storytelling

The Efficient Plots Hypothesis

The [Efficient Plots Hypothesis], as I imagine it, says that the ideal reader can’t know if the mood of a book is about to get sunnier or darker at any given point in the plot. This … [is] because the purpose of a narrative is to engross the reader. Engrossment proceeds through uncertainty. If you knew what was about to happen, you’d skim ahead or stop reading.

That is: at any moment in a story, the emotional trajectory is a random walk for the reader because anything else would be boring. And stories aren’t boring.

This could be tested empirically by asking readers if a book will get more positive or more negative over the next five pages, and by how much. In a pure EPH world, they’ll only be right about half the time.

If the EPH holds, then, it doesn’t suggest that fiction is truly arbitrary; rather, that it’s an elaborately constructed game between reader and writer, socially conditioned and in no way permanent. It would suggest that there are enough fundamental plots that at any point in a book you are unsure what plot you are in; and that plots tend to wear themselves out over time.

Read about it here.

Categories: Books · Writing    Tags:

Pixar’s story rules

list of storytelling tips picked up at Pixar by Emma Coats, a former “story artist” there (via). Interesting.

  1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
  2. You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.
  3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
  4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
  5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
  6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
  7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
  8. Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
  9. When you’re stuck, make a list of what wouldn’t happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
  10. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
  11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
  12. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th — get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
  13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
  14. Why must you tell this story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
  15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
  16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
  17. No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on — it’ll come back around to be useful later.
  18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
  19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
  20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you do like?
  21. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write “cool.” What would make you act that way?
  22. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Categories: Writing    Tags: · ·

Ken Burns: On Story

Categories: Writing    Tags: · ·

Darwinian Theories of Beauty

In this TED video, Denis Dutton explains how our shared sense of what is beautiful may have its origin in human evolution. The theory connects to another idea I ran across recently: that we humans acquired our species-wide instinct for storytelling as a biological adaptation. Telling one another stories conferred on our ancient ancestors an advantage, i.e. storytelling animals were more likely to survive than non-storytelling ones. Brian Boyd seems to be the leading exponent of this theory with his book, On the Origin of Stories. (Boyd summarizes the theory here. An interesting review of the book by Michael Bérubé is here.) If all this is true — if we are hardwired to find certain art forms beautiful and to enjoy certain kinds of stories — then maybe we should not worry so much about the death of the novel after all.

Categories: Art    Tags: · · · · ·

Oliver Sacks on Mythmaking

Is the human instinct to tell stories — and it does seem to be instinctive since it crosses all boundaries of time and place — a way we explain the world to ourselves?

I would say that the human brain or the human mind is disposed to create stories or narratives. Children love stories, make up stories. Jerome Bruner, a great psychologist, has spoken of two modes of thinking. One is to create narratives, one is to create paradigms or explanations or models. And of course some of these will come together because then you want to have a story which explains. We all come into the world, and human beings sort of evolved into a mysterious world and had to wonder where they came from, how the world came from [sic], what are the stars doing. And in the absence of better explanations, I think, supernatural explanations sort of come to mind.

Via Big Think.

Categories: Odds & Ends    Tags: · · ·