Earlier this year, I watched a TED talk by Will Storr about the science of storytelling. As social creatures, each of us possess a brain that was preprogramed to tell stories for the influence of other humans.
While all of us have storytelling in our DNA, there are several things we can do to tell more believable stories. According to Storr, they are as follows:
- Start with change. Most great stories are about a change in status. If you want to catch someone’s attention, tell them how something changed. Bonus points for hinting at trouble to come. For example, “Where’s papa going with that axe?”
- Don’t share everything right away. To keep people interested until the end, place “mystery boxes” throughout your story that create wonder and curiosity. Foreshadowing is proven way of doing this. On top of that, let the receiver fill in the gaps and read between the lines, which further enhances a story or surprises them later on when their assumptions are proven wrong.
- Give specific details to bring your story to life. Consider the world around you, with all its colors, sounds, smells, and textures. Help the receiving brain rebuild the world in your story with specific names, descriptive language, and precise details. Don’t say something is delightful, make the reader say “delightful” after hearing your clever description. As Tolstoy once said, “A real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist.”
- Use active voice. The dog bit the man, not the man was bitten by the dog. “Active voice makes worlds more immerse since our eyes don’t watch something that’s waiting to be changed—they watch and follow the change agents, the things that are changing,” Storr says.
- Prioritize flawed and unpredictable characters. Stories that do this are more relatable, since all of us are flawed and unpredictable. If you create a well drawn character and or world, a rich plot will inevitably follow, Storr argues. Thus, a rich plot should prod receivers to wonder: “Who is this character really?”