Neuroscience and Storytelling

Aug 27 2012

In Wired for Story, Lisa Cron uses neuroscience to explain the principles of writing good stories, giving a very interesting take on why good stories work the way that they do. She reminded me of the book Made to Stick, as her 12 principles cover the key message of Chip & Dan Heath’s book which is to use simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional stories as the basis of effective communication (SUCCESs) and also The Storytelling Animal which shares many of the same secrets. I have reduced her 12 principles to eight which I think are key to effective story writing.

Virtual reality

The basis of story is to allow us to envision the future, acting out different scenarios and imagining future decisions. For the writer this means that stories need an immediate hook and must keep the reader (or watcher) wanting to know what happens next. This is why we love even the most extreme story situations, as they allow us to live through intense experiences and imagine difficult situations without having to confront them in reality, and helping us to prepare for anything that might happen to us. It’s a great way to learn about life’s dangers from the safety of your mind.

Steven Pinker put it this way:

“Fictional narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them. What are the options if I were to suspect that my uncle killed my father, took his position, and married my mother? If my hapless older brother got no respect in the family, are there circumstances that might lead him to betray me? What’s the worst thing that could happen if I were seduced by a client while my wife and daughter were away for the weekend? What’s the worst that could happen if I had an affair to spice up my boring life as the wife of a country doctor? How can I avoid a suicidal confrontation with the raiders who want my land today without looking like a coward and thereby ceding it to them tomorrow? The answers are to be found in the any bookstore or any video store. The cliche that life imitates art is true because the function of some kinds of art is for life to imitate it.” (from How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker)

And even though we crave stories, we always bring our own expectations to them, based on the central character’s goals and how we would navigate the same situation to achieve the same ends. Thus a story is how what happens affects someone who is trying to achieve a (usually difficult) goal and how that person changes as a result of the events. Thus the key to hooking the reader or watcher is to answer the three questions: Whose story is it? What’s happening here? What is at stake?

The story filter

Our brain is an amazing machine, especially the adaptive unconscious which we have little access to. However, when the brain is focused on a specific goal, unnecessary information gets filtered out (read more about this in ‘How we deceive ourselves‘ and ‘Gorillas in the mist’). This means that story writers have to keep focused on what is important, and ensure that information is included on a need-to-know basis. Or in the words of the Heath brothers, keep things simple and eliminate all that is not central to the story. Or as W. Somerset Maugham said, “Stick to the point.” Always ask yourself, “So what?” before adding more, and remember that a compelling story is not just about a good plot, but rather how the plot affects the central character and what that can tell us about human nature.

Getting emotional

Emotions are the key to understanding a character and their journey, as emotions tell us what is important and why. They provide the meaning behind any story (there is no meaning without emotion, as Antonio Damasio and others have written). In fact emotions are the mechanism by which our brains set their goals.

In stories, emotions can be portrayed in different ways: by showing the external behaviour of a character (are they pacing up and down, sitting contentedly, etc), through the readers or watchers intuitions based on their knowledge of the story, or through the characters own thoughts. With access to the internal dialogue of a character an empathic link is established, making the reader or watcher wonder, “what would I feel like if this happened to me?”

Goal getting

All human behaviour is directed towards goals, and the secret of a great story is to show the central character’s goals and how they manage to achieve them.

In fact, the human brain is the size that it is because it needs to spend so much time working out the goals of everyone else, or as Michael Gazzaniga put it, “What the human brain does best, what it seems built to do, is think socially.” That’s also why we have mirror neurons that help us to mentally simulate what others are feeling. Watching or reading any story is not just a passive event, as we are constantly creating mental simulations of events, matching them to events in our own lives, and imagining the different ways we might behave in the same circumstances.

To quote Steven Pinker again, intelligent life is “using knowledge of how things work to attain goals in the face of obstacles.”

Setting concrete

Our mental gymnastics is all done in very specific images, and not in the abstract (unless we’re doing maths sums). Good writers and advertising makes abstract ideas very tangible and physical (read more here). With story this means tangible with respect to the character’s specific goals and challenges. As E.B. White said, “don’t write about Man, write about a man.”

Being specific is being specific about the reason a character does something, the specific idea that a metaphor can illuminate, the specific memory evoked, the specific reaction to an event, the specific possibilities that are in a character’s mind or the specific rationale behind a change of heart. Sensory details can help make things concrete as long as they are relevant to the actions and behaviours of the characters, and not superficial decoration.

Conflicting heart

The brain doesn’t like change, and tends to stick to what it knows, while story is all about change which only comes from an unavoidable conflict.

Claude Levi-Strauss argued that contradiction is at the heart of all mythology (which serves to help us resolve the contradiction through story). Many great stories achieve this by including oppositions which are unresolved (e.g., is the zombie alive or dead?, is the android human or machine?), Other great stories achieve this by overturning a cultural norm (e.g., in fairy tales the heroes are beautiful and the monsters ugly, so where does that leave Shrek?).

Find the contradiction or conflict at the heart of your character achieving their goal and you will have a great story. It’s worth remembering an old adage, that good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.

Cause and effect

Our brains are wired to see cause and effect wherever they look (something which David Hume spent years pondering). Great stories follow a trajectory with clear causes and effects. Interesting stories often come from the conflict between what we expect to happen and what happened instead. In order to show causality, a story needs to demonstrate ‘why’ something happened as well as ‘what’ happened (be concrete). Good stories are full of, or come from, a multiplicity of “what if?” questions. As Albert Einstein said, “Nothing happens until something moves.”

To quote Steven Pinker for the last time, “People assume that the world has a causal texture - that it’s events can be explained by the world’s very nature, rather than just being one damn thing after another.”

Patterns everywhere

Our brains are wired to see patterns, even when they’re not really there (read about the Law of Pragnanz here). Readers and watchers are constantly looking for the set up, pay off, plot device or character that they recognise from before. And if there is no pattern, then they will most likely invent one!

The brain is a highly sophisticated pattern recognition machine, although it is focused on two main objectives. Finding out what’s safe, and finding out what might pose a threat (back to approach or avoid). Stories help us see the patterns in life (especially social life), and the easiest way to get someone’s attention is to break a pattern. Patterns are recognised by recalling similar patterns from memory, recalling past events to help predict what is likely to happen next (which is how you can break the pattern of course). And memories are constantly revised to take account of our present situation and latest understanding.

As E.M. Forster wrote, “Unless we remember, we cannot understand.”

To summarise, here are eight lessons for every writer from the science of the brain.

  1. Stories are all about mentally simulating alternative futures and difficult situations
  2. Brains are wired to focus on the important and ignore the irrelevant so stick to the point
  3. If there is no emotion, then there is no story
  4. Human behaviour is all about goals, and a good story shows how goals are achieved in the face of adversity
  5. Brains think in specifics not in the abstract, so make details as concrete as possible
  6. Conflict is at the heart of every good story, as only conflict or contradiction can drive change
  7. Our brains are wired to see  connections, so show causes and effects
  8. Our brains are wired to see patterns and hate randomness, so will always be looking for what happens next


Wired for Story by Lisa Cron (2012)

The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall (2012)

Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (2008)

How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker (1999)

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