How Do Great Storytellers Create Empathy?

There are many gifted storytellers and teachers of the craft. Robert McKee (aka The Script Doctor) is one. Having attended one of his Story Seminars in Vancouver, BC, I can share firsthand that McKee is indeed a master, with an ability to captivate an audience. For 9 hours a day, over his four-day seminar I sat in the silence he demanded of every student from the outset, soaking up every detail as he deconstructed, then reconstructed, the anatomy of a story.

According to McKee, and along the lines of yesterday’s post, Using Storytelling and Narrative to Develop Empathy In Medical Students, it is critical that the protagonist of a story evokes empathy in order for the audience to have an emotional involvement in the outcome. McKee instructs students to create characters audiences care about–characters that appear to be “just like, or somewhat like, me”. His Storylogue, a paid service that provides daily writing lessons, and his Story Seminars given around the world are (in)famous for producing Hollywood caliber scripts, and published authors across all genres. One last parting bit of storytelling wisdom — McKee believes good storytellers have:

  1. Insight into life–a concept or idea no one else has
  2. Depth of knowledge around that unique insight into life–do the research!
  3. Wit–a little wit goes a long way and can be a saving grace
  4. Passion for perfection–write, rewrite and rewrite again
  5. Taste–taste is a gene–know what’s good and what’s not in your own writing

A second example of masterful storytelling has one of the most unlikely empathetic characters. Of late, I have been watching the multi-Emmy Award-winning (plus others) Showtime series, Dexter. I came to the series late–actually six seasons into it–as I am not a fan of horror, crime stories or murder/mayhem of any sort. Not to mention, I was having a hard time understanding how a show based on a serial-killing lead character could have the universal appeal it does. Rumor has it there are even Dexter bobble-head dolls for sale! It remained one of the “mysteries of Hollywood” in my mind. However, I was convinced by a writing colleague to download the sixth season from Amazon and did so under duress. To my surprise, I was quickly hooked. Here is an excerpt that hits at the heart of the series:

How can a serial killer evoke such universal empathy? Yes, the script may be formulaic, but the story backbone is one of the great ones, with a skillful twist on good vs evil better than any I have read or watched in a very long time.  The brilliance of the writers as they dance at the core of self-worth is inspiring. Are we good or bad? A combination of both? Aside from social norms and laws that guide us, what makes us good or bad, and how do we measure up when comparing ourselves to others? How does that self-assessment hold up to the expectations of who, and what, we are and should be according to significant people in our lives? All this from a serial-killing lead character–who knew? I wonder what Robert McKee thinks!

Man (or woman) versus the self is one of the seven great plot structures. I would put our struggle with ourselves at the top of the list when trying to create narratives that evoke the empathy needed to create change in medicine or anywhere else. How does this knowledge apply to a medical school lesson plan? How can medical professors remind students that each patient, and colleague, has their own story or inner struggle? There exists both beauty and power in developing a connection to those pieces of another human being, and if medical education is failing to make a space for that connection to flourish, it’s no wonder empathy in medical students falls off over training.

How can medical professors allow their students to share their own inner struggle within the profession they are about to take on so that those struggles do not take away from a patient encounter? As new skills are being required of practicing physicians, so too are that of medical educators. How are you preparing for this shift? Please share your strategies–and favorite stories!


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