Category Archives: Writing Craft

Mesmerism, Phrenology and Spiritualism: A Guide to 19th Century Psychology

We have a therapist character in the Munchen show. His name is Dr. Runnels and he practices decidedly… outdated therapy methods.

In fact, he is a mesmerist.

Mesmerism was a method of psychological and physical healing developed by Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), a Viennese doctor. Only Mesmer didn’t call his technique mesmerism. He called it animal magnetism. Which had nothing to do with our present understanding of that term meaning “sex appeal.”

No, to Mesmer, animal magnetism referred to an invisible fluid that circulated through the universe and in and out of people. Disturbances in the fluid’s flow led to physical and psychological unrest.

To restore proper flow, Mesmer would have patients sit across from him, their knees touching his. He’d move his hands over parts of their bodies, including such sensitive regions as the diaphragm, in sessions that sometimes lasted hours. (Unsurprisingly, this led to at least one scandal: He was accused of having sexual relations with a young female patient he was treating for blindness.)


The goal of Mesmer’s sessions was to produce a “crisis” — a physical convulsion believed to lead to an emotional or physical breakthrough. In this way, it harkens back to the practice of exorcism, which Mesmer had studied early in his life. At the end of a session, to relax the patient, Mesmer would play a little tune the glass armonica — a fascinating instrument about which I’ll blog later.

Mesmerism produced a trance-like state in the patient, but it was different from hypnosis in that the sessions were mostly non-verbal. Still, it is understood as a precursor to contemporary hypnosis in that it lured patients into precognitive states. It also has clear connections to such practices as reiki and energy healing, which are now experiencing a boom in popularity in the West.

A commission including Benjamin Franklin studied mesmerism and animal magnetism for several years. The commission debunked the techniques as being based on nothing more than the power of suggestion. But mesmerism remained popular until the tail-end of the 19th century, when Sigmund Freud’s “talking cure” (aka psychoanalysis) revolutionized treatment of the emotionally disturbed.

The tail-end of the 19th century, by the way, was the real watershed moment in modern psychology because it’s when Sigmund Freud developed his revolutionary “talking cure” (aka psychoanalysis), from which derive most current non-medical forms of psychological treatment.

All this got me thinking about other pre-Freudian psychological belief systems. Here’s are three others. Are we missing any? Let us know in the comments!

Phrenology. Famous from the scads of illustrations available in antique shops, phrenology alleged that the shape of human skulls reflected the shape of people’s brains — and therefore revealed their personalities. There was no associated therapy (haha, skull reshapers), but it was wildly popular as a means of gaining self-insight. Some people even consulted phrenologists about the compatibility of prospective spouses or employees. (Bonus: The device in the video below was made in Wisconsin — not too far from Munchen!)

Physiognomy. Similar to phrenology, this was the idea that face shapes revealed personality traits. It dates back as far as Chaucer, who calls it “fisnamy” in The Canterbury Tales. It experienced a brief revival of attention a few years back, when several studies found that people could identify the faces of gay men in randomly selected photographs. Here’s a decidedly Midwestern-flavored talk show about physiognomy, even though it’s from the Bay Area:

Spiritualism. Perhaps the defining proto-pscyhotherapy of the late 19th century was spiritualism, in which the living communicated with the dead. It’s still popular today, as evidenced by the Lily Dale community of spirit mediums in western New York and the popularity of such traveling psychics as John Holland.


Leave a comment

Filed under Supernatural and Weird Fiction, Welcome to Munchen, World Building, Writing Craft

Literary TV?: How Friday Night Lights can make you emotionally smarter

You may have read about a study published in the journal Science last month. It showed that after reading “literary fiction” for just a few minutes, people scored higher on tests of emotional sensitivity than those who’d read popular fiction or straight nonfiction.

The reason, the study’s helmers explained, is that literary fiction leaves more to the imagination than other types of writing. Therefore, it prompts readers “to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity.”

The high-brow Lit world rejoiced. Here was justification for why literary authors such as Don DeLillo, Louise Erdrich and Wendell Berry (some of the writers used in the study) really were more worth reading than bestselling genre authors such as Gillian Flynn, Rosamunde Pilcher or Robert Heinlein.

The study got me wondering whether quality TV could accomplish the same kind of emotional smartening. I wondered this in particular about the now-defunct series Friday Night Lights, headed by writer Jason Katims. I’ve been watching and adoring the show on Netflix Instant.


Ostensibly, Friday Night Lights (FNL) follows a high school football team that has become the locus of an entire Texas town’s hopes and dreams. Yet the playing of football receives barely a few minutes of screen time per episode. Mostly, the show is interested in the personal lives of its characters: the ways they honor and betray each other and themselves.

Episode for episode, this show has engaged and moved me more than just about any literary novel I’ve read in the past year. Give me those Science exams! Because when I’m done watching FNL, I feel like I’d ace them. I’m more compassionate toward family and friends. I’m more emotionally honest in my own writing, more willing to dig deep into my characters’ inner lives. It’s not just FNL that has this effect. Mad Men, Freaks & Geeks and Six Feet Under do, too.

So what gives? FNL ain’t Don DeLillo. In many ways, it’s the opposite of much literary fiction. Its episodes follow a conventional setup-climax-epiphany structure. There is darkness, but little or no cynicism. And because it’s a drama about working class people, often with low levels of educational attainment, the dialogue is simple. There are no beautifully wrought sentences or bedazzling inner monologues.

But I think the common thread between quality TV and literary fiction is that each is willing to sit with ambiguity. When characters on FNL argue — and they do argue, often — each character in the scene makes valid points. No one is ever completely right, and no one is ever completely wrong. Contrast this with the typical crime procedural, where there is one truth. The detective or lawyer uncovers that truth while the criminal lies.

Also, the endings of the episodes — like literary novels — are open-ended. No crime is solved, no case decided, no romance tidily consummated. Lives become more complicated, not less. The trade-off, for the character and the viewer, is that those lives also become richer, more compassionate, more interconnected.

The best TV may be able to depict ambiguity even more efficiently than novels. That’s because TV doesn’t have to describe characters’ emotions: It can simply present them, leaving viewers to infer what’s going on behind the facade. And unlike movies, TV doesn’t have to wrap everything up after only 90 minutes. Shows go on year after year, evolving at a pace similar to real life.

One way in which FNL is exactly like literary novels? It was never a popular favorite. Its best year-end ranking in the Nielsen ratings was #114. This is also consistent with the Science study, in which subjects said they got more out of literary novels — but enjoyed reading non-literary ones more.

We’re not always in the mood to grow, it turns out. Sometimes we just want answers.

What about you? Which TV shows make you feel emotionally smarter? –Justin

Leave a comment

Filed under Television, Writing Craft

“They say it’s a fish…originally.”

Justin and I are finishing up the third episode of Welcome to Munchen this week. At this point in our story, fourteen-year-old Meredith Halvorsen is getting ready for the annual Lutefisk Championship. Meredith has a bunch of…unusual hobbies and is a bit of odd duck because instead of rebelling against her local culture like a normal teenager, she embraces every lye-soaked bit of it.

The fun of world-building is doing the research, and in this case doing the research involved me watching a bunch of tutorials on how to make lutefisk. In this video from Lakes Country TV, I learned what Nelson’s customers expect in a good lutefisk, and what will keep them from coming back.

TRIGGER WARNING: If Rick Steves gives you the spinny eyeballs, you’re going to get really excited watching the host of Lakes Country TV. (See this video of a baby tasting chocolate for the first time and you’ll get an idea of how I feel about Rick Steves.)

BONUS: there’s a really big hint in this video about the supernatural infestation that Munchen’s about to experience. Guess what it is, and you win 900 pounds of free lutefisk.*

*Not really. I mean, what would you even do with all that lutefisk.

1 Comment

Filed under Welcome to Munchen, World Building, Writing Craft

H.P. Lovecraft and the invention of world-building

The horror writer H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) has a huge contemporary following. Everyone who’s into scary writing knows that. There are scores of authors, both amateur and professional, who’ve continued to write stories in, or inspired by, the elaborate universe of monsters and secret cults and decrepitude he created.


Lovecraft’s reputation has only grown since his death. His influence can be seen clearly in all the current masters of geeky horror and fantasy, including Joss Whedon, Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams.

Why has he stayed so popular? We certainly can’t credit his prose, which on a good day was overstuffed, on a bad  maddeningly pseudo-intellectual. (From The Call of Cthulu: “The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein…” etc. etc. etc.)

No, I’d wager it’s because Lovecraft was an early master — maybe even the inventor — of the storytelling technique known as world-building. Lovecraft was among the first authors to create a complex alternate reality and then revisit it over and over. Readers could follow him to this reality and escape their everyday concerns. All this without needing to get drunk or high — though I’m sure some people chose to do that, too!

Fast forward to today: World-building is the defining technique of contemporary popular fiction. Think of just about any recent blockbuster book, movie or TV show. Chances are it’s set in a parallel fantasy world. The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Ender’s Game, all the superhero stories — the list goes on. Like Lovecraft’s work, these stories all take place in made-up worlds. And like Lovecraft’s work, they’re all issued in installments, so that once people have learned about a world they can immerse themselves in it over and over again — deepening their understanding of that universe each time.

All this is not even to mention the wildly popular media of video games and comic books. These are the true paragons of world-building, incorporating visual and sometimes aural components. (Hmm, the idea of the “game,” or competition, is clearly also a strong theme in contemporary storytelling. Good idea for a future post.)

What do you think? Did Lovecraft invent world-building? Is that the main reason he remains so popular today? –Justin

1 Comment

Filed under Place, Supernatural and Weird Fiction, Writing Craft

The Power of Reversal

As Christine and I have been writing the Munchen episodes, we’ve been doing some thinking about the storytelling concept of “reversal.”

Reversals are a key element of creating tension in narrative fiction. This has been the gospel going back to Aristotle, who wrote about dramatic reversals in his Poetics. (There’s a pretty good book that applies his ideas to contemporary wordcraft.)

What exactly is a reversal, and what does it accomplish?


Aristotle says it’s “a change by which the action veers round to its opposite.” And you can see how entertainment uses this all the time. Oh, it looks like the football team is going to lose! But they win. Or the prosecuting attorney is going to trounce the defense! Only she flubs. In a longer piece, there may be many reversals back and forth. Triumph, defeat, bigger triumph, bigger defeat. Some movies or books (The Usual Suspects, The Sixth Sense) have a huge third-act twist — a type of mega-reversal that’s become almost cliché.

Reversal is even embedded in the very idea of storytelling “arc.” Protagonist starts out the story wanting one thing. By the end, she discovers she needed another all along.

That’s a Big Reversal across a whole movie or TV episode or novel. But then there are Small Reversals within scenes themselves. A couple starts out a scene on a fun date, but a few minutes later they’re fighting. A boss seems to be in control of his employee at the beginning of a scene — but by the end, the employee has taken charge.

The Script Lab has a nice list of classic movie reversal scenes. For example, there’s the one in The Silence of the Lambs where Clarice interviews Hannibal. She arrives thinking she’s in control, but it turns out Mr. Skin Eater is.

A lot of writers in Hollywood say every scene — every one! — should have a reversal of some kind.

So why are reversals so effective? I’m thinking two main reasons:

  • They keep the audience on its toes, building suspense, because outcomes are unpredictable
  • They engage us emotionally, making us think either “oh no!” (negative reversal) or “oh yay!” (positive reversal)

I think that second one’s the biggie. Daily life is full of reversals. We think we’re going to get a phone call but we don’t. We think we’re finished with a work project but we aren’t. We think we’re doing our significant other a great kindness and it makes them mad. So the reversal reflects our daily experience of life.

It’s easy to say, “ah, this reversal thing is so lowbrow. Literary novels, or quality movies or plays, don’t need reversals.” But I was at a talk by literary novelist and essayist Ann Hood where she talked about her writing process. When she’s revising, she reviews each of her scenes and puts a “+” or “-” at the beginning to reflect the emotional state of the protagonist. Then she makes sure that each scene ends on the opposite sign. It’s hardly ever a Usual Suspects-style huge moment. It’s usually more subtle. But there needs to be a change.

Hood never once used the term “reversal” — but she said the “+/-” practice has amped up the emotional response readers have to her work. And that greater response has led to bigger sales and a more engaged following. –Justin

Leave a comment

Filed under Television, Writing Craft