Review: The Science of Storytelling, by Will Storr

From time to time I post on Goodreads the reviews of books I’ve read, and some of those reviews may be suitable to appear in my personal blog or whatever this WordPress site is. I merely copy-pasted this text from that other site, but you might get something out of reading it (I doubt it).


Four and a half stars.

I used to be obsessed with reading books about writing techniques, surely because I believed there was a correlation between learning the right techniques and me being able to avoid having to work full-time at some office. After reality proved that hope to be a delusion (reality tends to do shit like that), I stopped reading such kinds of books for a while.

In any case, I learned I could classify them into three categories:

1) Those that don’t believe in rules and that want to inspire you to write. They love expressions like “writer’s block” as the reason why you can’t push scenes out. I found such books mostly useless, but I guess they help those who want to brute-force their way into writing a novel. Or at the very least, the kind words contained in such books comfort those writers as they inevitably end up stuck in a ditch.

2) Those that have studied many stories that worked, and have synthesized sets of rules or suggestions so you can build your own stories. They range from Campbell’s mythical stuff to random fiction writers of which I had never heard, but that have produced useful lists that probably improve your stories.

3) Those that realize that human brains are organic machines that respond in somewhat predictable, researchable ways to stimuli, so if a writer wants to capture the reader’s attention, surprise them or in general affect them reliably, there might be scientific studies out there that suggest how to do so. My favorite of this category might be Lisa Cron’s ‘Wired for Story’, but I can’t recall any other at the moment.

Although you can’t go wrong with many books of the second category, I prefer the latter. This book I’m reviewing contains plenty of references to scientific studies or to books on popular science to justify its conclusions.

In general, the author advocates for the following:

-One’s stories should be built around a main character’s fatal flaw. The book says plenty of interesting stuff about how to build those fatal flaws (the author calls them ‘sacred flaws’) and how they should affect the story.
-An inciting incident should kick off the story with unexpected change tailored to a main character’s fatal flaw, which causes that person to react in unexpected ways.
-The plot’s main goal should be a result of that main character’s reaction to the inciting incident.
-Instead of going on about acts like most books that get into plotting, the author considers that you should focus on figuring out different stages of that main character’s development, in which he or she is a “different” person.
-The story’s ending should answer definitely whether or not that main character has outgrown his or her fatal flaw, or if it has grown ten times worse.
-Character growth shouldn’t be limited to the main character. The writer should explore how the interactions between all the main characters cause them to grow (this is a contrast with other books that suggest that the rest of the cast should remain steadfast to avoid stepping on the main character’s journey of growth).
-Likely other stuff I can’t remember.

I would have rated the book five stars if some of its points didn’t get repetitive. For example, it brings up studies that show that our ancient brains make our decisions for us, and the parts of our brains that evolved later mostly make up a story of what has bubbled up to its department, the same way it tries to build a coherent narrative out of dreams. In general we just delude ourselves into thinking that we hold certain beliefs (religious, political, tastes, and about the people we love) for logical reasons. We are little else than filthy monkeys with delusions of grandeur, whose tribal impulses, that have changed little in millions of years, will inevitably fuck us all up. Such monkey-brained loons shouldn’t be trusted with the fate of thousands or millions, and to be honest we likely shouldn’t be writing books either.