The Science of Storytelling

Storytelling is an art form. Kind of.

When you look closely, an effective story isn’t the product of unbridled creativity. It has a well-vetted structure, uses reliable tools, and triggers known psychological principles. As such, the practice of storytelling is not some mysterious function understood only by “artists”; in short, it can be taught.

I’ve been writing for decades (and actually been good at it for the last 15 years or so). Most writers will tell you that you learn writing by writing (and reading). Very true. But I actually learned some of the greatest lessons of my craft in grad school. No, not in an MFA program; rather, in an Educational Psychology program. Ed Psych is the study of cognitive processes and human learning, where students ask questions like: Why do we remember some things, but forget others? How come an idea presented one way will be clear to us, but another way will be confusing? To what degree do our own prejudices and beliefs affect how we filter and process new information?

The answers to these questions are invaluable to the storyteller. If you want your narrative to be clear, persuasive and memorable — whether you’re writing is literary, genre, “brand,” or otherwise — you need to know how the human mind works.

To that end, here are three lessons on effective storytelling — supported by pedagogy and scientific research — that you can confidently rely on:

 

1. Know what you want to say.

This advice seems simple enough. Yet, most storytellers fail to do this, as evidenced by their confusing narratives. They may assume a dry, flat tone … or run on endlessly with a tangent … or fragment from one topic to another … frustrating the reader and straining his/her patience.

Cognitive psychologists Craik and Lockhart theorized that memory is a function of “levels of processing.” That is to say, the deeper we mentally process something, the more elaborate, stronger and longer lasting our memory of that thing will be. Whereas the shallower we process something, the more quickly we’ll dismiss and forget it.[1]

Bottom line: When we’re highly engaged with a story, we’re more likely to remember it (and, to remember it fondly). So it’s of critical importance that you, the writer, do more than “wing it” when you craft your story. You must remain on-topic, focused and to-the-point. The more you strain the readers’ attention, or the make them wait for something interesting, the quicker you’ll lose them — and be forgotten.

FUN NOTE: Novelist Elmore Leonard bluntly advised writers to “leave out the parts the readers tend to skip.” George Orwell, more specifically, would challenge himself to answer difficult questions during the writing process, including: What image or idiom will make it clearer? Orwell understood the critical difference between talking in the abstract (e.g., being thirsty) and drawing a picture that’s instantly and universally recognized (e.g., a cold glass of water on a hot day).

Studies have indicated that retention increases with semantic encoding (which is when sensory input is given a context and/or meaning). When we care, we remember.

 

2. Figure out what they want to hear.

The telling of a story is a kind of teaching. You’re educating the reader about something — even if that something is just the plot, or the main message, of the story itself. As such, it’s important to remember that there are two people in this paradigm: the teacher (writer) and the student (reader).

Social-developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky theorized what he called the “zone of proximal development.”[2] This is the gap between what a learner has already mastered and that of which he/she knows very little. The theory presumes that, when a learner is in “the zone,” he/she can more easily learn something new with the help of an expert. The writer, accordingly, has the opportunity to be that expert — an opportunity that is often squandered because writers tend to focus on what they want to say, rather than what the reader wants to hear.

FUN NOTE: Bill Bernbach once noted the difference between a writer and a communicator. “The communicator,” he argued, “is concerned not just with what he puts into a piece of writing, but with what the reader gets out of it.” A reader is not an empty vessel waiting to receive a writer’s information dump. He/she is a human being with thoughts, opinions, a perception of self, a history, etc. And, just as you wouldn’t think of teaching a 10th-grade class the same way you would a 4th-grade class, you should never start writing for an audience before you’ve considered where they’re coming from, what they need to hear from you, and how they need to hear it.

3. Leverage your audience’s motivation.

Your story will always start with you, with the thing you want to communicate. But, put that on the shelf before you start typing. Instead, consider first how you can tell that story in a way that the audience will care. In searching for your angle, start with the reader. What will they find interesting? And, just as importantly, in what way will they find it interesting?

The psychological principle underlying this strategy is audience motivation. What drives your audience, and why? Imagine two runners stretching out for a morning jog. The first runner, Kate, loves to run. The activity itself is enjoyable and rewarding. Kate has what’s known as “intrinsic motivation”; she does the thing for the thing’s sake. The second runner, Joe, dislikes running. He forces himself to do it, because he knows it will keep his weight and cholesterol down. Joe is driven by “extrinsic motivation”; he does the thing for the reward that follows. Which runner is more likely to work harder and stick with it longer? If you guess Kate, you’re correct. Research supports this quite well.[3]

As a storyteller, you need to tap into the intrinsic motivation of your audience. How can you write a story that they will willingly, happily and eagerly devour? Because that kind of story is one that will stick in the mind and influence the reader.

FUN NOTE: Jack Kerouac once explained his stream-of-consciousness method of writing. He would tape pieces of paper end-to-end so he could write for hours, uninterrupted, at a blistering pace. Upon hearing this, Truman Capote snarked, “That’s not writing, it’s typing.”

The basic elements of plot structure, illustrated.

*****

Once you’ve done your due diligence and thought all this through — i.e., your story’s structure and the tools you’ll need to craft it — that’s where the real fun begins. Now you’re ready to get creative. You have your North Star, your road, and your walking shoes … exactly how you get to your destination is up to you.

You can take the story wherever you, and it, want to go. Be loose. Have fun. Take chances. Just remember to check every now and again to make sure you haven’t strayed from the path.

 

#     #     #

1. Huitt, W. “The information processing approach to cognition.” Educational Psychology Interactive, 2003.
2. M McCaslin, DT Hickey. “Educational psychology, social constructivism, and educational practice: A case of emergent identity.” Educational Psychologist, 2001.
3. R B’Enabou, J Tirole. “Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation.” Princeton University and Institute for Advanced Study, 2003.

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