it is difficult to create an original plot.

Rather than racking your brain for a new story to tell to awe your readers, try presenting a similar story in a unique way. As my brother is fond of saying, “do it in a way that nobody has ever done it before.” This can be as simple as changing the tone or mood of your story, or changing something about the world, or show things from a new perspective. For example, the scene of a large open field is boring until you put on a pair of glasses that invert your view of the world, and suddenly it feels like you could fall into the sky. This can reawaken your reader’s sense of awe even thought the primary plot and conflict is little different from others they’ve seen before.

My own strategy is to open the reader’s eyes to the inner-workings of things. It is only when you understand a magician’s act, that you can appreciate the complexity of the sleight of hand, the talent, and the training involved to pull it off. It is the same for sci-fi. Only when you truly understand the hazards of space travel do you become awed by the accomplishment of traveling to and landing on another planet.

As I was trying to describe this awe, I realized I didn’t need to, I’ve already written about it. This is an excerpt from my second book of The Abyssian series:

There were two types of awe, I surmised. One that was inspired by the unknown, the majesty and mystery of the world the God-of-All had built for them. This was a powerful sort of awe, I knew, I had felt it before and could see it kindling in the eyes of those praying around me. The second type of awe was wholly different, the opposite in fact, but no less powerful. It was an awe of knowing, at least in part, how the world worked. From the weather, the formation of mountains and seas, to the inner workings of the human body, it was an awe of knowing how this last had managed to survive and even thrive among all the rest. It was this awe that I felt burning in me as I stared at the cluster of men and women who had managed to carve out a peaceful and quiet existence from the stones of the cold and unforgiving northern mountains.

No matter your strategy, it is important to chase the awe factor. As Brandon Sanderson says, “err on the side of awe.”


Can you think of any other strategies to awe a reader? I’d like to hear from you.

Finding that novel novel idea

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“That sounds like a book I once read.” You’ve all heard it and it puts a damper on any enthusiasm you’ve grown for your literary creation. It might be gratifying if they speak of style and execution, but who gets flattered by being told their work is unoriginal?

Cynics often say that everything has been written before, that no idea is a new idea. But with 26 characters in the English language, over 250,000 distinct words, not to mention all the subtle changes in context or meaning, and a near infinite way to arrange them, there are more possible ways to write a book than there are atoms in the known universe. So why are so many stories similar? The short answer, if you want your story to make sense and be relatable and captivating, you have to write what people like to read. And unlike the universe, the human mind has a lot less empty space (for most people anyway). The brain is a large jumble of connections, turn on the right set and immediately memory of another story will stir and come to mind. You want your work to connect as many neurons as possible so that your reader will think of your book often and mention you to others.

That being said, novelty serves to make a story exciting and memorable. How many of you remember the drive to work each morning? Now what about that time you had to detour through an unknown section of town because of some unparalleled traffic accident? Your mind is excellent at discarding experiences if they are very similar to the ones already stored in your memory. Memorable is what sells a story for years. If your book doesn’t fit with the current popular trend, no problem, book markets are always in a state of change, adopting one trend and discarding another. If you write for the current market, your book will be that experience that is forgotten among all the similar ones of its kind. You probably have no chance of starting a trend of your own, instead, write something that will always be interesting and original and eventually the tides will change and your book will be swept up with it.

Originality is not in a story’s conflict, it is in the unique parts that collide to create it. These parts are the characters and setting. Strip away the setting and character from any book you’ve read and you will find that most stories look the same when so bared. The shape they take is the story arc. Clothing your story arc in an original fashion is accomplished in two steps: creating a unique setting in which the story will occur and creating the character that will stand out in it.

You should begin with either the setting or the character in mind, but preferably not both. The reason for this is simple. If you want your protagonist to be aggressive and psychologically damaged by some trauma or another and then you decide your setting should be a post-apocalyptic earth where zombies endlessly chase humans (not a very original setting FYI). You will soon find that all of your characters will need to be aggressive and psychologically damaged. How then will your character stand out? Instead, imagine the setting and then figure out how this setting will affect the lives of those in it, and then make your character different in some subtle yet memorable way. Conversely, mold a setting to accentuate your character’s strengths and weaknesses. No matter your approach, the reader expects conflict and has likely seen it all before, but insert an original setting or unique character motives and you will give them an exciting new way to experience the same story arc.

The character you make should stand out from others in one key way, their drive. This drive, or character element, should be a part of the human psyche that is both underappreciated/under-recognized and yet critical to who we are as human beings. Sound conspicuously like a theme? Good, it should. The theme should be the vehicle your character drives across the story arc, the thing that moves them, gives them strength, and protects them from buffeting wind and rain. Before they’ve even started the book, your reader has decided to join consciousness with your main character, to try to think what they think. Turn that into a memorable relationship by giving them a theme to agree with and a cause to stand behind. Straying away from the most common drives like anger, love, and greed will help grant originality. Examples of these uncommon themes are a desire for change when everyone else is rooted in acceptance, a desire for emotion when they are surrounded by apathy, conquering of fear when everyone else is cowed by it, and a desire for knowledge when everyone else enjoys ignorance. This character element provides the motive, the fuel to carry the character as well as the reader over the story arc. Be wary though, a weak drive, such as the desire for a funnel cake at the City Fair, will peter out and die the moment your character realizes it is not worth the trouble.

The setting has to be more than just a forest in Maine for you to have any chance of making something original and memorable. While your character element gives forward motion to a story, your setting should provide friction, obstacles, and other characters that seek to stop your character from proceeding forward. The setting sets the mood of the story. That seems like a lot for just one aspect of the novel, but it is this by which everyone will remember and describe your book. What good is a character’s desire to experience freedom when taken outside of the context of slavery or a prisoner of war? Again, stray away from the most common settings or at least give them unique characteristics. Instead of an alien planet, why not a rogue planet taken up by our sun’s gravitational pull? Maybe its thawing inhabitants want war. What’s more, make every aspect of your setting matter. If the power goes out in the apartment building, make it mean something; make the darkness or the inability to heat a Hot Pocket essential to the story in some way. If it doesn’t matter to the story or help set the mood, it will be forgotten.

A big mistake people make when chasing an original story is following it off the map, creating a world that is so full of original ideas that it borders on the unrecognizable, or characters with such unique strengths, weaknesses, or personalities that they become unrelatable. This is why genres exist, to categorize books for different audiences. Know the genre in which you intend to write and strive to make it original within the confines of what is expected and enjoyed. There is at least a small corner in each genre’s box that has yet to be filled.


~originally posted here