‘The Science of Storytelling’

Will Storr’s, The Science of Storytelling merges neurology and psychology with a writing guide. It’s a subject I’ve been thinking about for years, stemming from my interest in François de La Rochefoucauld’s collected Maxims (1665).

Research by Michael Gazzaniga and others has since proven that the essence of La Rochefoucauld’s observations about human nature (or, in modern terms, the sub-conscious functions of the brain) were remarkably accurate (although it’s fair to say that La Rochefoucauld was a victim of the prejudices and fashions of his own contemporary culture).

In modern terms, La Rochefoucauld hit on the notion of self-deception and denial, which he would have called vanity. He saw these things through the lens of human nature. Again, in modern terminology, what we would explain through psychology, neurology and genetics.

The brain is a kind of bullshit machine, loaded to sway our reasoning in a way that increases our chances of survival, while also making us feel better about ‘our’ decisions (once again, to boost our own survival). Fully grasping the effect of this process, from within it, is an almost impossible challenge.1

Will Storr explains that the eye scans the world at about 4 to 5 saccades a second, but the brain joins these up to create feeling of continuity. Our senses are limited. We only perceive a tiny fraction of the light spectrum. ‘Reality is a hallucination’.

Storr develops a convincing argument that our ‘partial understanding’ of the world (through the mechanism of the senses and the brain, and how they work together) frames what we look for in fiction. Unable to process everything, the brain seeks shortcuts to aid understanding of the world, the things that matter for our survival like patterns, movement and change — the same things that appeal to us as readers when we read novels and watch films.

We also use storytelling as a tool to explore the hidden world of peoples’ subconscious motivations (confabulation), what we gleefully notice in others but are (mostly) unable to see within ourselves. In this way, storytelling is integrally connected to our identity, who we think we are, our ‘vices’ and ‘virtues’.

We are ‘the heroes of our own movies’. Stories affirm who we are, who we empathise with, and what we feel threatened by. We’re flawed beings — literally unable to see our own flaws because of the way our brain processes the world, mostly outside of consciousness. And yet, we’re fascinated by the flaws of others, which we do notice — flawed characters make stories interesting.

Will Storr goes on to explain the ‘theory of control’ in which people create models about the world, along with a strategy based around those models. That strategy refers back to what he calls ‘origin damage’, usually in the form of a childhood trauma, and a long established coping mechanism to get around it. This psychological framework, he argues, should be applied to fiction to make fictional characters realistic. The 5 act plot works so effectively because it is able to chronicle the breakdown of the main character’s ‘core beliefs about reality’.

There are also basic personality traits, which are used in psychology: neuroticism, extroversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. These traits, on a lesser and a greater scale, play out in tandem with events in the plot to create an ‘ignition point’.

Well constructed characters have inner conflict because people have conflicting desires (wanting to connect with others... and to dominate them). Realistic characters are bound by human judgements based on selfishness and selflessness, which impact on their social status. Compelling fiction is full of ‘status reversals’.

The bigger picture is that stories are about characters wanting to achieve their conscious desires. But, this inevitably leads to failure because what they really need to satisfy are their subconscious goals (which relate to their ‘origin damage’). In effect goals in the physical world are confused with satisfying emotional needs, status and other factors, feelings that exist in the mind. So, in order to realise their inner goals (as they are often labelled) characters have to question their ‘core beliefs about reality’ (in order to transcend their own delusion and denial).

What I really like about this approach is that it’s not too prescriptive — it provides a useful framework to help writers deliver engaging stories that feel more authentic.


1: Or, as ‘Lao Tzu’ wrote, in 400BC, in his work of philosophical poetry, the Tao Te Ching: ‘Can you polish your mysterious mirror and leave no blemish?’

And, incidentally, what is possibly the best observation about human nature and our inability to comprehend ourselves, comes from the unlikely source of the New Testament of the Bible, from Luke 23:34: ‘Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”’