The Science of Storytelling is a self-help book masquerading as a neuroscience book inside a writing guide. But this is not evangelical American self-help with an enormous whitened smile bounding onstage to thumping pop rock. This is self help written by an English recluse.
Author Will Storr is a man who has gazed long into the abyss. The introduction opens, “We know how this ends. You’re going to die and so will everyone you love.” “The cure for the horror is story,” he continues. Bleak, empty reality is why our brains “conjure up a world for [us] to live inside”.
The link between storytelling and neuroscience lies in how our brains render stories. When we hear a story, our brains generate a hallucination that allows us to “see” what’s going on in the story and to experience the sounds and textures that are described to us. Characterisation allows us to empathise with fictional characters.
The reason that our minds have the ability to generate these hallucinations of fictional worlds is because that’s what they’re doing all the time for the real world. We have no direct experience of external reality. Your brain is, according to neuroscientist David Eagleman, “locked in a vault of silence and darkness inside your skull”.
Our sensory organs stream electrochemical impulses to our brains and our brains use that data to render all of the colours, sounds, and feelings that make up our inner experience. Stories are engaging because they co-opt the same machinery that we use to navigate reality.
All animals are adapted to their environments. Humans can survive in all sorts of physical environments but it’s the social environment that has shaped our brains most recently. The reason our minds are primed for stories of heroes and villains is that knowing who you could rely on was essential to life in a small hunter-gatherer tribe.
The earliest form of storytelling, according to Storr, was gossip. It was essential to keep track of the behaviour of our companions. Telling stories about what our fellow tribe-members had been up to allowed us to know who we could rely on. People who protected us from predators or brought home the prize kills were lauded. Those who acted at the expense of the group were ostracised. Our minds distill those characteristics into heroism and villainy.
A hero is someone who embodies what it took to live well in a Mesolithic tribe.
The stories we like the best are not just stories where a hero defeats an external enemy. They are stories where the protagonist becomes the hero, defeating not just a dragon or an evil overlord but also defeating an internal enemy, a weakness in their own character.
Storr teaches ‘The Sacred Flaw Approach’, a character-first way of writing that involves building a character with a deep-seated flaw that needs to be resolved. He proposes writing an origin story for your protagonist that includes some past event, some “origin damage”, that caused the flaw that triggers your story’s events.
This is the self-help aspect of the book. You could use it for its ostensible purpose – to create a fictional hero – but it wouldn’t hurt to discover your own backstory, find the obstacles you need to overcome, the transformation you need to make in your own character, and to write a heroic plot for the person who lives inside your own skull.
I found myself coming up with theories of my own origin damage. At 14 I was picked up out of my school in London and transported around the world to Dunedin, a small city near the bottom end of New Zealand. There were more people within three tube stops of my old house than there were within a three-hour drive of my new house.
I was dropped into the fifth form of a new school, an outsider amongst fully formed social groups. Could that experience have helped me form an unrealistic model of how the social world works? A model that has since served me poorly?
“I can tell a convincing tale of how my flawed model of the world came to be,” Storr says, and then tells his own. “Is this confabulation true?” he asks. “Probably, some of it. How much I’ll never know.”
Introspection is harder than creating a fictional person. The job of the writer is to reveal the character of the protagonist. Who is this person? As writers we can construct everything we need to know about a character. To answer the same question about ourselves – Who am I? – is much more difficult. We have no conscious way to access the neural models that make us who we are.
The evidence to answer our own dramatic question comes when we make mistakes. “Every now and then, actual reality will push back at us.” Life doesn’t unfold as we hope it will. That’s a clue that one of our internal models of the world might be wrong. This is the call to adventure. Will you refuse the call or will you cross the threshold into the unknown and begin the Hero’s Journey?
If we find out that the models that form our identity are wrong, ‘Who am I?’ turns into ‘Who do I need to become?’
This is where Storr shifts from character to plot. “When unexpected change happens to the right person, it ignites a drama.” Living heroically means answering your dramatic question: ‘I’m going to be someone better’. It means “having the courage to take on the external world with all its challenges and provocations”.
Can I discover the flaws in my own identity and do I have the courage to do what it takes to overcome them?
Our brains are story telling machines and want nothing more than to make us the heroes of our own stories. This is Aristotle’s ‘eudaemonia’, the practice of “living in a way that fulfils our purpose”.
The Science of Storytelling is a call to adventure. It tells us that “discovering the fragile parts of our neural models means listening for their cry. … Facing these flaws and fixing them will be the fight of our lives. To accept story’s challenge and win is to be a hero.”
Nietzsche’s famous aphorism of the abyss warns that “he who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster”. Storr has gazed long into the dark bone vault of his own skull and found the monster he needs to fight living in his own mind. He uses the power of story to summon – to generate, to become – the hero he needs to take on the challenge.
 (Storr, 2019)
 (Campbell, 1949), ch 1
 (Nietzsche, 1973), §146
Campbell, J. (1949). The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New York: MJF Books.
Nietzsche, F. (1973). Beyond Good and Evil. (R. J. Hollingdale, Trans.) London: Penguin Books.
Storr, W. (2019). The Science of Storytelling. London: William Collins.