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Key Takeaways from the Science of Stories


I recently had the chance to watch a video from Stanford’s MediaX program that explored a scientific study on how, why, and which stories impact us. The video itself is rather lengthy and a bit rambly (and uses Comic Sans in its presentation), so I wanted to save you the trouble of viewing the presentation itself and pass along the key takeaways—as well as make some of my own commentary. Let’s get to it!

1: Stories Are Deeply Rooted in Our Species

According to the research gathered and conducted by Kendall Haven and his team, stories are deeply rooted in human neurology and psychology, going back further than 150,000 years. As Haven puts it, “We’re hardwired for stories.” The notion here is that the transmission of knowledge, wisdom, identity, and beliefs was substantially aided by the structure of a story. As an increasingly social group, early homo sapiens were able to make use of story for both social and survival functions.

2: “Storification” Is Pre-Conscious Behavior

When we take in information, it isn’t our conscious mind that transforms that information into a narrative structure. Rather, when knowledge is communicated, the brain transforms it into a story before it ever hits the conscious mind. This “storification” process happens to almost all knowledge that is transmitted to us, and it happens through what Haven describes as a “neural story net.” That neural story net is a sub-region of the brain that helps us make sense of incoming data, and re-structuring fact into narrative seems to be one of its primary functions.

3: Storification Distorts Factual Information

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Procrasination, Stimulants, and the Creative Process

Neuroscience of Writing




Why do we, as writers, procrastinate so damn much? Why do so many of us depend on caffeine, cigarettes, and other stimulants? And why are alcohol and other mind-altering drugs so often used as creative crutches? These questions don’t have definitive answers, but a look at the neurological element can give us some insights into some of these less-than-ideal patterns.

Let’s take each of these items in turn.

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Write-Brained: The Source of Writer’s Block

Neuroscience of Writing




Some contend that writer’s block isn’t “real.” Often, I’m sure these people intend to say that writer’s block is self-imposed or all in your head. Both of these things are true, but that doesn’t mean that writer’s block is in any way less actual or problematic. In this entry, we’ll explore where writer’s block happens in the brain so we can develop strategies for combating it.

In previous entries, we explored two key ideas that are relevant here. First, that creative writing takes place in one’s neo-mammalian brain. And second, that the creative element of the process is distinct from the analytical process. To begin our discussion of where writer’s block comes from, allow me to introduce a third key idea: It is possible to get “locked out” of our neo-mammalian brain and our lateral thinking process.

To start our discussion, I will discuss how each of these “lock outs” can happen.

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Post-Apocalyptic vs. Post-Societal vs. Dystopian: How To Describe Your Weird Future


Image via flickr by Abode of Chaos

So you’ve written a terrific science fiction story. Congrats! You’re excited to tell your friends. Some of them smile and nod, gently letting you know they’re not really into sci-fi. You keep telling people about your work until finally – success! You find a fan of the genre. Before you can get to the hook of your spiel, they hold up their hands in protest. “I need to know what kind of science fiction it is first. I only read certain types.”

Genres are tricky things. They provide handy shortcuts to make work accessible, but can also put up barriers to entry. Each person has a different opinion of what certain terms means. For some people, it’s not science fiction unless it features hard-bitten admirals flying fleets of spaceships into galaxy-spanning wars. Other people swears up and down that sci-fi is all about special bonds of friendship formed between humans and aliens. Still others care only about future-dwelling desert nomads or highbrow political satire pieces.

Identifying the sub-genres of your work is one way to improve your story’s reception. The goal is to target your work to the exact type of reader most likely to enjoy it. The more detailed you get, the better. I know exactly whether a “neolithic, noir steampunk romance set in a fantastical alternate universe” is right for me; a generic tale of “alternate history,” not so much.

Today, we’ll talk specifically about several related science-fiction sub-genres involving governments, world-changing events, and the future.


Societies around the world have told tales of disaster and rebirth throughout history, often with religious connotations. The term ‘apocalypse’ originally meant ‘to uncover’ or ‘to reveal.’ It indicated a time in the future when ‘good would triumph over evil,’ ending life on earth as we know it – closely tied to the biblical concept of ‘Judgment Day.’ Over time, the term evolved to describe any global disaster (natural or man-made) with the power to permanently alter our world.

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Narrative Clichés and Other Tropery

clicheImage via flickr by Louis Bavent

You may have heard the term “narrative trope” before. You also may have associated this phrase with the more well-known “cliché.” If this is the case, then you’re absolutely right in assuming an association. Tropes and clichés are closely related narrative terms. But there’s an important difference that could save your life some day. Well, probably not. But it’s significant nonetheless, particularly for writers.

Tropes are recurring narrative themes that we see and recognize across many different works of fiction. Clichés are the same thing. It’s just that clichés are painfully overt and distract from the plot. Basically, a cliché is a bad execution of a good trope.

Predictably, tvtropes has the best definition of what a trope is. You should all go take a look at that. Essentially, tropes aren’t bad. They are useful tools that help tell good stories. Narrative patterns exist for a reason; they’re effective. Over the decades, writers have discovered methods of storytelling that are emotionally intriguing, thematically entertaining, and plot-advancing. That’s what tropes are.


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Using Fear to Make Readers Shiver, Scream, and Vomit

horror[Image via Flickr courtesy of Moyan Breen]

Fear is used in writing to add emotional value and elicit physical responses. It makes the reader uncomfortable in the right way, immersing them and imprinting the experience deeper into memory. Not all forms of fear are equal. Stephen King once broke down fear into three different types: The Gross-Out, The Horror, and The Terror. They are distinct, powerful, and vary greatly in the responses they elicit.

The Gross-Out

The Gross-Out might be the easiest to understand and achieve. It’s the disgusting. Despite the great variety in people’s preferences, one simple thing achieves this. Show the taboo, those things which are not supposed to be seen.  Identify them and show them. It could be a public toilet overflowing with feces and urine, a corpse with organs torn out and exposed, or a bizarre fetish. Don’t pull punches. The important part is to get in close.

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