Saturday, December 21, 2019

Book Review: 'The Science of Storytelling' by Will Storr

The Science of Storytelling is a psychology book. It looks at the age-old art of storytelling through what we know today about what catches the attention, what holds it, what intrigues the mind, repulses it or gets it calculating. All this in aid of writing novels and screenplays, which Will Storr teaches.

When I was a (marketing) manager, I had the reputation of always telling stories. Any time I wanted some sort of action taken, I would tell a story where similar circumstances led to the needed result. It’s just natural to tell stories people can relate to (I noticeably more than most, apparently). So with novels and films. It’s all about manipulating hallucinations for fun and profit. Knowing how the mind works makes modern fiction ever more gripping (when done right). Motivations, self-delusion and subconscious acts all figure prominently in Storr’s analyses.

He is very observant, deconstructing not just stories and scenes, but sentences and words. He gets the reader to understand the completely different impact of a simple declaration like: Jane gave her dad a kitten vs Jane gave a kitten to her dad. There’s not just a world of difference, but a world of different potential between the two sentences.

Similarly, everything must have a purpose. He says scenes without cause and effect are boring.

The basic driver of everything is the character. Who is s/he really? It might take the entire novel for the character to find out, and the reader might know well before s/he does. Bizarre turns should give the reader clues.

The basic structure is the five act drama. Things happen in a certain order and certain scenarios must be fulfilled to get to the next step. It has been the basis of storytelling for 2000 years, he says. It works, and is path of least resistance in writing fiction.

As for plots, he cites Christopher Booker numerous times that there are only seven. Everything we see and read is a variant of one of them.

The whole crux is what Storr calls a sacred flaw (He devotes the Appendix to it). The character controls his own little world, as we all must or go crazy. In that world the character is safe, secure, and most of all, right. It is the theory of control. Something happens to shake that control and that theory, and so begins a fight, an adventure, a chase, an investigation, a crusade, a campaign…. This is of course just life. The world and the universe are constantly changing. Anyone who holds to an unshakeable position will prove to be sadly mistaken. No matter who you are or what you perceive, it works until it doesn’t, and you have to adjust the theory to fit the new reality.

One thing that really slowed me down was Storr’s use of pronouns. He mixes singular and plural like they were masculine and feminine. Michael Corleone is they/them, for example. At one point, he uses the word themself, a combination of singular and plural in a single word, which grabbed my attention and made me forget what I was reading. I actually stopped and posted it on a forum to see if anyone else had ever encountered it. Why bother to squeeze a tortured neuter pronoun in for someone the reader clearly knows is female? Sometimes it’s hard to know who he is referring to. His and their are not interchangeable.

Overall, it’s an instructive ride, as Storr cites passages from numerous books and films to prove his points. It’s all true and relatable. He cites Roy Baumeister: “Life is change that yearns for stability.” And good luck with that.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.