Wednesday 28 June 2023

The Science of Storytelling, Will Storr

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Storr’s fascinating book is a mix of writing craft and psychology. He goes methodically through the different aspects of narrative from world-building to character, explaining how our minds construct images and how best we can write to support this. Storr discusses the different techniques used to grip you, how most stories are about something changing, and how an author can manipulate our emotions in the way they present information to us. He uses examples from well loved stories and films to illustrate his arguments, as well as referencing scientific studies.

This is a fascinating book that will make you want to pick up a pen and play with some of the ideas discussed. It is interesting in getting to know how we all manipulate our own memories to paint ourselves in the light that we wish to be seen. We are reminded also that both the hero and the villain in any story believes completely that their world view is correct and that this justifies their actions, however misguided. Moral outrage proves to be a powerful way to engage a reader. Studies have shown both how we find it hard to empathise with those who we perceive to be more successful than ourselves, but also that people enjoy seeing people who do bad things to good people get punished for it. We are ultimately moral creatures, so long as that morality doesn’t interfere with our own sense of ourselves.

Storr uses examples that demonstrate how people’s ‘fatal flaw’ can drive an entire story, but also shows how the way a story is presented can determine how we feel about events. A standout example of this is Lolita. As Storr points out, we start the novel knowing that Humbert is being punished which takes away some of our outrage. We then see Lolita through his eyes, meaning that we see her through his twisted gaze, thinking badly of her for her behaviour, when of course she is the victim. Another story that does this brilliantly is Rebecca, where the narrator draws the reader in to such an extent that you want the protagonist to succeed in helping her husband get away with a serious crime. This causes a moral dilemma, but a skilled writer is able to use our psychology against us and bend us to their will.

A brilliant book for those who are interested in human psychology and the way our brains interact with stories, but also wonderful to inspire budding writers. This is not your average craft book, but it offers plenty of insight that will make you a stronger writer. Knowing how the brain works, what motivates us and causes us to care, helps to create characters and scenarios that will bring out those emotions in the reader. This is backed up by the nitty-gritty of exactly how writing does this - why show don’t tell works, and how we can draw a reader in more successfully with a well thought out series of words. I borrowed this book from the library but am tempted to buy a copy as there’s so much to go over again, to focus the mind for writing exercises. The appendix also walks you through a system of creating a successful story based around the ‘fatal flaw’, but other parts of the book read more easily precisely because they aren’t instructional in so straightforward a way.