The secret to great storytelling

The Science of Storytelling: Why Stories Make Us Human, and How to Tell Them Better by Will Storr (HarperCollins; £12.99); reviewed by Annie Brookman-Byrne, Deputy Editor.

Before picking up this book I didn’t know there was a science of storytelling. It turns out that the science of storytelling is the science of the human mind: we tell ourselves stories about ourselves and others to make sense of the world around us. Drawing on extensive psychology and neuroscience literature, with scientific advice and proofreading from Professor Sophie Scott and Dr Stuart Ritchie, Storr explains why humans like stories, and the kinds of stories we like.

All good stories start with change, or the promise of change, says Storr. Our brains are constantly looking for unexpected change; this allows us to perceive and control the world, making us curious about the outcomes of change. Good stories also feature flawed characters with multiple dimensions, who undergo some kind of transformation until they and we discover who they really are. Great storytellers create these realistic and relatable characters through a sophisticated understanding of the mind.

Rich with outlines of many of the English language’s most compelling stories, the book takes us through why, scientifically speaking, certain features are so captivating to our story-seeking brains. Part of the fun of this book is all the short synopses that contain the twists and turns of great stories, giving the satisfaction of reading a book or watching a film without having done so – you might have to skip the odd page if you want to avoid spoilers!

For anyone keen to write their own story, Storr describes his approach to building characters and plot, developed through his research into the science described throughout the book. An understanding of psychology seems to be an important starting point for writing a great story – as psychologists then, we’re well placed to have go. While much of the research described in the book is familiar, the linking of that research to effective storytelling is novel, and certainly made me think about classic psychological findings in a new way.

Reviewed by Annie Brookman-Byrne, Deputy Editor

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