There have been lots of attempts to understand what makes a good story, from Joseph Campbell's theories about myth and archetypes, to recent attempts to crack the "bestseller code". In this brilliant new take on creative writing, which came out of a regular course he has run for Guardian Masterclasses and the Faber Academy, the ever-compelling Storr unpicks exactly how the best storytellers manipulate and compel us. In learning to tell better stories, he argues, we can also make better sense of our chaotic modern world.
The Science of Storytelling offers an accessible overview of the mechanisms of narrative and its intrinsic role in the human condition. But Storr is not immune to cognitive short cuts himself, turning phenomenological hypotheses into fact, neglecting to mention that, as the technology mapping the brain remains primitive, there is little scientists can say for certain about the workings of perception. Some of the science is specious: Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, for example, which is cited here to illustrate the influence of social roles, has recently been discredited.
It’s in the writing manual section that the book is at its strongest. In one terrific passage, Storr explains that an audience’s curiosity – resembling the shape of the lower-case “n” – peaks when we know something and fades away when we know everything. Then, in an appendix, Storr elaborates his theory that “more traditional” – ie non-science-based – “attempts at decoding story”, such as Joseph Campbell’s monomyth” or idea of the “hero’s journey”, have emphasised ideas of plot and structure at the expense of what he calls “character work”. Storr’s concept of the “sacred flaw” – an over-compressed phrase referring to the faulty concept that a character holds sacred – is lucid, original, plausibly grounded in the science and proves once again just how much goodwill can be derived from a satisfying ending, even when it depends on a deus ex machina.
In The Science of Storytelling, he attempts to do for novelists what McKee, Joseph Campbell and Christopher Booker did for screenwriters – providing a how-to guide that looks back to the fundamental questions that animate readers and then using these to help novelists shape their narratives. And yet Storr is doing something more interesting than merely cashing in on the current boom in creative writing and the bulk of this book isn’t only for those wishing to write themselves. Recognising that novels respond to deep psychological impulses, Storr employs a mixture of neuroscience and psychology to explore why it is that the novel has become such a staple of our cultural lives... Robert McKee has built an empire out of his screenwriting manuals – it’ll cost you close to $1,000 to attend one of his seminars. Storr’s superb exploration of the enduring appeal of the novel feels like it could do something similar – offering a smart, fascinating exploration of the science and psychology behind our most sophisticated art form that also works as an effective how-to guide.
Storr teaches a course on the science of storytelling, and this short but punchy book is full of interesting classroom tips to help writers to grab and hold on to readers or viewers, such as the advice given by Aline Brosh McKenna, the screenwriter of The Devil Wears Prada: “You want all your scenes to have a ‘because’ between them, and not an ‘and then’...” He is clearly a good teacher and his advice is often memorably vivid, explaining that we perceive the world in “a storm of feeling” where positive and negative sensations fall over us “like fine drops of rain”, or that a successful poem plays on our networks of association “as a harpist plays on strings”. However, unlike most of the writers he admires, he tends to be better at telling than showing. His attempts at literary criticism don’t go much further than elegant plot summaries, and he returns to some examples so often (Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is referenced no fewer than nine times) that you start to wonder if he has read as much actual fiction as he has studies of how it works.
Although we know that we are going to die, Storr explains, we also like to distract ourselves “by filling our lives with hopeful goals” and striving for them. This is where stories come in. A story is a Tardis that allows us to suspend the everyday grind of our lives and enter a time or place that is more exciting, more carefully controlled and altogether better suited to our sense of ourselves as heroes. It also allows us to imagine what it’s like to be someone else... S[torr] is clearly a good teacher and his advice is often memorably vivid...However, unlike most of the writers he admires, he tends to be better at telling than showing. His attempts at literary criticism don’t go much further than elegant plot summaries...His book is most successful in reminding us that everything we read and watch is part of a much larger story.