Will Storr’s “The Science of Storytelling” – book review

When I reached for Storr’s book The Science of Storytelling, I hoped to find a scientific exploration of the way storytelling affects our brains.

I didn’t quite find that. Instead, Storr goes for a route that is more typical of other writing guides that I’ve read before. Storr enthusiastically cites Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots.  I’ve only read a section of The Seven Basic Plots but what I remember most from it is the lack of proper referencing – which drove me nuts. He also cites Joseph Campbell, whom I haven’t read at all yet, and I probably should.

Most of these guides are focused on one element that they claim forms the key to a good novel (or movie). In a book such as Into the Woods, the key element is plot structure. For Storr, you should mainly focus on character. He calls it the “sacred flaw” approach.

“The approach’s focus is on character because for me, this is where storytellers should begin their deep creative endeavours. When we’re talking about character, we’re really talking about character flaw. (…) The job of the plot is to test, break and retest a flawed character.”

Storr argues for this approach by illustrating it with fragments of Remains of a Day and Citizien Kane.  His psychological approach to storytelling seems to mainly rest on the insight that we are all flawed, that we create our own stories in our brains (making our self a character of sorts) and that fictional characters can mapped as extroverts and introverts.

I’m probably being a bit harsh here, but the very enthusiastic reviews have made me cutting.

You can read a trite statement in this book like “those low in conscientiousness are more likely to end up in prison” and just whistle past it. Storr does seem to have checked that there have been studies that have proved this. He just fails to give away that he has checked this. You will only find this out if you happen to flick to the back of the book by coincidence and look at all references contained for chapter 2.1.  There is no footnote that will give you a hint that the book contains any sort of references.


Also what were the studies? How was this checked? How do we respond to stories that confirm or subvert these expectations? I want to know…

It’s almost as if “ease of reading” has been prioritized over providing intellectually stimulating content.

I am sure there are much worse guides to writing out there. This one reads well, has a very strong thesis, and I am sure people will find it useful. It’s just I wish it was… more interesting.

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