Snippets from The Science of Story

The cure for the horror is story

We know how this ends. You’re going to die and so will everyone you love. And then there will be heat. All the change in the universe will cease, the stars will die. And there will be nothing left of anything but infinite dead freezing void. Human life, in all its noise and hubris, will be rendered meaningless for eternity.

But that’s not how we live our lives. Humans might be in unique possession of the knowledge that our existence is essentially meaningless, but we carry on as if in ignorance of it. We beetle away happily into our minutes, hours and days with the fact of the void hovering over us. To look directly into it, and respond with an entirely rational descent into despair, is to be diagnosed with a mental health condition categorised as somehow faulty.

The cure for the horror is story.


One ten-trillionth

Human eyes are able to read less than one ten-trillionth of the light spectrum. “Evolution shaped us with perceptions that allow us to survive,” the cognitive scientist Professor David Hoffman has said. “But part of that involves hiding from us the stuff we don’t need to know. And that’s pretty much all of reality, whatever reality might be.”


Russian rainbows

Russians are raised to see two types of blue and, as a result, see eight-striped rainbows. Colour is a lie.


Drama and theory of mind

Alexander Mackendrick writes, “I start by asking What does A think B is thinking about A? It sounds complicated (and it is), but this is the very essence of giving some density to character and, in turn, a scene.


Drama, cause and effect

After becoming frustrated with his writers producing scenes with no cause and effect – that were, for instance, simply there to deliver expository information, [David Mamet] sent out an angry all caps memo…: “Any scene that does not both advance the plot and standalone (that is, dramatically, by itself, or on its own merits) is either superfluous or incorrectly written,” he wrote. “It must start because the hero has a problem, and it must culminate in the hero finding him or herself either thwarted or educated that another way exists.”


Posessions and the thinness of existence (quoted from Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal)

When you live alone your furnishings, your possessions, are always confronting you with the thinness of your existence. You know with painful accuracy the provenance of everything you touch and the last time you touched it… The level of salt in your shaker decreases at the same excruciating rate, day after day. Sitting in Sheba’s house – studying the mingled detritus of its several inhabitants – I could see what a relief it might be to have your own meagre effects be joined with other people’s


Sociopathic play

One study into the backgrounds of sociopathic murderers found no connection between them apart from an extreme lack of play, or a history of abnormal play such as sadism and bullying, in the childhoods of 90 per cent of them



The Japanese form known as Kishotenketsu comes with four acts: in act one (‘ki’) we’re introduced to the characters, in act two (‘sho’) the story follows on, in act three (‘ten’) a twist that’s surprising twist or even apparently unconnected takes place, and in the final act (‘ketsu’) we’re invited, in some open-ended way, to search for the harmony between it all. “One of the confusing things about stories from the East is there’s no ending,” says Professor Kim. “In life there are not simple clear answers. You have to find these answers.”


Storytelling’s single secret

If there’s a single secret to storytelling then I believe it’s this. Who is this person? Or, from the perspective of the character, Who am I? It is the definition of drama. It is its electricity, its heartbeat, its fire.


Two movies in one

Researchers asked people to watch videos of scenes that were busy with social interactions, such as film of a school corridor. Then they tracked their saccades so they could see which elements the participants brains were attending to. Those with “past histories of success” spent most of their time being friendly … but those who’d had high school experiences of loneliness or social isolation “scarcely looked at the positive scenes at all… It was as if they had watched a completely different movie.”


Story, empathy and truth

The consolation of story is truth. The curse of belonging to a hyper-social species is that we’re surrounded by people who are trying to control us. Because everyone we meet is trying to get along or get ahead, we’re subject to near constant attempts at manipulation… In order to control what we think of them people work hard to disguise their sins, failures and torments… It’s only in story that the mask truly breaks. To enter the flawed mind of another is to be reassured that it’s not only us.

It’s not only us who are broken; it’s not only us who are conflicted; it’s not only us who are confused; it’s not only us who have dark thoughts and itter regrets and feel possessed, at times, by hateful selves. It’s not only us who are scared. The magic of story is it’s ability to connect mind with mind in a manner that’s unrivalled even by love. Story’s gift is the hope that we might not be quite so alone, in that dark bone vault, after all.


Follow the sacredness

During my research into the storytelling brain I was lucky enough to interview the famous psychologist Professor Jonathan Haidt. He told me something I’ve never forgotten: “Follow the sacredness. Find out what people believe to be sacred, and when you look around there you will find rampant irrationality.”


[One my (many) New Year’s resolutions is to get back up to date with the dog-ears I have in the various books I’ve read. There are various benefits: it means, rather like for Kindle books, it is easier to remember the books and it means I can gift the book on, which is something I’m trying to more of]

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One comment on “Snippets from The Science of Story”


  • Ton Zijlstra

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