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: TED Talks Storytelling by Akash Karia

TED Talks Storytelling: 23 Storytelling Techniques from the Best TED TalksTED Talks Storytelling: 23 Storytelling Techniques from the Best TED Talks by Akash Karia
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a brief guide to storytelling and story building, particularly as it pertains to public speaking. Its emphasis on TED Talks is just to capitalize on the popularity of that forum as well as to draw widely known examples. There are no novel insights offered in this book. It’s the same information one could find from many other sources. However, it’s concise, well-organized, and uses examples pulled from popular TED Talks, and so readers may get some synergies from familiarity with a given speaker’s delivery.

The book is organized into nine chapters. The first introduces the topic by explaining why stories are so much more effective than other approaches to public speaking. The second chapter is about hooks and conflict. The third chapter is about the twist or element that makes the story interesting—as opposed to a straightforward accounting of events. Chapters four through six are all related in that they deal with providing the sensory and other details necessary to make the story come alive for the audience member. Chapter seven is about the effectiveness of stories with a positive message. Chapter eight steps back and examines the overall flow of the story with key way-points of consideration. Chapter 9 is a summation of key points. It’s mostly a list of the 23 bullet points that were made throughout the book, each of which is also located at the end of its respective chapter.

I’d recommend this book for anyone preparing for a public speaking engagement. However, I should point out that the price seems to be higher at the moment than when I bought it. I wouldn’t recommend spending a lot on the book because the information is so widely available.

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