We are all hallucinating. No one dropped LSD in the water supply, they didn’t have to. “Reality”, an ambiguous term coined to designate a common set of shared facts, is a construct that we have created in an attempt to reassure us that a master plan exists. It is not.
In his latest book, “The Science of Storytelling,” journalist and novelist Will Storr opens with a simple but baffling message: “Humans might be in the sole possession of the knowledge that our existence is essentially meaningless, but we let’s continue as if of it.
That’s why we all hallucinate. We don’t experience reality as much as we build one based on personal history and the environment. Over 7 billion human animals roam around, telling stories about ourselves, using them as emotional shields to guard against the ravages of an indifferent universe.
This is how powerful stories are.
Drawing on his notes from years of teaching creative writing, as well as research from his previous work (including “The Unpersuadables” on science deniers and “Selfie” on our obsession with us. themselves), Storr wrote a masterful guide to storytelling. Compact and insightful, the book combines the last century of neuroscience with 4,000 years of written storytelling to identify what makes stories effective and what doesn’t.
Becoming better at writing stories “is just a matter of looking inward, into the mind itself, and wondering how it is doing it.” At its best, a story reflects the complexity of the human condition without the fear of danger that occurs in real life.
“It’s a roller coaster, but not made of ramps, rails and steel wheels, but of love, hope, terror, curiosity, status play, constriction, liberation, unexpected change. and moral indignation. History is a feeling of control.
There is also, it should be noted, the development of empathy. Storr notes that the invention of the novel may have helped launch the idea of ââhuman rights. Understanding the plight and experiences of others would have been impossible on a significant scale before this format was introduced. With the novel, other worlds were exposed. Even in our visual realm of tweet-sized stories, such an ability to communicate across borders is still important.
While no one summary can perfectly capture the entirety of this exceptional book, here are five techniques for becoming a better storyteller. As with any good read, Storr follows the advice he has spent years studying and teaching. He is an excellent writer. Reading “The Science of Storytelling” is in itself a pleasure.
To change things
As neuroscientist Rodolfo LlinÃ¡s points out, all life is based on prediction. Even single-celled organisms sense changes in the environment and either embrace them (food, sex) or flee (predators). Humans are no different. We depend on and react to environmental changes all the time: the deer leaping across the street breaking the monotony of a long drive; the distracted ambivalence of a despised lover; the anxiety-provoking noise of your phone alerts. We are ready for change.
Good stories require a character to change. The best require the protagonist to face an ultimate challenge, forcing him to face a life-changing change. As mentioned, we all hallucinate reality all the time, so what happens when the illusion is exposed? Are we ready to explore our trauma and heal the scar tissue, or will we let that pain fester to death? The characters must be given an opportunity for change, otherwise the story will never take off.
Cause and effect
When a story is incomplete, writes literature researcher Jonathan Gottschall, our brains automatically fill in the gaps. This is part of the hallucination: we need everything to medium Something. Religion is based on this neurological quirk: there is must to be a reason we are here. The same goes for our vision of medicine and healing: for some, vaccines must cause autism because dissociating the myriad of other causes, from diet and genetics to environmental changes and toxic social structures, is too overwhelming to consider. We demand meaning, but our brains are lazy, which is why we tend to believe in the simplest of explanations.
Storr writes that plots “that play too loosely with cause and effect may become confusing, for they do not speak in the language of the brain.” Good stories are full of cause and effect. As a writer, show the cause, don’t say it. If you refuse, the reader will lose interest.
While this is a debate I will likely have with fans until the end of time, season four of âLostâ lost me. There were far too many variables introduced that were dropped over the past two seasons. Too many effects, not enough causes.
Expose the flaws
We are all imperfect. You, me, Will Storr, all religious figures of all time. Storr quotes Joseph Campbell throughout his book, but he doesn’t include one of my favorites: âIt is the imperfections of life that are lovableâ¦ it is Christ on the cross who becomes lovable. It is not the Son of God but the infallible man who makes him meaningful to the disciples.
Just as we crave meaning, we like to believe that we are in control. The faults often arise from the fact that control is also an illusion.
âWe are all fictional characters. We are the partial, biased, stubborn creations of our own mind.
The “terrible power” of a character comes from his conviction that he is right; in this correctness, they feel superior to others. All stories are ultimately about character. Plots are important but without compelling characters they fall flat. The key to creating memorable characters is exposing their flaws.
Photo by Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert / Getty Images
The many us
Many writers fail because they get too emotionally invested in their protagonist, who is often built from pieces of the writer. Another way to put it: the writer must be prepared to expose his own flaws.
The Buddhist concept of non-self derives from the idea that none of us is ever one thing. We are influenced by the environment we live in, the people around us, and the amount of caffeine we drink. We have much less willpower at night than in the morning. Our goals and desires change from hour to hour. There are many of us throughout the day.
“The difference,” writes Storr, “is that in life, unlike history, the dramatic question of who we are never has a definitive and truly satisfying answer.” Humans are complex animals. We love the stories that make us the hero. Being heroic requires recognizing the many competing desires and thoughts that make us who we are.
The Hero’s Journey
This is really what it is: defending the hero. âThe stories are tribal propaganda,â Storr concludes. The modern storyteller works with a landscape different from those of the past. âA unique quality of humans is that we have developed the ability to think our way through many tribes simultaneously. We are no longer bound by the traditional tribal structure that has dominated for hundreds of thousands of years, nor by the caste system that began with the development of the Harappan civilization. Today’s hero transcends previous borders.
Although we cannot completely eliminate tribalism. We are still biologically in the Stone Age. Just because we have the opportunity to grow doesn’t mean everyone chooses to do so. “A tribal challenge is existentially disturbing.”
We all believe in stories, and all stories are inventions. If we lose our own hero story, depression and anxiety will certainly ensue, so invested in our stories. The best storytellers lead their heroes to the end. Their flaws lead to transformation. This is what we all yearn for in a story because it is what we all desire, no matter how delusional the notions of control and closure are.
Right now, while we’re here, we’re telling animal stories. Will Storr has contributed a wonderful guide on how to master the art of invention. To pull a random quote from the formative years of my childhood, as Axl Rose sang, use your illusion.
Keep in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His next book is “Hero’s Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy.