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“Ben’s dying.”

This is the opening line to a video that Paul Zak (author of The Moral Molecule) used to research the relationship between stories and brain chemicals.

You can watch a short video about Zak’s research on storytelling and the dramatic arc here: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q1a7tiA1Qzo).

Zak ran experiments with the video. The video is a true story about a 2-year-old boy who was dying of brain cancer. In the video, Ben’s father talks about his son. He says that Ben felt better after his chemotherapy and so was often playing happily, but that he (the father) had a difficult time being joyful even when Ben was, because he knew that Ben would die within a few months as a result of his brain tumor.

Zak found that when people watched the video they experienced two emotions: first, distress, and then later, empathy. He took blood samples before and after people watched the video. He found that when people felt distress they released cortisol, and when they felt empathy they released oxytocin. Zak then gave people a chance to share money with a stranger in the lab or to donate money to a charity that helped children who were ill. In both cases, the more cortisol and oxytocin people had released, the more money they donated.

Zak concluded, “The narrative (story) is changing behavior by changing brain chemistry.”

In another experiment, Zak used the same video and added measurements of heart rate, skin conductance, and respiration. He could predict who would give money based on these measurements. (These new measurements allowed him to study people without having to take blood.)
Zak has examined stories in detail. His research shows that stories that follow the traditional “dramatic arc” are the stories that cause the release of the brain chemicals. In his research, Zak repeated the experiment using a different video of Ben and his father. This video showed Ben and his father at the zoo. It did not have a dramatic arc and did not elicit brain chemical release. Zak also found that the story without the dramatic arc did not hold people’s attention.

The dramatic arc Zak refers to comes from Gustav Freytag, a nineteenth-century German playwright and novelist. Freytag studied plays and stories from the Greeks and Shakespeare through to stories from his own time. According to Freytag, an effective story is divided into the five parts shown in Figure 39.1.

FIGURE 39.1 The dramatic story arc.

  1. Exposition—The exposition is the introduction. It sets the time and place, the protagonist or hero, the antagonist or villain, other characters, and the basic conflict of the story.
  2. Rising action—The rising action is where the conflict that was introduced during the exposition starts to grow. Tension increases. The initial conflict becomes more complicated.
  3. Climax—The climax is the turning point. At the climax, the protagonist has a change of fate. If it’s a comedy, then before the climax things were not going well for the protagonist, but after the climax things look up. If it’s a tragedy, then the opposite happens. Things get worse for the protagonist. The climax is the highest point in the arc.
  4. Falling action—After the climax, it may seem that everything is done, but that’s actually not true. This is the last point of suspense. Unexpected things may still happen, so the outcome that the audience thought was set during the climax may or not occur.
  5. Denouement—People tend to call the last part of the arc the conclusion, but Freytag called it the denouement. This is a French word referring to an unraveling or untying of a knot. The protagonist either comes out on top (comedy) or the antagonist does (tragedy).

When people watch or hear a story that contains this dramatic arc structure (even if it’s a very short story, such as a testimonial on a website), their brains will release cortisol during the rising action and climax, and oxytocin during the falling action and denouement.

Common Stories And Plots

In 1949 Joseph Campbell published The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In this book, Campbell traces the myth of the “hero’s story.” A typical hero’s story usually contains the following steps:

  1. The hero is living in his ordinary world, but then he receives a message that calls him to adventure and a higher purpose.
  2. He often is reluctant to go on the adventure.
  3. He has an encounter with someone wise who encourages him to take the first step.
  4. He faces some kind of test.
  5. He encounters helpers.
  6. He has to undergo a harrowing ordeal.
  7. He is successful and brings back some kind of treasure.
  8. He is transformed and brings the treasure to the rest of the world.

The Harry Potter books contain many examples of the hero’s story. Luke Skywalker’s storyline in the Star Wars movies is an example of a hero’s story. (George Lucas specifically cites Joseph Campbell and The Hero with a Thousand Faces as critical influences.)

The Seven Plots

  • In addition to the dramatic arc and the hero’s story, storytellers often use one of seven basic plots, which may or may not involve a hero:
  • Overcoming a monster—The protagonist has to defeat an antagonist (monster) who is threatening the protagonist’s homeland (for example, Star Wars).
  • Rags to riches—The protagonist is poor and suddenly becomes wealthy with money, power, and/or a mate. The protagonist loses it all, but then grows as a person and gets the important riches back (for example, Cinderella).
  • The quest—The protagonist and friends set out to get something important, face lots of challenges along the way, and eventually are triumphant (for example, The Lord of the Rings).
  • Voyage and return—The protagonist goes to a foreign place, makes it through many dangerous situations, and comes back without anything of value, except a personal transformation (for example, The Chronicles of Narnia).
  • Comedy—The protagonist is somewhat of a fool and gets into lots of embarrassing situations and near-disasters, but in the end triumphs over all the adversities and finds happiness (for example, A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
  • Tragedy—There may be a protagonist or an antagonist. He or she ends up with a tragic ending/death. He or she may learn from the troubles encountered along the way, but not enough to be redeemed in this life (for example, Macbeth).
  • Rebirth—Instead of a protagonist, there’s an antagonist. He or she learns and is redeemed over the course of the story (for example, Beauty and the Beast).

These common plots resonate with people. When a story follows one of these plots, people can easily understand the story and are more likely to become involved.


  • When you want people to take an empathetic action, follow the dramatic arc.
  • Simply creating a video doesn’t guarantee that you’ll capture your audience’s attention. The video needs to follow the dramatic arc or people may not stay engaged.
  • Use the dramatic arc in your storyboards and when you explain to others how people will use your design.


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