Leo Tolstoy said ‘A real work of art destroys in the consciousness of the receiver the separation between himself and the reader.’
All authors want readers to finish their masterpieces. Now and again, I’m so taken by a book I read it in one go. During my storytelling (second) career, I’ve read many writing advice tomes, listened to a myriad of authors’ talks, taken university classes, joined writers’ groups, scanned blogs and analyses of what makes a bestseller (an absorbing procrastinating hobby… ) but The Science of Storytelling by ghost writer and Guardian/NY Times journalist, Will Storr, offers a new thought-provoking perspective on writing, utilising psychological data and interviews with international researchers on reading processes.

Storr’s take on the psychology and history of why humans started storytelling, oral or written concludes a story is a ‘mystery box’ satisfying a need deep within us. Psychological studies prove us innately curious, trying to make sense of our world, our relationships, our cultural identity and personal beliefs while ambitious to control our environment, not just to survive and reproduce.

The stories most loved involve puzzles, questions, unknown consequences and red herrings- or someone knowing something we don’t. Such is the nature of suspense. Our view of the world is a hallucination of senses unique to us. To read a story is to build another hallucination in our head. Research suggests readers are gripped to do so by e.g. grammar giving focus, detail and perspective, word order in ‘filmic’ sequence e.g., ’Jane gave a kitten to Dad’ grips attention more than ‘Jane received a kitten from Dad,’ active voice is more immersive and giving three qualities of an object (e.g. ‘an orange sharpened pencil’) or character heightens our mind’s eye picture.

When we’re drawn to what feels important or incongruous in a tale, our bodies show the same physiological response as facing new danger. Thus, evoking readers emotions by ‘showing’ – as in real life- rather than telling- is most effective. I like Storr’s definition of ‘commercial literature ‘as ‘showing characters changing quickly and easily’ while ‘literary’ novels are slower, more ambiguous, need reader effort.

Humans apparently, need five recognised character traits to concoct a rounded protagonist: extraversion, openness, agreeability or disagreeability and conscientiousness. Considering these facets can even suggest plots: e.g. extroverts are careless, have accidents, open people get tattoos, live unhealthily, conscientious ones thole abuse for job security. Traits can be shown in dialogue, behaviour, desires and memories or sadness.

Readers resonate best with settings describing the physical e.g. objects, through their meaning to the character in his world, which may be culturally different from ours. Dystopias aside, self-reliance and war-like heroes seeking truth, treasure or overcoming evil, feature heavily in the West, team-playing towards harmony and personal sacrifice for community or family, in the East. Story structure involves crisis, struggle and resolution. Characters must change. Readers form a novel’s mind picture by sensing sounds, sights, smells- even tastes and touch. Characters become alive as readers understand their thoughts, memories and actions. They get hooked by Storr’s ‘ignition points’ e.g. someone does something unexpected. We authors should know our characters in 3D, show their battles within themselves or with others and give them choices, challenges, urges, memories. Think ‘external’ action drama and ‘internal’ emotional drama. Dialogue compresses time, shows point of view, personality tensions and backgrounds. Many believe society has evolved from gossip and moral outrage. We are hard-wired to connect and aim to dominate – but love underdogs! Tribal as ever, readers empathise with more with underdogs and love the humiliation of villains.

A story is a roller-coaster about someone trying to control their life- in love, in hope, in dread, in status or unexpected change. It challenges things held sacred, shows anger and need. Like Stephen King, Storr feels character is ‘all’ and their ‘what if?’ scenario evolves from their personality.

Off to re-energise my current story with intriguing, emotional ignition points!

Leave a Reply