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Key Takeaways from the Science of Stories

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

post-apocalyptic

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.

Post-Apocalyptic

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.

Familiarity.

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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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Trust Your Characters

trust-your-characters

Some authors believe their characters exist in another world, living their lives independently of what the author is doing and writing their characters as doing anything out of character breaks the link they have with that other world. While that is highly unlikely, it makes for a colorful mental image of the worlds we create in our minds and the lives characters continue to live when we aren’t actively thinking about them. In our sleep and other idle moments of chaotic contemplation we keep developing and growing our characters, and when we force them to do something they wouldn’t do we run into writers block or start writing meaningless side content that ultimately needs to be cut out.

“In real life people do occasionally act out of character or do things we wouldn’t normally expect them to do. In fiction, there should be a good reason for a character to do something outside of the ordinary.”
― Craig Hart, The Writer’s Tune-up Manual: 35 Exercises That Will Scrape the Rust Off Your Writing

If we trust them, these characters can be a wonderful aid, helping think up plot developments you’d never dreamed on your own, plot elements that will feel organic to the reader. The most direct technique to accessing the power of your characters is free writing, not planning things out ahead of time and just letting your character(s) do what they do, go where they would go. This can be very liberating to many authors as they don’t need to think of everything before they write it, exploring their literary landscape through their character. But it can also be quite terrifying for many, writing into the unknown. I suggest you try it, and trust your characters.

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Get to the Point!: A Sentence Workshop

“You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.” ~Arthur Polotnik

As an editor, the bulk of major problems I encounter are at the sentence level. Yes, sometimes the entire submission is off (doesn’t follow instructions, lacks direction, etc.), and sometimes the word choice or punctuation makes me sad inside, but most often it’s those infernal sentences.

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