The Science of Storytelling
I’ve been reading The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr, and have gleaned a lot from it already. I’m only halfway into the book, but it seems like the major lessons are found in the first chapter. Overall, the book is not just about storytelling — it talks about psychology, how stories are at the core of human perception and what that means for reading and writing.
While there are lots of different lessons to learn from the book, today I’ll be focusing the writing lessons I extracted from it. Let’s get into it!
The first paragraph of this book is an invaluable lesson on how to write a killer opener:
We know how this ends. You’re going to die and so will everyone you love. And then there will be heat death. All the change in the universe will cease, the stars will die, and there’ll be nothing left of anything but infinite, dead, freezing void. Human life, in all its noise and hubris, will be rendered meaningless for eternity. But that’s not how we live our lives. Humans might be in unique possession of the knowledge that our existence is essentially meaningless, but we carry on as if in ignorance of it. We beetle away happily, into our minutes, hours and days, with the fact of the void hovering over us.
There’s a major theme to be drawn from this — that humanity chooses meaning over meaninglessness — but the bigger takeaway for me was a reminder of how important the opening line can be. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a book, a story or an essay. Capture the reader from your very first words.
When you pose a question in the reader’s mind, force them to imagine it in order to answer it. This is a powerful way to make your words manifest more vividly.
“She washed old plastic bags and hung them on the line to dry, a string of thrifty tame jellyfish floating in the sun.” This metaphor works principally by opening an information gap. It asks the brain a question: how can a plastic bag be a jellyfish? To find the answer, we imagine the scene. Cunningham has nudged us into more vividly modeling his story.
It’s not the metaphor itself — it’s the act of mentally visualizing that really makes the writing.
Show, Don’t Tell
This is probably advice you’ve heard before, but it bears repeating:
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.
When you find yourself using adjectives as a crutch, think about how you can get the user to feel what you’re saying, rather than simply reading it.
It’s All About The People
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.
We love stories because they are about people — their struggle, their pain, their human nature come to life. This is precisely the reason why writing with a ‘personal tone’ can be more effective. People don’t just want to hear your thoughts and ideas, they want to know how you feel about them, and how they relate to you. We can use this to our advantage.
This last one is less of a tip and more of a reinforcement of an approach that means a lot to me personally. I’m a huge fan of stories where animals or objects are the main characters. This technique is used often in children’s stories, animated movies and cartoons (so of course I’d love it).
It’s worth taking a minute to reflect on how incredible this is. We can somehow imbue human-like characteristics onto animals and even objects!
Childhood stories reflect our natural tendency for such hyperactive mind-detecting. In fairytales, human-like minds are everywhere: mirrors talk, pigs eat breakfast, frogs turn into princes. Youngsters naturally treat their dolls and teddies as if they’re inhabited by selves. I remember feeling terrible guilt for preferring my pink bear, handmade by my Grandmother, to my shop-bought brown bear. I knew they both knew how I felt, and that left me distracted and sad. We never really grow out of our inherent animism.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw this animation demonstrating one of Disney’s Principles of Animation:
It’s showing appeal, which suggests that “your characters, objects, and the world in which they live need to appeal to the viewer”. I love that simply by rotating and stretching a 3D box, we can infuse life into it. It’s a character now, with emotions and a story we want to learn. How amazing is that?
P.S. If you’re curious to learn more about the principles of animation, be sure to check out my talk on the subject — A Brief Tour of Animation. I go over some examples of animation in software, review Disney’s principles, and show a quick demo of animation on the web.