Clint Murphy, Will Storr
Clint Murphy 00:03
Today I enjoyed my conversation with Will Storr, an award winning writer whose journalism has appeared in The Guardian, The Sunday Times, The New Yorker and the New York Times, Will is the author of six critically acclaimed books. And today we talk about his latest book, The Science of storytelling, why stories make us human, and how to tell them better, which is a compelling guide to creative writing that reveals how the brain responds to storytelling. I hope you enjoy this conversation. Good morning. Will, welcome to the growth guide Podcast. I’m glad to have you here for a conversation about the science of storytelling. Before we start, can you share with our listeners a bit about your background and bio? Before we dive into the book?
Will Storr 00:55
Yeah, sure. My name is Will Storr and I am an author.
Clint Murphy 00:58
Excellent, keeping it simple. So well, something that was fascinating for me was when you started researching the art of storytelling for your first novel, you started to see similarities to research you had done on the human brain in the stories we tell ourselves. So while the scientists and storytellers started in different spots, they got to the same place. Can you talk a bit about that realization and how it influenced the writing of this book?
Will Storr 01:32
Yeah, sure. So yeah, I guess, you know, in sort of 2010, 2011, I was writing a book called the Heretics, which was published as The Unpersuadables what was in the US, and the heretics was asking that question, which was, why is it that smart people can end up believing crazy things, right? So it’s not like why stupid people end up believing stupid things. But why does sometimes really smart people go down these weird rabbit holes? And so the answer that I came to in that book was, the reason is that the brain isn’t like a computer that is designed to discover truth. The brain is like a storyteller. I mean, that’s what it is. And so it’s so the brain takes the confusion and chaos of actual reality and kind of remixes it into a very, very simplistic story. And if we’ve got healthy brain and healthy mind, it’s making us feel somewhat heroic. We’re this kind of heroic character, this good, noble character, pursuing important goals. And so that’s why we’re all vulnerable to believing crazy things. Because the brain tends to uncritically accept any fact it comes across that flatters its story and fits in with its story, and automatically reject any fact it comes across that that doesn’t, and smartness is no inoculation to this, like intelligence doesn’t make you any better at undermining your own beliefs. It just makes you better at finding reasons to convince yourself that you’re correct. So intelligence in some instances can actually work against you. So that was that book. And you know, seeing that that was my introduction to this idea that’s quite well known in psychology that the brain is a storyteller. But as I was working on that book, I was also trying to write my first novel and struggling and reading all the usual storybook, everybody reads. And I was noticing that a lot of the things that’s said in those storybooks were very similar to what the scientists are telling me how the brain works, you know, like, the importance of change, for example, in storytelling, how story is sort of runs on change. And and you know, that, and the scientists, the neuroscience was saying that, that change is, like identification changes how the brain works. So how we perceive like, if there are no changes in our environment, we literally can’t receive anything. So that was the beginning of that kind of journey for me really trying to fit these two very different worlds together.
Clint Murphy 03:32
And something you said right, there was important because you talk about it in the book, is that story of change. Yeah. And you say whether it’s a 60 word tabloid or a 350,000 word epic, every story we hear amounts to something changed. Yeah. Can you walk us through that? Well, what does that look like? And then you talked about as well, like the four ways of inducing that curiosity, around change. What does that look like?
Will Storr 04:13
Yeah, so, if nothing changes in a story, then you’ve clearly not you’ve not got a story, like something’s got to change otherwise, there’s no story to tell, right? Like, that’s the basic thing. And that the most important thing that changes in a story are the characters like, you know, story often tells a character change usually tells a character change from one state to another. And it can be a very basic surface level change, like in James Bond, who kind of, you know, changes the world around him, and, you know, moves regularly from sort of a strength kind of positions to relative weakness and vulnerability to, to kind of positions of strength, you know, he goes from in danger, out of danger, in a danger, out of danger, or, you know, in more literary storytelling, it’s changes so very profound change. You know, it can be quite subtle change, but it’s deep, where somebody learns something really important about the world that changes them forever. That’s the kind of change happens in more kind of, you know, more sophisticated storytelling than James Bond. As for curiosity, I mean, that’s another sort of really interesting, you know, thing that gets brains spontaneously curious, you know, spontaneously interested is when there’s a psychological, George Lowenstein, who specializes in curiosity, and he talks about this concept of information gaps. And so what an information gap is a, it’s a bit like a jigsaw puzzle with a piece missing, you know, or some pieces missing. And then, you know, when a human brain is presented with that kind of pattern, it becomes spontaneously curious. And so like, a really perfect example of that in storytelling is the murder mystery, like, you know, a true crime, documentary or murder mystery, drama will begin with a dead body. So you’ve got a set of circumstances, a set of characters, and someone’s dead. So it’s an information gap. And the question is, you know, who killed this person. So that’s the kind of storytelling that works on, you know it’s changed, something’s changed, someone’s died suddenly and unexpectedly. But it’s curiosity that drives that kind of storytelling, it’s that sense of being desperate to find out who killed this person, even if the person is completely made up and fictional, would become interested in finding out which other fictional person killed them.
Clint Murphy 06:16
And so when I look at that, Will, something that jumped out at me, I read a lot about how to get readers engaged, for example, in social media, and people talk about these concepts of open loops, is that what we’re doing when we’re trying to draw the reader to go to the next page or go to the next tweet in a thread is creating open loops and the open loops are, hey, if there’s some information, you don’t know the full story, you’ve got to go to the next tweet, to close the loop. But in the next one, I may actually open another loop. So now we have a bunch of open loops weaving throughout the story.
Will Storr 06:56
Yeah, totally. I mean, open loop is information gap. It’s what clickbait is, you’re not going to believe, you know, what, so and so said, that’s an information gap, you’ve got a character and who said something and that’s exploiting information gaps that kind of click baity online behavior? Definitely, yeah.
Clint Murphy 07:13
100%. So if we go back in reverse, order a little and go to the back of the book, before we come to the front and start exploring some of the ways on how to do it. I’d love to start with the power value and lessons of story, before we work with some of the how’s of the framework. Yeah. When it comes to power. There’s a paragraph that you wrote that really stood out to me. Story then is both tribal propaganda, and the cure for tribal propaganda. Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, advises his daughter that she’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks, if she learns a simple trick. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it. This is precisely what story enables us to do. In this way, it creates empathy. Can you share what you what you were really getting at in that paragraph? And how powerful story can be in our lives for people?
Will Storr 08:18
Yeah, so the best storytelling, you know, what it does is we open a page or, you know, start watching a movie or a TV series, and it throws us into the perspective of a character that’s often you know, nothing like us. And so, you know, that’s massive for kind of building empathy. And indeed, you know, there are historians who think that can trace the beginning of the entire concept of human rights to the invention of the novel. So when novels as we know them today, you know, started to be developed in the 18th century, you know, the time one of the first novels was a massive bestseller it was, you know, so modern, it was taught from the point of view of a, a female servant, and a female servant was being sexually harassed by her employer. And that was the novel and I was told from her perspective, so you know, these are extremely unawakened. And awoken times from our perspective, you know, this was even before the peak of the British Empire, this was a long time ago, when, when attitudes were extremely different. And yet, you know, people were being encouraged to see the world from the perspective of this unfortunate low status vulnerable woman. And so, you know, novels like that became bestsellers. And what happens in tandem with that is that you get the rise of this idea of human rights that actually isn’t just the people at the top of the pecking order, who are, you know, important and special in the need of protection is everybody every individual human has rights, no matter who they are. And, you know, you very quickly start getting things like, you know, in the UK, public execution was popular, it’s like an entertainment and then that got kind of outlawed, capital punishment got outlawed and you just get the spread of Human Rights and we’re still going through it now. And they’re kind of spread of this idea that every individual human is of equal value. So that’s what you know, really good storytelling does for you, it, it puts you, it gives you the perspective of people who might otherwise kind of feel very kind of disconnected and alienated from and it gets you to understand that every human is essentially similar and in need of and deserving of equal rights.
Clint Murphy 10:24
And correct me if I’m wrong. Will, I recall reading in the past that fiction does increase empathy in humans. So despite all we read online about, well, you should only read non-fiction, people who are doing that, sure, you might get a little bit smarter, but you’re not developing your empathetic muscles, which are quite important in moving ahead in today’s modern world.
Will Storr 10:48
Well, there were some studies that tried to look at that. And they surprisingly found them kind of hard to replicate. So that direct claim isn’t one I make in the book, because the studies are still kind of in dispute, but the one that isn’t in dispute, and is the one that is kind of related is adjacent and it’s about storytelling and how it reduces prejudice against kind of outgroups and so the studies that I write about, where they got two sets of people in the US and they measured their kind of bias to kind of prejudiced ideas about Muslims. This is in the years following 9/11 and the Iraq war so that there was quite a lot of negative thought going around at the time about the Muslim population of America and one group were made to watch the series Friends which of course is famously very white and very, very straight and another group were made to watch a sitcom called Little Mosque on the Prairie and the point of a little mosque on the prairie is it was depicted American Muslims as just like an ordinary families you know, it was like a bit like the Cosby Show, you know, it was it depict them as ordinary relatable people. And they found that after watching Little Mosque on the Prairie compared to the Friends people there prejudicial instincts about Muslims, has significantly reduced. And even more importantly, when they tested in the three months later, they found that they were still reduced. So experiencing Little Mosque on the Prairie, that story, that depiction of American Muslims, as you know, just ordinary Americans had had lasting effect on the way they saw the world.
Clint Murphy 12:19
That’s powerful. I love that. And so the idea that if we share the right stories, and we’re going to get progress, and it makes me think of, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of there’s a YouTuber named Dharman, and he has a YouTube Empire, and my kids would always watch these Dharman videos. And I thought to myself, guys, like you’re wasting so much time on this YouTube. And then I started watching his videos, and every one of his videos is a story that has a message. And they all end with, we’re not just telling stories, we’re changing lives. And Will, they’re so they’re so positively emotionally moving stories in such short, little snippets, that often I’ll watch one and I’m near tears at the end. And I think my gosh, the fact that my kids chose to watch Dar’s YouTube videos, these are phenomenal lessons, whether it’s race, equality, you go down the list, it’s all about what are good morals, bad morals, good ways to behave, bad ways to behave. It’s always, here’s the bad way to behave. Here’s what happens as a result of it, and here’s what should have happened. Right? Here’s the lesson we learned from it. So it’s, you know, when you talk about Little Mosque on the Prairie, it makes me think of those Dharman videos. And in hindsight now, I think almost every kid globally should watch these Dharman videos, because the world would be a much better place for it through the power of simple story and short snippet videos.
Will Storr 14:00
Yeah, sure. I mean, and that is the power of storytelling. I mean, there’s something really magical about, you know, like a good story. You can tell somebody, something like you should do this, you should do that. You can give them a rule in a written down form, like don’t be a bad loser. When it goes in one out in one ear and out the other. It’s like, don’t be a bad loser. All right, you know, it doesn’t mean that it has no emotional impact. But when you Storify ityou turn it into a story, you know, what happens when you’re experiencing a story is that your brain processes what’s happening, or whatever is happening to you. So you know, how do we learn anything in the world? Well, the powerful lessons are the lessons that we learn when we have the experiences ourselves, like, like if we experienced what is you know, the costs of being a bad loser, then we’re gonna learn much, much more clearly why shouldn’t be a bad loser. But storytelling is like not as good as learning itself but that’s what it’s doing is giving you the emotional experience. You know, you have the experience of what happens if you do this or you don’t do this. And so, like a great example that Aesop’s Fables, I mean Aesop was a freed slave who was writing his little little children’s stories are 2.5 thousand years ago, and we still know his stories. And you know, and one of one of his stories is about being a bad loser. It’s, there’s a wolf who’s thirsty and there’s some grapes juicy and full of lovely grape juice. And he, he jumps up and tries to get them, but he can’t get them. And so he just walks off and tells himself well, I didn’t want those grapes anyway, you know, who wants to eat those sour grapes. And so, you know, that’s a story about being a Don’t be a bad loser. That’s the you know, the wolf was like telling himself that the grapes were going to be sour, even though he had no idea. But if he’s just written down on his parchment, don’t be a bad loser, nobody would have taken notice. But we still know what sour grapes means. Today, sour grapes is known in China, it’s known in Eastern, you know, all over Europe. It’s known all over the Americas. Everybody knows what we mean, when we say sour grapes, you know, so and that’s, that’s because we come across the concept in the form of a story, you know, in the form of a, just a basic instruction. And, you know, that story has been informing people and helping people and teaching people for2.5 thousand years. And you know, we still know it today. That’s the power of this, of this stuff to kind of influence and change behavior.
Clint Murphy 16:13
And I only right now learned, that’s where the real meat behind sour grapes came from, is from that fable, which, which is pretty powerful right there. And that also, so I wanted to go to start talking about some of the ways we can use these techniques to improve our storytelling. And one of them is the idea of using imagery through metaphor. And when you’re talking about hey, I’m thirsty. The grapes, sore loser. Sour grapes. Yeah. So, you know, you mentioned George Orwell said a newly invented metaphor assists through evoking a visual image. So why are metaphors so powerful for us as authors? And how can we use them better in our writing?
Will Storr 17:04
Well, I think metaphors work because of the way the brain processes story. So the fundamental way the brain works is it’s not how it seems. So we feel like we’re looking out of our skull, like our eyes are windows, and our ears are empty tubes. And we’re looking out into the world as it is around us. But obviously, when you think about it, that’s not what’s happening at all, information isn’t coming out of the brain, if nothing’s coming out of our eyes, things are going in. So what actually happens is that signals from around our bodies are turned into electrical pulses. And the brain receives these electrical pulses like a computer reads code and turns it into this 3d hallucination of which is reality. And it happens inside our brains by process, which is still mysterious to scientists, they call it the hard problem of consciousness, they don’t really know how it works. Other sorts of theories that are incredibly complex, and I can’t get my head around, but we do know that we don’t look out, you know, the world is this story, it’s this 3d movie that we experienced inside our heads. And that’s true. So that’s what the brain is doing is it’s taking information and turning it into sound, color, vision, feeling, all that stuff, the stuff that we experience is life. And so that’s what’s happening when we read a book, for example, is that the brain doesn’t care where it’s getting its information from, it’s getting from words on the page or moving images on TV screen, it’s still doing its thing of taking it and turning it into this like hallucinatory world. And so really good writing works with that process a bit. Because what the brain needs is visual information, to turn enough information, to kind of create that kind of visual world. And, you know, that’s what happens when we think of ourselves being lost in a story, when we forget who we are, where we are, is that the story world has overtaken the real world, you know, like we forget to get off the bus or turn our lights out and go to sleep because the storyboard has become so vivid. So that’s what the writer is trying to do. They’re trying to trick the brain into imagining their story world and not the real world. So metaphor is a really good way of doing that. Because it it kind of forces the brain to imagine what you’re describing. So you know, one of the examples I gave in the book, I think it’s from Graham Greene and it’s just a guy who has just broken his leg and I think it’s like the pain went through his leg like a train through a tunnel. And so when you read that, you immediately think well, your brain immediately sort of thinks well, how can pain through a leg be like a train going through a tunnel? And so it forces you to imagine it Oh, I get it. Yeah, for that does sound painful, you know, or a visual metaphor. I use one from Michael Cunningham where somebody is putting linens on the clothesline in the sun and it’s and he describes them as being like jellyfish and so because you think well how can that happen like washing be like jellyfish and you can imagine I can imagine these knickers on the line you know, looking at jellyfish.
Clint Murphy 19:54
Yeah, just Yeah. Floating in the air.
Will Storr 19:57
That’s why they’re useful because they because they trick the brain into you’re kind of forcing the reader to imagine your story world. And that’s why stale and new and used up metaphors don’t work because you’re not tricking the brain because we’ve heard them a million times before. So there’s no puzzle for the brain to solve subconsciously. You know, because it because we’ve heard it a million times before. So we just sort of, you know, push through blast through it.
Clint Murphy 20:21
So it’s creating that new metaphor that causes the reader to pause and think and in that thinking, you’re getting them further into the story.
Will Storr 20:30
Yeah. So the brain saying, How can these, you know, knickers on a washing line be jellyfish? How does that work as a puzzle, and then you quickly solve the puzzle. But in solving the puzzle, you have to, you have to imagine it. So you’re forcing the reader to imagine the scene. But if the cliches been used a zillion times before, then you don’t, you’re not forced to mention it, because it isn’t a puzzle, because you’ve heard it before the puzzle has been solved, not being challenged to imagine anything.
Clint Murphy 20:55
And so another thing I recall you reading was when we’re creating that world, and we’re trying to get the reader into it. And we want to create a little bit of attention, and we want to get them into the detail. You had this idea that whether it’s a metaphor, or whether you’re describing the detail of the world, there was an idea of saying three things about the scenery. And when you do the three, it brings the reader instead of saying for example, He was holding a pencil. It’s a yellow, number five pencil. Yeah.
Will Storr 21:31
Number five, yeah, there was a study that says, some neuroscientists did a study in St. Louis center looking at actually, what is the optimal level of description to get people to imagine your thing. And it was three, it was quite, it’s quite interesting, kind of nerdy little detail, there was three things if you, yeah, if you’re trying to describe something, you just have to give three, you know, and three specific, not vague descriptions, and you know, points of detail, and that will get people to imagine it properly.
Clint Murphy 21:58
Is that also why when you think about it, a lot of times when people have lists about how to do things, often it’s list of three. So for example, I have you know, like how to achieve a goal know what you want, understand what it takes, do the work day in day out. Like it’s always that quick little three hit.
Will Storr 22:17
I don’t know. I mean, you’re absolutely right about that. And I don’t know, I can’t remember if I write about it in The Science of Storytelling. I don’t think I do. But Christopher Booker writes about this in his book, The Seven Basic Plots, which is kind of a masterpiece, really of kind of story theory. And he describes three as the magic number. I can’t remember what his theory is about why I don’t think we know why. But it’s definitely true that in story, and everywhere in human life, three seems to be this magic number. Like in the three bears, it’s not four plates of porridge that she tries, it’s not two, because two wouldn’t seem enough and four would seeing too many, three just seems right. So I think you’re right to observe that but I don’t know why. I don’t think it’s the same phenomena is just maybe it’s related. Who knows? But like, but yeah, in storytelling, three is definitely this kind of magic number where we and in nonfiction, that works too. I think when you’re trying to sort of, you’re right, like, here are three rules for this three rules for that, and just sort of seems to work. And these are the three things that you need to know about this thing as Christopher said two doesn’t feel like enough and four can get a bit too many. Getting old already. Yeah. So I don’t have a why for that, I’m afraid but it’s definitely true. Like, I really believe that that’s true about the number three.
Clint Murphy 23:30
Okay, so let’s pivot a little into characters. And I love that you brought up as an example, James Bond earlier on when you were talking about characters, because what I want to I want to talk about is this idea of using the flawed self, in our characters and James has a number of flaws that make him so intriguing. And why is it that when we see a character that has flaws, that it draws us into that character, instead of repelling us from the character?
Will Storr 24:02
Well, because I think in good storytelling, you’re often empathizing with your kind of protagonist. And I think that I think that that’s kind of how we all see ourselves that if you’ve got a healthy brain, the default kind of characterization for any healthy human is basically, I’m deserving of more status than I actually have. I deserve, I deserve more status than I actually have, I’ve made mistakes, but I’m essentially a good person. And you know, I have flaws, but I, you know, I’m trying to overcome them. You know, like I’m, I think that’s basically it. We all feel like the character at the beginning of a story where we are kind of relatively low status and a bit flawed, but on the path of righteousness and splendor, and we’re going to overcome our obstacles and we’re going to go in and achieve amazing things. So I think that’s one answer is that perfect characters, we don’t really relate to them because he because I think, you know, we’re so sensitive to status too, if they’re perfect, and I’m flawed rather than empathy that will inspire envyness, would just think, ah, you know, nobody wants to read about a perfect character, you just think what a fucking prick, you know, you don’t want to like them, you can get convicted because they make you feel kind of reduced. So I think that’s part of the answer. Another part of the answer is that story is always about, you know, good stories are about people learning things, like, you know, a character starts off making some kind of mistake about the world. And over the course of the story, they learn, they learn (A) that that what they thought was true isn’t true, and then (B) that they figure out a better way of being a less flawed way of being. So without the flaw there in the first place, you don’t really have a story, you know, it’s, um, you know, I know some superheroes are kind of, in the character level, they’re kind of perfect. And so I’ve got these superpowers that you know, but and James Bond is, you know, is seems to be all powerful and, and kind of indestructible in a sense, but they also do make mistakes during the story, you know, they get they get themselves in tricky situations that they have to kind of force them, fight their way out of you. So yeah, I think flaws and characters are really important. And then the more profound your stories are, the kind of more important the character flaw is.
Clint Murphy 26:08
It seems to be one of the reasons why when you look at Superman versus Batman, Superman can almost almost at times seem a little boring or trite. Because there’s almost no flaws. Whereas Batman is just one of us, who happens to be wealthy, saw his mom and dad murdered. And now he’s out for revenge. So he’s doing good, but he’s doing it from maybe not the right base. And there’s that flaw. And you’re like, come on. Yeah, we want you to experience the good.
Will Storr 26:46
Yeah, absolutely. And that’s what makes Batman, you know, much more profound and moving and interesting than Superman, is the flaws that make it make it more interesting, because you know what, one of the things that you’re doing when you’re introducing a flaw is the character becomes almost like the story almost becomes like a question about human life and human nature. Like, you know, the story becomes a test of the flaw. It’s like, is it true what this person believes? And so with Batman, you talk about that moral ambiguity. He’s kind of doing good, but is he doing good? Like, that’s a profound question. You know, like, if we’re out for taking revenge, is revenge always good. Like, maybe it isn’t sometimes. And so, through the flaws in the character, your story ends up asking really interesting and profound questions. And that’s ultimately what story is there to do really is there to teach us about the world is about to ask a question about human nature and about how does the world work.
Clint Murphy 27:39
And one of the things you mentioned a few seconds ago is you said, if the character is too perfect, it creates envy in us. And you highlight some work from research that shows as it relates to social emotion, the rule that status can play in how we feel about a character. So you talked about research that had been done on brain scans, when we see bad things happen to high status people versus low status people. Yeah. And so could you share with that research? And then how does that tie into the flaws that we just talked about and how we use it in our storytelling?
Will Storr 28:18
Yeah, so one of the very fundamental basic things about human nature is that we’re obsessed with status. But but but our obsession with status is often hidden from us. It’s kind of subconscious. That said, but we’re constantly playing status games in life, we try to raise our own status in a million different ways. And we’re very, very sensitive to the way that our status versus other people’s status now, it’s something that we that our brains are constantly aware of. Neuroscientists talk about this thing, the status detection system, which is kind of this always on bit of biological software that’s constantly measuring the perceptions of where we perceive to say other, versus other people, say, like, when it gets to a hotel lift, for example, your brain is going to be thinking, well, who’s getting out in the expensive floors at the top? Who’s getting out of the cheaper floors at the bottom? Who’s got the expensive luggage? Why is this person standing so close to me? That’s disrespectful, and, you know, all is constantly going on. And the study that you’re talking about, was done by researchers in China. What they did was they told that, you know, he, often with these psychological studies, they lie to the people who are doing them because they don’t want to know the real reason for the test. And so in this one, they said, oh, you know, I don’t know what they they said the test was, was actually for, but they said it’s late, there’s a bit of a delay. So do you want to just pass the time by playing this computer game? So you sit and play this computer game and you’re told this is a lie as well? Oh, listen, you know, you did pretty well in that computer game. You weren’t on the top, but weren’t on the bottom, either, you’re kind of in the middle. And then you’re like, you know, go and sit with these people in the waiting room. These people over there, they did amazing. They killed you. These people have had to kind of much better than you. So anyway, they sat there in the middle looking at the people who did better. And they’re looking at the people who did worse. And then their time comes to the test. And they go into a brain scanner. And they’re shown these videos of people having very painful looking facial injections. And the brains, you can tell quite easily, if we’re feeling, when we’re feeling empathy. When you’re feeling empathy for somebody, you can’t, your brain reacts to what’s happening to them as if it’s happening to you. So you can see if you’re empathetic with the person getting the facial injections, your pain signals are going to become activated in your brain scan, it’s going to show and you can measure how much empathy you’re feeling for the people. And the twist was, is that they showed some of the people getting injections were the people who did worse than in them in the computer game. And some of them were the people who did better than them in the computer game. And when they took the people out of the brain scanner, they said to them, did you feel empathy for those people? And they said, Oh, yeah, definitely did, it was terrible. And then they said, did you feel empathy for all of the people and they go, Yeah, yeah, of course I did. Of course, I did. It was terrible. But the brain scans showed the lie, they only felt empathy for the people lower down, they didn’t feel much empathy at all, for the people above them. So that’s just human nature. And that that’s how we think about people who are high status. And of course, you’ve only got to kind of see real life to see that in action. I mean, you know, left and right, we’re all guilty of it, of being completely cruel to people who are high status. And the way we talk about, you know, powerful business people and celebrities and royalty and politicians is as if they’re not human. We say the most ghastly, awful things about them. And we don’t care. And it’s, you know, that and then the kind of the implicit, the implicit belief is, well, they know they’ve got it made, you know, why should they care? Why should I care what they feel because they’re so rich and famous and powerful?
Clint Murphy 31:42
That’s a good point right there. We almost don’t even talk about them in a way that involves their humanity. It’s purely what do we want out of them? Yeah. What story do we want? Yeah, like, ignore the fact that Harry and Meghan have kids. And like, forget Archie, like, let’s just let’s just pillory, the two of them and not worry about the fact that they’re human beings.
Will Storr 32:09
Well, they said, Yeah, obviously think about Elon Musk, as well as everybody, like, you know, like he’s like one of the richest man in the world. Yeah. But he’s also one of the most hated men in the world, and one of the most ridiculed men in the world. And you know, you can be good, but he knows that, like, he knows that, and I’ve no doubt it causes him pain, when he sees some of the things that are written about him. And I mean, you know, like, he’s not like most mortals, but he’s still mortal. So yeah, it’s true, this, you know, it’s not a particularly nice side of human nature. But it’s functional, you know, envy, kind of when it’s productive, you know, envy can manifest in two different ways. It can be negative and toxic. And it can lead us to kind of try to bully people and push pull them down. But it can also motivate us to try and achieve more in the world. You know, it can be it can be productive, envy, if it’s experienced in the right way.
Clint Murphy 32:57
Thanks for listening. If you enjoy what you’re hearing so far, and want me to be able to get your favorite guests on this show, please do me a quick favor, subscribe to the show. And leave me a rating, the 30 seconds of your time will mean a ton to me. And a lot of that you’ve already said is subconscious and unconscious. So we’re gonna talk a bit about that idea, because you talk about that, about the two levels of storytelling. So we’re gonna get that into a second. But before we get there, I have a section of the book I’m gonna outline and then have you color it in for the listeners. And that is this idea that good stories have a kind of ignition point. It’s that wonderful moment in which we find ourselves sitting up in the narrative. Suddenly attentive, our emotions switched on. Curiosity intention sparked, an ignition point is the first event in a cause and effect sequence that will ultimately force the protagonist to question their deepest beliefs. So what does an ignition point look like? And how can we use that whether we’re telling a big story, or whether we’re writing a thread on Twitter and we want to we want to ignite the reader?
Will Storr 34:13
Well, ignition point for that you need a character and you need, you know, who’s experiencing a story, really. So how stories often begin is that you’re introduced to a character, right? And you’re introduced to them and they kind of tell you who they are, and you get a sense of what their kind of flaw is, what their flawed idea about the world is. So for an example might be in The Godfather, you know, the very famous movie, The Godfather, and that begins at the wedding. And you know, we meet like Michael Corleone and he’s this decorated war veteran who wants to has ambitions to be a politician or senator. And then his fiancee or girlfriend I forget, I don’t know if their engaged yet, but it doesn’t matter. She noticed that the wedding that all these families appear to be gangsters and she’s like, what the fuck’s going on and you know, and he says to her, you Don’t worry about them. He said, That’s them. That’s not me. That’s them. Okay. So that’s fine. That’s how stories often begin. It’s at this point, we’re not particularly interested, it’s kind of boring the first few, it’s not that interesting. The first few, you know, you know, first minutes of the Godfather, it’s because it’s people that are at a wedding and all right, okay, fine. They’re gangsters. But all right, the story hasn’t begun yet. The story kind of ignites and becomes interesting when something specifically happens to challenge that belief that the character has about the world. So in the case of The Godfather, that there’s an attempt on the life of his dad. And so that forces him to readdress that idea that forces him directly to go, okay, my belief about me is that I’m not a gangster, I’m a stand up guy, I’m an honest guy. But they just tried to kill my dad. So now, you know, what am I going to do? Instead, that’s when the story begins. And I call it the ignition point, because it really feels like it catches fire, like, you know, like, in a good story. You know, often, even in the novel, The first few chapters even can be like that, this is a bit of a slog, but there’s something then will happen, and then suddenly, you’ll go fuck, you know, and when I was writing the book, I was just really keen to figure out what was going on in those moments. And I think that’s what it is, you know, it’s that that thing happens, which directly connects with the character’s flawed idea about the world.
Clint Murphy 36:19
And you talked about this idea that it’s, it’s the two levels of storytelling. It’s not only the conscious, but it’s the subconscious. How do we best evoke both pieces to really ignite the reader?
Will Storr 36:31
So you know, story is like human life story is just a recreation of human consciousness. And in human life, there are two levels of life, there’s, there’s the exterior level, there’s the drama that happens around us that you know, the goals that we’re pursuing, the people that we’re talking to, the conscious thoughts that we have, we also have this like, great stewing subconscious, which we don’t have kind of full access to, or yet, we don’t have any direct access to actually, you know, that’s all going on too and story, you know, good stories kind of reflect that. So what happens is in, just like in life is a constant conversation between conscious and subconscious. And the things that happen in the exterior world changes in the interior world, and changes in the interior world then cause us to act differently in the exterior world. So they’re constantly kind of talking to each other. So that’s how kind of character change happens. It’s like, um, you know, when Michael Corleone is battling the obstacles that are coming with the attack on his father and his family’s business, you know, he’s being changed subconsciously, he’s becoming more and more evil. Like he begins, he begins as somebody who is a stand up war veteran and wants to be a senator, but he ends up completely corrupted, it’s like the Walter White thing, you know, like in Breaking Bad. So that’s what in good storytelling you have is that the external events change, change the person internally, and then as they change internally, they begin to act differently kind of externally. So it’s that constant, cause and effect between the two levels of story.
Clint Murphy 37:57
Oh, beautiful. And so that ties to this idea, there’s this concept that you highlight – for characters in well told stories, they’re three dimensional. And you talk about this as the idea of multiplicity. They’re both recognizably who they are, and yet constantly shifting as their circumstances change. And so can you expand a bit more on that, and you also, interestingly, somehow tie that to your own diet routine?
Will Storr 38:32
Yeah, so this idea of kind of multiple selves, I think, is really interesting. It’s, some of it relates to kind of personality. So in bad storytelling, you meet a character and character is always the same. It’s like a cartoon character, where they’re always in the same mood, you know, they’re always the same. They’re always, you know, the moment in storytelling, culturally, we’ve got this ridiculous kind of profusion of strong female characters are always seems to be the same character. They’re sassy, they’re sarcastic. And they’re rude to everybody. They don’t take any shit from the men, you know, like, like, you see this character all the time, at the moment in movies in drama. And they never change, they’re always the same. They’re always rude and sassy, that they don’t have any vulnerability. They don’t make mistakes. So for me, that’s bad storytelling, because it’s completely unbelievable. Like a good storytelling. Like, for example, it will be a character like Tony Soprano in the Sopranos, who, you know, he’s recognizably who he is. But in different contexts, we see we see massively different facets of him. So we see the loving family man when he’s driving his daughter Meadow around to visit universities. But you also see the kind of psychopathic violence of which he is capable. So that’s, that’s really good storytelling, that’s really good characterization, because that’s who we are. But it doesn’t mean that we are all things at all times like that. What does it mean to say we’ve recognizably who we are. And so an example might be if it’s a somebody’s personality, that they’re very neurotic, and that they’re very highly sensitive to threats, then you know, you that’s who they are. And they’re not going to be like that in every single scene, but it will be it will influence how they experience life in general. If you imagine like a bunch of people on a roller coaster, everybody’s terrified, everybody’s highly sensitive to threat. That’s the whole point of the roller coaster. But the neurotic person is gonna be the most terrified on the whole thing. And I think that’s so that’s what we mean by kind of a, you know, three dimensional character is that they are recognizably who they are. But in different scenes, we see it, we see different facets of who they are, we see that manifesting in different ways depending on their particular circumstance,
Clint Murphy 40:37
When you start to think of the subconscious for these characters, something that you talks about storytelling, but even goes beyond story and goes into everyday life is this idea of needs versus wants. So for example, you often someone says they want to lose weight, or they want the sports car, but what they’re really looking for is to build that emotional need of, if I have the sports car, people will like, yeah, if I lose weight, my wife will look at me and be attracted again, or my partner will this. And so how do we use that needs and wants to shift characters and tell a story and get people into the story?
Will Storr 41:31
Yeah, so people want a million different things that they like, you know, sports cars, or promotions, or, you know, this person’s hand in marriage or whatever it is. So consciously, we you know, we have these very specific ones and characters and stories have these very specific ones. They’re trying to, you know, do whatever they’re trying to do in the drama of the story. But subconsciously,, as you say, it’ll be a need. And so psychologists talk about two different kinds of motivations. In humans, they call it there’s proximate motivations, and there’s ultimate motivations. So the proximate motivations are the things that we think that we want. So what do I want right now. I want pizza. Why do you want pizza? Well, it’s I love pizza. It’s delicious and I’m hungry. So that those are the proximate motivations. Those are the conscious motivations. Those are the obvious motivations. But the ultimate motivations is like, why evolutionary speaking, do you want that thing? And obviously, it’s because I need calories, like eat like, like, No, I’m always on the hunt for kind of calories. And pizza is very calorie dense. And so for pizza and have lots of calories. And so you know, more profound versions of that are, you know, so you can think about that there are kind of three basic classes of ultimate motivations. You know, the first one is survival. So that’s, that’s the pizza one. And there are stories about which are about survival. So like, The Revenant, is about survival. And, you know, that’s what’s trying to, you know, Leonardo DiCaprio trying to achieve the revenant simply he’s trying to survive, but most are is about the other two, ultimate sort of sets of motivations. So there’s basically its connection and status. So humans wants to get along with each other, because we’re tribal, we want to be want to be accepted into tribes and so that so, that getting along can be about I want to fit in with this group and be accepted by this group or it can be familial, or it can be romantic, or it can be you know, so like, I want to reconnect with my children or it can be, I want to, like nobody loves me and I want to feel loved or it can be romantic. It could be I want this person’s hand in marriage, and the other one we always talk about is status, you know, people really want status. So in the film, Whiplash is proximate motivation is he wants to become the best jazz drummer. He wants to impress this teacher who teaches jazz drumming and he’s so desperate to impress him, he’ll do anything the ultimate motivation is status you’ve got what he wants his status and that’s the particular way that he’s getting status. So you see that kind of you know, throughout storytelling is that people want a million things but really what they actually want are three things and that’s survival, connection and status.
Clint Murphy 43:58
I digress a little on as soon as you were use the word The Revenant, just the vivid imagery that was used in that movie when it comes to two scenes. One, the bear attack, to win to survive and to be warm, he he goes inside the horse. Like and I don’t know how that imagery was arrived at. But you can almost never shake it for the rest of your life. Someone throws out Leo DiCaprio and revenant you’re like, oh, yeah, the bear attack or Oh, yeah, a horse. Yeah, it’s just that use of imagery, Will.
Will Storr 44:40
Yeah, totally. And but I always think it’s interesting to think about story just in those three simple terms. Like what are the threats in storytelling that really connect with us. Well, there are threats to survival when the survival of the character is threatened. That’s obviously woah, you know that that that sucks us in because we can relate to that, but also connection so so if our if our character has been rejected by the person that they love, if they’ve been ostracized from their group, or if they isolate from their family or even from humans in general, if they’re lonely, we can relate to that. But also status like if they have this kind of sudden drop in, in esteem from other people and their tribe, or they’re desperately trying to perceive status in the way that the guy from, you know, Whiplash is or Eminem is in Eight Mile. That’s a film of that status, you know, we can completely relate to that. Yeah, so that’s why even if we don’t care about jazz drumming, or being a rap battler, or even if we never going to be in a situation like Leonardo DiCaprio is in which we’re not, it’s still we still relate to it, because fundamentally, that they’re still they’re still films about those, those ultimate needs, which all humans share, which is survival connection and status.
Clint Murphy 45:48
Survival, connection and status in the best part is, you can play them against each other. So even though and this is why we tend to love that character, and I’m thinking of it, you know, the more we talk, I’m picturing movies or Netflix shows and you have that high character status, who at first you don’t like yeah, because they’re the rich kid. And then you start to get to know them. And they’ve got some deep flaws. For example, they might have an abusive parent or a horrible family life. And all they really want is they want people to see past the status, so that they can connect. And then all of a sudden, well wait now I liked that character.
Will Storr 46:31
Yeah, because because because you empathize with him because you know, that’s, that’s a serious connection problem. If your parents abused you, you’ve got broken connection with your parents. And that’s, that’s something that we didn’t know how rich people are. That’s something we can relate to. And that’s why high status, people love to tell stories of their, their difficult, difficult upbringings. And they love to tell stories about their problems, because it’s because it encourages sort of connection with them. And then the other interesting stuff about this is if you think about some stories are just about those things. So the Revenant is really just about survival. That’s what that’s about, you know, a story like Brokeback Mountain is pretty much only about connection. It’s about two men who are in love, but because of the homophobic culture they’re in, they find it difficult. And Whiplash is pretty much about status. So that’s about it’s about somebody trying to go from there to there, and Eminem’s, you know, eight mile, but if you think about our most profound stories, the ones that feel absolutely rich, and the stories that we can watch again and again and again and again, like The Godfather, like Star Wars, like Romeo and Juliet, they’re about all three of those things almost equally. Yeah. Yeah, it was about survival. And it’s about connection with the family, was also about the status of the family. Star Wars is about survival and the you know, connection with the different characters. And the status, his childhood name was wormy. And then by the end of the film, he’s been, he’s got this big gold medal on and everyone’s cheering him, you know, he’s raised, rising stages. This is kind of huge. And of course, Romeo and Juliet is about survival. It’s about the connection of the lovers. And it’s about the status of the, you know, the different families having this kind of status battle. So that’s what makes stories, the most kind of profound stories, the ones that win. That’s why we feel that we can watch them a million times because they’re so rich in human life, because they’re tackling all those three big, big questions at once.
Clint Murphy 47:41
And the the other thing that jumps out at me and one of my favorite authors growing up as I was reading the series, and I pick on everybody because they make fun of fantasy, but then they all love Game of Thrones is George RR Martin. Well, they because he uses, he uses all three of these. And then the other element that I love that he does is is when you talk about multiplicity, he really puts to work that idea that good people do bad things, and bad people do good things. Because you never know what a character is going to do in his books. There’s no oh, well, that person is always good. Because that’s not reality. And he really shows that anybody will do what they need to survive, for the connection of their family. And too, in that series to get the status. Everyone wants the throne. Yeah, what will they do to get it right?
Will Storr 49:12
Yeah, absolutely. And that’s why I mean, you know, that’s a great example Game of Thrones, I mean, that’s another one that’s doing that stuff about its survivor. It’s gonna It’s all three of those things. And that’s why it has that it has the same feeling to it as the Godfather and Star Wars and Romeo and Juliet it just feels so rich in human life because it’s addressing the big three themes of human existence at once.
Clint Murphy 49:34
Even Harry Potter as light as it is. Yeah. And as children ish as it is. It’s all three and she does a very fabulous job of all three Yeah, is Yeah, hmm. You’re giving me ideas. I wrote I write fantasy novels with my sisters. Now I’m tweaking my characters as we talk.
Will Storr 49:54
This is also based on research I’ve done since the book so you won’t you won’t have read about this in the past.
Clint Murphy 49:59
Yeah, but no, but it’s jumping out. And it’s, it’s enjoyable just to dive through with you. And so I want to share it because as we go to the status and how we can use it to create that battle, I want to share some words you had as it relates to a scene that you saw, and how it made you feel. And then we can talk about how to kind of engender that feeling in other people. So watching Dancer in the Dark. Oh, yeah, you became enraged with caveman emotion at the raw and inordinate expression of selfish versus selfless, you’d have gladly stepped into the screen and clubbed the character to death. So can you explain the scene that you watched? And how that tied to this concept of social emotion heroes and villains, moral outrage, so that we can learn how to evoke that in our readers?
Will Storr 50:55
Yeah, so in Dancing in the Dark is a story that’s about an Eastern European immigrant to America, and her name is Selma. And so Selma is, has a congenital eye defect. So she’s, she’s going blind, very rapidly. And she’s keeping it a secret from everybody because she’s desperate to save up enough money to pay for her son to have an operation because he’s got the same defect. And if he doesn’t have an operation by the time is 13, he goes blind too. So she’s desperately trying to earn enough money. She works in a metalworking factory, which is very dangerous for a blind person to work in, because they’re punching out sinks out of sheet metal, so it’s very dangerous, that it’s kind of obvious, she’s going blind, because you can’t really keep that stuff as a secret. So you know, kind of halfway through the movie, she gets fired from the metalworking factory. So because she just cannot work there anymore for her own safety. So you think, Oh, my God disaster, but luckily, she’s just about to save enough money to pay for her son’s eye operation. And she goes back to her caravan where she lives. And that her kind of mobile home kind of caravan is in the garden of the local police officer whose name is Bill. And she goes into a caravan she finds that her money tin has gone missing. So she goes into the house, to Bill’s housing, she finds that Bill has stolen all her money. So yeah, that’s the scene that I’m describing. And that kind of thing then sort of happens, this is extremely dramatic scene where she she tries to wrestle the money off him, and then he pulls a gun, and then she gets the gun off him. And he then sort of collapses into despair. And so the reason that that is such a moving scene, is because of how storytelling evolved in the human animal. So one of the sort of basic purposes of storytelling is to kind of control human tribes, is a human storytelling ever, ever evolves out of tribal gossip. And so, you know, back in the days of hunter gatherer group and we’re living in mobile bands, there’s obviously no, there’s no police officer, there’s no judicial system, there’s no written law, so how do we control other people’s moral behavior, we do it with gossip. And, you know, gossip is really important to human life. And so what would happen in the tribe is that you would gossip about other people’s moral behavior, and gossip has this kind of really kind of sinister quality that it kind of encourages conformity against people, like you’ve only got to see watch reality TV like Love Island or Big Brother, wait to see it happening all the time is that people start gossiping about somebody else in this, this sense of kind of the evil consensus arises and how group forms against that person. And back in the day of the hunter gatherer group, that’s a really dangerous, like, if you become the target of tribal gossip, that you could very easily end up being killed and even eaten, you know, it’s thought that capital was a human universal once. So we kind of fear it. But we still have that programming in us. And so that sense of moral outrage that arises when we when we hear stories of especially high status, people behaving selfishly towards low status people, that we get that tribal sense of moral outrage, we get a sense of fury. And in real life, you know, we end up force, attacking people, you know, physically, but often online trying to get revenge on them. But in the context of the film, there’s nothing you can do, you can’t, you know, you get that sense of moral outrage. And so it kind of forces you to keep watching. It forces you to keep turning the page because you become so desperate to see that the evil high status person, selfish person being getting their comeuppance, getting punished, that it kind of compels you to keep engaged with the story until you get that final, immensely satisfying sense of relief, when they finally do get their comeuppance.
Clint Murphy 54:32
And so that’s usually the villain that we want that comeuppance for. When you talk about the hero and we talk about that culmination. One of the ideas that you talk about, as they we’ve talked about they want to earn status, but there’s something deeper about that. So what you say is, but heroes in story and in life have a final essential quality that we’ve yet to fully encounter. This is our oldest and most fundamental drive, probably originating back to when we were single celled organisms. Humans are directed towards goals. Yeah. And so we haven’t talked about that yet. How is that goal drive, which essentially is the whole story is because we’re starting, and there’s some goal we’re trying to get to. Now, as we talked later, survival, connection, status. But how does that goal drive the story?
Will Storr 55:28
Yeah, your protagonist has to have a goal otherwise, because the goal is what the goal is what drives the story, like, you know, we’ve been taught about the godfather. So, you know, the reason the first you know, first minutes of the Godfather aren’t particularly interesting is because there’s no goal, there’s just some people at a wedding having a chat, not interesting. But the you know, it becomes interesting. And a part of that ignition point is when the goal appears. So of course, when that when there’s the attempt on the life of Michael Corleone’s father, he suddenly has a goal, okay, I’ve got to protect my family now. I’ve got protect my dad to make sure that they don’t complete this attempt in his life. And then that becomes I’ve got to defend the family, I’ve got to make sure that we don’t get destroyed by rival mob clans. That you know, so that’s true in stories, it is also true in life, like we are goal directed, all living things are goal directed, if you’re not goal directed, you’re depressed, there’s something wrong with you, you know, you’re lying in bed, and you’re miserable. And you know, and that’s kind of how we feel. That’s how we feel when we’re depressed. We feel that that that our goals are kind of pointless, we’re not particularly interested in anything. It’s almost like the definition of depression is that you feel like there’s no point in even trying and you know, sometimes you feel that even the goals that you should be pursuing, is easy. ,you just don’t really value them anymore. So yeah, it’s so it’s almost a definition of depression, when the storytelling, our storytelling powers become weak. We don’t feel like heroes pursuing goals anymore. We feel like the obstacles of the world are insurmountable. And the goals don’t matter that much anyway,
Clint Murphy 56:51
That’s an interesting one is when you lose, when you get into that state where the goals don’t matter anymore. And what you used to want now you don’t want Yeah, is there a way with our writing that we can use that to bring the reader in?
Will Storr 57:12
No, I mean, I think it’s very difficult to write depressed characters, because they’re not active. You know, and actually, it’s actually a surprisingly common error that storytellers make, not necessarily writing depressed characters, but writing characters that aren’t active. So you’ll often see a character who, lots of bad things are happening to them, and they’re just sort of reacting. You know, they’re just going oh, no, and but they’re not actually proactive, they’re actually, you know, like a story is a sequence of causes and effects. And your protagonist should be proactive, that they should be the principal cause of the effects of the story, not the only one, for sure, but the principal one, and if they’re not the principal, cause of the effects of the story, they’re not actually the protagonist, some somebody else is.
Clint Murphy 57:51
And even if you have to, they’re not the main character, but they’re one of your core characters. You always want them in that active voice versus passively reacting to the world around them.
Will Storr 58:03
Yeah, they’ll be like, Oh, I’m gonna do something about this. And also, that’s how you see, that’s how they change. You know, like, in life, we are kind of always experimenting on ourself, we know we’re always testing things out and seeing how they work. And hopefully, growing as that’s what growth is becoming better people, as we as we figure out better theories about how to control the world, we figure out better how the world actually works, and how we ought to be in the world to get what we want. That’s what growth is. So if you’re not doing that, in life, or in story, you’re not growing, you know, so you’ve got to be testing, testing, I’m gonna try this, I’m going to try that, then. And then you’ve asked me if that’s something unexpected happens. So I’m gonna, I’m going to recalibrate, I’m going to, I’m going to adjust and that’s how that’s our character change happens. It’s this constant adjustment through the story, you know, ups and downs, you don’t always get better, sometimes they get worse and make a really terrible decision. But generally speaking, they’re learning. And the story ends when they’ve finally figured out when they’ve finally figured out that what they thought the beginning of the story that was wrong, and they finally changed.
Clint Murphy 59:04
And Will, even take that out of storytelling and take that into life, as a person who works with with clients and coaching in life goals, etc. I mean, that’s one of the main things we’re looking to help people do is to say, Hey, you’re not a passive character in life, where life’s happening to you. Let’s pivot how we’re thinking about it. You are in control of your life. You’re the main character, life happens for you, let’s change how we proactively act on a day to day basis to get what we want. Essentially, what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to take people and say, Hey, you can go through the five acts of a story. You don’t have to just be stuck having the story happened to you. Let’s tell the story the way you want it to be.
Will Storr 59:59
Yeah, that’s right. And there’s lots of scientific research on reframing which, which is literally about, you know, you get you back, you go through your life and think about those traumatic things that are very painful to think about. And you can rewrite them, you know, you can you can reframe them. And I think one of the, you know, one of the things that people don’t necessarily grasp is that every single traumatic episode in their life, they have been somewhat heroic, because they got through it, most of us have the definition of kind of being a hero, when something, some terrible obstacles come in your way. And, you know, you might come through it bleeding and bruised, and a bit broken. But that’s what heroes do, you know, they get through it, and they grow as a result. That’s the definition of a hero. So it’s kind of cheesy as it sounds like if you’re, if you’re living in the world today, and you know that you have been heroic at times in your life, you know, 100% everybody has, but it was sometimes not very good at telling that to ourselves, because we look at our back and we think there were these if these are experiences of pain, it’s like, yeah, there are experiences of pain, and you don’t like thinking about them, but fuck, you got through it, didn’t you, you did it, then here you are alive and improved somehow.
Clint Murphy 1:01:07
The. And so what that resonates is is the idea of and a final question on the book, and then I’ll throw some final four rapid fire questions at you, is this idea of a five act structure and in the book, we’ve talked a number of times about the Godfather. And I think that’s because it’s masterful storytelling, and you use the Godfather to contrast. Well, what are the 5 actshat generally you’ll see, in almost every story? What does that look like for the listener?
Will Storr 1:01:39
Yes, so some storytelling, people say that you you need 5 acts or you haven’t got a story, that’s not my position, like, my position is that these five acts that are you know, well known storytelling, Shakespeare used five acts, you know, like, that was his thing. If you want to do big mass market, crash, bang, wallop, best selling book, storytelling, then you should be using the five acts, but lots of literary storytelling doesn’t go through this whole site whole cycle, the five acts really show the a full transformation of a character. And they kind of work like this, so we talked about the Godfather, for example, you know, we’re beginning with, so the act one is kind of this is me, right? In the Godfather is, this is me, I’m this son of a gangster who’s not a gangster, but it’s not working. So that’s when the ignition point happens. It’s like, something happens, which makes the character realize this idea they had about themselves or the world, which they thought was absolutely true, might not be true. So that’s Act one. This, isn’t it and it’s not working. Act two is kind of is there another way, what you’ll find often is the character experimenting with a new version of who they are, like, you know, can I be it? Can I be a version of me, in which this isn’t true. So in The Godfather, you see him experimenting with being a gangster, you know, learning the art of street violence, as opposed to kind of violence in war. And what you often see in this part of the story is teacher characters come forward to help and guide like Yoda characters that get to help them you know, like, become this new version. And then in Act Three, which is the middle of the story, they transform, they embrace this new version of who they are. So in the middle of the Godfather, famously, he commits a murder, he kills a rival gangster, and also the police chief. So he knows that he can no longer say, that’s not me, I’m not like that. I’m not a gangster, because he is now and then there’s no going back. And then what happens in Act four is that is this kind of period of great testing is, is the story’s kind of going, okay, you’ve transformed, you’ve changed now. But what are the costs of this change? You know, what’s going to happen, you know, like, you really got in now. So in the case of Michael Corleone that the costs are, there’s now gang warfare, and everybody wants him dead. So it’s this period in the film of like, massive violence, what the story is doing, is it’s testing me saying, Okay, well, you know, you think you’re a gangster now, but are you can you handle it? And what you often get in Act four is a moment of attempted retreat. So you know, like, there’s a scene in The Godfather, where he’s saying to his partner, oh, you know, like, I’m going to take the family legit, like, you know, we’re not going to be violent anymore. Like, we’re gonna go legit, we’re going to be a legit sort of legal entity. And then in Act five is kind of the final showdown when there tends to be a the stories asking the character finally, you know, who you’re going to be, you’re going to be the old version of you, or are you going to be the new version of you? So there’s often a final showdown and the character fully commits and says, Yes, you know, and the character really shows fully who they are in that final scene and in in the final scene is you see him being christened as the actual Godfather with all these gangsters literally genuflecting in front of him and kissing his ring and that’s the final scene before the credits roll. It’s the final moment of him telling you, you know, is the opposite of that first scene with him going as not me, I’m not a gangster, that’s a full, that’s a full banquet kind of story, you know that that’s your full character change. But I’ve literally storytellers just have that one and two, he’s just sort of if you’re presented with a character who’s not working for some reason, and the story is them in a very kind of literary and slow way, figuring out what’s wrong with them. And there might be a hint at the end that they’re going to change, but you don’t get to see it.
Clint Murphy 1:02:40
When you think of some of these fantasy series, epic fantasy, or even book series movies, the ones that do have the five acts, is that why sometimes it takes multiple books to do that is, is you’re taking the character through the arc of that journey over the course of multiple books.
Will Storr 1:05:50
Well, it doesn’t need multiple books to do that. No, I mean, that Jaws does it in 90 minutes. You know, the jaws everyone thinks Jaws is a story about a shark but it’s actually a story about a man who’s scared of water. That’s the that’s the structure. So at the beginning of Jaws, you meet this guy Brody, who has a phobia of water is terrified of drowning. And at the end, the shark is the ignition point. And he’s got to because he’s, he’s responsible for the security of the community. So he’s got to go and fight the shark. And so in the middle, the equivalent of that of Corleone killing somebody in Jaws is him going out to sea to fight the shark. Act four is the gang war is the is fight with the shark. And the final beat at the end of Jaws is him paddling back to water saying I used to be scared of the water I can’t imagine why. And the credits roll so it’s the same exactly the same. That happens in 90 minutes is a very simple story but it does it every five act very effectively and exactly in time with exactly the shark expert appears in act two to teach him the ways of the water and he has a you know, a knack for he has a wobble where he goes, Oh, I want to go back but somebody smashes the walkie talkie absolutely can’t phone to be rescued. So yeah, it doesn’t take multiple books to do this. You can do it in or you can even do it ninety what he’s doing, you can you can probably do it in three minutes. You know, like if you had a really efficient story.
Clint Murphy 1:07:05
All right. I’m gonna work on that. And so you got a quick minute for four rapid fire questions? Yeah, of course. Yeah. Yeah. All right. What’s one book that’s had a massive influence on your life
Will Storr 1:07:17
On my life? Is it well, it’s very obscure, but there’s a book called Bad Wisdom by Bill Drummond Manning was a book I read as a teenager. And it was the first book that really kind of spoke to me and actually was the first time I actually felt that books weren’t for like boring old people that actually you could you could have a book that was that actually spoke to me in a way that kind of music spoke to me, which is my big passion at the time.
Clint Murphy 1:07:43
And what’s something you’re reading right now that you’re enjoying.
Will Storr 1:07:46
Oh something that I’m reading right now that I’m enjoying, there’s a really good story shooter in the UK called Tim Locks. And he’s got a book coming out next month about storytelling called I think it’s called Yes, but No, but why? Very good. Highly recommended book about storytelling.
Clint Murphy 1:08:05
Yes, but No, but why I love the sound of that already. What’s one thing that Will has spent less than $1,000 on in the last 12-18 months that you’ve thought, wow, I wish I had bought this sooner.
Will Storr 1:08:17
And less than $1,000 on that I thought I wish I’d bought this sooner. That’s a good question. I wish I bought this. Oh, I tell you what, I wish I bought sooner. I’ve bought a proper music player. So I can listen to music. Not in my proper music player with proper earphones is by a company called Hiby? And it cost $600 I absolutely love it. Yeah. Is that the set? You can’t even compare the sound quality with your phone. So yeah, it’s that I wish I kind of got that sooner that that’s I’m very happy with that purchase.
Clint Murphy 1:08:54
600 bucks. Oh, wow. And it looks stunning, too. It’s like an older iPod. Yeah, but what’s sexier .
Will Storr 1:09:05
I think they are Gen are five.
Clint Murphy 1:09:08
Yeah. And it just plays great music.
Will Storr 1:09:10
Yeah, and the big myth about these things is that people say oh you can there is no point in getting these things if you’ve got like high res music files, and that put me off for years getting it but I just thought it and but it’s not true like if you can listen to like mp3 is and they sound incredible because the Apple Music streaming just as long as you set the settings for high res it sounds incredible. You don’t need special files on these things or the nerds or the height they say you do but you honestly you don’t have to deal with a special files and within cheap files and there’s not much difference. So yeah, highly recommended if you’re into music that’d be chained to your phone. The only problem is I’m always missing calls now because people are phoning me but I’ve got the other thing on.
Clint Murphy 1:09:47
bBt you’re hooked up you’re hooked up to your Hiby, which is which is a good thing if we want deep focus belongs to the work on our writing. We want it we want that. Yeah. So because the show It was about growth and improvement. What’s one habit or mindset shift or behavior change that you’ve made in your life that’s had an oversized positive impact for you?
Will Storr 1:10:14
Well, I’ll tell you what, actually, I’ve started volunteering last year to a charity. And that’s made a massive difference to me. To my it’s kind of amazing how, you know, before that I was feeling very, I’m a writer, I work at home, you know, a middle aged man, quite isolated, you know, quite lonely. And actually, that that’s really changed me, it’s had such a huge effect on just my general level of happiness. So yeah, like, you know, volunteering has been a it’s been a big thing for me recently.
Clint Murphy 1:10:43
Oh, that’s powerful, works on the aspect of connection we already talked about.
Will Storr 1:10:47
So exactly. Yeah, I had a connection deficit. Definitely. That has fixed it.
Clint Murphy 1:10:52
So we went pretty wide in the book. There’s a lot of areas in the science of storytelling that we didn’t cover off. Is there anything that we didn’t cover that you want to make sure the reader or the listener gets as a takeaway?
Will Storr 1:11:05
No, I think we covered loads. It was great. Thank you, Clint. Really, really, really good conversation.
Clint Murphy 1:11:10
Yeah, thank you. It was super enjoyable. And where can our listeners find you, Will.
Will Storr 1:11:15
Best place is Twitter @wstorr. That’s my Twitter handle. So any news, you know, like, I do science or storytelling courses quite regularly, so you know that the stuff we’re talking about about survival, connection, status, that’s new, that’s in the course not in the book. So. So if you want the latest stuff from me about storytelling, jump on a course it’s about 50 bucks for three hours. So it’s not too expensive.
Clint Murphy 1:11:41
Yeah. Excellent. And thank you for joining me today. Really appreciate it.
Will Storr 1:11:43
Thank you, Clint. I really appreciate the chat.
Clint Murphy 1:11:49
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