Sunday, July 03, 2005


Today my daughter attended a birthday party for another two year old at "Build-A-Bear," a cute little store that lets you choose a bear "shell," stuff him, dress him, and otherwise bring him to life. Just before the bears are sewn up (the store staff does this), each child chooses a tiny stuffed heart for her bear and goes through an elaborate ritual to "start his heart beating." While the two year olds mostly just went through the motions (my daughter loves any game with hand movements, so this was fine for her), I noticed the older children, perhaps six and up, were eagerly following the "ritual" extrememly carefully. When the heart was placed in the bear and he was declared "alive," you could tell in these children's faces that at some level, they really believed it -- even those that were really old enough to know better.

There is something deep inside all of us that responds to ritual. Maybe this goes all the way back to stories acted out around the ancient campfire, stories told not for entertainment, but for survival. Life or death literally rested upon how well the children learned these stories of hunting and avoiding danger. They may not have understood why it worked, but it did -- and so they believed. Perhaps this is why many religions make use of ritual, but I really believe that ritual predates religion by a fairly large margin. Even our bland, secular, day-to-day life is full of ritual. How many of us go through the same exact steps every time we get up in the morning? How many of us have things we do a certain way, not because that way has any real benefits, but just because "that's the way it's always been done"? Humans like ritual. We're hardwired to respond to it. Ritual could even be the key to the evolution of intelligence -- after all, having a ritual for the daily survival tasks freed the brain to consider other things. Sometimes we even carry our need for ritual to ridiculous extremes, following a proscribed ritual -- or position on a controversial issue, for example -- just because someone has told us so, making it so that we don't have to think about it (and so are free to think about other things).

Even in writing, such phrases as "once upon a time" begins a time-honored ritual in storytelling. Imagine yourself a young child in a circle around the storyteller, who begins with those words. Your brain responds to the ritual and prepares itself to hear the story. If you're sensitive enough, you can actually feel the change in your brain. As writers, we need to strive to tap into that ritual mechanism in the brain, as this may be one of the secrets to writing gripping stories. Formulaic stories will never hold the reader's attention for the same reason I talked about a few days ago -- if you know how the story will end, there's not much point in continuing to read. I really feel, however, that part of the magic that allows you to completely lose yourself in a good story is tied to this deep, ancient sense of ritual. Figuring out how to apply it for the modern reader, ah, there's the trick...

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