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The Science of Storytelling

The scientific underpinnings of a good story

By Will Storr
13-minute read
Audio available
The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr

The Science of Storytelling (2019) shows you how to craft a compelling story using lessons from psychology and neuroscience. These blinks walk you through the steps of creating a narrative that grips your audience by subtly manipulating their brains. From demonstrating how to create a perfectly flawed character to explaining the power of stimulating details, Will Storr reveals the crucial elements that go into building a great story. 

  • Aspiring writers
  • Creatives whose work involves storytelling, like journalists or advertisers
  • Anyone who wants to look at stories more critically

Will Storr is an award-winning writer and journalist who has won prizes such as the AFM award for Best Investigative Journalism and a National Press Club award for excellence. His writing has appeared in outlets like The New York Times and The Guardian and he is the author of several critically acclaimed books, such as Selfie: How the West Became Self Obsessed, and his novel The Hunger and the Howling of Killian Lone. In addition to writing, he teaches storytelling classes and leads workshops on the Science of Storytelling.  

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The Science of Storytelling

By Will Storr
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
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The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr
Synopsis

The Science of Storytelling (2019) shows you how to craft a compelling story using lessons from psychology and neuroscience. These blinks walk you through the steps of creating a narrative that grips your audience by subtly manipulating their brains. From demonstrating how to create a perfectly flawed character to explaining the power of stimulating details, Will Storr reveals the crucial elements that go into building a great story. 

Key idea 1 of 8

Our brains are built to enjoy stories.

Have you ever wondered if what you experience as real is in fact just a powerful simulation? You may be surprised to learn that it’s not just a conspiracy – it’s true. 

Objective reality is impossible for us to see. The reality we experience is just a story that our brain tells us. You’ll have encountered this phenomenon if you’ve ever mistaken a bush for a shadowy human figure while walking alone at night. You didn’t just think you saw the figure – for a moment you actually saw it. 

Our brain casts us as the hero of the narrative of the reality it creates. To do so, it will reconfigure our past choices to fit our heroic narrative, telling us, for example, that it was okay to steal from our boss because he profits unfairly from our work. Even convicts rate themselves as above average for qualities like morality or kindness, even though they have made clear transgressions in those categories.

Our brain also seeks to create a linear plot in our lives, ordering our memories into cause and effect sequences. This capacity to find cause and effect even where it doesn’t exist was demonstrated by two Soviet filmmakers in the early 1900s. They screened a series of films for an audience where each film showed an actor’s expressionless face alongside stock footage of various scenes, like one showing a bowl of soup, or another of a woman lying in a coffin. The audience gushed at the actor’s skills, marveling at his mournful expression over the coffin or his thoughtful look over the soup. 

The story our brain creates includes not just us, the hero, but other characters. We’re surrounded by other people, and one of our deepest urges is to understand how their minds work. It’s one of the ways our brains seek to control our environment.

Why are we driven to understand other people? The answer is rooted in survival. Our species has lived on because of human cooperation, and as we moved into fixed settlements, having social skills for trading and negotiations became a valuable asset. In humans of all ages, the urge to understand others is so overwhelming that we even project human feelings onto inanimate objects, like a “vengeful” door swinging back to hit us after we slam it.  

Stories give us an opportunity to satisfy our itch to understand the minds of others. And there’s a particular type of character we are drawn to – one with flaws. 

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