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The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr book takeaways

A good story starts with a change

Many stories start with an unexpected change, because change is endlessly fascinating to our brain. In a stable environment, our brain is relatively calm.

Examples :That Spot! He hasn’t eaten his supper. Where can be be? — Eric Hill, Where’s Spot?

Where’s Papa going with that ax? — White, Charlotte’s Web

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. — Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games

‘Almost all perception is based on the detection of change’ — neuroscientist Professor Sophie Scott.

  • Everything we’ve seen and thought — love, hate, secret, dream, pain, taste & longing, is a because of a storms of information that flow through our brain.
  • We 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.
🤖 Notes from further research on ChatGPT

However, it's important to note that not all stories need a dramatic change at the beginning to be effective; some genres, like literary fiction or certain character-driven narratives, might intentionally start slowly to build atmosphere, character depth, or thematic complexity.

  1. Extensive World-Building Fantasy/Sci-Fi Novels: Some fantasy or science fiction novels begin with elaborate world-building, focusing on setting up the universe, its rules, and history rather than jumping into a plot-driven change. While this can be appealing to some readers, it can also be overwhelming or slow-paced for others. Example: A fictional fantasy novel that starts with several chapters describing the history of its world, its different races, and political systems, without introducing the main character's conflict or a significant change.
  2. Slice-of-Life Stories: These narratives often focus on the mundane aspects of everyday life, without a significant change or dramatic event at the outset. They can be deeply insightful but might lack the immediate hook of more plot-driven stories. Example: A literary novel that begins with a detailed description of a character's routine day, exploring their thoughts and feelings without introducing a central conflict or change.
  3. Some Classic Literature: Older novels, particularly from the 18th and 19th centuries, often start with lengthy expositions or background descriptions. Modern readers might find these beginnings slow compared to contemporary works that jump straight into action or change. Example: A classic novel that opens with long descriptions of a town, family lineage, or philosophical musings, delaying the introduction of the main plot or change.
  4. Character Studies: Some stories focus primarily on character development, starting with detailed descriptions of a character's life, thoughts, and feelings, rather than a plot-driven change. Example: A character-driven novel that begins by exploring a protagonist's daily life and internal struggles in depth, without a clear external change or conflict driving the narrative.

In each of these cases, the lack of an initial, significant change can make it more challenging to immediately engage some readers or viewers, particularly those accustomed to fast-paced, plot-driven narratives. However, these storytelling approaches can also offer deep, rich experiences for audiences seeking more gradual narrative development, complex character exploration, or immersive world-building

How storytellers induce curiosity

We have an extraordinary thurst for knowing how things work and why. Storytellers excite these instincts by creating worlds but stopping short of telling readers everything about them, essentially creating curiosity in our brain.

There is a natural inclination to resolve information gaps, even for questions of no importance —  wrote Loewenstein

  • 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 Who, where and what.
  • Examples of curiosity creation - 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’.
  • A popular example is Agatha Christie and the viewers of Prime Suspect — they have 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.
  • 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.
Related examples from course Ship30for30

How to write a good headline that induces curiosity:

  • If the answer to what your reader is reading is “..ok?”, then you have a problem. The headline should not leave readers guessing. It also shouldn't give away the full story or answer.

Examples :

  • “3 worrying health trends that affect city dwellers, and how to reverse them in just 2 hours a week”
  • “You're not really a business if you don't pay your people”
  • “You Won't Believe She is Ten Years Old”

The 1 chip rule

Your job as a writer is to make your reader ‘eat the first chip’. They are then 10x more likely to eat the second one, and so on.

Examples :

  • “3 Ways User-Centeredness Will Up Your Game as a Early Career Consultant”
  • “After Trying Every Diet and Getting to 9% Body Fat, I Can Tell You, They Are All The Same”

Favourite Quotes

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.’‍