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The Psychology of What Makes a Great Story

“The great writer’s gift to a reader is to make him a better writer.”

The Psychology of What Makes a Great Story

“Stories,” Neil Gaiman asserted in his wonderful lecture on what makes stories last, “are genuinely symbiotic organisms that we live with, that allow human beings to advance.” But what is the natural selection of these organisms — what makes the ones that endure fit for survival? What, in other words, makes a great story?

That’s what the great Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner (October 1, 1915–June 6, 2016), who revolutionized cognitive psychology and pioneered the modern study of creativity in the 1960s, explores in his 1986 essay collection Actual Minds, Possible Worlds (public library).

Jerome Bruner

In an immensely insightful piece titled “Two Modes of Thought,” Bruner writes:

There are two modes of cognitive functioning, two modes of thought, each providing distinctive ways of ordering experience, of constructing reality. The two (though complementary) are irreducible to one another. Efforts to reduce one mode to the other or to ignore one at the expense of the other inevitably fail to capture the rich diversity of thought.

Each of the ways of knowing, moreover, has operating principles of its own and its own criteria of well-formedness. They differ radically in their procedures for verification. A good story and a well-formed argument are different natural kinds. Both can be used as means for convincing another. Yet what they convince of is fundamentally different: arguments convince one of their truth, stories of their lifelikeness. The one verifies by eventual appeal to procedures for establishing formal and empirical proof. The other establishes not truth but verisimilitude.


A story (allegedly true or allegedly fictional) is judged for its goodness as a story by criteria that are of a different kind from those used to judge a logical argument as adequate or correct.

Art by Tove Jansson for a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Bruner notes that the Western scientific and philosophical worldview has been largely concerned with the question of how to know truth, whereas storytellers are concerned with the question of how to endow experience with meaning — a dichotomy Hannah Arendt addressed brilliantly more than a decade earlier in her 1973 Gifford Lecture on thinking vs. knowing and the crucial difference between truth and meaning. One could go even further and argue, after Walter Benjamin, that the product of the analytical mode is information, whereas the product of storytelling is wisdom.

Bruner calls these two contrasting modes the paradigmatic or logico-scientific, characterized by a mathematical framework of analysis and explanation, and the narrative. Each, he argues, is animated by a different kind of imagination:

The imaginative application of the paradigmatic mode leads to good theory, tight analysis, logical proof, sound argument, and empirical discovery guided by reasoned hypothesis. But paradigmatic “imagination” (or intuition) is not the same as the imagination of the novelist or poet. Rather, it is the ability to see possible formal connections before one is able to prove them in any formal way.

The imaginative application of the narrative mode leads instead to good stories, gripping drama, believable (though not necessarily “true”) historical accounts. It deals in human or human-like intention and action and the vicissitudes and consequences that mark their course. It strives to put its timeless miracles into the particulars of experience, and to locate the experience in time and place.


In contrast to our vast knowledge of how science and logical reasoning proceed, we know precious little in any formal sense about how to make good stories.

Perhaps one of the reasons for this is that story must construct two landscapes simultaneously. One is the landscape of action, where the constituents are the arguments of action: agent, intention or goal, situation, instrument, something corresponding to a “story grammar.” The other landscape is the landscape of consciousness: what those involved in the action know, think, or feel, or do not know, think, or feel.

Illustration by Dasha Tolstikova from The Jacket by Kirsten Hall

Bruner considers the singular landscape of narrative:

Narrative deals with the vicissitudes of human intentions. And since there are myriad intentions and endless ways for them to run into trouble — or so it would seem — there should be endless kinds of stories. But, surprisingly, this seems not to be the case.


We would do well with as loose fitting a constraint as we can manage concerning what a story must “be” to be a story. And the one that strikes me as most serviceable is the one with which we began: narrative deals with the vicissitudes of intention.

But this matter of intention remains forever mediated by the reader’s interpretation. What young Sylvia Plath observed of poetry — “Once a poem is made available to the public,” she told her mother, “the right of interpretation belongs to the reader.” — is true of all art and storytelling, whatever the medium. Bruner considers how the psychology of this interpretation factors into the question of what makes a great story:

It will always be a moot question whether and how well a reader’s interpretation “maps” on an actual story, does justice to the writer’s intention in telling the story, or conforms to the repertory of a culture. But in any case, the author’s act of creating a narrative of a particular kind and in a particular form is not to evoke a standard reaction but to recruit whatever is most appropriate and emotionally lively in the reader’s repertory. So “great” storytelling, inevitably, is about compelling human plights that are “accessible” to readers. But at the same time, the plights must be set forth with sufficient subjunctivity to allow them to be rewritten by the reader, rewritten so as to allow play for the reader’s imagination. One cannot hope to “explain” the processes involved in such rewriting in any but an interpretive way, surely no more precisely, say, than an anthropologist “explains” what the Balinese cockfight means to those who bet on it… All that one can hope for is to interpret a reader’s interpretation in as detailed and rich a way as psychologically possible.

Art by Maurice Sendak for The Big Green Book by Robert Graves

This essential “subjunctivity” is the act of designating a mood for the story. “To be in the subjunctive mode,” Bruner explains, means “to be trafficking in human possibilities rather than in settled certainties.” Out of this drive toward unsettled possibilities arises the ultimate question of “how a reader makes a strange text his own,” a question of “assimilating strange tales into the familiar dramas of our own lives, even more than transmuting our own dramas in the process” — something Bruner illustrates brilliantly with an exchange between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan from Italo Calvino’s masterwork Invisible Cities, which takes place after Marco Polo describes a bridge stone by stone:

“But which is the stone that supports the bridge?” Kublai Khan asks.

“The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,” Marco answers, “but by the line of the arch that they form.”

Kublai Khan remains silent, reflecting. Then he adds: “Why do you speak to me of the stones? It is only the arch that matters to me.”

Polo answers: “Without stones there is no arch.”

Bruner extracts from this an allegory of the key to great storytelling:

But still, it is not quite the arch. It is, rather, what arches are for in all the senses in which an arch is for something — for their beautiful form, for the chasms they safely bridge, for coming out on the other side of crossings, for a chance to see oneself reflected upside down yet right side up. So a reader goes from stones to arches to the significance of arches is some broader reality — goes back and forth between them in attempting finally to construct a sense of the story, its form, its meaning.

As our readers read, as they begin to construct a virtual text of their own, it is as if they were embarking on a journey without maps — and yet, they possess a stock of maps that might give hints, and besides, they know a lot about journeys and about mapmaking. First impressions of the new terrain are, of course, based on older journeys already taken. In time, the new journey becomes a thing in itself, however much its initial shape was borrowed from the past. The virtual text becomes a story of its own, its very strangeness only a contrast with the reader’s sense of the ordinary. The fictional landscape, finally, must be given a “reality” of its own — the ontological step. It is then that the reader asks that crucial interpretive question, “What’s it all about?” But what “it” is, of course, is not the actual text — however great its literary power — but the text that the reader has constructed under its sway. And that is why the actual text needs the subjunctivity that makes it possible for a reader to create a world of his own.

Bruner concurs with Barthes’s conviction that the writer’s greatest gift to the reader is to help her become a writer, then revises it to clarify and amplify its ambition:

The great writer’s gift to a reader is to make him a better writer.

Actual Minds, Possible Worlds is a remarkable read in its totality, exploring the psychological realities of language, thought and emotion, and the self. Complement this particular portion with Susan Sontag on the task of storytelling, Oliver Sacks on its curious psychology, and Martha Nussbaum on how it remaps our interior lives, then revisit Bruner on creative wholeness, art as a mode of knowing, and the six essential conditions for creativity.


Yoko Ono’s Playful and Philosophical Action-Poems About How to Live with Greater Attentiveness to the World

“Watch a hundred-year-old tree breathe. Thank the tree in your mind for showing us how to grow and stay.”

Yoko Ono’s Playful and Philosophical Action-Poems About How to Live with Greater Attentiveness to the World

In 1964, artist Yoko Ono (b. February 18, 1933) published Grapefruit — a collection of her poems, drawings, and instructions for life, constituting a sort of whimsical activity book for grownups. Nearly half a century later, on the eve of her seventieth birthday, she released a sequel titled Acorn (public library) — a new set of “action poems” bearing the same sensibility of irreverence and earnestness, subversion and sincerity. Aswirl between them are Ono’s distinctive dot-drawings — abstract three-dimensional shapes reminiscent of Thomas Wright’s pioneering 18th-century depictions of the universe.

Fusing the playful and the philosophical, the pieces are grouped into sets according to the attentional focus of their particular activity — the sky, the city, the seasons, the home, the sounds and sights and sensations that surround us. Undergirding the poems is a robust optimism and a meditative quality that accomplishes the seemingly impossible — inviting deep reflection not through the weight of analytical reason but through the levity of intuitive insight.


Towards the end of the Second World War, I looked like a little ghost because of the food shortage. I was hungry. It was getting easier to just lie down and watch the sky. That’s when I fell in love with the sky, I think.

Since then, all my life, I have been in love with the sky. Even when everything was falling apart around me, the sky was always there for me. It was the only constant factor in my life, which kept changing with the speed of light and lightning. As I told myself then, I could never give up on life as long as the sky was there.

Tell us when you first noticed the sky.
Tell us when you first noticed that the sky was beautiful.


Watch a hundred-year-old tree breathe.
Thank the tree in your mind for showing us
how to grow and stay.


Listen to the sound of the fire burning
in the center of the globe.



Imagine running across a wheat field
as fast as you can.
Imagine your friend running towards you
as fast as possible.

Imagine the colour of the sky. If it’s clouded,
see if there are any blue spots.
If it’s clear,
see if there are any clouds.
If it’s stormy,
look out for thunder and lightning.
If it’s snowing,
take your coat off
so you can wrap it around your friend.



Tape the sound of your baby son crying.
Let him listen to the tape when he is
going through pain as a grown man.


Make a numbered list of sadness in your life.
Pile up stones corresponding to those numbers.
Add a stone each time there is sadness.
Burn the list, and appreciate the mound of stones for its beauty.

Make a numbered list of happiness in your life.
Pile up stones corresponding to those numbers.
Add a stone each time there is happiness.
Compare the mound of stones to the one of sadness.


Try to say nothing negative about anybody.

a) for three days
b) for forty-five days
c) for three months

See what happens to your life.


Send a note of appreciation to silent courageous people
you happen to have noticed: parents, teachers, shopkeepers,
street cleaners, artists, etc.

Keep doing it.
See what happens to the world.

Complement the thoroughly wonderful Acorn with Wendell Berry on how to be a poet and a complete human being, then revisit John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s animated conversation about love.


Seamus Heaney’s Advice to the Young

“The true and durable path into and through experience involves being true … to your own solitude, true to your own secret knowledge.”

In his spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the Irish poet, playwright, and translator Seamus Heaney (April 13, 1939–August 30, 2013) celebrated poetry’s singular power to “remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values” and to “persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness.” It’s a task that poetry shares perhaps most directly with an unlikely cultural counterpart — the commencement address, aimed at equipping the young, most vulnerable in their consciousness, with values. This might be why poets make such fine commencement speakers — from Adrienne Rich’s beautiful case for the true value of education to Joseph Brodsky’s six rules for winning at the game of life.

Heaney himself was no stranger to the genre and made several additions to the greatest commencement addresses of all time in his lifetime, lending the young his lucid and luminous wisdom on life.

Seamus Heaney by Felix Clay
Seamus Heaney by Felix Clay

In May of 1996, months after receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature, 57-year-old Heaney took the podium before the graduating class at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and delivered an extraordinary speech later included in Take This Advice (public library) — the compendium of timelessly rewarding commencement addresses that also gave us Toni Morrison on how to be your own story.

Between verses of poetry, Heaney observes:

Getting started, keeping going, getting started again — in art and in life, it seems to me this is the essential rhythm not only of achievement but of survival, the ground of convinced action, the basis of self-esteem and the guarantee of credibility in your lives, credibility to yourselves as well as to others.

Echoing James Baldwin’s admonition that “you’ve got to tell the world how to treat you [because] if the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble,” Heaney adds:

This rhythm … is something I would want each one of you to experience in the years ahead, and experience not only in your professional life, whatever that may be, but in your emotional and spiritual lives as well — because unless that underground level of the self is preserved as a verified and verifying element in your make-up, you are going to be in danger of settling into whatever profile the world prepares for you and accepting whatever profile the world provides for you. You’ll be in danger of molding yourselves in accordance with laws of growth other than those of your own intuitive being.


The true and durable path into and through experience involves being true to the actual givens of your lives. True to your own solitude, true to your own secret knowledge. Because oddly enough, it is that intimate, deeply personal knowledge that links us most vitally and keeps us most reliably connected to one another. Calling a spade a spade may be a bit reductive but calling a wooden spoon a wooden spoon is the beginning of wisdom. And you will be sure to keep going in life on a far steadier keel and with far more radiant individuality if you navigate by that principle.


Whether it be a matter of personal relations within a marriage or political initiatives within a peace process, there is no sure-fire do-it-yourself kit. There is risk and truth to yourselves and the world before you.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

But this wasn’t Heaney’s first commencement address. Fourteen years earlier, he stood before the graduating class at Fordham University and delivered his speech as a 46-stanza poem in metrical verse. (Two years later, an Australian scientist published an astronomical paper as a 38-stanza poem in metrical verse — perhaps a mere coincidence, perhaps inspired by Heaney’s address, which had gone “viral” by pre-social-media standards.)

In the fourth stanza, Heaney offers a defense of the format:

For clarity’s what verse is good for.
It is a kind of aide memoire,
      A metronome
That ticks beneath the pace of talk
As feet convey you when you walk,
Shuttling on and shuttling back,
      On speech’s loom.

Despite the playful form, the verses shuttle straight into the political and the profound. A lifelong voice for the working class, Heaney considers the implicit privilege of higher education:

Inspire me, then, didactic muse,
Beyond clichés and pompous views
      Of Art and Science,
To be dulce et utile,
To speak sweetly and usefully
About the world and th’academy
      And their alliance.

Or is it not a misalliance,
Ivory towers in a world of violence
      And corporate money.
Are college walls perhaps a door
Shut to the working and the poor
While the privileged and the few ignore
      The unwashed many?

Do we not mystify the facts
And milk the taxpayer of his tax
      By the illusion
That our minds serve much higher ends
Than bending backs and blistered hands?
How much of common good depends
      On education?

In other words, dear graduates,
How do we justify our fates
      As an upper crust
With handfuls of credit cards and dollars
In hands as pale as our white collars?
      OAll flesh is dust.

It makes me say such status symbols
Are trivial as sewers’ thimbles
      And just as hard
For they can form a callous shell
Against the little pricking needle
Of other people’s needs, and kill
      The feeling heart.

But here, perhaps, I should explain
I was the eldest child of nine
      And I have brothers
Who barkeep, schoolteach — and don’t write.
One labors on a building site.
One milks a herd morning and night
      And in all weathers.

My father bargained on fair days.
My mother’s father worked the railways
      And linen mills.
One uncle drove a rural breadvan.
One aunt was more farmhand than woman.
One who became an enclosed nun
      Worked in hotels.

So part of me half stands apart
Beyond the pale of books and art
      And is not moved
Until they justify their place
And win their rights and can keep face,
Until their value for the race
      Is really proven.

Art by Shaun Tan for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

Heaney points out that the esteem of education alone is no guarantee of peace and justice — the highest-ranking Nazi leaders, he reminds us, were highly educated men and those who held down Galileo were esteemed scholars but were more concerned with keeping “the sum of knowledge static” than with advancing human thought. He considers, instead, the true sustaining force of the human spirit. Echoing Bertrand Russell’s ever-timely insistence on the role of “fruitful monotony” in a full life and Susan Sontag’s admonition against the false divide between intuition and the intellect, Heaney offers:

No co-ed dorm supplies the joys
Of an attic full of dusty toys
      And old dolls’ houses.
No faculty of engineering
Repeats the joys of tinkering
With model planes, that hankering
      To fly with aces.

It seems illiterate solitude
Is the first place where the true and the good
      Awaken in us.
The later freedom we call leisure
Cannot supply that buried treasure
Which is the basis and the measure
      of personalities

And which we name imagination,
A word I cite with much elation
      And some unease
Because it can sound slight and airy
An entry in the dictionary,
A bubble word. Yet while I’m wary
      I realize

I still want to declare its great
Sustaining force, early and late,
      From youth to age.
It does not just mean fancy thoughts.
Accountants, lawyers, graduates
In medicine, as well as poets
      Using language —

All need its salutary power.
All men and women must beware
      Who would deny it
And go against their childhood’s grain
And dry up like earth parched for rain.
They’ll grow mechanical and then
      No drug or diet

No health-farm, clinic, yoga course
No mantra om, no Star Wars force
      Will compensate
For what is lost when the mind divides.
Even science now concedes
The brain has two conjugal sides,
      The left and right.

To have to marry intuition
To the analytic reason
      For psychic balance.
Head sleeps with heart, begets a creature
Free yet cornered in its nature.
To be your whole self, you must mate your
      Brains and glands.

So scholarship and art must be
Fragrant with personality
      And moral feeling.
Distinction’s not an ego-trip.
Good luck helps many to the top
Yet once up there you can still slip
      And keep on falling.

Everything flows, an old Greek said.
Nothing’s secure. Gold’s only lead
      When you stop to think.
On your way up, show consideration
To the ones you meet on their way down.
The Latin root of condescension
      Means we all sink.

Let self-will be anathema.
Let the hierarchy and Mafia
      Join hand in glove
To doom and excommunicate
Whoever’s not compassionate,
Whoever will not contemplate
      The world through love.

Art by Emily Hughes from The Little Gardener

Speaking at the University of Pennsylvania, my alma mater, in May of 2000, Heaney begins by naming the perennial problem all successful speeches must solve — that of how a single person can “address a crowd of 25,000 and hope to establish any kind of worthwhile contact.”

And yet establish it he does, not only with the 25,000 people sitting on the Franklin Field bleachers that day but with millions more across time and space. In a sentiment that has only swelled in pertinence in the decade and a half since, Heaney offers:

Living in the world [of today] means that you inhabit several different psychic and cultural levels at the same time. And the marvelous thing about us as human beings is that we have been provided with a whole system of intellectual and imaginative elevators that whisk us from floor to floor, at will and on whim. This is the world of globalization where one thing can impinge unexpectedly and often drastically upon another; so much so that we no longer have any difficulty in entertaining the theory that the shake of a butterfly’s wing in one part of the world is going to produce a tornado in another.

Considering the singular precipice of graduation, as the young part with their certain past and prepare to plunge into this uncertain world, Heaney counsels:

My advice to you is to understand that this in-between condition is not to be regarded as a disabling confusion but that it is rather a necessary state, a consequence of our situation between earthy origin and angelic potential.

A master of metaphor, Heaney illustrates this notion with the poetic image of Terminus, the Roman deity of boundaries:

The image of the god Terminus was kept in the Temple of Jupiter, at a point where the temple was unroofed, open constantly to the sky. In other words, even Terminus, the god of limits, refused to recognize that limits are everything. The open sky above his head testified to his yearning to escape the ground beneath his feet… We are placed, as individuals and as a species, between a given history and habitat and any imaginable future.


Remember that the anchor of your being lies in human affection and human responsibility, but remember also to keep swimming up into the air of envisaged possibilities.

Complement with this cinematic tribute to Heaney, then revisit this collection of the most abidingly elevating commencement addresses of all time.


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