Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘storytelling’

03 OCTOBER, 2012

The Neurochemistry of Empathy, Storytelling, and the Dramatic Arc, Animated

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What cortisol and oxytocin have to do with a 19th-century German playwright.

From Future of Storytelling summit and neuroeconomics pioneer Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies and author of The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity, comes this short film on empathy, neurochemistry, and the dramatic arc, directed and edited by my friend Kirby Ferguson and animated by Henrique Barone.

Zak takes us inside his lab, where he studies how people respond to stories. What he found is that even the simplest narrative can elicit powerful empathic response by triggering the release of neurochemicals like cortisol and oxytocin, provided it is highly engaging and follows the classic dramatic arc outlined by the German playwright Gustav Freytag 150 years ago.

Stories are powerful because they transport us into other people’s worlds but, in doing that, they change the way our brains work and potentially change our brain chemistry — and that’s what it means to be a social creature.

Complement with Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human.

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06 AUGUST, 2012

Significant Objects: How Stories Confer Value Upon the Vacant

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“It turns out that once you start increasing the emotional energy of inanimate objects, an unpredictable chain reaction is set off.”

“The universe is made of stories, not atoms,” poet Muriel Rukeyser famously remarked. Hardly anyone can back this bombastic proclamation with more empirical conviction than Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn. In 2009, the duo embarked upon a curious experiment: They would purchase cheap trinkets, ask some of today’s most exciting creative writers to invent stories about them, then post the stories and the objects on eBay to see whether the invented story enhanced the value of the object. Which it did: The tchotchkes, originally purchased for a total of $128.74, sold for a whopping total of $3,612.51 — a 2,700% markup. (The most highly valued pairing in the entire project, bought for $1.49 and sold for $197.50, was a globe paperweight with a moving handwritten story by the magnificent Debbie Millman, with proceeds benefiting 826 National.)

Significant Objects: 100 Extraordinary Stories About Ordinary Things (public library) tells the tale of this irreverent testament to the power of storytelling through a hundred of the best stories since the beginning of the project. The anthology features such celebrated authors as William Gibson (HAWK Ashtray, bought for $2.99, sold for $101), Jonathan Lethem (Missouri Shotglass, bought for $1, sold for $76), and Colson Whitehead (Mallet, bought for 33 cents, sold for $71).

And what better way to open than with some timeless wisdom from the inimitable Edward Gorey?

A reflection from the introduction:

Writers love a challenge like the one we posed them — i.e., making up a story inspired by an object they’ve never seen before. Our contributors met the challenge with wildly imaginative, deeply moving, and darkly ironic stories. They wrote letters, email solicitations, memoirs, operating instructions, public notices, diary entries, wine-tasting notes, and public ordinances. Some crafted rich character studies, others told tales through whipsaw dialogue or internal monologue. Some took bold experimental risks, while others opted for evocative minimalism or genre fiction.

It turns out that once you start increasing the emotional energy of inanimate objects, an unpredictable chain reaction is set off.

Part Sentimental Value, part MacGuffinism, Significant Objects reminds us of the storiness of our lived materiality — of the artifacts we imbue with meaning, with loves and losses, with hopes and desperations. At its heart is something essential and essentially human, which Brian Eno once articulated beautifully:

Nearly all of art history is about trying to identify the source of value in cultural objects. Color theories and dimension theories, golden means, all those sort of ideas, assume that some objects are intrinsically more beautiful and meaningful than others. New cultural thinking isn’t like that. It says that we confer value on things. We create the value in things. It’s the act of conferring that makes things valuable.”

Anaïs Nin put it even more dramatically when she wrote in her diary in 1943:

Stories are the only enchantment possible, for when we begin to see our suffering as a story, we are saved.

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12 JUNE, 2012

6 Rules for a Great Story from Barnaby Conrad and Snoopy

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“And remember: Always aim for the heart!”

You might recall Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life (public library), which gave us Ray Bradbury’s wise words on rejection. To recap: Barnaby Conrad and Monte Schulz, son of Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz, asked 30 famous authors and entertainers to each respond to a favorite Snoopy comic strip with a 500-word essay on the triumphs and tribulations of the writing life. The all-star roster includes William F. Buckley, Jr., Julia Child, Ed McBain, and Elizabeth George. Among them is also one by Barnaby Conrad himself, offering the following six tips to writing a great story, in response to this 1997 comic strip:

  1. Try to pick the most intriguing place in your piece to begin.
  2. Try to create attention-grabbing images of a setting if that’s where you want to begin.
  3. Raise the reader’s curiosity about what is happening or is going to happen in an action scene.
  4. Describe a character so compellingly that we want to learn more about what happens to him or her.
  5. Present a situation so vital to our protagonist that we must read on.
  6. And most important, no matter what method you choose, start with something happening! (And not with ruminations. A character sitting in a cave or in jail or in a kitchen or in a car ruminating about the meaning of life and how he got to this point does not constitute something happening.)

Hone your opening words, for just as stories aren’t written but rewritten, so should beginnings be written and rewritten. Look at your opening and ask yourself, ‘If I were reading this, would I be intrigued enough to go on?’

And remember: Always aim for the heart!

Conrad is the author of The Complete Guide to Writing Fiction.

For more advice on writing, see Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 tips on how to make a great story, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and various invaluable insight from other great writers.

And, above all, let’s not forget these famous disclaimers on taking writing advice.

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