BOOK REVIEW: The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr

The Science of StorytellingThe Science of Storytelling by Will Storr
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Many books have been published on the science of story since the realization that storytelling is as fundamental to humanity as tool-making and bipedalism. The first such book that I reviewed was Lisa Cron’s 2012 “Wired for Story.” So, the question of interest isn’t whether the topic is fascinating (it is) but – instead – whether Storr’s book offers value-added. I believe it does. While Cron and Storr cover some of the same territory, the differences in approach lead to variations in the material covered and the emphasis given. Storr orders his book around his particular method of story building, which he refers to as “the sacred flaw approach.” He proposes that at the heart of a story is an erroneous assumption to which the lead character wishes to cling. This is where he tries to stake his claim among the vast number of books offering advice on story – i.e. by focusing on character flaw, rather than on the sequence of events (i.e. plotting.)

The appeal of this topic will vary according to who’s asking, but for writers there’s certainly a desire to unravel the mystery of story. Every story builder would like to venture into new and uncharted territory, but there seem to be key criteria around which stories live or die. The most glaring illumination of this can be seen when filmmakers spend tens or hundreds of millions on films that utterly flop, and when they spend that much money and flop it’s not because the CGI was hinky. It’s inevitably because the story lacked appeal. At its worst, this has led to strategies such only rebooting films that have worked in the past, and at it’s best it results in following one of the many fixed patterns (e.g. Joseph Campbell’s “the hero’s journey.”) Understanding the science of story offers the hope of being able give one’s audience what they need to find a story fulfilling without following a beat-by-beat sequencing from a manual — in the manner of a pre-flight checklist.

The book is divided into four chapters that are designed to look at story through its various levels, and within each chapter there are many subsections. The chapters are: 1.) creating a world; 2.) the flawed self; 3.) the dramatic question; and 4.) plots, endings, and meaning. Chapter 1 isn’t just advice about how to build the story environment, but rather it looks at how our brains take in and model the world as written so that one can use that knowledge to more smartly approach presenting a world. As one might guess, chapter two is a crucial one because it introduces the study of characters and their flaws, and why said flaws are critical to the appeal of a story. The author also addressed differences between Eastern and Western approaches to story and I found the discussion of culture to be an intriguing inclusion. Chapter three continues the work of the second by focusing on how the interaction of subconscious and conscious minds contribute to a protagonist’s problems. In keeping with the coverage of culture, there’s a section that looks at stories as tribal propaganda that was quite insightful. The final chapter examines how plots and good endings arise as a logical result from setting up the character.

There’s an appendix that lays out Storr’s “Sacred Flaw Approach.” This is the approach that he teaches in his writing course. The book is also annotated, though it is text-centric and doesn’t employ much in the way of graphics.

I found this book fascinating. It does rehash some of the same examples as other books on story (e.g. “The Godfather” movie,) that’s simply because those stories are widely known and thus have broad usefulness. But there were plenty of insights to keep me intrigued, even having read other books on the topic. If you’re interested in the science of storytelling, this book is worth giving a look.

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BOOK REVIEW: Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress

Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting Dynamic Characters and Effective Viewpoints (Write Great Fiction)Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting Dynamic Characters and Effective Viewpoints by Nancy Kress
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book is about how to write characters with sufficient depth that readers will follow them through to the end of a story. As the title suggests, there are three major components to the book: character building, emotional considerations, and point of view. A story requires a character who needs or wants something and faces barriers to that goal. The character has to be someone who the reader is interested in seeing through a process that involves inching toward a goal while being repeatedly beaten back. This doesn’t mean the character has to be likable, but if the character is unrealistic and uninteresting readers won’t get far. (In other words, they don’t have to like the character, but they do have to feel some sort of way about them.) Facing barriers to one’s goals creates emotional states that must feel authentic. If a character doesn’t respond emotionally to events, then the story is likely to feel flat (unless one has built a hilarious Sheldon Cooper-like character on purpose.) The perspective from which the reader learns of events is critical because it determines what information the reader is privy to, and—in particular—information about thoughts and emotions that are sometimes falsely portrayed.

Of the sixteen chapters that comprise the book, the first seven explore character development. Chapter 1 describes character in terms of general types. The book goes on to discuss the importance of how one introduces key characters. The next three chapters drill down into the challenge of building an authentic character: 1.) What is the character like deep down? 2.) Are the motives of the character clear-cut or complex? 3.) How can one show that the character has changed over the course of the story, and, if they don’t change, will the reader be satisfied? Chapters 6 and 7 investigate specialized types of characters (i.e. genre characters such as in romance, mystery, thriller, or sci-fi [Ch. 6] and in humor [Ch.7.])

Chapters 8 through 11 examine emotion and how it’s conveyed to the reader. The means by which writers communicate emotion include: dialogue (Ch. 8), metaphor, symbolism, and sensory experience (Ch.9.) Chapter 10 delves into special cases that are common in fiction but which require unique consideration (love, fighting, and dying.) Frustration has its own chapter (Ch.11,) and that may seem odd, but one must remember that a story is one barrier after another being erected in the way of the character’s pursuit of his or her objective.

The next four chapters present information to help the writer evaluate different approaches to viewpoint. Not only are there various pros, cons, and considerations one must take into account when deciding upon viewpoint, each approach has a several variations. The first of these chapters (Ch. 12) outlines the broad-based considerations. The next three chapters deal with first person (Ch. 13), third person (Ch. 14), and omniscient points of view (Ch. 15,) respectively. (The rarely used 2nd person point of view is also discussed briefly, but largely as a warning.) The last chapter explores how to make it all work by way of what Kress calls the “fourth persona.” Early in the book, one is told that the writer must simultaneously embody three personas (i.e. the writer, the character, and the reader.) Kress’s “fourth persona” is that of the critic, and it becomes necessary once one has drafted a story and character.

The book has a few extras. At the end of each chapters there are several (usually 4 to 6) exercises to help writers understand the concepts through practice. The chapters each have summaries, and at the end of the book there’s a summary in the form of a checklist. That is about it for ancillary features. There are a couple of graphics in the form of pictures of a “mini-bio” and an “emotional mini-bio.” These are single page fill-in-the blank summaries that help one build a character that has depth and an authentic feel.

I found this book to be interesting and educational. The writer uses examples from a number of popular commercial and literary fiction authors. There’s no real need to be familiar with any particular author, but being familiar with them might present one with additional insights. The book is readable.

I would recommend this book for writers of fiction.

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