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The Science of Storytelling summary

This book provides a formulaic approach to fictional story-writing. A lot of the theories behind what makes a good story is backed by research from the fields of psychology and sociology which I quite enjoyed.

  • Whether it’s a sixty-word tabloid piece about a TV star’s tiara falling off or a 350,000-word epic such as Anna Karenina, every story you’ll ever hear amounts to ‘something changed’. Change is endlessly fascinating to brains. ‘Almost all perception is based on the detection of change’ says the neuroscientist Professor Sophie Scott.
  • Unexpected change makes us curious, and curious is how we should feel in the opening movements of an effective story.
  • This is what storytellers do. They create moments of unexpected change that seize the attention of their protagonists and, by extension, their readers and viewers.
  • The director Alfred Hitchcock, who was a master at alarming brains by threatening that unexpected change was looming, went as far as to say, ‘There’s no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.’
  • Unexpected change isn’t the only way to arouse curiosity. As part of their mission to control the world, brains need to properly understand it. This makes humans insatiably inquisitive.
  • Brains, concluded the researchers, seem to become spontaneously curious when presented with an ‘information set’ they realise is incomplete. ‘There is a natural inclination to resolve information gaps,’ wrote Loewenstein, ‘even for questions of no importance.’
  • Curiosity is shaped like a lowercase n. It’s at its weakest when people have no idea about the answer to a question and also when entirely convinced they do. The place of maximum curiosity – the zone in which storytellers play – is when people think they have some idea but aren’t quite sure.
  • Loewenstein breaks down four ways of involuntarily inducing curiosity in humans: (1) the ‘posing of a question or presentation of a puzzle’; (2) ‘exposure to a sequence of events with an anticipated but unknown resolution’; (3) ‘the violation of expectations that triggers a search for an explanation’; (4) knowledge of ‘possession of information by someone else’.
  • ‘I thought I saw a weird guy over there.’ You did see that weird guy over there. Your brain thought he was there so it put him there. Then when you approached and new, more accurate, information was detected, it rapidly redrew the scene, and your hallucination was updated.
  • There’s no colour out there either. Atoms are colourless. All the colours we do ‘see’ are a blend of three cones that sit in the eye: red, green and blue.
  • Because writers are, in effect, generating neural movies in the minds of their readers, they should privilege word order that’s filmic, imagining how their reader’s neural camera will alight upon each component of a sentence.
  • ... active sentence construction – Jane kissed her Dad – is more effective than passive – Dad was kissed by Jane.
  • One study concluded that, to make vivid scenes, three specific qualities of an object should be described, with the researcher’s examples including ‘a dark blue carpet’ and ‘an orange striped pencil.’
  • As C. S. Lewis implored a young writer in 1956, ‘instead of telling us a thing was “terrible”, describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description.’ The abstract information contained in adjectives such as ‘terrible’ and ‘delightful’ is thin gruel for the model-building brain.
  • Our errors about what others are thinking are a major cause of human drama. As we move through life, wrongly predicting what people are thinking and how they’ll react when we try to control them, we haplessly trigger feuds and fights and misunderstandings that fire devastating spirals of unexpected change into our social worlds.
  • The influential post-war director Alexander Mackendrick writes, ‘I start by asking: What does A think B is thinking about A? It sounds complicated (and it is) but this is the very essence of giving some density to a character and, in turn, a scene.’
  • Extra details like this add even more tension by mimicking the way brains process peak moments of stress. When we realise our car is about to crash, say, the brain needs to temporarily increase its ability to control the world. Its processing power surges and we become aware of more features in our environment, which has the effect of making time seem to slow down. In exactly this way, storytellers stretch time, and thereby build suspense, by packing in extra saccadic moments and detail.
  • Neuroscientists are building a powerful case that metaphor is far more important to human cognition than has ever been imagined. Many argue it’s the fundamental way that brains understand abstract concepts, such as love, joy, society and economy. It’s simply not possible to comprehend these ideas in any useful sense, then, without attaching them to concepts that have physical properties: things that bloom and warm and stretch and shrink.
  • When participants in one study read the words ‘he had a rough day’, their neural regions involved in feeling textures became more activated, compared with those who read ‘he had a bad day’. In another, those who read ‘she shouldered the burden’ had neural regions associated with bodily movement activated more than when they read ‘she carried the burden’. This is prose writing that deploys the weapons of poetry. It works because it activates extra neural models that give the language additional meaning and sensation.
  • Estimates vary, but it’s believed the brain processes around 11 million bits of information at any given moment, but makes us consciously aware of no more than forty. The brain sorts through an abundance of information and decides what salient information to include in its stream of consciousness.
  • Cause and effect is the natural language of the brain. It’s how it understands and explains the world. Compelling stories are structured as chains of causes and effects.
  • Good stories are explorations of the human condition; thrilling voyages into foreign minds. They’re not so much about events that take place on the surface of the drama as they are about the characters that have to battle them. Those characters, when we meet them on page one, are never perfect. What arouses our curiosity about them, and provides them with a dramatic battle to fight, is not their achievements or their winning smile. It’s their flaws.
  • When designing a character, it’s often useful to think of them in terms of their theory of control. How have they learned to control the world? When unexpected change strikes, what’s their automatic go-to tactic for wrestling with the chaos? What’s their default, flawed response? The answer, as we’ve just seen, comes from that character’s core beliefs about reality, the precious and fiercely defended ideas around which they’ve formed their sense of self.
  • Different personalities have different go-to tactics for controlling the environment of people. When unexpected change threatens, some are more likely to jump to aggression and violence, some charm, some flirtation, others will argue or withdraw or become infantile or try to negotiate for consensus or become Machiavellian or dishonest, resorting to threat, bribery or con.
  • Lots of animals enjoy these pleasurable, rule-based, exploratory interactions, including dolphins, kangaroos and rats. But our domestication, and the highly complex social realm we must learn to control, has elevated the importance of play in humans. It’s the main reason we have such greatly extended childhoods
  • For the Greeks, the primary agent of control was the individual. For the Chinese, it was the group. For the Greeks, reality was made up of individual pieces and parts. For the Chinese, it was a field of interconnected forces. Out of these differences in the experience of reality come different story forms. Greek myths usually have three acts, Aristotle’s ‘beginning, middle and end’, perhaps more usefully described as crisis, struggle, resolution. They often starred singular heroes battling terrible monsters and returning home with treasures.
  • ‘In the West you fight against evil and the truth prevails and love conquers all,’ he said. ‘In Asia it’s a person who sacrifices who becomes the hero, and takes care of the family and the community and the country.’
  • The brain defends our flawed model of the world with an armoury of crafty biases. When we come across any new fact or opinion, we immediately judge it. If it’s consistent with our model of reality our brain gives a subconscious feeling of yes. If it’s not, it gives a subconscious feeling of no. These emotional responses happen before we go through any process of conscious reasoning. They exert a powerful influence over us. When deciding whether to believe something or not, we don’t usually make an even-handed search for evidence. Instead, we hunt for any reason to confirm what our models have instantaneously decided for us.
  • Incredibly, the brain treats threats to our neural models in the much same way as it defends our bodies from a physical attack, putting us into a tense and stressful fight-or-flight state.
  • Researchers have found that violence and cruelty has four general causes: greed and ambition; sadism; high self-esteem and moral idealism. Popular belief and clichéd stories tend to have it that greed and sadism are dominant. In fact, they’re vanishingly small. It’s actually high self-esteem and moral idealism – convictions of personal and moral superiority – that drive most acts of evil.
  • The job of the narrator, writes Gazzaniga, is to ‘seek explanations or causes for events’. It is, in other words, a storyteller. And facts, while nice, don’t really matter to it: ‘The first makes-sense explanation will do.’ Our narrator has no wired-in access to the neural structures that that are largely (or wholly, depending on who you ask) controlling how we feel and what we do. Because the narrator exists separately from the circuits that are the true causes of our emotions and behaviour, it’s forced to rapidly hash together any makes-sense (and usually heroic) story it can about what we’re up to and why.
  • As well as having models of everything in the world, inside our heads, we have different models of self that are constantly fighting for control over who we are. At different times, under different circumstances, a different version of us becomes dominant. When it does, it takes over the role of neural narrator, arguing its case passionately and convincingly and usually winning.
  • Stories such as this are like life itself, a constant conversation between conscious and subconscious, text and subtext, with causes and effects ricocheting between both levels. As incredible and heightened as they often are, they also tell us a truth about the human condition. We believe we’re in control of ourselves but we’re continually being altered by the world and people around us.
  • As the story theorist Robert McKee writes, ‘the most memorable, fascinating characters tend to have not only a conscious but an unconscious desire. Although these complex protagonists are unaware of their subconscious need, the audience senses it, perceiving in them an inner contradiction. The conscious and unconscious desires of a multidimensional protagonist contradict each other.
  • This is how stories kept the tribe together as a functional, cooperating unit. They were essential for our survival. And our brains operate in the same way today. We enjoy great books or immersive films because they’re activating and exploiting these ancient social emotions. When a character behaves selflessly we experience a deep primal craving to see them recognised by the group as a hero and hailed. When a character behaves selfishly, we feel a monstrous urge to see their punishment.
  • Evolutionary psychologists argue we have two wired-in ambitions: to get along with people, so they like us and consider us non-selfish members of the tribe, and also get ahead of them, so we’re on top. Humans are driven to connect and dominate. These drives, of course, are frequently incompatible.
  • A common feature of our hero-making cognition seems to be that we all tend to feel like this – relatively low in status and yet actually, perhaps secretly, possessing the skills and character of someone deserving of a great deal more. I suspect this is why we so easily identify with underdog heroes at the start of the story – and then cheer when they finally seize their just reward. Because they’re us.
  • We still have this primitive cognition. We think in tribal stories. It’s our original sin. Whenever we sense the status of our tribe is threatened by another, these foul networks fire up. In that moment, to the subconscious brain, we’re back in the prehistoric forest or savannah. The storytelling brain enters a state of war. It assigns the opposing group purely selfish motives.
  • This is how we go through our day-to-day lives. What we see in our human environments is a product of our pasts – and, all too often, a product of our own particular damage. We’re literally blind to that which the brain ignores. If it sends the eye to only the distressing elements around us, that’s all we’ll see. If it spins cause-and-effect tales of violence and threat and prejudice about actually harmless events, that’s what we’ll experience.
  • Goal-direction is the foundational mechanism on top of which all our other urges are built. The basic Darwinian aim of all life forms is to survive and reproduce. Because of the peculiarities of our evolutionary history, human strategies to attain these goals centre on achieving connection with tribes, and on status within them.
  • Humans are built for story. When we push ourselves towards a tough yet meaningful goal, we thrive. Our reward systems spike not when we achieve what we’re after but when we’re in pursuit of it. It’s the pursuit that makes a life and the pursuit that makes a plot.
  • A character in a drama who isn’t reacting, making decisions, choosing and trying somehow to impose control on the chaos isn’t truly a protagonist. Without action, the answer to the dramatic question never really changes. Who they are is who they always were, but slowly, dully sinking.
  • Thirty years of study led Christopher Booker to assert the existence of seven recurring plots in story. He calls them: Overcoming the Monster; Rags to Riches; The Quest; Voyage and Return; Rebirth; Comedy; and Tragedy. Each plot, he argues, tends towards five structural movements: the call to action, a dream stage in which everything goes well, a frustration stage, a descent into nightmarish conflict and finally a resolution.
  • Yorke argues that an event occurs almost halfway through ‘any successful story’ during which something ‘profoundly significant’ takes place that transforms the story and its protagonist in some irreversible way.
  • The ‘most frequently occurring and important theme’ of bestsellers was ‘human closeness and human connection’, an apposite interest for a hyper-social species.
  • The job of the plot is to keep asking the dramatic question. It does this by repeatedly challenging and gradually breaking the protagonist’s model of who they are and how the world works. This requires pressure.
  • Brains love control. It’s their heaven. They’re constantly battling to get there. It’s surely no coincidence that control is the defining quality in the hero of the world’s most successful story.
  • If we prefer storytellers with similar backgrounds and lived experiences to our own, it’s because what we often crave in art is the same connection with others that we seek in friendship and love. It’s only natural if a woman prefers books by women or a working-class man prefers working-class voices: storytelling will always be full of associations that speak directly to particular perspectives.
  • Story, then, is both tribal propaganda and the cure for tribal propaganda. In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch advises his daughter Scout that she’ll ‘get along a lot better with all kinds of folks’ if she learns a simple trick: ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’ This is precisely what story enables us to do. In this way, it creates empathy.
  • Rampant irrationality! This is exactly what we, as storytellers, should be hunting in our characters. In order for them to change, our protagonists need to start off broken. When we meet them, in act one, they should be immersed in a reality of rampant irrationality without really being aware of it.
  • In order to locate the thing they’re irrational about, we need to ask what they make sacred. The things we make sacred are, to a great extent, the things that come to define us. This, I believe, is the secret of unlocking the truth of a character. When other people think of us – when they’re asked what we’re like – our sacred belief will probably be the first thing that pops into their minds.

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