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No Spoilers - How The Brain Needs Stories

Updated: Jun 11

A few nights ago we sat down to watch the final episode of BBC's Line of Duty. We had managed to avoid the many possible spoilers and hung on in there for a night when we could enjoy the denouement. In terms of storytelling, the bar is now very high with television drama. There is so much high quality content coming at us in all directions. We see how hard it is for terrestrial TV to compete with the grandeur and budgets of big platforms like Netflix and Amazon. But you know, a good story doesn’t need an enormous budget. A good story needs to satisfy...

On Thursday morning there was a great programme on BBC R4 entitled the Science of Storytelling in a series called Inside Science Shorts and it said something about how and why stories satisfy. Dr Adam Rutherford was talking to writer Will Storr about the ideas he has explored in his new book The Science of Storytelling. Storr’s first words were - “Story is the natural language of the brain.” My ears pricked up.

At Narativ our first principle is ‘We are all hard-wired for Story’.

Storr talked about how the mind is our key way of understanding and experiencing the world. For a dog, it is all about smell, for a mole, touch. For us it is the mind. As Storr says, “We are fascinated with other minds”.

Working with thousands of storytellers sharing stories at Narativ, we find the mind’s way of experiencing the world is through relating - that is the fascination. We listen to make connections - how does our experience of being human compare and relate to the storyteller’s experience? And of course sometimes it wholly relates and sometimes it doesn’t. But it seems that in the realm of human experience, we share with others so much more than we don’t share.

At Narativ we talk about storytelling as an activity which engages both curiosity and empathy - you put someone in your shoes and hook their interest to go on a journey with you to discover what happens. In the programme Rutherford and Storr talked about the ‘information gap’, the missing piece at the start of a story which engages you and makes you want to keep listening to find out. We call one of Narativ’s key Storytelling tools ‘What Happened’ and it totally utilises this idea of an ‘information gap’. It is about letting go of the explanation in a story and allowing the listener to work it out. And as we know from watching a detective drama, that is the exciting part, working it out for yourself. Storr describes it as the moment the penny drops, you close the information gap and get a boost in the brain’s reward system. This is the pleasurable pay-off for the journey you have been taken on.

So when it came to the final episode of Line of Duty we had been taken on a journey and were ready for the pay-off. And when it came to it, I’m sorry to say that for me it did not satisfy. There had been information gaps aplenty along the way keeping our attention, some had been closed and proved to be ‘red herrings’. But when the villain was finally unmasked… what happened? Another character spent minutes telling them why they had done what they had done! I hadn’t worked it out, they had to explain it to me...

No boost to the reward system in my brain. No pleasurable pay-off from the journey of the story. A list of facts is not a story. An explanation is not a story.

Thank you Storr and Rutherford for reminding me this and making it clear why. You can hear their story HERE - it's is well worth a listen…

Dan Milne

May 28th 2019

Join Narativ's next Storytelling and Listening workshop on June 20th 2019 in London.

Details here

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