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.

Inspiration from an unseen world

In our day to day lives, there are so many things that evade our senses and awareness. Many processes are occurring so slowly or are too small to see, we can never fully appreciate them. Fortunately, some nerds carry a macro lens on them at all times and do time-lapse videos whenever they sit down for extended periods of time. That guy you passed on the sidewalk the other day, with his nose pressed to his phone and his phone hovering inches above a rain-drenched ant mound, that was probably me. The girl standing not too far away, with her nose and phone similarly pressed against a tree, is my girlfriend.

IMG_20141230_134843917(On our first hiking trip together, she spent several minutes trying to capture a close up picture of a bug before I pulled the macro lens from my wallet and gave it to her. Though she would probably deny it, I think that’s when she truly fell for me.)

The small (microscopic or near microscopic) world around us, is as beautiful as it is disturbing, the perfect catalyst for inspiration. These micro- landscapes can be the basis of an alien world, or the backyard of a person shrunken to the size of an ant. The more detail in which you describe these settings, the more fascinating they become and the more realistic and plausible it reads.

Similarly, processes that take place faster or slower than we can perceive are perfect for writing. A realistic description of the clouds billowing past, or the expansion of gases in the moments after a trigger is pulled, will more believably convey the passage of time or heighten the suspense. 
In some cases, these observations can inspire entire stories. In the time it took to write this post, I have begun to outline a story about a man that gets pulled into another dimension (the same one as gravity) when he activates a new “gravity drive” on his spaceship for the first time. Because the dimension in which the graviton is believed to disappear into is very small, perhaps all he sees is a tiny window into the real world. Because it is the dimension of gravity, time passes slower there, so everything he sees through the tiny window is proceeding rapidly. From his pin-point perspective, flowers flicker open and closed, the sun flares at one horizon and darts across the sky. He can pilot near and through matter, viewing it up close and in alarming detail, but he can only interact with it in small ways. In wake of this accident, he has to figure out how to make contact with the 3 dimensions he left before all the people he knows and loves have died from old age.
Truth is stranger than fiction, but it can also inspire fiction. So take a moment and examine the world around you. If you aren’t impressed or inspired, then perhaps you should lean a little closer.