Grand Hotel: Dialogue and Engagement, Part 1a: Personal Engagement

Personal engagement is all about how each audience member feels about each person in the story. If they empathize, they see themselves in the character's shoes, they feel for the character as another human being, even if the character is very different from them--even if the character is not presented as a human being. If we notice someone in a situation, we tend to imagine ourselves in their place and project our feelings about the situation onto that person. Experience may teach us that people of different genders, ages, cultures and social positions do not feel the same about everything, but our instinct is to assume the people we observe are feeling what we would feel in their situations. We watch people wash their cars, cross the street, or crawl out of crushed sedans, in part because we automatically picture ourselves doing those things. We project ourselves into their shoes and our feelings into their brains.

Personal engagement becomes much stronger if we recognize someone as a member of our group. A plane crash always hurts us more when we hear that so many strangers from our country were killed or injured in it. Any event is far more interesting when someone from our country, town, religious group or other affiliation is involved. We naturally root for our guys, however we're connected to them. This is one reason fiction divides along lines of age, genre and culture. The protagonists we relate to best are people from groups we belong to.

Personal engagement is strongest when a person fascinates us. Fascination can be positive, as in admiration, or negative, as in detestation, but we love to love and love to hate, and the objects of our strong personal reactions will always catch our eye in life, on screen, on stage and on page.

Empathy and belonging are also charged. We may not detest someone personally, but if we mark them as belonging to a group we detest, we will watch them closely out of fear or some other negative emotion. We may never have shared a particular experience, but we will examine it out of curiosity--and we will respond to it intellectually and emotionally as we imagine it happening to us.

In Grand Hotel, there's matter for all three of these forms of engagement, but our class today is about active participation in a story, not connection with its characters.

How can the audience actively participate in a story? Well, all right, there are RPGs in which we make decisions for and maybe even physically control our characters. And in the theater or in front of a home screen, we can share some of the same visual and auditory stimuli as the characters we're following. But we're never really in the story like our characters are. Least of all when reading a book or magazine. Reading is entirely passive, isn't it, except for the effort of taking in the words?

One of the most important discoveries a storyteller ever makes is that a short story, a novel, a stage play or a screenplay is an experience, not a report. Journalists and historians report. They may use a few storytelling skills to do it, but their main job is to convey facts, to give us information we can assimilate into our understanding of current or past events. Their reports may be dishonest or innacurate, but we perceive their work as informing our views of reality, adding to the world we inhabit, not taking us somewhere else.

Short stories, novels, stage plays and screenplays--though they may deal with elements of reality--are expected to take us somewhere else, to put us in a different world, one that is alien or more disordered or more ordered, a world that is not real, a world we wish to escape from or escape to.

Watching someone else wash a car, cross a street or crawl out of a wreck is not the same as doing it ourselves. And the job of the storyteller is to make us feel as if we are doing it ourselves. So what is it that makes washing a car, crossing a street or crawling out of a wreck a personal experience? That is the purview of Participatory Engagement.

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