What makes a story go viral? In his blog post The Elements of Awe (check it out) Donald Maass draws your attention to a piece in the New York Times that describes how sociologists “have been studying data provided by The New York Times showing which of the paper’s articles are the most often e-mailed”.
Their conclusions have some relevance for fiction writers because they reveal what it is about stories that probably generate word of mouth.
In his post (which promises to be the first of a very interesting series), Maass looks at one quality in particular — emotion — and how writers can (and can’t) invoke that in their fiction.
I think this study has relevance for writers in another way as well: building ‘author platform’ (particularly when it comes to blogging).
The articles that seem to generate the most word-of-mouth are, quite literally, awesome.
As in: they inspire a sense of awe.
The sociologists define this quality as an “emotion of self-transcendence, a feeling of admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self.” In order for a story to achieve this status of awesomeness, its scale must be “large” and it must “force the reader to view the world in a different way.”
“It involves the opening and broadening of the mind,” write Dr. Berger and Dr. Milkman, who is a behavioral economist at Wharton.
“Seeing the Grand Canyon, standing in front of a beautiful piece of art, hearing a grand theory or listening to a beautiful symphony may all inspire awe. So may the revelation of something profound and important in something you may have once seen as ordinary or routine, or seeing a causal connection between important things and seemingly remote causes.”
What motivates people to share these stories?
“Emotion in general leads to transmission, and awe is quite a strong emotion,” he said. “If I’ve just read this story that changes the way I understand the world and myself, I want to talk to others about what it means. I want to proselytize and share the feeling of awe. If you read the article and feel the same emotion, it will bring us closer together.”
So people want to be moved and inspired. They want to feel part of something bigger than themselves. They want to connect. If you can find ways of engaging those desires, you can capture — and maintain — their attention.
What’s more, you can generate some private awesomeness for yourself…if you can reframe the idea of ‘author platform’ to mean more than the selling of books.
The challenge is to make your author platform part of a much larger vision that includes — but is possibly not limited to — your creative work. To find within your platform a cause and a message.
Writer, traveler and entrepreneur Chris Guillebeau doesn’t blog just to promote himself or his upcoming book. He’s waging a war against conformity. His landing page doesn’t hit you with a press release or a sales pitch, but an invitation to join what he calls “a small army of remarkable people”: If you’re dissatisfied with conventional beliefs and want to do something remarkable with your life, I’d love to welcome you to the revolution. This is more than clever copy; it’s a sincere and passionate declaration, and everything he does — his “brand” — reflects his desire to teach others how to lead an unconventional life through instruction and example.
Chris became a rockstar blogger with a book deal in a relatively short time.
But even when he started out, he was never just a dude with a blog. He was a dude with something to say and a message to spread (and an excellent work ethic). People respond to him — and will buy his book as soon as it comes out, just as I plan to — because he stimulates and inspires.
He connects you to something bigger than yourself. He provides not just value, but vision.
Granted, Chris doesn’t write fiction. But if you take a close look at your fiction — and yourself — and think about the kinds of books you plan to write in the future, you will identify recurring themes and obsessions. Every writer has them.
From those, you can draw the answers to some different kinds of questions. In your wildest dreams, what kind of impact do you want your fiction to have on the world? Who do you most want to reach? Who are you writing for, and why?
Take these answers and see if you can organize them into your own personal mission statement. Make sure it resonates with who you are at the core (you’ll know this if it excites and galvanizes you). Suddenly writing is no longer about — or just about — getting published. It’s about having an impact, enriching lives, making change. Your author platform is no longer about — or just about — selling books. It’s about creating your own “small army of remarkable people” to help you share and spread your message (as well as buy your books).
Yes, it sounds ambitious, perhaps grandiose. But socialmedia works when you have something to say, a message that goes beyond ‘buy my books’. Small dreams, small words, small messages won’t get you anywhere. Think awesomeness. Think of ways to make people part of that. In return, they could make you a rockstar.
If you could create a social movement with your writing, what kind of social movement would it be?