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Five essential writing tips backed by science
Will Storr has written a masterful guide to writing with "The Science of Storytelling."
- In "The Science of Storytelling," journalist Will Storr investigates the science behind great storytelling.
- While good plots are important, Storr writes that great stories revolve around complex characters.
- As in life, readers are drawn to flawed characters, yet many writers become too attached to their protagonists.
We are all hallucinating. No one dropped LSD into the water supply—they didn't have to. "Reality," an ambiguous term coined to denote a common set of shared facts, is a construction we've created in an attempt to comfort us that a master plan exists. It does not.
In his latest book, "The Science of Storytelling," journalist and novelist Will Storr opens with a simple yet disconcerting message: "Humans might be in unique possession of the knowledge that our existence is essentially meaningless, but we carry on as if in ignorance of it."
This is why we're all hallucinating. We're not living reality as much as constructing one based on personal history and environment. Over 7 billion human animals walking around, telling ourselves stories about ourselves, using them as emotional shields to guard against the ravages of an indifferent universe.
That's how powerful stories are.
Pouring over his notes from years of teaching creative writing, as well as research from his previous works (including "The Unpersuadables" about science deniers, and "Selfie" about our obsession with ourselves), Storr has written a masterful guide to storytelling. Compact and illuminating, the book combines the last century of neuroscience with 4,000 years of written storytelling to pinpoint what makes stories effective, and what does not.
Becoming better at writing stories "is simply a matter of peering inwards, at the mind itself, and asking how it does it." At its best, a story mirrors the complexity of the human condition without the fear of danger that occurs in real life.
"It's a rollercoaster, but not one made from ramps, rails and steel wheels, but from love, hope, dread, curiosity, status play, constriction, release, unexpected change and moral outrage. Story is a thrill-ride of control."
There is also, it should be noted, the development of empathy. Storr notes that the invention of the novel may have helped kick off the idea of human rights. Understanding the plight and experiences of others would have been impossible on any meaningful scale before this format was introduced. With the novel, other worlds were exposed. Even in our visual realm of tweet-sized stories, such an ability to communicate across borders still matters.
While no summation can perfectly capture the totality of this exceptional book, below are five techniques for becoming a better storyteller. As with any good read, Storr takes the advice he's spent years studying and teaching. He's an excellent writer. Reading "The Science of Storytelling" is in itself a pleasure.
As neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinás points out, all life is based on prediction. Even unicellular organisms detect changes in the environment and either embrace them (food; sex) or flee (predators). Humans are no different. We depend on and react to environmental changes all the time: the deer bounding across the street breaking up the monotony of a long drive; the distracted ambivalence of a scorned lover; the anxiety-creating noise of your phone's alerts. We are primed for change.
Good stories require that a character changes. The best require that the protagonist faces an ultimate challenge, forcing them to confront life-altering change. As mentioned, we are all hallucinating reality all the time, so what happens when the illusion is exposed? Are we willing to explore our trauma and heal the scar tissue, or will we allow that pain to fester until death? Characters must be offered an opportunity for change or else the story never gets off the ground.
Cause and Effect
When a story is incomplete, writes literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall, our brain automatically fills in the gaps. This is part of the hallucination: we need everything to mean something. Religion is based on this neurological quirk: there must be a reason we're here. So too is our view on medicine and healing: for some, vaccines must cause autism because teasing apart the myriad other causes, from diet and genetics to environmental changes and toxic social structures, is too overwhelming to consider. We demand meaning, yet our brains are lazy, which is why we tend to believe the simplest explanations.
Storr writes that plots "that play too loose with cause and effect risk becoming confusing, because they're not speaking in the brain's language." Good stories are filled with cause and effect. As a writer, show the cause, don't tell it. If you refuse the reader will grow uninterested.
While this is a debate I'll likely have with fans until the end of time, season four of "Lost" lost me. There were way too many variables introduced that were dropped in the last two seasons. Too many effects, not enough causes.
Expose the Flaws
We are all flawed. You, me, Will Storr, every religious figure ever. Storr cites Joseph Campbell throughout his book, yet he doesn't include one of my favorites: "It is the imperfections of life that are lovable…it's Christ on the cross that becomes lovable." It's not the Son of God but the infallible man that makes him meaningful to followers.
Just as we crave meaning, we like to believe we're in control. Flaws often derive from the fact that control is also an illusion.
"We're all fictional characters. We're the partial, biased, stubborn creations of our own minds."
A character's "terrible power" comes from their belief that they're right; in that rightness they feel superior to others. All stories are ultimately about character. Plots are important but without convincing characters, they fall flat. The key to creating memorable characters is by exposing their flaws.
Will Storr, author of 'The Heretics', appears at a photocall prior to an event at the 30th Edinburgh International Book Festival, on August 13, 2013 in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Photo by Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty Images
The Many Us
Many writers fail because they become too emotionally invested in their protagonist, which is often constructed from pieces of the writer. Another way to phrase it: the writer must be willing to expose their own flaws.
The Buddhist concept of no-self derives from the idea that none of us are ever one single thing. We're influenced by the environment we're in and the people we're around and the amount of caffeine we drink. We have much less willpower at night than in the morning. Our goals and desires shift by the hour. We are many people throughout the day.
"The difference," Storr writes, "is that in life, unlike in story, the dramatic question of who we are never has a final and truly satisfying answer." Humans are complex animals. We love stories that make us the hero. To be heroic requires recognizing the many conflicting desires and thoughts that make us what we are.
The Hero's Journey
Which is really what all of this is about: championing the hero. "Stories are tribal propaganda," Storr concludes. The modern storyteller is working with a different landscape than those past. "A unique quality of humans is that we've evolved the ability to think our way into many tribes simultaneously." We're no longer bound by the traditional tribal structure that dominated for hundreds of thousands of years, nor the caste system that commenced with the development of Harappan civilization. Today's hero transcends prior boundaries.
Though we cannot write off tribalism completely. We're still biologically Stone Age. Just because we have an opportunity to grow does not mean everyone chooses to. "A tribal challenge is existentially disturbing."
We all believe in stories, and all stories are inventions. If we lose our own hero narrative, depression and anxiety are certain to follow, so invested in our stories have we become. The best storytellers carry their hero through to the end. Their flaws result in transformation. It's what we all crave in a story because it's what we all desire, regardless of how illusive notions of control and closure actually are.
For the time being, while we're here, we're storytelling animals. Will Storr has contributed a wonderful guide of how to master the craft of invention. To pull a random quote from the formative years of my childhood, as Axl Rose sang, use your illusion.
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Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.
- Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
- As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
- The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.
- A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
- The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
- This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.
Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).
A neural crêpe
A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.
So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.
The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."
Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum
Image source: Sereno, et al.
A complicated map
Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."
That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.
It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."
This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."
Bigger and bigger
The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.
"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."
As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."
Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."
What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?
- A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
- It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
- The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
Welfare as an investment<p>The <a href="https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/hendren/files/welfare_vnber.pdf" target="_blank">study</a>, carried out by Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser of Harvard University, reviews 133 welfare programs through a single lens. The authors measured these programs' "Marginal Value of Public Funds" (MVPF), which is defined as the ratio of the recipients' willingness to pay for a program over its cost.</p><p>A program with an MVPF of one provides precisely as much in net benefits as it costs to deliver those benefits. For an illustration, imagine a program that hands someone a dollar. If getting that dollar doesn't alter their behavior, then the MVPF of that program is one. If it discourages them from working, then the program's cost goes up, as the program causes government tax revenues to fall in addition to costing money upfront. The MVPF goes below one in this case. <br> <br> Lastly, it is possible that getting the dollar causes the recipient to further their education and get a job that pays more taxes in the future, lowering the cost of the program in the long run and raising the MVPF. The value ratio can even hit infinity when a program fully "pays for itself."</p><p> While these are only a few examples, many others exist, and they do work to show you that a high MVPF means that a program "pays for itself," a value of one indicates a program "breaks even," and a value below one shows a program costs more money than the direct cost of the benefits would suggest.</p> After determining the programs' costs using existing literature and the willingness to pay through statistical analysis, 133 programs focusing on social insurance, education and job training, tax and cash transfers, and in-kind transfers were analyzed. The results show that some programs turn a "profit" for the government, mainly when they are focused on children:
This figure shows the MVPF for a variety of polices alongside the typical age of the beneficiaries. Clearly, programs targeted at children have a higher payoff.
Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser<p>Programs like child health services and K-12 education spending have infinite MVPF values. The authors argue this is because the programs allow children to live healthier, more productive lives and earn more money, which enables them to pay more taxes later. Programs like the preschool initiatives examined don't manage to do this as well and have a lower "profit" rate despite having decent MVPF ratios.</p><p>On the other hand, things like tuition deductions for older adults don't make back the money they cost. This is likely for several reasons, not the least of which is that there is less time for the benefactor to pay the government back in taxes. Disability insurance was likewise "unprofitable," as those collecting it have a reduced need to work and pay less back in taxes. </p>