📚 Book Notes: The Science of Storytelling
If you want to write a story, read this book. It is one of the densest books I've read so far, with a lot of great examples. This is going into my rereading list. I picked this up at the right time as I have recently started penning down another story. I got solid frameworks to develop the main character and the overall plot. This book has single-handedly improved my mental models around storytelling by an order of magnitude. There was so much I didn't know.
Here are my notes from The Science of Storytelling:
1. It’s story that makes us human. Recent research suggests language evolved principally to swap ‘social information’ back when we were living in Stone Age tribes. In other words, we’d gossip. We’d tell tales about the moral rights and wrongs of other people, punish the bad behaviour, reward the good, and thereby keep everyone cooperating and the tribe in check. Stories about people being heroic or villainous, and the emotions of joy and outrage they triggered, were crucial to human survival. We’re wired to enjoy them.
Some researchers believe grandparents came to perform a vital role in such tribes: elders told different kinds of stories – about ancestor heroes, exciting quests and spirits and magic – that helped children to navigate their physical, spiritual and moral worlds. It’s from these stories that complex human culture emerged. When we started farming and rearing livestock, and our tribes settled down and slowly merged into states, these grandparental campfire tales morphed into great religions that had the power to hold large numbers of humans together. Still, today, modern nations are principally defined by the stories we tell about our collective selves: our victories and defeats; our heroes and foes; our distinctive values and ways of being, all of which are encoded in the tales we tell and enjoy.
2. Where does a story begin? Well, where does anything begin? At the beginning, of course. Alright then: Charles Foster Kane was born in Little Salem, Colorado, USA, in 1862. His mother was Mary Kane, his father was Thomas Kane. Mary Kane ran a boarding house ….
It’s not working. A birth may be the beginning of a life and, if the brain was a data processor, that’s surely where our tale would start. But raw biographical data have little meaning to the storytelling brain. What it desires – what it insists upon, in exchange for the rare gift of its attention – is something else.
Many stories begin with a moment of unexpected change. And that’s how they continue too. 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. ‘Our perceptual systems basically don’t work unless there are changes to detect.’ In a stable environment, the brain is relatively calm. But when it detects change, that event is immediately registered as a surge of neural activity.
3. The secrets of human curiosity have been explored by psychologists, perhaps most famously by Professor George Loewenstein. He writes of a test in which participants were confronted by a grid of squares on a computer screen. They were asked to click five of them. Some participants found that, with each click, another picture of an animal appeared. But a second group saw small component parts of a single animal. With each square they clicked, another part of a greater picture was revealed. This second group were much more likely to keep on clicking squares after the required five, and then keep going until enough of them had been turned that the mystery of the animal’s identity had been solved. 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.’
4. 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. Brain scans reveal that curiosity begins as a little kick in the brain’s reward system: we crave to know the answer, or what happens next in the story, in the way we might crave drugs or sex or chocolate. This pleasantly unpleasant state, that causes us to squirm with tantalised discomfort at the delicious promise of an answer, is undeniably powerful. During one experiment, psychologists noted archly that their participants’ ‘compulsion to know the answer was so great that they were willing to pay for the information, even though curiosity could have been sated for free after the session.’
5. Some of our most successful mass-market storytellers also rely on information gaps. J. J. Abrams is co-creator of the longform television series Lost, which followed characters who mysteriously manage to survive an airline crash on a South Pacific island. There they discover mysterious polar bears; a mysterious band of ancient beings known as ‘the Others’; a mysterious French woman; a mysterious ‘smoke monster’ and a mysterious metal door in the ground. Fifteen million viewers in the US alone were drawn to watch that first series, in which a world was created then filled until psychedelic with information gaps. Abrams has described his controlling theory of storytelling as consisting of the opening of ‘mystery boxes’. Mystery, he’s said, ‘is the catalyst for imagination … what are stories but mystery boxes?’
6. The world we experience as ‘out there’ is actually a reconstruction of reality that is built inside our heads. It’s an act of creation by the storytelling brain.
This is how it works. You walk into a room. Your brain predicts what the scene should look and sound and feel like, then it generates a hallucination based on these predictions. It’s this hallucination that you experience as the world around you. It’s this hallucination you exist at the centre of, every minute of every day. You’ll never experience actual reality because you have no direct access to it. ‘Consider that whole beautiful world around you, with all its colours and sounds and smells and textures,’ writes the neuroscientist and fiction writer Professor David Eagleman. ‘Your brain is not directly experiencing any of that. Instead, your brain is locked in a vault of silence and darkness inside your skull.’
This hallucinated reconstruction of reality is sometimes referred to as the brain’s ‘model’ of the world. Of course, this model of what’s actually out there needs to be somewhat accurate, otherwise we’d be walking into walls and ramming forks into our necks. For accuracy, we have our senses. Our senses seem incredibly powerful: our eyes are crystalline windows through which we observe the world in all its colour and detail; our ears are open tubes into which the noises of life freely tumble. But this is not the case. They actually deliver only limited and partial information to the brain.
Take the eye, our dominant sense organ. If you hold out your arm and look at your thumbnail, that’s all you can see in high definition and full colour at once. Colour ends 20 to 30 degrees outside that core and the rest of your sight is fuzzy. You have two lemon-sized blind spots and blink fifteen to twenty times a minute, which blinds you for fully 10 per cent of your waking life. You don’t even see in three dimensions.
How is it, then, that we experience vision as being so perfect? Part of the answer lies in the brain’s obsession with change. That large fuzzy area of your vision is sensitive to changes in pattern and texture as well as movement. As soon as it detects unexpected change, your eye sends its tiny high-definition core – which is a 1.5-millimetre depression in the centre of your retina – to inspect it. This movement – known as a ‘saccade’ – is the fastest in the human body. We make four to five saccades every second, over 250,000 in a single day. Modern filmmakers mimic saccadic behaviour when editing. Psychologists examining the so-called ‘Hollywood style’ find the camera makes ‘match action cuts’ to new salient details just as a saccade might, and is drawn to similar events, such as bodily movement.
7. 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.’
The findings Bergen describes also suggest the reason writers are continually encouraged to ‘show not tell’. 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. In order to experience a character’s terror or delight or rage or panic or sorrow, it has to make a model of it. By building its model of the scene, in all its vivid and specific detail, it experiences what’s happening on the page almost as if it’s actually happening. Only that way will the scene truly rouse our emotions.
8. The brain’s propensity for automatic model-making is exploited with superb effect by tellers of fantasy and science-fiction stories. Simply naming a planet, ancient war or obscure technical detail seems to trigger the neural process of building it, as if it actually exists. One of the first books I fell in love with as a boy was J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. My best friend Oliver and I obsessed over the maps it contained – ‘Mount Gundabad’; ‘Desolation of Smaug’; ‘West lies Mirkwood the Great – there are spiders.’ When his father made photocopies of them for us, these maps became the focus of a summer of blissful play. The places Tolkien sketched out, on those maps, felt as real to us as the sweet shop in Silverdale Road.
In Star Wars, when Han Solo boasts that his ship the Millennium Falcon ‘made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs’ we have the strange experience of knowing it’s an actor doing gibberish whilst simultaneously somehow feeling as if it’s real. The line works because of its absolute specificity and its adherence to what sounds like truth (the ‘Kessel Run’ really could be a race while ‘parsecs’ are a genuine measurement of distance, equivalent to 3.26 light years). As ridiculous as some of this language actually is, rather than taking us out of the storyteller’s fictional hallucination, it manages to give it even more density.
By merest suggestion, the Kessel Run becomes real. We can imagine the dusty planet on which the race begins, hear the whine and blast of the engines, smell the alien piss around the back of the mechanics’ wind-flapping encampments. This is just what happens in Bladerunner’s most famous scene, in which the replicant Roy Batty, on the edge of death, tells Rick Deckard, ‘I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate.’
Those C-beams! That gate! Their wonder lies in the fact that they’re merely suggested. Like monsters in the most frightening horror stories, they feel all the more real for being the creations, not of the writer, but of our own incessant model-making imaginations.
9. Nobody, however, is right about everything. Nevertheless, the storytelling brain wants to sell us the illusion that we are. Think about the people closest to you. There won’t be a soul among them with whom you’ve never disagreed. You know she’s slightly wrong about that, and he’s got that wrong, and don’t get her started on that. The further you travel from those you admire, the more wrong people become until the only conclusion you’re left with is that entire tranches of the human population are stupid, evil or insane. Which leaves you, the single living human who’s right about everything – the perfect point of light, clarity and genius who burns with godlike luminescence at the centre of the universe.
10. 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.
11. Much of the conflict we see in life and story involves exactly these model-defending behaviours. It involves people with conflicting perceptions of the world who fight to convince each other of their rightness, to make it so their opponent’s neural model of the world matches theirs. If these conflicts can be deep and bitter and never-ending, it’s partly because of the power of naive realism. Because our hallucination of reality seems self-evident, the only conclusion we can come to is that our antagonist, by claiming to see it differently, is insane, lying or evil. And that’s exactly what they think of us.
But it’s also by these kinds of conflicts that a protagonist learns and changes. As they struggle through the events of the plot, they’ll usually encounter a series of obstacles and breakthroughs. These obstacles and breakthroughs often come in the form of secondary characters, each of whom experiences the world differently to them in ways that are specific and necessary to the story. They’ll try to force the protagonist to see the world as they do. By grappling with these characters, the protagonist’s neural model will be changed, even if subtly. They’ll be led astray by antagonists, who’ll represent perhaps darker and more extreme versions of their flaw. Likewise, they’ll learn valuable lessons from allies, who are often the embodiment of new ways of being that our hero must adopt.
But before this dramatic journey of change has begun, our protagonist’s neural model will probably still be convincing to them, even if it is, perhaps, beginning to creak at its edges – there might be signs that their ability to control the world is failing, which they frantically ignore; there might be portentous problems and conflicts which rise and waft about them. Then something happens …
Good stories have a kind of ignition point. It’s that wonderful moment in which we find ourselves sitting up in the narrative, suddenly attentive, our emotions switched on, curiosity and tension sparked. This often occurs when we sense an unexpected change has taken place in the plot that sends tremors to the core of the protagonist’s flawed theory of control. Because it goes to the heart of their particular flaw, this event will cause them to behave in an unexpected way. They’ll overreact or do something otherwise odd. This is our subconscious signal that the fantastic spark between character and event has taken place. The story has begun.
Typically, as their theory of control is increasingly tested and found wanting, the character will lose control over the events of the plot. In an archetypal tale, the more they struggle to regain control, the more trouble and chaos they’ll often cause. The drama that is triggered compels the protagonist to make a decision: are they going to fix their flaw or not? Who are they going to be?
12. It’s easy to think that a story’s surface events – its twists, chases, explosions – are its point. Because we’re experiencing it through the eyes of the characters, we, like them, can become distracted by the drama of these thrilling changeful episodes. But none of them mean anything without a specific person for them to happen to. A shark tank has no meaning without a 007 to fall into it. Even crowd-pleasing tales such as James Bond’s rely on character for their drama. Those stories are gripping, not because of the bullets or high-speed ski chases in isolation, but because we want to know how this specific person, with this specific history and these strengths and these flaws will get out of it. They’ll usually only do so by stretching who they are, by trying something new, by making a some unprecedented effort – by changing. Similarly, a police-procedural drama can feel like a straightforward information-gap heavy mystery about a corpse, but its story usually revolves around questions concerning the motives of various suspects: the always fascinating whys of human behaviour.
13. In his pioneering classic The Uses of Enchantment the psychoanalyst Professor Bruno Bettelheim argues that making sense of such terrifying transformations is a core function of fairytales. A child can’t consciously accept that an overwhelming mood of anger may make him ‘wish to destroy those on whom he depends for his existence. To understand this would mean he must accept the fact that his own emotions may so overpower him that he does not have control over them – a very scary thought.’
Fairytales take those scary inner selves and turn them into fictional characters. Once they’ve been defined and externalised, like this, they become manageable. The story these characters appear in teaches the child that, if they fight with sufficient courage, they can control the evil selves within them and help the good to become dominant. ‘When all the child’s wishful thinking gets embodied in a good fairy; all his destructive wishes in an evil witch; all his fears in a voracious wolf; all the demands of his conscience in a wise man encountered on an adventure; all his jealous anger in some animal that pecks out the eyes of arch-rivals – then the child can finally begin to sort out his contradictory tendencies,’ writes Bettelheim. ‘Once this starts, the child will be less and less engulfed by unmanageable chaos.’
14. Moral outrage isn’t the only primal social emotion that’s responsible for the pleasure of storytelling. 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. Wanting to get along and get ahead of them sounds like a recipe for dishonesty, hypocrisy, betrayal and Machiavellian manoeuvring. It’s the conflict at the heart of the human condition and the stories we tell about it.
Getting ahead means gaining status, the craving for which is a human universal. The psychologist Professor Brian Boyd writes, ‘Humans naturally pursue status with ferocity: we all relentlessly, if unconsciously, try to raise our own standing by impressing peers, and naturally if unconsciously, evaluate others in terms of their standing.’ And we need it. Researchers have found that people’s ‘subjective well-being, self-esteem, and mental and physical health appear to depend on the level of status they are accorded by others.’ In order to manage their status, people ‘engage in a wide range of goal-directed activities’. Underneath the noblest plots and pursuits of our lives, in other words, lies our unquenchable thirst for status.
15. Because one of our deepest and most powerful urges is the gaining of ever more status, our tribal stories tell us how to earn it. A human tribe can be viewed as a status game that all its members are playing, its rules being recorded in its stories. Every human group that has a shared purpose is held together by such stories. A nation has a story it tells about itself, in which its values are encoded, as does a corporation and a religion and a mafia organisation and a political ideology and a cult. The Bible, The Qur’an and the Torah that Ezra presented to his people in Jerusalem are ready-made theories of control that are internalised by their followers, instructing them how to behave in order to achieve connection and status.
16. All of us are being silently controlled by any number of instructional stories at once. A unique quality of humans is that we’ve evolved the ability to think our way into many tribes simultaneously. ‘We all belong to multiple in-groups,’ writes Professor Leonard Mlodinow. ‘As a result our self-identification shifts from situation to situation. At different times the same person might think of herself as a woman, an executive, a Disney employee, a Brazilian or a mother, depending on which is relevant – or which makes her feel good at the time.’
17. It’s sometimes assumed that we root for characters who are simply kind. This is a nice idea, but it’s not true. In story, as in life, kind people are wonderful and inspiring and oh so terribly boring. Besides, if a hero starts out in such perfect selfless shape there’s going to be no tale to tell. For the story theorist Professor Bruno Bettelheim, the storyteller’s challenge isn’t so much one of arousing the reader’s moral respect for the protagonist, but their sympathy. In his inquiry into the psychology of fairy tales, he writes that ‘the child identifies with the good hero not because of his goodness, but because the hero’s condition makes a deep positive appeal to him. The question for the child is not, “Do I want to be good?” but “Who do I want to be like?”’
But if Bettelheim is correct, how do we explain antiheroes? Millions have been entranced by the adventures of Humbert Humbert, the protagonist of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, who embarks on a sexual relationship with a twelve-year-old girl. Surely we don’t want to be ‘like’ him?
In order to achieve his trick of not having us throw his novel into a cleansing fire after the first seven pages, Nabokov has to go to sometimes extreme lengths to subconsciously manipulate our tribal social emotions. In a scholarly introduction written by an academic we immediately learn that Humbert is dead. Next we discover that, prior to his passing, he was in ‘legal captivity’ awaiting trial. This immediately deflates much of our moral outrage before we even get the chance to feel it: the poor bastard’s caught and dead. Whatever he’s done, he’s had his tribal comeuppance. We can relax. The craving subsides. Before the first sentence is even finished, Nabokov has begun slyly freeing us to enjoy what’s to come.
18. Humans have a compulsion to make things happen in their environment that’s so powerful it’s described by psychologists as ‘almost as basic a need as food and water.’ When researchers put people in flotation tanks and block their eyes and ears they find that, often within seconds, they’ll start rubbing their fingers together or making ripples in the water. After four hours some are singing ‘bawdy songs’. Another study found 67 per cent of male participants and 25 per cent of female participants so desperate to make things happen in a room that was empty of stimulus, except for an electric-shock machine, that they started giving themselves painful shocks. Humans do things. They act. We can’t help it.
19. Video games plug directly into such core desires. Multiplayer online games, such as World of Warcraft and Fortnite, are stories. When a player logs on and teams up with fellow players to embark on a difficult mission, their three deepest evolved cravings are powerfully fed – they experience connection, earn status and are given a goal to pursue. They become an archetypal hero battling through a three-act narrative of crisis-struggle-resolution. Modern games are so ferociously effective at feeding these human fundamentals that they can become addictive, with ‘gaming disorder’ now classified as a disease by the World Health Organisation. One Welsh teenager, Jamie Callis, would spend up to twenty-one hours per day playing Runescape. ‘One minute you’d be chopping trees and the next you’d be killing something or going on a quest,’ he told his local newspaper. ‘You had clans of people, and that’s where you’d really have a family.’ Callis spent so much time conversing with his American and Canadian teammates that he began losing his Welsh accent. In South Korea, two parents became so overwhelmingly engrossed in a multiplayer game that they allowed their three-month-old daughter to starve to death. The game that obsessed them, Prius Online, partly involved nurturing and forming an emotional bond with ‘Anima’, a virtual girl.
20. In his fascinating book on story structure Into the Woods, John Yorke argues for the existence of an essential ‘midpoint’ in story. Partly inspired by Gustav Freytag’s nineteenth-century analysis of Ancient Greek and Shakespearean drama, 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. King Lear’s scene on the stormy heath, when he raged and despaired over his sudden realisation of what his evil daughters had wrought, is a classic midpoint. Yorke additionally believes there’s a hidden symmetry in story, in which protagonists and antagonists function as opposites with their rising and falling fortunes mirroring one another.
21. 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. The star of the majority of religious sagas is ‘God’. He can do anything. He always knows what to do, He knows what’s coming, He knows what’s happened and He has unrestricted access to everyone’s most private gossip.
22. The perfect archetypal ending takes the form of ‘the God moment’ because it reassures us that, despite all the chaos and sadness and struggle that fills our lives, there is control. There’s no more reassuring message than this for the storytelling brain. Having been picked up in act one, and hurled around the drama, we’re put back down again in the best possible place. The psychologist Professor Roy Baumeister writes that ‘life is change that yearns for stability’. Story is a form of play that allows us to feel we’ve lost control without actually placing us in danger. It’s a rollercoaster, but not one made from ramps, rails and steel wheels, but from love, hope, dread, curiosity, status play, unexpected change and moral outrage. Story is a thrill-ride of control.
23. We all inhabit foreign worlds. Each of us is ultimately alone in our black vault, wandering our singular neural realms, ‘seeing’ things differently, feeling different passions and hatreds and associations of memory as our attention grazes over them. We laugh at different things, are moved by different pieces of music and transported by different kinds of stories. All of us are in search of writers who somehow capture the distinct music made by the agonies in our heads.
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.
Take this first sentence: ‘The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.’ To this middle-aged Kentishman it’s a fine enough opener, but has little resonance beyond its surface facts. But readers with a similar background to its author, Toni Morrison, might know the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agency was one of the largest African-American owned companies in the United States, and one founded by a former slave. Morrison also hoped the reader would pick up on a sense of movement from North Carolina to Lake Superior that, she writes, ‘suggests a journey from South to North – a direction common for black immigration and in literature about it’.
24. 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. There can hardly be a better medicine than that for the groupish hatred that comes so naturally and seductively to all humans.
25. The consolation of story is truth. The curse of belonging to a hyper-social species is that we’re surrounded by people who are trying to control us. Because everyone we meet is attempting to get along and get ahead, we’re subject to near-constant attempts at manipulation. Ours is an environment of soft lies and half smiles that seek to make us feel pleasant and render us pliable. In order to control what we think of them, people work hard to disguise their sins, failures and torments. Human sociality can be numbing. We can feel alienated without knowing why. It’s only in story that the mask truly breaks. To enter the flawed mind of another is to be reassured that it’s not only us.
It’s not only us who are broken; it’s not only us who are conflicted; it’s not only us who are confused; it’s not only us who have dark thoughts and bitter regrets and feel possessed, at times, by hateful selves. It’s not only us who are scared. The magic of story is its ability to connect mind with mind in a manner that’s unrivalled even by love. Story’s gift is the hope that we might not be quite so alone, in that dark bone vault, after all.
If you liked the above content, I'd definitely recommend reading the whole book. 💯
Until We Meet Again...