The Science of Storytelling
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The Science of Storytelling

Will Storr

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The Science of Storytelling

Will Storr

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About This Book

Humans have been telling stories ever since we came down from the trees.

But do we really understand why?

And if we did, would we be able to tell them better?

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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.
It’s from such neural activity that your experience of life emerges. Everything you’ve ever seen and thought; everyone you’ve loved and hated; every secret you’ve kept, every dream you’ve pursued, every sunset, every dawn, every pain, bliss, taste and longing – it’s all a creative product of storms of information that loop and flow around your brain’s distant territories. That 1.2-kg lump of greyish-pink computational jelly you keep between your ears might fit comfortably in two cupped hands but, taken on its own scale, it’s vast beyond comprehension. You have 86 billion brain cells or ‘neurons’ and every one of them is as complex as a city. Signals flow between them at speeds of up to 120 metres per second. They travel along 150,000 to 180,000 kms of synaptic wiring enough to wrap around the planet four times.
But what’s all this neural power for? Evolutionary theory tells us our purpose is to survive and reproduce. These are complex aims, not least reproduction, which, for humans, means manipulating what potential mates think of us. Convincing a member of the opposite sex that we’re a desirable mate is a challenge that requires a deep understanding of social concepts such as attraction, status, reputation and rituals of courting. Ultimately, then, we could say the mission of the brain is this: control. Brains have to perceive the physical environment and the people that surround it in order to control them. It’s by learning how to control the world that they get what they want.
Control is why brains are on constant alert for the unexpected. Unexpected change is a portal through which danger arrives to swipe at our throats. Paradoxically, however, change is also an opportunity. It’s the crack in the universe through which the future arrives. Change is hope. Change is promise. It’s our winding path to a more successful tomorrow. When unexpected change strikes we want to know, what does it mean? Is this change for the good or the bad? Unexpected change makes us curious, and curious is how we should feel in the opening movements of an effective story.
Now think of your face, not as a face, but as a machine that’s been formed by millions of years of evolution for the detection of change. There’s barely a space on it that isn’t somehow dedicated to the job. You’re walking down the street, thinking about nothing in particular, and there’s unexpected change – there’s a bang; someone calls your name. You stop. Your internal monologue ceases. Your powers of attention switch on. You turn that amazing change-detecting machine in its direction to answer the question, ‘What’s happening?’
This is what storytellers do. They create moments of unexpected change that seize the attention of their protagonists and, by extension, their readers and viewers. Those who’ve tried to unravel the secrets of story have long known about the significance of change. Aristotle argued that ‘peripeteia’, a dramatic turning point, is one of the most powerful moments in drama, whilst the story theorist and celebrated commissioner of screen drama John Yorke has written that ‘the image every TV director in fact or fiction always looks for is the close-up of the human face as it registers change.’
These changeful moments are so important, they’re often packed into a story’s first sentences:
That Spot! He hasn’t eaten his supper. Where can he be?
(Eric Hill, Where’s Spot?)
Where’s Papa going with that ax?
(E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web)
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.
(Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games)
These openers create curiosity by describing specific moments of change. But they also hint darkly at troubling change to come. Could Spot be under a bus? Where is that man going with that axe? The threat of change is also a highly effective technique for arousing curiosity. The director Alfred Hitchcock, who was a master at alarming brains by threatening that unexpected change was looming, went as far as to say, ‘There’s no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.’
But threatening change doesn’t have to be as overt as a psycho’s knife behind a shower curtain.
Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. (J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone)
Rowling’s line is wonderfully pregnant with the threat of change. Experienced readers know something is about to pop the rather self-satisfied world of the Dursleys. This opener uses the same technique Jane Austen employs in Emma, which famously begins:
Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.
As Austen’s line suggests, using moments of change or the threat of change in opening sentences isn’t some hack trick for children’s authors. Here’s the start of Hanif Kureishi’s literary novel Intimacy:
It is the saddest night, for I am leaving and not coming back.
Here’s how Donna Tartt’s The Secret History begins:
The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.
Here’s Albert Camus starting The Outsider:
Mother died today. Or yesterday. I don’t know.
And here’s Jonathan Franzen, opening his literary masterpiece The Corrections in precisely the same way that Eric Hill opened Where’s Spot?
The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen.
Neither is it limited to modern story:
Rage! Sing, Goddess, [of] Achilles’ rage, black and murderous, that cost the Greeks incalculable pain, pitched countless souls of heroes into Hades’ dark, and left their bodies to rot as feasts for dogs and birds, as Zeus’ will was done. Begin with the clash between Agamemnon, the Greek warlord, and godlike Achilles.
(Homer, The Iliad)
Or fiction:
A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism.
(Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto)
And even when a story starts without much apparent change …
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
(Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina – first sentence.)
… if it’s going to earn the attention of masses of brains, you can bet change is on the way:
All was confusion in the Oblonskys’ house. The wife had found out that the husband was having an affair with their former French governess and had announced to the husband that she could not live in the same house with him.
(Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina – sentences two and three.)
In life, most of the unexpected changes we react to will turn out to be of no importance: the bang was just a lorry door; it wasn’t your name, it was a mother calling for her child. So you slip back into reverie and the world, once more, becomes a smear of motion and noise. But, every now and then, that change matters. It forces us to act. This is when story begins.


Unexpected change isn’t the only way to arouse curiosity. As part of their mission to control the world, brains need to properly understand it. This makes humans insatiably inquisitive: nine-week-old babies are drawn to, unfamiliar images over ones they’ve seen before; between the ages of two and five, it’s thought children ask around 40,000 ‘explanatory’ questions of their caregivers. Humans have an extraordinary thirst for knowledge. Storytellers excite these instincts by creating worlds but stopping short of telling readers everything about them.
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.’
Another study had participants being shown three photographs of parts of someone’s body: hands, feet and torso. A second group saw two parts, a third saw one, while another group still saw none. Researchers found that the more photos of the person’s body parts the participants saw, the greater was their desire to see a complete picture of the person. There is, concluded Loewenstein, a ‘positive relationship between curiosity and knowledge’. The more context we learn about a mystery, the more anxious we become to solve it. As the stories reveal more of themselves, we increasingly want to know, Where is Spot? Who is ‘Bunny’ and how did he die and how is the narrator implicated in his death?
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.’
In his paper ‘The Psychology of Curiosity’, Loewenstein breaks down four ways of involuntarily inducing curiosity in humans: (1) the ‘posing of a question or presentation of a puzzle’; (2) ‘exposure to a sequence of events with an anticipated but unknown resolution’; (3) ‘the violation of expectations that triggers a search for an explanation’; (4) knowledge of ‘possession of information by someone else’.
Storytellers have long known these principles, having discovered them by practice and instinct. Information gaps create gnawing levels of curiosity in the readers of Agatha Christie and the viewers of Prime Suspect, stories in which they’re (1) posed a puzzle; (2) exposed to a sequence of events with an anticipated but unknown resolution; (3) surprised by red herrings, and (4) tantalised by the fact that someone knows whodunnit, and how, but we don’t. Without realising it, deep in the detail of his dry, academic paper, Loewenstein has written a perfect description of police-procedural drama.
It’s not just detective stories that rely on information gaps. John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play Doubt toyed brilliantly with its audience’s desire to know whether its protagonist, the avuncular and rebellious Catholic priest Father Flynn, was, in fact, a paedophile. The long-form journalist Malcolm Gladwell is a master at building curiosity about Loewensteinian ‘questions of no importance’ and manages the feat no more effectively than in his story ‘The Ketchup Conundrum’, in which he becomes a detective trying to solve the mystery of why it’s so hard to make a sauce to rival Heinz.
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?’


In order to tell the story of your life, your brain needs to conjure up a world for you to live inside, with all its colours and movements and objects and sounds. Just as characters in fiction exist in a reality that’s been actively created, so do we. But that’s not how it feels to be a living, conscious human. It feels as if we’re looking out of our skulls, observing reality directly and without impediment. But this is not the case. 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 ...

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Citation styles for The Science of Storytelling
APA 6 Citation
Storr, W. (2019). The Science of Storytelling ([edition unavailable]). HarperCollins Publishers. Retrieved from (Original work published 2019)
Chicago Citation
Storr, Will. (2019) 2019. The Science of Storytelling. [Edition unavailable]. HarperCollins Publishers.
Harvard Citation
Storr, W. (2019) The Science of Storytelling. [edition unavailable]. HarperCollins Publishers. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Storr, Will. The Science of Storytelling. [edition unavailable]. HarperCollins Publishers, 2019. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.