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  • Turn It Into a Game: The Psychology of Narrative Engagement // with Carlos Allende González, PhD

Turn It Into a Game: The Psychology of Narrative Engagement // with Carlos Allende González, PhD

  • 19 June 2024
  • 13 August 2024
  • Online
  • 20



Discover how to craft more engaging stories and bring positive change.

This course takes a multidisciplinary approach to storytelling. It integrates principles from psychology, communication studies, and cognitive neuroscience with the art of writing.

Students will learn how good stories captivate audiences and put into practice easy-to-follow strategies to increase engagement and persuasion, facilitate understanding, and overcome the limits of memory and attention to prevent mental fatigue.

Students will learn how to exploit our natural tendencies to capture attention and motivate continuance, how to overcome the limits of memory and cognition to prevent disengagement (i.e., finding a story boring or frustrating because it is hard to understand), and the relationship between engagement, enjoyment, and persuasion to provoke attitudinal change.

Week by Week

Week 1. Introduction. Hedonic and Eudaimonic Motivations.

Explanation of what makes for a compelling story, how psychology can help fiction writers and the general scope of the course. Starting from the premise that engaging attention in a story is a continuous decision, I explain why we tend to prefer delicious over nutritious books. I propose that an author’s goal should be to write stories that are both delicious and nutritious works to satisfy consumers’ need for pleasure and meaning. I define story consumption as a goal-directed behavior, provide a formal definition for engagement, explain why we consume stories according to mood management theory, and how to satisfy the readers’ hedonic and eudaimonic motivations. I finish by highlighting the link between experiencing negative affect, engagement, and reaching a moved or meaningful state.

  • Discussion 1.1: Classic literature vs. Chick-Lit.
  • Discussion 1.2: The stories that changed you.

Week 2. Decision Making and the Role of Emotions

I propose seeing one’s story as a persuasive message to satisfy the readers’ eudaimonic motivations. I provide a formal definition of persuasion and attitude and discuss common barriers to persuasion as well as subjective determinants of intention (social judgment theory, the theory of reasoned action, and social cognitive theory). I explain how we make decisions and the role that emotions, heuristics, biases, and learned schemas play in decision-making. Following Mark’s general theory of behavior and Damasio’s somatic marker hypothesis, I propose that stories engage by disrupting psychological homeostasis first, then by becoming the only tool that will restore equilibrium. I also discuss the elaboration likelihood model and explain under which circumstances stories are the best way to induce attitudinal or behavioral change.

  • Discussion 2.1: Storytelling in advertising. Watch a series of ads formatted as stories and discuss their persuasive strategy.

  • Discussion 2.2: Your inciting incident Tell us about the event that will break harmony in your story and start a race to restore homeostasis.

Week 3. Choosing the Best Route to Persuasion

Students will learn under which circumstances it is best to format a persuasive message as a narrative, how to consider the recipient’s attitude function when developing a persuasive strategy, and why guilting and shaming don’t work as long-term persuasive strategies.

  • Discussion 3.1: Watch the videos of three different persuasive messages and discuss their possible efficacy.

  • Discussion 3.2: Formulate a persuasive strategy based on your target audience. 

Week 4. Intrinsic Motivation and the Elements of Engagement

I propose that to satisfy the readers’ hedonic motivations, narrative involvement should be seen as an intrinsically motivated behavior in terms of self-determination theory. I explain how engaging stories can satisfy the readers’ needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. I propose that to satisfy the readers’ need for autonomy and competence, a story must follow a structure similar to that of a game, as proposed by Flow Theory, with goals, challenges, and rules as the basic elements of engagement. Finally, I discuss how Lichtenberg’s motivational systems theory can explain how our natural urges modulate how we relate to a story.

  • Discussion 4.1: Go play an addictive game! Identify the basic elements of engagement and, thus, what all engaging activities have in common.

  • Discussion 4.2: Why will your recipients read your story? 

  • Discussion 4.3: Post a reflection on the motivational systems that modulate your characters’ decisions.

Week 5. The Impact of Narrative Persuasion.

I provide a formal definition of narrative persuasion and narrative transportation and explain how stories persuade in terms of social cognitive theory. I explain that the phenomenon of feeling transported into a story world is a consequence of the limits of cognition and selective attention. I discuss how knowledge acquired from media combined with our natural preference for the in-group and our tendencies to reduce the world to small categories and rely on generalizations modulate our beliefs about the world and, thus, the potentially harmful effect of negative stereotypes and aggression in media. I end with a series of recommendations to prevent mistakes made by storytellers in the past.

  • Discussion 5.1: Watch Videos on selective attention.

  • Discussion 5.2: Watch a series of videos and discuss how aggression in media and the use of harmful stereotypes can have real-life consequences.

  • Discussion 5.4: Discuss how to reduce the harmful effects of aggression and negative stereotypes in your own work.

Week 6. Goals: Identification and Affective Dispositions.

I propose that, unlike players who tend to accept whatever goal may be imposed by a game, story consumers must embrace the goals imposed by a story via identification with the story characters. I define identification and empathy and explain the difference between empathy and sympathy (i.e., compassion). Extending on affective disposition theory, I then explain the role of sympathy in defining our affective dispositions toward story characters and motivating engagement. Finally, I explain our paradoxical attraction to morally ambiguous and morally repulsive characters; how come we sometimes enjoy negative representations of the in-group in humor, following self-verification theory; and provide guidelines of how to create more authentic, relatable, flawed characters that readers will root for.

  • Discussion 6: Create an immoral yet sympathetic character.

Week 7. Challenges: Flow, Conflict, and Enjoyment.

I explain why conflict is necessary for engagement and enjoyment from a positive psychology perspective. I explain why experiencing positive affect depends on reducing negative affect and, therefore, the need for negative affect. I proceed to explain the function of conflict. Then, I reconcile flow theory with the dopamine prediction error hypothesis to explain why twists and turns resulting in sudden adjustments in our predictions and increased uncertainty promote engagement. I explain how boredom and frustration originate and why the sensation of fatigue they produce reduces engagement. I propose that enjoyment should be understood as a rewarding experience resulting from engaging in appetitive and consummatory behavior. I end the chapter by explaining why we enjoy sad stories.

  • Discussion 7: Create an outline that lists the story events, assigns them purpose and expected reader’s emotional response.

Week 8. Rules, Memory, and Realism.

I explain how self-imposed rules (e.g., setting, mood, and voice) can facilitate the writing process. After briefly reviewing the classifications of memory systems, I explain how to overcome memory limits to motivate learning and prevent disengagement. I explain why “show, don’t tell” is often a piece of terrible advice. I demonstrate how good “showing” results from appealing to non-declarative memories to mimic sensory perception and why bad “showing” (i.e., excessive dramatization) increases fatigue, reducing engagement. Finally, I explain how rules imposed by the audience, combined with rules established early by the writer, determine what the audiences perceive as realistic and how lack of realism prevents engagement.

  • Discussion 8.2: Landing your story. Post your story’s first few pages. Make sure you land readers properly in your story. The first few pages of your novel should let your readers know:
    • What will your story be about?
    • How will your story make readers feel? What will be the mood and tone?
    • Who is your narrator? (First or Third person. Third person limited or omniscient)
    • What "cassette" should the reader "load" to understand your story? For instance, genre, historical background, and semantic knowledge about a region or culture.
    • When and where your story is set? Is it set in the real world? A fantastic world? An alternate reality? If you fail to let us know that, readers will assume their contemporary reality.
    • What are your story's basic rules? For instance, the existence of the supernatural in your story, speculative science fiction, etc.

Who Should Take This Class

The course will be helpful to those interested in crafting more engaging stories, whether they write short stories, novels, or movie scripts. Since the course teaches not only how to engage but also how to persuade, the course can benefit anyone interested in provoking positive social change, like advertisers, educators, and social activists. The main focus is prose, but students can adapt what they learn to other media.


Class lessons, assignments, discussion forums, and recorded videos from the instructor will be accessible via the Wet Ink platform. A few optional Zoom meetings will be scheduled with the students at the beginning of the course. Meetings will be recorded for students who cannot attend.

About the Facilitator

Carlos Allende Gonzalez has a Ph.D. in Media Psychology from Fielding Graduate University. He teaches The Psychology of Compelling Storytelling and Persuasive Writing in the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension. His research focuses on narrative persuasion and narrative engagement. As Carlos Allende, he writes dark comedy and social satire. His newest book, Coffee, Shopping, Murder Love, won the 2019 Quill Prose Award from Red Hen Press. It came out in June 2022. You can connect with Carlos on Facebook  or LinkedIn.

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