Storytelling tools

In his bestselling The Science of Storytelling (2019) – a writing guide with a title for our times – Will Storr explains that the brain reads electrical pulses from our senses, like a computer reads code, and actively constructs our reality, or what Storr calls a ‘controlled hallucination’. Which means that we all inhabit unique realities. No kidding. The sort of science Storr cites, in pop journalistic style, is a source of clichéd concepts likely to strike an intuitive writer as obvious. At its best, though, his how-to manual yields a few reflections on mainstream pandemic reportage and its reception in the West. For instance:

The neuroscientist Professor Sarah Gimbel watched what happened when people in brain scanners were presented with evidence their strongly held political beliefs were wrong. ‘The response in the brain that we see is very similar to what would happen if, say, you were walking through the forest and came across a bear,’ she has said (p. 87).

Presumably, most people would turn tail and run. But, funnily enough, I once came across a bear while walking through Oregon woodland. And if Gimbel’s assumption is right, recent evidence of the wrongness of my strongly held political beliefs should fill me – as it has – with excitement. But I belong to more than one minority. So I found Storr’s overhyped guide yawn-inducing. Just as any tool can tell a story that sells, any fool can dispense storytelling advice, myself included…

Q: What does genre (or popular) fiction have in common with the dominant pandemic narrative (‘dominant’ in this context meaning authorised, widely disseminated)?

A: Both should be accessible to the broadest possible audience. A few basic guidelines apply:

• Stick, overall, to a familiar formula. The response will be more predictable. But a captive audience also thrives on unexpected twists. If they start to get restless or bored, their focus could stray to rival narratives that offer some basis for comparison.

• Make your narrative easy to understand and recall. Keep symbols to a minimum and their meaning straightforward, avoid allegory, and limit yourself to simple analogies.

• Plot matters more than characters. The latter can afford to be flat or stereotyped, especially villains; keep character development for the hero(es) or heroine(s).

• The audience should be able to relate to or identify with the hero or heroine (e.g., doctor, virologist, cooperative citizen doing their bit to keep society safe).

• Your narrative shouldn’t raise, let alone seek to answer, abstract questions. Morals can be appealed to, but ethics risks getting too complex and deep.

• If your story doesn’t turn a huge profit it’ll soon be forgotten. You need to think big. Ideally, it’s worth aiming for a whole series (e.g., Α, Β, Γ, Δ, Ο…). So, from the start plant the seeds, at opportune intervals, of a sequel. Nor should you underestimate the appeal of a prequel (set in, say, the pre-Covidian era). To truly maximise profits you need to create a franchise that, like Star Wars, becomes a legend in its own right, its defining themes, memes, motifs and buzzwords an integral part of our culture, as relevant and resonant as the Bible or the Bard.

• Don’t make your research conspicuous. Cherry-pick the facts to suit your purpose, such as, say, the risks needed to raise the dramatic stakes in a dystopian pandemic thriller (e.g., host range, transmissibility, pathogenicity, resistance to medical countermeasures; the same risks associated with gain-of-function research – or tweaking viruses with the aim of pre-empting dire future developments). Yet facts, too, can go viral in catastrophic ways. Even great success could be quickly negated should competitors or critics learn your secrets, so beware of leaks. Meanwhile, it’s possible to avert or delay scrutiny with such tactics as misdirection (e.g., attributing gain-of-function research to shady foreigners; any old red herring to thicken the plot).

• Which brings us to suspense and sensationalism. Once your audience is emotionally involved – to open with shocking (or just unsettling) change is standard procedure – you need conflict (e.g., safe vs. dangerous behaviour; the wisdom of compliance vs. the folly of dissidence; the promise of inclusion vs. the threat of exclusion) charged with a sense of immediacy to heighten breathless anticipation of the next instalment. Graphic representation is an effective technique, whether via actual images or vivid description. When an audience engages at a visceral level (imagining, say, that they can’t draw enough air into their lungs or that their heart or brain is malfunctioning), they become more responsive to archetypal conflicts: good vs. evil, friends vs. enemies, life vs. death etc. They’ve suspended disbelief.

• The conflict should be clearly defined. You need to resolve it before the end of the story, or – in the event that no end is in sight – to keep the promise of happily ever after alive in the minds of your audience. A final end to the conflict, though heroes must fight for it, isn’t desirable if you want to keep on reaping profits.

It’s not hard to craft the sort of stories that corporate capitalism has conditioned us to lap up. The genre or popular novel and our novel coronavirus story both arise from a profit motive. Both proceed from a ‘what-if’ premise (What if I catch it and die or just never fully recover? What if it kills someone I love? What if I lose my job, cred, registration and/or livelihood? What if I’m barred from travel, bars, cafes, gyms, entertainment venues etc.?). And the production of both employs talent that, arguably, could be better spent. But what really sucks is that both provide a distraction from thought-provoking narratives better equipped to confront chronic ills, crises and injustices.

After all, the reality of ‘the new normal’ is (as Hannah Arendt observed of far vaster evils, though much of the damage is yet to emerge) banal. Recently, having received an art exhibition invite that didn’t mention proof of vaccination, and finding no COVID-safe assurance on the website, I rang the posh gallery to check. Yes, I was told unapologetically, vaccination was required. I suggested it’d be a good idea to state as much on their invites, like other local galleries. ‘Really?’ the woman said, surprised. ‘We have a sign outside the gallery.’ Unhelpful to someone who might turn up in person instead of automatically assuming they’re unwelcome. This is what ‘normalised’ really means: the majority no longer spare the minority any thought. It’s as if that minority has ceased to exist; displaced by more pressing concerns… Décor? Catering? Like mainstream novels devoid of ethnic, disabled or non-hetero characters – until political (i.e., market) imperatives mandate their token representation.

One irony is that the educated PC left – so righteously vocal on issues of identity and social justice – should lead the way in creating a new underclass.

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1 Response to Storytelling tools

  1. …brilliant! I love the comparison you make; so true. And the sadness I feel about the non vaccinated being locked out.
    Thank you, your writing is so very sane and refreshing and vital. If only if only there was more of your intelligence and sanity in the people making the decisions.

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