Your Brain On Narrative
10 Jan 2023

Reading about writing and learning to perfect one’s craft as a beginning writer is important. The problem is, there is a whole cottage industry aimed at ripping off new writers. And like any semi-lucrative con, there are plenty of bad books on the subjects. As already mentioned in the ground rules to the FineFinds feature – I will not waste your time reviewing bad books. Rather, you will only read positive reviews because those are the only books I’ll be sharing.

And while many books aimed at writers are terrible – some are very good. A number of them are good enough for me to recommend them as ‘must have’ volumes on every writer’s bookshelf – as fundamental as a good dictionary, a thesaurus and the Chicago and Oxford Manuals of Style (you do have hard copies of those, don’t you?).

There are books covering every aspect and element of the craft – from brainstorming ideas to editing to pitching to getting the cop world down authentically.

A real danger is that once you’ve read a hell of a lot of these writing books, even the good ones lose their punch. You read tips that actually work enough and you start reading the same tips over and over – and it’s easy to start feeling there’s nothing new under the sun.

Every now and then, a book comes along with something new to say. So new, in fact, that it speaks to more than just the writer in you. It’s a worthwhile read for writers and non-writers alike. Will Storr’s The Science Of Storytelling is such a book – a concise, action-packed read for a general audience, as well as a useful guide for serious writers on a specific writing topic.

On the general level, Storr examines  the neuroscience of storytelling. Why and how they work – the psychological tricks underlying how the best artists hook us, keep us hooked and drag us along. Other than a handful of sciency stuff, the book is an easy, accessible read. As far as a general audience goes, that’s where it ends. It’s an interesting read for anyone curious about how stories work.

For serious writers – Storr’s book is something entirely different besides.

One of the false dichotomies readers of writing books often get bombarded with is the CHARACTER vs PLOT paradigm. While it is true that some stories are more plot-driven (thrillers and serials, overall, for sure) and others are more character-driven (i.e. sagas and epics) – and there is some use in looking at the two elements as distinct  and separate components of craft, in reality, fiction’s domains of character and plot are so intimately intertwined that they are functionally almost impossible to separate.

Plot is dead without character, character meaningless without plot.

And yet, when we first create out stories, either as organized planners or meandering explorer types, we tend to approach the construction of the story either plot first nor story first.

I’ll be the first to admit that my first thrillers were very plot based.

There are numerous books on how to plot… but the best resources I’ve found for ‘how to plot’ was the Dan Wells lecture on the 7 Plot Points, and Brandon Sanderson’s lectures, all on YouTube.

There are also numerous books on character – some better than others.

Storr’s book provides the most complete and well thought through formula for constructing the truly character-driven plot that I’ve ever found.

Like all formulae or systems of this type, dogmatic use may be more problematic than empowering. And while Storr does a good job of tying the science of why some stories are archetypal to the method he proposes – when it comes to science, or story, things are never that clear cut.

But any writer who takes the craft seriously and wants to develop their ability to create good, character-driven stories will do well to carefully and closely study Storr’s proposed method.

An interesting and quick read for general audiences… and an invaluable reference to consult time and time again, and to study as a rulebook to be used and discarded only once mastered, for writers serious about developing their skills – Storr’s book is one of those must haves that deserves to be on every bookshelf.