I’m super excited to bring you today’s show. Today on the podcast we have best-selling author Will Storr. Will’s latest book The Science of Storytelling: Why Stories Make Us Human and How to Tell Them Better is a deep dive into how story affects the brain. Here’s a bit about the book:
Who would we be without stories?
Stories mold who we are, from our character to our cultural identity. They drive us to act out our dreams and ambitions and shape our politics and beliefs. We use them to construct our relationships, to keep order in our law courts, to interpret events in our newspapers and social media. Storytelling is an essential part of what makes us human.
There have been many attempts to understand what makes a good story – from Joseph Campbell’s well-worn theories about myth and archetype to recent attempts to crack the ‘Bestseller Code’. But few have used a scientific approach. This is curious, for if we are to truly understand storytelling in its grandest sense, we must first come to understand the ultimate storyteller – the human brain.
In this scalpel-sharp, thought-provoking book, Will Storr demonstrates how master storytellers manipulate and compel us, leading us on a journey from the Hebrew scriptures to Mr. Men, from Booker Prize-winning literature to box set TV. Applying dazzling psychological research and cutting-edge neuroscience to the foundations of our myths and archetypes, he shows how we can use these tools to tell better stories – and make sense of our chaotic modern world.
His TED Talk is a must-watch for all filmmakers and screenwriters. After interview hundreds of the world’s thought-leaders on story it’s rare for me to find a completely new way of looking at story. I can’t tell you how fascinating this conversation is. If this episode doesn’t spark an idea or two in your screenwriting I don’t know what will.
Enjoy my conversation with Will Storr.
Alex Ferrari 0:03
I'd like to welcome the show Will Storr man How you doing Will?
Will Storr 3:50
I'm good Thank
Alex Ferrari 3:51
you Alex How are you? I'm doing fantastic sir You are on as they say the other side of the pond. We are recording from it's a I still love talking to people around the world. It's amazing our technology
Will Storr 4:08
is incredible, isn't it? Yeah, we tick i mean you know calling the states was like a you know cost a fortune every minute you're being challenged in a free video calls.
Alex Ferrari 4:19
Now. It's video calls and like we take it for granted. And now we're just like, isn't it funny how technology works is like once you get it you just you assume and you get you demand it? It's kind of like oh, well why is the connection across the world for free so bad today? Oh, God. You know, it's, it's insane. But not good enough. It's not good enough. But listen, thank you so much again for being on the show. I'm dying to dig into your book, the science of storytelling. And before we do that, how did you get into the business? How did you get into the story, storytelling business?
Will Storr 4:56
Well, so my my background is, I'm a journalist. And I do a lot of science psychology reporting, and I've written books based on psychology. But for longer than I've been a journalist, I wanted to write stories, you know, in fictional story. So I've tried to write a novel when I was like eight years old, it was obviously terrible. You know, I've always sort of wrestled with that. And then, um, you know, I think the typical young person thing, young man, young person thing of, you know, when you're young, you think, Well, you know, I'm an artist, I don't need those books on how to write stories. It's you've got to be a genius, you know, you go through that phase and, and eventually, when you failed enough, you got the fuck it, you know, I'm gonna do it. So um, so yeah, I was actually researching a book called The unpersuaded balls, which, which is about why clever, people believe crazy things. And I was doing that and interviewing, you know, some world famous psychologists and neuroscientists. And at the same time, as I started reading all these books on storytelling, I was also working on my novel in my spare time. So I've written the seven basic plots, and everyone my key and you know, the usual kind of suspects. And I realized that what they kind of storytelling, people were saying, and what their side scientists were saying, there was so many commonalities between them, that the importance of change, you know, character and character flaw. And I just thought that was really interesting, you know, and so the kind of my, my nonfiction book, The answer to that, why did clever people believe crazy things ended up being well, because the brain is a storyteller. It's not a logic processor. It tells a story. That's what he does. That's that is sort of function. And we tend to believe stories that flatter our sense of heroism. And that's why kind of people end up leaving crazy stuff. And so you know, the character carried on kind of interrogating now for a while for my own kind of fiction work. And that became a core. So I started teaching a course at The Guardian newspaper on the science of storytelling, and then that became the book. So it's kind of a weird way around, isn't it? Isn't it interesting?
Alex Ferrari 6:52
Because if you start thinking about it, you your whole life is story, everything we do is story. And it serves not only just like, yeah, sure, we're gonna go watch the Avengers. And that's nice and everything. But it serves a purpose. Because if you tell the story of like, Bob went down to the river. And around that corner, there was a tiger that ate him. There might be a group of Tigers there, you might want to stay away from that story. Yeah, actually helps protect the tribe, if you will, on a very elemental level.
Will Storr 7:28
Yeah, cool. Yeah, absolutely. That's absolutely right. And it's, yeah, I think the big kind of live album for me was thinking that it isn't that the brain is like a storyteller. It's the stories are like brains. When we write screenplays, or write novels, we're mimicking what the brain does, and so is living creatures. We're surrounded by this chaos of confusing information. And the brain has to kind of radically simplify the information if there's a neuroscientist or Christopher if it says the brain's kind of job is to is to make you feel like you're the invisible actor at the center of the world. And that's what it does and what stories have has been doing through the through the ages, fictional storytellers is mimicking that those processes you know, you know, the big three acts of archetypal storytelling crisis struggle resolution, that's what happens to us when you know in life when things go wrong, you you know, you're the Trey's late and you're gonna miss your meeting, or, you know, you slip into kind of crisis struggle resolution mode, you have, you know, your consciousness narrows, and now you're a hero at the center of this story, how am I going to do it? How am I going to get there? And that's what the brain does does help us solve problems to help us understand the world. And so there's so many once you understand that, that that what you're doing when you're writing screenplays, you're mimicking the way our brain works. And there are so many kinds of things that you can you can get from science then about how to tell better stories.
Alex Ferrari 8:53
So like you the example you just gave, which is basically like my train is late. And you go into the into the crisis mode. You know, watching Indiana Jones, that's just a heightened version of that. And obviously, we're watching the Avengers or watching you know, any any of these superhero tentpole films. It's just heightened versions of the basic three things that you just talk
Will Storr 9:16
Exactly. And if you're a mountainous storyteller, like in the in the book, I talk about a Caprica short story. And that was literally his story. There was a Garnet Garnet Tran, and he and he noticed the particular shape of a woman's ear and it gave him this icon with the thought was some profound cafcass thought. And that's the end of the story, you know, so. So what you've got there is the way I think of the minimal conditions for a story and that's that something happens that changes somebody some walks, and in a very kind of literary modern story of a arthouse film, it's called quite stuff and what changes in a great board blockbuster said obvious changes, the desktop blows up,
Alex Ferrari 9:56
you know, exactly. Now can you discuss what the model is? Making brain is. Yeah, so.
Will Storr 10:03
So this is a really mad idea what an idea is that it's a it's a theory that is known to be true. But this is how the brain works essentially. And if you don't know this stuff, it is at once really obvious when you think about it also really disturbing. And that is that we don't experience reality. But we think that our eyes are windows, and we're looking at our windows into we're seeing the world and the eyes of Windows, and our ears are these empty tubes into which sounds come. But obviously, that's not true, you don't look out of your eyes information comes in one way. So how does that work? Well, how that works is that it's the inflammation kind of hits the senses, the senses, translate it to millions and millions of electrical pulses. And your brain reads these electrical pulses a bit like a computer reads a CD ROM or a DVD, you know, DVD, and creates a model of the world. And what you experience is that model of the world, it's not actual reality at all. So you don't have any direct access to the real world, you don't really know what it looks like outside your body, what you're getting is this fake model of the world. And, of course, there's lots of debate about how accurate the model we experience is, you know, humans have a certain kind of brain that experience a certain kind of world. But but but but but there are some really fundamental differences, sort of special effects the brain paints on to this model, and one of those special effects is color. So around our bodies, in the real world, there's no color, everything is monochrome, which atoms don't have color, what happens is that it was some of that information is in lightwaves. And depending on the length of the Lightwave, your brain just goes well, that's a pink as a blue, that's a brown, and it paints it on. So so it's really kind of, it's a really way to wet the brain being a storyteller, it really is from the ground up, a storyteller is getting all this chaotic information, and it's conjuring this multicolored, kind of slightly fake world for you to live in. That is, like Chris, Chris says, you know, you push it, you put you in the middle of it, it makes you the all important actor at the center of it. So So yes, it's that's that that's that kind of basic idea of and that's kind of what that that's how storytelling works on a very basic level. So your brain doesn't care where it's getting information from, it can be getting information from words on a page of a novel, or from a cinema screen or from a computer screen. As long as it's giving it model information to build a model with, it's going to build that model. So that's why when you say something, don't imagine an elephant, they imagine an elephant because your brains is constantly making models. So that's what filmmakers are doing. They're giving brains information with which to kind of build models in imaginary worlds.
Alex Ferrari 12:45
So that's why a good writer who can use the language like like an artist and can conjure up those images in your head so much better. And that's what kind of not only on the craft standpoint, but just on the not on the plotting standpoint and character standpoint. But just literally using a word being a wordsmith, you know, you read a Shane Black screenplay and the way he describes a rainy alley, it's not like the alley was dark and rainy. And then No, no, no, no, you when he writes it, you smell it, you taste it. And that is what that conjures those images in your head. So that's why that screenplay probably was sold for a couple million dollars.
Will Storr 13:29
Yeah, and that's right. You know, when you say you smell it, and taste to that, that is almost literally true. So when you put people in brain scanners, and they read about kind of the furry fuzz of a peach skin, areas involved in touch lights up in their brain, so yeah, so. So that is really literally true, is building a model of that of that furry touch. And that's why, you know, that that's why, you know, the best writing it has the absolute clarity, you know, it's kind of its kind of simplicity, but kind of packed with kind of meaning sensory meaning, you know, and when I when I write about dialogue, I think that's that that's one of the keys to really great dialogue, we look at really great dialogue. It's, it's, it has that clarity, but it's packed with information about who the character is about where they're going, what they're doing, what the power dynamics are in the room, you know, in great dialogue, you can just, you can read the first page of an Arthur Miller play, and and know within the first few pages exactly where the story's going exactly who the characters are. Because you'll be because that dialogue is packed with so much information that the model making brain can then use to create this world and it's all unconscious. So he's just doing it all the time. And so I think that's that, that's the key to that, that really great dialogue writing.
Alex Ferrari 14:46
So that's kind of why you know, for writers, it's not just, you know, originally it was the novel, you know, and with the cave painting, if you want to get real technical, but you know, the novel then films, tell vision. Now video games have an argue arguably overtaken cinema as as a way for people to completely fall into a world and and especially those role playing RPGs, where you're just walking around and they're literally creating the world with you and you want to talk about stimulation, you put that you put the earphones on, you put that if you want to get into the VR mode, you're, you're completely gone, you are in a state
Will Storr 15:29
because he's taking away the sensory information from the actual world and replacing with different stuff. And it's like a movie, but you are literally the invisible anti at the center of that world. So that's why they wonder why people get addicted to those video games and end up spending hours and hours and hours and days playing them or because, you know, they are that they are, you know, creating much more incredible, interesting and emotional worlds for people to live in the real world. So
Alex Ferrari 15:56
of course they get addicted to them. It's kind of like, you know, from what we've been talking about so far, the matrix does not sound very outlandish. I mean, I've always said that matrix is a documentary, personally. I mean, a lot of this stuff, you know, on a subconscious level, but like, the matrix, you know, you arguably could maybe in our lifetime, maybe a couple 100 years from now, who knows, but you could eventually be able to just plug in to a computer, and connect and download and upload. I mean, it sounds crazy now, but yeah, it's not that crazy. Now, what do
Will Storr 16:34
you mean, the brain is a virtual reality machine. That's, that's literally what it is. It's not an app, it's not a reality machine. It's a virtual reality machine, it creates this virtual story world and suspend you in the middle of it, and fills it full of drama and you know, emotion and everyone's got, you know, if you're stuck on psychologically healthy, you've got goals you're trying to pursue, and you're engaged in the kind of emotional ups and downs of the pursuit of those goals.
Alex Ferrari 16:58
That's a story. That's a screenplay, you know.
Will Storr 17:01
And that's why that's why when we're watching a great movie, it feels so engaging in evolving is just a very heightened life is a heightened kind of human consciousness that is kind of easy to kind of tumble into.
Alex Ferrari 17:17
Yeah, and and that works with cinema that works with, you know, television that works with video games that works with a novel. I mean, yeah, I remember when I first read Harry Potter, my mind was, I just like I was I was like, What is this literary crack? I was just completely in Thrall, or you read a Stephen King novel or something? Like, you're just good writing you're just in? And yeah, it's Yeah, that's it.
Will Storr 17:41
I think one of the one of the sort of big takeaways I got from the science was the importance of, you know, cause and effect and those big blockbusters and the, you know, the great sort of bestselling novels, you know, cause and effect is a really fundamental way that human brains understand the world. And that kind of separates us from other animals. So, it there's one study they did, where they compared the behavior of chimpanzees, or one of our closest relatives to human children, and they gave them the task of like stacking up these wooden blocks on their ends. But the wooden blocks had a lead way, kind of buried in them in a weird place that they keep falling over. And what you find is that the chimpanzees just keep trying to stack the blocks, and they keep falling over, and they just keep at it, and they get bored with you and children, they're pre verbal children, they start picking up the blocks and looking at them, they're asking, you know, what caused that was the cause of that. So it's like cause and effect. So, you know, we understand the world in causes and effects. That's that as we know, as soon as there's some unexpected change in our environment, it triggers our response and we look at it it gets our attention, then we meet as we know, what caused that and what's gonna happen next. And so really, really well written, you know, screenplays for blockbusters are very clear in their causes and effects. You know, it's very, you is, and that's what makes it kind of effortless to be engaged in the movie. Because Because cause and effect is the natural language of the brain. Whereas difficult movies, arthouse movies, you know, literary novels, the cause and effect breaks down it's quite, quite hard to understand first a bit, you're being shown this and then there's this And who's this person and hang on a minute. Why is it now 1973 you know, and the reason that you you know, arthouse movies are often called dreamlike, and they call dreamlike because the cause and effect Springsteen does in dreams, you know. And in novels, literary novels are often put It's hard work. And it's hard work because you're having to do the cognitive effort of working out how one thing connects with the other, then you have all your arguments and your friends. Well, I think what the author really meant by the, you know, the haunted acorn in the prairie was was this and you have all these arguments, you don't really get his arguments about Star Wars or Harry Potter because the causes and effects are really clear. One thing leads to the next which leads to the next and actually it sounds easy, but as I'm sure lots of your viewers you know viewers know in practice Hearing that cause and effect is actually quite difficult. You know, having one thing, then leads to the next then leads to the next then leads to the next it's quite difficult to write that it's, it's not as easy as it.
Alex Ferrari 20:10
You could do one or two. Yeah, you could do one or two of those causal effects back to the string along a coherent cause and effect that moves the story along is great. That's actually fascinating, because I've really never thought about that. Because like, when you watch 2001, that's, that's dream. It. Yeah. There is no, if you start thinking, like, there's really no cause and effect, there's some slight cause and effect with how, with how and what house doing, but it's so minuscule compared to Star Wars, which is so so concrete as far as Yeah,
Will Storr 20:42
absolutely, that, that leads to that leads to that leads to that leads to that, and it's just real endless, you know, does it it doesn't let up and and you're glued to it. And it's that effortlessness, and it's effortless, because as I said, that's the language of the brain, the brain speaks the language of cause and effect. And if you don't give it that you're going to have, you're going to have to start using, you know, your unconscious brain, your, you know, your front brain, your thinking brain to what the fuck is going on, you
Alex Ferrari 21:06
know? And that's right. And that's why a lot of times when you see, you know, some of the Masters like Kubrick, you know, a lot of his films were misunderstood when they come out. And it takes years for people to catch up to what he was trying to say in his stories. And then there's like, deeper levels. And it's like, you know, like, the matrix, the matrix has such a deep has, it's like, such a deep onion has so many layers to it. Yeah. But if you just want to see the cause of effect of a really cool action movie, it's there. Yeah.
Will Storr 21:37
But as you can be nice to them. He says he manages to put off both tricks, isn't it? Yeah,
Alex Ferrari 21:40
that's not that's it Star Wars, but Star Wars with like, an insane amount of depth. And you can, yeah, so you could arguably have those art house conversations about the matrix. Yeah. And also have the, did you see that action sequence conference? Yeah, yeah, yeah, I
Will Storr 21:59
know, those are my favorite stories. I love those kinds of stories that you know, because you can have, you can have your cake and eat it. I think, in a sense, you can have, you know, a great cause and effect, action packed film or novel that's really thoughtful and profound. I mean, my favorite novel and one of my favorite movies is one Over the Cuckoo's Nest. I mean, he's just brilliant. I mean, he's just, it's a relentlessly efficient plot. It's absolutely it doesn't sag much as legs a little bit in the kind of the fourth act. But but but it's relentlessly entertaining. But it's, it's completely emotional. But it's also really thoughtful and profound and symbolic and it does all those kind of things that make it that kind of elevate it really to into the art space as far as I'm concerned. So I'd say that that's my you know, that's my kind of sweet spot. You know, we don't get we don't get movies so much like that coming
Alex Ferrari 22:52
out of Hollywood these days. It seems to me No, because because Hollywood hasn't been in the in the in the movie business for quite some time. They're in a selling other stuff. Business. They're not. Yeah, it is. Yeah. That's what they do. It's not that the where we were we're finding those stories is now TV streaming. Yeah. Series. You know, you watch Ozarks you watch Breaking Bad. You watch Game of Thrones? That's where you're looking for that kind of storytelling?
Will Storr 23:23
Yeah, absolutely. Right. Yeah,
Alex Ferrari 23:25
there's no $300 million. And they arguably, you can't tell it to $300 million movie that's a little bit risky. You can't I get it. It's a business. Yeah. On a story standpoint. Now, you also talked about the domestic domesticated brain. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Will Storr 23:42
Yeah. So this is a really, again, really sort of critical kind of underlying idea behind the sounds of storytelling. And that's really the question of why, why do we tell stories in the first place? Why did we evolve to kind of tell stories, and so to understand that you've got to understand a bit about, about human evolution. And so we know we were animals, we still are animals, technically, but when we were kind of some,
Alex Ferrari 24:09
some more than others, or some others in this world,
Will Storr 24:13
we know when we kind of came down for the trees and start hanging out around campus campfires. We started existing much more in groups, tribes, tribes of humans. And so that kind of, you know, we used to, like he said, allow problems by fighting and ripping each other's arms off and all this, you know, violence, basically. But when you're living in groups, you can't really do that yet, you have to learn to have to kind of get on in in better ways. So we evolved to be much more collegial, peaceful, and we essentially were domesticated. We went through the same kinds of changes that the wolf went through to become the domesticated dog, we became much more peaceful. I'm much more kind of socially aware, much more emotionally intelligent. And we started talking to each other. And so for a long time, it was thought that we'd eat, we evolved language to kind of strategize to hunt. But now they're kind of dominant theory in psychology is that we actually evolved language in order to gossip. And that just seems like a like a mad thing, because that was crazy. That's, that's a stupid thing to say. But actually, it makes perfect sense, because humans are now like humans were, then we haven't changed that much. You know, we can be amazing and wonderful and kind, but we're also quite selfish, we tend to put our own interests first. So you have to kind of manipulate people such control people such with our police force, or a judiciary or an army or a government, that they're going to put the tribe first and they're going to steal the meat, they're not going to rip people off, they're not going to attack people. So how do you do that you do gossip, you start telling stories about each other, you know, speak so so if, if the gossip about you in the tribe is that you're a selfish, aggressive person, you're going to get a bad reputation, and the punishment of that is potentially lethal. You know, ultimately, you'd be you know, was was, was once universal. So the ultimate, the ultimate sanction was obviously death. But But before that, you're humiliated. You're ostracized, or you could be kicked out of the tribe, which is also kind of death. So that's how we control each other with stories with gossipy stories, and you want to hope that people are telling heroic stories about you. And then that's how you can start transmitting the kind of moral rules of the tribe. So, you know, you find out when you're growing up as a child, how do I behave in such a way that I'm celebrated, and I become a hero, you learn that you've got to be stories now you wouldn't believe it, you know, this person did was so courageous on the hunt, you know, there was a thing, a saber toothed Tiger was coming at him, and he got in the way, and always amazing. So you learn Oh my God, that's how that's how you become a hero. And equally, you got to learn how to not be kicked out of the tribe how to not be killed, and that's, again through gossip. So that's why gossip is so fundamental to the human experience. It's so fundamental to our evolutionary history. And is that a basis of all our stories, and you think about any story that's kind of successful? It's basically based on gossip, you know, whether it's a, you know, a story in National Enquirer, or it's Anna Karenina, it's basically you never believe what happened. Yesterday, but and it's all and it's usually stories, especially if they're sort of, you know, big screenplays or big mystery novels, that they're completely morally infused, you know, that it's full of heroes doing morally good things. And very often at the end of the story, when they really prove their wisdom, it's the it's, it's, um, you know, they put the tribes interests before their own. And that's how you, you might, you know, you identify them as the hero, they finally bust through their own self interest and block the Death Star, you know, so. So gossip is is fundamental to our evolution is fundamental to what we couldn't survive in society without gossip. And it's always there and successful stories in some way.
Alex Ferrari 28:14
Yeah, I mean, you want I mean, even within the stories, the characters gossip about the other character. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I mean, you watch Shawshank Redemption, which is one of my favorite films, and they're constantly talking about, oh, there's that quiet guy, Andy. Yeah. What's he like?
Will Storr 28:30
And that's how we learn about people in real life and in stories is through gossip. But I think gossip is a universal, we, when we think about gossip, we think, Oh, it's a terrible thing that people do, and they shouldn't do it. But everybody does it. It's a universal, it's cross cultural. It crosses the genders, men and women gossip just as much as each other. But the scientists find that men gossip less when women are present. So we say,
Alex Ferrari 28:53
just as bad as they are no, no, absolutely. Don't do it. You know, absolutely true. When the dudes get together, then the boys are together. We're like, Did you hit? Did you see what that mean? Or then do gossip about what the football game you saw the day before? Like, did you did you see what Becca did? Did you see what you know? Yeah, it
Will Storr 29:14
is a form of gossip, because this is moral judgment, you that you know that? There were terrible. They didn't do this thing. didn't pass the ball or whatever it is. Yeah, it's gossip, gossip, gossip, it infuses our lives. And if you think about it that way, if language evolved, to enable us to gossip, then the first stories, the original stories were, that it was was gossip. Again, I think that's really it. That's a really sort of powerful insight for me about storytelling. When you read about the psychologists, when they investigate gossip, they talk about how it works. And most gossip is about moral infractions. We're not that interested in gossip about people being amazing, must prefer gossip about people being dangerous,
Alex Ferrari 29:53
obviously, National Geographic. National Enquirer is kind of like the bad stuff
Will Storr 29:59
that's valuable in It is much more important that we learn who's the threat. Because Yeah, and so so you hear that that gossipy story, and you experience a very specific emotion and that emotion is moral outrage. And moral outrage is is interesting cuz it compels you to act. It compels you to want to punish the transgressor to rescue the person. They're, they're attacking. You know, you feel like you want to act. But of course, if you're watching a movie, you can't act. So what you do is you keep watching you kind of glued to the screen you keep watching. And then when finally when when, you know, when Darth Vader gets his comeuppance, it's just this amazing emotional release. And when you feel that amazing emotional release, that's your tribal, you know, survival circuitry being manipulated by the storyteller, you know, and that was all evolved 10s of 1000s of years ago when we were kind of learning how to live cooperatively in tribes. And I think that's one of the reasons the the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that they took a decade to build that tension up to the point where on the end game they finally to defeat Thanos. It was I mean, it's a masterwork. And I've watched the video on YouTube like the the crowd reaction with if anybody hasn't seen endgame spoiler alert, when, when everything's down, Captain America is down, you know, Thor and Iron Man and then all of a sudden, everybody shows up at one time to fight Thanos It was like this. Roar it just like this amazing. Like,
Alex Ferrari 31:34
I'm getting goosebumps just talking about it. Yeah, I'm
Will Storr 31:36
listening to you talking about it. But But you know, but that take it seriously, because those goose bumps that's your evolution, you know, when you know, when you're when your tribe arrives on mass to fight the enemy, right? To have those goose bumps into you want to go Yes. Because that's, that's that's how we survive.
Alex Ferrari 31:54
That's amazing. That's so like, I
Will Storr 31:55
knew we were gonna we were gonna poke the bear in this episode. And this is this is this is awesome, because I love talking about neuroscience and, and specifically the practical thing too, because you know, often when I'm teaching storytelling, and especially when I'm getting the novelists who wanting to write this kind of high literature stuff, and he said to them, Well, where's the moral outrage in your premise? You know why, you know, he is really important if your moral outrage is such a powerful thing to get people glued into a story as it as soon as you're experiencing a story, in your experience moral outrage on behalf of a character you're in, you care about them. That's, you know, it's working. But if there's no sense of Oh my God, that's not fair. It's very hard to understand, well, where's the How are you making people care about your character, or the situation if there's no and more or less, it doesn't have to be directed to a human being? is right in the book in Indian john Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, the moral outrage you know, setting the Dust Bowl and there's a drought and and the you know, the family of pushed out of Oklahoma and you feel moral outrage on their behalf against the weather, you know, it can be that but it's always you know, that you feel like oh my god, it's not fair. They're an amazing, the clutters there's such a hard working family and look what's happened to them. Oh, my God, I hope they survive. And as soon as you start feeling those things you're in, you know,
Alex Ferrari 33:11
the easiest, the easiest way to I mean, this is an old technique, but the easiest way to make a villain villainous is we'll have him kicked the dog. I mean, you you have the bad guy kicked the dog. It's done. Like, he's, there's like he Oh, he's gotta go. You know? Yeah, I mean,
Will Storr 33:31
it's one of those things, you know, because I'm interested in storytelling, but I'm also reading all these science books, you often have no idea how this experience of you know, reading these science books and they say stuff like that anything Oh, my God, that's just like story. And one of them is that when they, when they do surveys of the contents of gossip in hunter gatherer tribe, this did exist. They say that most of it is about moral transgressions by high status people, you know, and, you know, big shock behavior, you know, unpleasant kind of big shock behavior, I think what a story you know, that's so that that's so many stories are kind of focused into the enemy is a high status person who does something bad towards a low status, individual or a dog, right? Because that's just instant views rather than storytelling. And it's all it is all the way back in, in our gossip that we used to tell
Alex Ferrari 34:20
because we are we a lot of times we are unless you're the king, you are lower stampless you you identify much more with the dog than you do with the king.
Will Storr 34:30
JACK. We would never the king, you know that, you know, yeah. And also the last The other interesting thing about human groups is like chimpanzee groups, is that is that, you know, when we're evolving, there was never really a king, human groups were always relatively leaderless. So it was the group that's always in charge and the group is cohering with these kind of gossipy gossip because of the stories and you get these awful kind of terror terrify accounts in the in the ethnographic literature of you know, some poor bastard is it No, there was one I read recently where some woman died of a what we would know is a disease but in the in Papua New Guinea, they didn't know it was a disease, they decided that it was a an act of malicious sorcery. And so the sorcerer does this magic ritual with some leaves and some burning leaves and decides this guy did it. And this guy is going fast, you know, and within days, they went around costume behind his back and consensus building had to be dealt with and he was killed and eaten. You
Alex Ferrari 35:27
think? Well, there's no Well, there's there's that.
Will Storr 35:33
But it could have been outside terrifying. It was I mean, you know, so so so you know, that's, that's gossip. You know, these days gossip. I mean, on social media gossip can be pretty lethal. For someone's careers these days. You know, we get we're getting back to that people aren't being killed and eaten quiet but but you see the power of gossip in human communities, it's, it's a lethally dangerous thing is a very powerful thing. Got it.
Alex Ferrari 35:54
And then social media has heightened all of that, because now our tribe is the world. And if you do something, or you know, a video comes out, or you say something that you're not supposed to you they pull something out from 20 years ago that you tweeted about or something, and your whole life is gets up thrown upside down. We've seen careers.
Will Storr 36:13
Yeah, ostracization is the same. All the stuff that happens kancil culture online is just us being tribal, as we have been for 10s of 1000s of years. The reason that all those you know, social media platforms work is because we're tribal, you know, we've got the follower accounts, we've got the status updates, you know, it's all it's all tribal, and it's all working on this on this very dangerous, very addictive, very compulsive, very emotional, tribal, neural architecture. And, you know, canceled culture is just tribal ostracization. You know, it's, it's what we've been doing at our worst for 10s of 1000s of years.
Alex Ferrari 36:48
Yeah, I know, let's not get into social media, because that's a whole other conversation. So Can Can you talk about the differences between the western stories versus Eastern stories?
Will Storr 37:00
Yeah. So yeah, so this is something the Caribbean in actually I wrote a book about social media, and it came up in there. And I just thought this was kind of fascinating. So, as lots of people surely know, one of the big cultural differences between East and West is the east, in the West were much more individualistic. In the east, generally speaking, it's more communitarian. And there are various ideas about about how this came to be. But but but you know, one of the ideas is that it all stems in the West, it all stems from ancient Greece, we are naturally group ish, we are naturally thinking groups. But in the West, we had this in ancient Greece, there was this weird kind of landscape. We were living in little islands and little communities, we couldn't farm because the soil was so bad. And we were forced to kind of survive on our own, you know, we couldn't survive as in China, they had massive rice growing communities and projects. Yeah, so they had so to survive in China, you had to be part of a group, the group had to be working as one. In the West, you had to stand in your own two feet. So out of ancient Greece comes modern European culture, you know, self love narcissist, not the word narcissism, for God's sake, comes come comes from ancient Greece. So so and that still kind of directs the differences in how we see the world. And it also directs the differences in in the kind of ways that we tell our stories. So for the Westerner, change is essentially down to the individual, we have the individual hero problems strike the world, the individual hero rises up like a Greek god fights the monsters and comes back with all the boons and whatever else and learns the truth of the story. But in IE, in East Asia, they don't have stories, but they don't, they have other kinds of stories, they don't tend to tell those kinds of stories, because they don't see changing the role of the individual, they see changes being kind of the role of the group. And so what you get in China is kind of these kinds of stories that we that we find difficult to process as Westerners because it's for us, they don't have any endings, for example, so one of them, they have four x stories, and then that one, change happens to somebody in Act Two. It just carries on for a bit. And three, you're just you're taking somewhere else to compete them in place, different contexts, different time different person then acts up for your back to the first person again, and then it ends. And you're left as the viewer, the reader to to to to to work out. How, how do all these different disparate elements kind of achieve harmony? And so when I interviewed a psychologist in South Korea, he said, you know, you Westerners don't understand these stories because you want an ending. You want to hear to come back with having learned the thing and you're to be told what the truth is in the east. You know, we understand that changes that, you know, changes it kind of a part is the function of the group. And so your job is to work out how these kind of disparate elements can achieve harmony and how both of these things can be true at the same time. So it's a very different way of kind of telling stories is a very different way of understanding the world. I could go on and on about it, but I won't but yeah, but it's it was very interesting to me how, you know, this, the the crisis struggle resolution thing is particularly a Western model. One of the one of the sort of quick takeaways I found was extraordinary was that in China, they didn't even have autobiography. Until very recently. So for us in the West, we think about we think of individuals and individual heroes, what could be more obvious than telling the story of a hero, you know, you would do that it's an obvious thing to do. But also, the archivist never really came about in China until relatively recently. And when they did come about, the kind of subject of the autobiography wasn't in the middle of all the action, they're in the periphery of the action, kind of looking at their lives, kind of commenting on it. So yeah, really different ways of telling stories.
Alex Ferrari 41:08
Now, why do you think though, that American culture and in individualistic culture, it's specifically the American culture has completely invaded the rest of the world, and it's been so acceptable, our movies, our music, our culture, you know, even from I would probably argue, since the 70s, and 80s. That's when I started. Our number one export is our culture, which is extremely, you know, individual, it's all about me, it's about the champion, you know, it's about it's about Look, it's Rambo, it's, it's Rocky, it's, you know, it's just, it's Stallone, it's Swartz Nagar back in the 80s and 90s, like these bigger than life, you know, heroes that, you know, took it all on themselves. How, why is that so popular in Eastern cultures? And how did that even become a thing? Yeah, that's, that's
Will Storr 42:02
a really good question. So, so I hadn't really thought about that in that way before, but but my immediate response would be that, of course, you know, the 20th century was the American Century. And, you know, a one point, culture was all coming from Italy. And then it was coming from the, from the UK. Yeah. And now it's America's turn, because you're now the western superpower. And, you know, whereas everybody wants to look to Italy or us in the UK, or, you know, England and Netherlands to you. I you know, so I think I, you know, I think there's that going on. But I also think that I think the success of American culture in the east is a product of the fact that kind of these individualistic, individualistic values are now are spreading around the world. So you know, individualism, from ancient Greece to to Italy, through Western European men to America, you from individualism, you get the you get the you get the Enlightenment, you get the invention of human rights, you get capitalism, so So basically, modernity is this kind of it and and individualism are very, very kind of tightly bound. And of course, that's going to spread around the world. Now, so I think we're at wherever you get capitalism and capitalistic values, you're going to get individualistic values to one of the places that I wrote about in my book selfie was about South Korea, because South Korea is really interesting, because it's, it's the most westernized Asian country. Yeah. Right. So so so, you know, it's a mix between Western values, but they're still got the Confucian values about family and group two. And what you also get in South Korea is like unbelievably high suicide rates, you know, the pressures on young people in South Korea are just so high. Because in the individualistic West, we kind of tend to feel like we have to please ourselves. In the east, they have to please their group and their parents in South Korea. They have to please everyone. And it's just a nightmare. So, but of course, it's after you do get you know, that those Western films, Western music is also really big in South Korea. So I think that, yeah, wherever you get those Western values of, kind of capitalism, and you're going to, you're going to find a kind of good ground for Western art to
Alex Ferrari 44:32
write because, I mean, you look at like a country like India, which is obviously an Eastern country. You know, bollywood is a man they make much more films, many more films. Their industry is so much larger than Hollywood, but yet yeah, it doesn't travel by it doesn't travel like Bollywood films. You know, they don't do they don't do much business here at all. are very specific in this kind of storytelling they have, though I don't know if you've seen some, some of the some of the visual effects are fantastic. And some of the stuff that goes on in some of these action, Bollywood films, you just like, this is awesome. Because they're so outlandish, but they don't they don't travel, but yet are still our stories. And it's not just about budget and about visual effects and that kind of stuff. Because other countries have that now, China and India and other countries, I think those stories, that's the question I have is like, why have our stories, been able to travel into these into these tribes that historically don't like these kind of stories or not grown? Or maybe it's maybe it taps into something that is inherent in all of our all of us as as our ego inside
Will Storr 45:45
needs? Because again, I'm thinking about, you know, before Hollywood, there was like Charles Dickens, and you know, Shakespeare. Sure. You know, the storytellers, Delia Yeah, yeah, yeah. Also, you know, ending in ancient Greece, those stories, or, you know, of travel around the world. And I was also thinking about, I forget what the tribes name is, but there was a tribe where they have hardly any language. And and so there was a theory that this was, this was the only this was a human tribe that didn't have storytelling. And so what the researchers did was they took a DVD of the reboot of King Kong, and showed the tribe this DVD of King Kong, and they said, they went mad to London, you know, they were cheering all the right places, running around in fear, you know, so so it is, I think, what, what, what is difficult to say, because what, from everyone who shakes from, you know, from Shakespeare to Dickens, to Hollywood today does is tap into very universal kind of ideas that shouldn't be able to travel in such a way. But but but but, yeah, it's a good question. You know, why? What? If you want to know why is tourism India and China don't travel so well, in the other direction? Perhaps it's because at least over the period of history, we're talking about, it's Western culture that's going out around the world, rather than the other way around? And maybe, you know, in the future, maybe that'll flip maybe in, you know, a couple 100 years, it'll be Chinese stories we're all into, and
Alex Ferrari 47:13
God knows what's gonna happen. You're very optimistic. 100 years, you're very optimistic. with what's going on. I hope there is another long. Yeah, I hope there's a long tail search to the human race. I really do. Um, Now, can we discuss a little bit about the flawed self and how that translates into storytelling? Yeah, yeah,
Will Storr 47:36
this is, for me, just probably the most important kind of thing that I've kind of worked out as I'm teaching this stuff. And that's that. If there's one problem that storytellers have, whether they're writing screenplays, or novels, or whatever, is that they've got their plot, and they've got their characters, and they're not, they're not connected. You know, usually they've got a great idea for a plot. They say, Well, what if this happened, and this happened? And I say to them, Well, you know, tell me about your story. They give you the sequence of events, and I said, Well, tell me about the character, the protagonist, and they go out. And then you say, Well, how do you know, that's the sequence of events if you don't know who your character is, because your character is deciding those sequence of events. So, I suppose that you know, it always goes back to the same thing, which is, a story is itself, you know, when you're writing a story, you're recreating true reality that comes from a true real person. And everything about yourself as a story, you are a particular character with a particular background, that particular selection of flaws and problems. And you have a goal, and that goal comes out of who you are, comes out of your background, your values, your hopes and dreams, it's a product of your character, you also have your flaws, you know, and you're a you know, for all of us who are alive, you know, part of being alive is that you keep making the same mistakes over and over and over again, you know, you keep getting this thing wrong, or these things wrong. And so and those are kind of obstacles as you go through your life. You know, that's the plot of your life, your goals and your kind of obstacles. And that's how it should be in story too, you know, you should have a flawed, you know, that the plot should come out of who that character is, the plot should come out of that character's flawed idea about the world. And the example that I use is as simplistic as that well, the examples are using great in depth in the book is the remains of the day but actually guru, you know, Book Award winning novel. And so, you know, that's, that's about this guy, Stevens, who is an English Butler. And he's kind of flawed idea of the world. His his his complete kind of conception of how the world works is that England and the English are the best, and everyone else idiots. And if you want to be if you want to be a good proper English Butler, you have to exercise emotional restraint. So it's really an interrogation of that old idea of the English upper lip. You know, it's like stoicism, strength. Anybody doesn't That is Nydia. So So the story that is your guru tells around Stevens is that, you know, he say he hasn't placed Stevens his story at the height, the British Empire height of British power, it's 1880 is pretty 1950 when the decline of British power is beginning to be in full swing, the aristocrat that you're used to serve is now long gone. And there's an American dude, who now has to serve in his in his in his mansion. But the Americans really friendly and like jokes with him, and it talks to him on a level that he can't cope with it, he can't deal with it. So all of the things he's having to deal with in his life are, are challenging that idea of English supremacy of the English stiff upper lip. And and the story of originalism tried to cope with that. And so so that whole story comes out of his floor, it comes out of his character. And a much simpler example from the world of sort of blockbuster movies is jaws. You know, you think about jewels, what's yours? That's a movie about killer shark. And yes, of course, it's a movie that killer shark. But but but that movie is structured around a flawed self with a particular flaw that he has to struggle with. And that is the Brody this police chief, who has just recently been put in charge of the you know, coastal resort town of Amityville is scared of the water like he's really scared of the water. When he, when he gets the ferry across from the mainland, he can't even get out of his car. He's so scared of the water. And so the great shark, the shark comes along. And what that means is he has to, he has to wrestle with his floor, he can't carry on being scared of the reading was, I think, was to go out there and deal with this thing. Or it's over for him. So the shark kind of pulls it out. And then and then you know, so hard is the exact midpoint of the, of the movie, he's he goes out to the you know, he gets the courage to go out into the water and fight the shark. And act four happens. The shark fights back, he you know, he decides he's made a big mistake. He wants to go back to shore, but he can't. And then finally the great denouement he kills the shark and and as you swim back to shore with his oceanographer made, the very last thing that you see in the movie is him saying, I used to be scared of water. I can't I can't imagine why. So you see this great character change. So even a film like Jaws, you know, when I first wrote the book, and was teaching this stuff that we say to me, oh, that's true. All this stuff is there at the floor catching very literary novels and very arthouse like, you know, intelligent films, but it is not really true in action films. And so what it is actually, it's just not that high in the mix, you know, but it's definitely it is there, you know, so, so that stays in the plot needs to come out of the character and it needs to it needs to be interrogating that characters floor and changing it,
Alex Ferrari 52:43
I think isn't there but isn't what you just said with jaws. That's essentially life. You know, you meet people along the way that will challenge your flaw. Yeah, will will challenge like, if you're if you're afraid to stand up for yourself, I promise you, you will meet a bully. Yeah, you said
Will Storr 53:01
think about it is is that is that most of us go through our lives and things are generally okay. But but but but but but often, you know, something will happen to us that will complete that will specifically trigger us and we'll flip out and get really emotional. And people go Oh, fuck you now, you know, that's your floor, that's your sacred floor that the I want to hear a story about because you know, and that's what happens in lots of the great stories. It's that the the that kind of ignition, the change that happens at the beginning of the story, which ignites the story connects specifically with somebody whose floor is yours. You can't be scared of the water anymore, and they're amazing the day you think English you think the English is so fucking great, check out this American boss and check out you know, the decline of of English power in the world, you know, so. So that to me is is is you know, one of these things that is really often often missed even in stories that get made you get the sense that you've got they've got this brilliant idea for a story but they've just got this cut out and keep vaguely good looking politically correct people to do the story and it's, for me, it's not good enough, you know, you can sense when it's there you know, that kind of propulsion of the story and the originality of the story and the thing that's making it not an exercising you know, color by numbers is that it's coming out of a character with a very specific flaw and in the book I wouldn't do it now. It takes a while but in the book is what I use the example of Lawrence of Arabia in depth, you know, talking because you know that that's a great example of that's all about this, this this one guy's particular flaw, and it's both completely absorbing emotional, but also really originally you just don't know what's gonna happen next.
Alex Ferrari 54:54
Right and he and Lawrence of Arabia, you literally have him completely, beautifully dressed at the beach. Getting in his whites everything and he looks polished, it looks great. And at the end, it's torn apart, he's got blood on him he's got. And you can visually see the difference between how that character change. And that's the one of the brilliant things about that film. But you see that and in a lot and you know, it's kind of like when you see that fresh recruit that fresh private cup off the plane to go to war. And as he's going into war, you see, the guys have been in there for a year going out. And you see the difference in their faces and their expressions and their look and what they've happened to them. And that's that's life. Yeah, that's sorry.
Will Storr 55:41
And you know, when you're doing the war movie, you know, like, What? What kind of a person is walking to change and the thing about Lawrence is that he's got it you know, you see what the beginning of the movie he's really cocky era. Yeah. Anti authoritarian. And it is a bit of a just a bit of a prat. You know, you come across it at work, and you think, oh, that guy's a real dick. Yeah, you drop that dude in a war zone. And you see what happens, you know, he becomes a monster, because, you know, he keeps being this rebel and he keeps thinking he's above everybody else. And it turns him into a, you know, a monster. And you know, it has that amazing transformation, that beginning where he's rating somebody else for being a barbarous murderer. And by the end, they flipped and now that person who is bracing is praising him for being a barbarous murderer. I mean, he's just perfect. You know, it's perfectly down in that movie.
Alex Ferrari 56:30
Now, can you talk a little bit about the god moment? Yeah.
Will Storr 56:34
So I think one of the things that that you know, in archetypal storytelling, you know, what happens, you've got this flawed character, and something happens to them, which kind of challenges that flaw which forces them to deal with that floor. Now that Brody, he can't be scared of that, you've got to choose now you're going to be scared of the water, or you or you're going to, you know, deal with your your fears. And so of course, when that happens, they lose all control over their lives and their situation. And the more they fight and more they struggle, the more they lose control. And what you see and and, and that kind of loss of control happens on both the kind of levels of story happens on the level of the external drama, sharks out there killing everybody. But it also happens, it happens on the interior interior psychological world of the protagonist, you know, that they're struggling with who they are, or who am I going to be now? Am I going to be, you know, is Stevens and arranged? Are they going to be somebody who, who is actually emotionally warm? And can tell people he loves them and cares for them and isn't just a cold bastard? Or is he going to carry on being a cold English, you know, unemotional bastard, you know what you're going to do. And so and what you see at the end of story, a archetypal storytelling is that is that they finally they finally get control over both of those kind of elements of story in in one kind of perfect moment, they get control over the exterior world of the drama, and the interior world of who they are. I mean, the obvious example is Star Wars, where Luke uses the force to you know, get control over it blow up the Death Star, but he also has the character becomes that hero. And so and it's, it's almost like a fleeting moment. And and I call it the god moment, because that's the archetype or, you know, who's the who's the who's the hero of the greatest story ever told, it's God. You know, religion is the most powerful story ever told obsesses billions of people around the world. And you know, God's defining characteristic is control. And if you think about it, in its broadest terms, that's what we're all seeking. That's what brains want, they want control over the world. Because if we have control over the world, and ourselves, we get what we want. So we're always trying to seek control, we're trying to work out to get control. And that gut feeling of having control is kind of blissful. And you know, that's what we see. And that's very often we see it as a kind of dramatic climax of, of archetypal stories is that is that a wonderful moment stuck at the end of 100. Cuckoo's Nest, when, when chief picks up the concrete Control Panel throws it through the window of the mental institution and jumps, you know, runs out into the moonlight. But the story doesn't end, 10 minutes later, he's having a piece behind the tree. Or like, you know, two days later, he's arrested and sent back it ends at that moment. Because that's his God moment. That's that beautiful moment, we finally, you know, got control over his floor. And it's almost as well,
Alex Ferrari 59:27
it's almost a self realization, in in that moment, in that small moment of whatever that is, like, I Oh, I got this. I realize what's what's going on. And you were saying about people wanting to take control because they get things I mean, there's, you know, there's few people in the world that might take that a little extreme. Some, some of the worst human beings in history have taken that to the grave. Yeah. Well,
Will Storr 59:53
I mean, really, I was thinking about the Darwinian thing, survival and reproduction, you know, we fundamentally what all things want to do work out how to survive and reproduce. How do we do that? And in human groups, we live in social tribes, it's about working out, what are the rules? How do I behave in order to be seen as a hero and get status because if we get status in life, we tend to get rewards. And that's the same as kind of for any animal. So, so you know, very often in this archetype of storytelling, in the god moment comes when they have an act of kind of pro tribe, selflessness. Just like, you know, Luke Skywalker, risking his life for the good of the rebels.
Alex Ferrari 1:00:36
But what I have to ask you this, why is breaking away from the tribe, or at least putting the tribe ahead of your needs? looked upon as it I guess, I guess, as I'm explaining it to myself, am I answering myself? Because you're looking like that? Like, why is that being held up to a higher standard, where when it really is about the tribe and being and being working with the tribe, as opposed to being that individual who goes out and breaks the rules, and gets a sacrificial part of them? Like, oh, they're so great. Yes. sacrifice themselves for the better of the group? Yeah, so
Will Storr 1:01:13
So I think, I think that the basic idea is that most of us are pretty selfish, and most of us are looking after ourselves. And so you kind of need to be bribed, in order to put them first. And so part of that bribe is, that's what heroes do. And when you do that heroic thing, everyone's going to tell you, you're amazing. And we're going to give you all these gifts of attention. And in it, you know, and really, when they do a studies about status, in hunter gatherer tribes, they find the highest status individuals have better access to better made, so they get their choice of sleeping cleaner partners, they get better access to the better food, they get safer sleeping sites. So there are rewards in human tribes and in all kinds of animal communities, for earning status and in human, in human groups, you're going to bribed with status, you know, the status of a hero, the status of a loved person, if you do these kind of selfless things. When they look at morality around the world, they find that that's the kind of basis of human morality is selflessness. When you put other people before yourself, no matter where you around the world, people think that's great and wonderful. And when you put yourself before other people, no matter where in the world, we would think as shitty. So so and that's, again, that's a tribal thing. It's that it's that kind of, because we're selfish humans, we have to be bribed to act out terroristic Lee. And part of that is part of the way that we kind of propagandize that in the book, I say that that story is tribal propaganda is propaganda. It's saying, If you do this, if you have the courage to attack our enemies for us, everyone's gonna think you're amazing, and you're going to get to marry her, she's really hot. And you're going to get that steak over there. And everyone's going to say, you know, so. So that's kind of how it that's kind of how it works. We have this idea of the hero, and we all try and try and beat you know, if you're psychologically healthy, we all want to be the hero.
Alex Ferrari 1:03:04
It's very, it's very different. How how history looks like Angus Congress's mother, Teresa. Yeah.
Will Storr 1:03:13
This isn't sort of part of the book is part my next book, actually. But But yeah, there are different ways that humans can earn status. And the three main ones are dominance. So violence, which is what we're doing things around animals, and its virtues are being you know, virtuous, obviously, moral, but there's also a kind of competency based access games. It's like a chef will earn status by being amazing at something. So you get stories about that, that too, you know that somebody's becoming the best ice skater rather.
Alex Ferrari 1:03:41
And is it and that was that one of the reasons why we because I, anytime there's a movie, a documentary, a story in regards to telling a story about a person or group that were exceptional at whatever they do, and I'll watch a documentary on like, the greatest tennis player the greatest Yeah, this Yeah. The greatest chess player, the guy who knows how to paint with his foot, like, whatever, like, that's the dude or that's the girl who was a I'm drawn tie those kind of stories. Is that why those stories like Rudy, even in Rudy's not a good exam because he wasn't the best he just hit? He just was. He was sick, and he was obviously sick. And he really really wanted to be on this football. Yeah.
Will Storr 1:04:29
That's absolutely correct. Yeah. So so so the, in our evolving tribes, you would have punished dominance so people don't like dominant people. But you would have rewarded virtue and you would already competence to so you know, if you're a great Hunter, you you you you you you raise in status if you you know, so and you know war movies, if you're courageous you raise in status, so So yeah, you know, all these stories that we have about people doing incredible documentaries, you know, just Everybody's incredible things.
Alex Ferrari 1:05:00
I just saw that
Will Storr 1:05:02
they're heroic, because it's amazing, you can do that. And that's not a chance thing that humans find that amazing. We find that amazing and thrilling and entertaining, because we've evolved reward that kind of behavior. Because that kind of behavior is really useful for the tribe. If you've got this expert, you can do something incredible. That's good for everyone. So so he's no, no, no, this is accidental. You know, we love this. Watch that stuff for a reason.
Alex Ferrari 1:05:27
Yeah. And I mean, obviously, the things you the examples you gave are actually practical things that people could actually use. But like, I just saw a documentary of the fastest Rubik's Cube solver who happens to I love that. Yeah. I love that with the cube. They I'm fascinated by the subculture in general. Yeah. But then like that, it's like serious is like, done. And I'm like, how like, and that's Yeah, and you look at something
Will Storr 1:05:50
that's a good example. Because there's two things about it. Well, the first thing about that is that is that is that you can't take it too, literally. So we didn't we don't have a part in our brain that makes us think that people who are expert hunters are amazing. It's just expertise. It's just a basic General, any expertise. expertise is great, you know, so And the second thing about that Rubik's Cube movie in particular was was the was full of morality and kind of heroic behavior. Yeah. The guy who was the rival of the new comer was so wonderfully Magnus. I was in tears, you know? Yes. And again, that is that that's playing with your tribal emotions is that it was this amazingly rare virtuous display of your you're better than me and I love you. You've never seen that. So you
Alex Ferrari 1:06:40
know, you watch you watch the donkey, the Donkey Kong documentary about the guys who are fighting to be the best Donkey Kong player in the world? Yeah, the king of Kong king of Kong, one of them. And that that guy, the rival was the complete prick. And everybody hated him. Because he was so arrogant. He walked around with a frickin tie in a video arcade and he had a mullet. It was just such a prick. Yeah, but that's it again. And again.
Will Storr 1:07:04
That's true. Because, you know, we hate Big Shot behavior. If somebody puts them up. If somebody status is earned, the group gives status. If somebody goes in and claims it, we just hate them. But you know, I'm a sucker. My guilty pleasure is reality television. I love a bit of reality TV, because it's pure gossip. And the show got bloated. Yeah, I think it's a big show in the States, but we don't we've only just come out of here called belowdecks.
Alex Ferrari 1:07:30
Oh, I've heard I've heard about it. Yes.
Will Storr 1:07:32
It's like Downton Abbey on the on yachts. And every season they have, they have a couple of real pricks who go on there and think they're above everybody else. And you just love hating them. You love hate in them, and then they get fired? And you go yes.
Alex Ferrari 1:07:47
And that's and that's what triggers that's why reality TV is such a, you know, it's such a heightened reality. It's reality. It's a I don't think it has been reality for quite some time. But those that storytelling aspects, they just they just tech, they just tap into our tribal instincts on Yeah, the good guy, the bad guy, the all that stuff.
Will Storr 1:08:08
And I've got a controversial kind of opinion that I think the reality TV producers are the great unsung heroes of storytelling, because they have to get all this raw material from all these idiots. And they tell you that you know, they tell them that they make stories with them. And and when it works, they do it to spectacular effects. If we have the show in the UK, love Ireland, were just a bunch of kids that chucked in a resort. Yeah. So yeah, yeah, I've love Ireland. And it's just like, you know, they're not the brightest people.
Alex Ferrari 1:08:35
They're not that at all. They're pretty. They're pretty Yeah, yeah.
Will Storr 1:08:38
And bickering everyday. But every single day, they build a story, a 45 minute story out of that. And every single day, they get millions of viewers. And that, to me is the kind of genius Well, you watch storytelling,
Alex Ferrari 1:08:49
but if you watched I mean, did you guys see that? You guys saw Tiger King, right? Oh, that was brilliant. I mean, it's, it's in such an art like, and I've talked about that on the show before and please forgive me everyone listening. But I mean, you watch Tiger King. My wife looked at me like why are you Why are you watching this? I'm like, I can't turn away. This is a this is a train wreck. And as the story continues, you're just like, No, No, that can't really have happened. No. And then like it just every every episode was like, that's not real. How, how was that?
Will Storr 1:09:19
That's a good example isn't one of the things in my book is I call it the dramatic question. And so the dramatic question is, who is this person who they really like when their backs up against the wall? Who are they going to be? And so you know, they're going to be the flawed version of themselves. We're going to be the new versions. And so and so lots of the best drama is when the action is forcing, you know that you come across as I did before, I'm sure the character to show who they are. And that's true the remains of the day because you find out more and more about Stephens. He's a he was a bit of an anti Semite, at one point in you go on guard, and you find out something good you didn't go on. And on that kind of level, the targeting was was exactly the same as the remains of the day because you are constantly being told new things about who the Targeting was and sometimes you know, he's a hero. He's amazing. And other times you're going oh my god, he's a fucking lunatic. You're constantly asked natural magic question Who is this person? And it played with that genetic question so well that it was just he just kept going until the end. I mean, I was always sure Kara was evil, but
Alex Ferrari 1:10:18
well obviously Carol Carol. Obviously killed her husband is fed into tigers. Yeah, I mean, backscatter Bastien, obviously, obviously, there has to be that, but then you watch it, like when you're watching that show, and spoiler alert, one of the handlers the girl got her arm. Yeah, torn off by a tiger. And that she was so kind of cool about it. And there she was. She was like, she was heroic. And then you started to think about them. Like, I love her. Like, I can't believe that she was be like, she didn't Sue. She didn't bitch. She didn't like oh my God, this guy's a critic. No, she went back to work like four or five days later, like it was.
Will Storr 1:10:59
And was that that that is that is displayed. selflessness. She didn't Sue she didn't. She wasn't me, Me. Me. She was like, I'm gonna put the tiger knew first. Yeah. So that's why she's heroic, because that's the essence of heroism, and she had her arm ripped off. And then literally, so first, Jason. So that is yes. But that's another great example of selflessness is heroism.
Alex Ferrari 1:11:21
And then you see him like constantly it's all about me and he takes the crown and he's you know, he's so selfish. And then the best part about and then I'll stop talking about Tiger Okay, the best part about because I don't talk to people about Tiger because I'm in quarantine. So I don't talk to people about it but but the best part was like when you hear those when you start with those music videos that he was doing, and you're going Is it me or is the tiger King have a decent voice? Like why he shouldn't sound this good? Then we come to find out that it was dubbed that somebody else. Someone else. Which makes all the sense of the world. Yeah, of course. Of course. He did that. He Milli Vanilli this
Will Storr 1:12:09
Yeah. When they were making that whoever was making that there must have been just thinking every day. Oh my god, this is gold. Like imagine going home every day from that set. It's
Alex Ferrari 1:12:19
just going like this. I can't, but it was also just constructed so
Will Storr 1:12:23
it was beautiful. It was
Alex Ferrari 1:12:25
the sixth episode. whatever amount of episode it was so well. It was
Will Storr 1:12:30
so elegant. It was so brilliantly done.
Alex Ferrari 1:12:33
Yeah, elegant is the only time you'll ever hear the word elegant and Tiger King in the same sentence was the craftsmanship
Will Storr 1:12:41
you know like for making a Making a Murderer was so brilliantly made as well. I mean, Netflix are actually you know, we I used to we used to be quite proud in the UK of bbc documentaries. But but the Netflix have made bbc documentaries look terrible. I mean, you know, like, they're, they're making such brilliant nonfiction films, Netflix, they're kind of leading the world, I think in
Alex Ferrari 1:13:03
its theories and stuff like that. And documentaries. Yeah, I
Will Storr 1:13:05
mean, so still very celebrity that out here, you know, sent a celebrity on a journey. And God It feels so dated now.
Alex Ferrari 1:13:12
Yeah, I know. We were We were known for our celebrities as well, here over here.
Will Storr 1:13:19
Yeah, but yeah, I mean, you know, when there's people out there, like the target King and celebrity, absolutely not always a celebrity in tears talking about their childhood. It's like, Oh, God.
Alex Ferrari 1:13:33
I want I want to ask you one last question about the book. What is the difference between plot as a recipe versus plot as a synthesis is a sympathy for change? Yeah, so
Will Storr 1:13:46
this is something about you know, I was just talking about how, when story analysts in the past have tried to work out how story works from Aristotle through to Robert McKee. And, you know, whoever, they they've only had other stories to, to go by, you know, so so Robert McKee. I keep forgetting his, you know, the here with $1,000.
Alex Ferrari 1:14:14
Will Storr 1:14:16
Yeah, of course, there's a capital we're having a having a middle aged moment there. Yeah. And Joseph Campbell, you know, all they have to go on is previous stories. So they get all the previous stories together, and they compare them and they go, Well, this is what they've got in common. And there's no, there's no way of kind of communicating that what they come up with is their solution. And then as a recipe, this thing happens, and then this thing happens, and then this thing happens, then this thing happens. And so and that, you know, sometimes that works in with Star Wars with yours and something but more often than not, it just when you're watching it, it just feels like it's a recipe. So just follow the recipe. And I think the good thing about starting with a science is that you're starting with something else and you know, and you're not starting with the recipe, and I think one of the kind of basic things about it about human attention Is that we're attracted to change, you know, if there's change in the in the room, we're just gonna look at it, tell great stories begin. And and so, you know, in the book I talked to various ways you can use traditional plot structure, but in a smarter way with, you know, using it properly with character. But you can also, you know, forget all that stuff and and just just understand the fact that humans love change and you know, really great stories are like a symphony of change. And there's all kinds of different things that can change on it, you know, the character can change, the situation can change the people around the character can change the characters goals can change the characters understanding about the world can change, you know, in really great stories as all these changes happening all at once and all these kind of different levels. And it is nice to kind of abstract kind of arthouse level, that's what a story is, is that you know, stuff changing, and thinking, of course, the more that you kind of shape that, the more it becomes a kind of archetype or story. So that's what that's about really is about, it's about understanding that if you're just following that 22 portmanteau myth, without really understanding some of this other stuff about kind of character and how people actually work. You risk just following a recipe and coming out with a supermarket cake.
Alex Ferrari 1:16:11
I mean, I know we can talk for at least another two or three hours about this. I'm fascinated with your, your your point of view on story because it comes from syce. And it's it's a it's a different starting place. This is not theory. This is like, Okay, how do we tell? And this is what Hitchcock said years ago, he goes, I'm going to find eventually just find a way to play, like pianos on a note, I want you to feel this boom, and you hit this point and you laugh this, then you cry this when you get scared. And a good storyteller knows how to trigger all those elements. But if you as a storyteller understand, yeah, well, the rules of what they see, we I think a lot of times screenwriters specifically, and storytellers in general, we all look at story from the stories point of view, we rarely look at it from the audience's point of view in the sense of how to trigger the audience, it's generally more of a sometimes it's ego related, meaning it's like, it's my story, I'm going to tell the story. But you never, you know, it's rare to finally think about like, well, how is the audience member going to react to this? Or how is the audience member going to react to that? It's not something that's trained in Hollywood, it's, at least not to my understanding.
Will Storr 1:17:30
No, no, but but then now the I think that's because we just didn't know for such a long time. I mean, the science that's in the book is mostly very recent science of the last sort of 1020 years, and especially the evolutionary stuff about moral outrage and status play, you know, you know, you know, how do you get people to empathize with an antihero like Tony Soprano, or Humbert Humbert? We just didn't know that until we understood. Gossip, you know, and how gossip works and why it works. So all these kind of previous people have attempted to kind of tease out the secrets of storytelling. They just didn't have I mean, I'm just lucky that I've had these tools at my disposal because I happen to be alive now rather than 30 years ago. I mean, you look, it gives us a whole new toolkit, all the psychology,
Alex Ferrari 1:18:14
right? If you look at like a character like Walter White from breaking bad, who's an antihero? Yeah. There is moments. Anytime I'm looking at an antihero like I'm right now in the middle of watching I'm not sure if you know the show Sons of Anarchy. Yeah, it's a it's a motorcycle gang here and the way this characters have changed. Right now we're finding it a place where the main characters are there, they have no moral code anymore. They're they're losing their moral code. Walter White lost his moral code. Yeah. Along along the way. Yeah. But anytime you look at an antihero, there's always moments that he does, or she does something morally correct that hold you on just just a second longer, before you just say this guy or This girl has to go. And towards the end, Walter White, even, even on the last episode of spoiler alert, is, you know, he's still cared about pinkman. He still Exactly. That's the thing. I think
Will Storr 1:19:18
he's a great example of that of the evil if the tribal emotions, you know, because in the beginning of that, the screenwriters go to great lengths to get us to empathize with him. He's low status. He's a teacher, he loves his job. He loves his wife loves his son. He thinks he's gonna die and selfless, selfless, selfless. He's working in spite of spending time in a carwash. Teresa has a handicap, you
Alex Ferrari 1:19:43
know, he has a handicap. So
Will Storr 1:19:44
he's doing it for the family so he could die so so so they do all those things, which subconsciously, make us love him, we root for him. And these are such powerful emotions, and they're so embedded in us that even when he's literally dissolving the bodies of his enemies in bands of acid. We're still rooting for him. Again, it's underdog. And the other thing you often find with anti heroes, whether it's Tony Soprano or humble, humble Walter White is, you know, that they're partly they're quite low status. So Tony Soprano wasn't the highest. It wasn't john Gotti. He was in this, I think was the Staten Island model the New Jersey mob he was using a crap mob.
Alex Ferrari 1:20:22
It was a low level mob, it was it was a guy. Yeah, he was
Will Storr 1:20:26
surrounded and what they are, they're usually surrounded by much worse characters. So as soon as a Friday in the first episode, Uncle Jr. and his mom were both plotting against him. He was trying to you know, he was doing all these quite nice things. He he had this kind of anxiety attack when he saw some ducks every sensitive, you know, loads of reasons for us to like, Is it because he's very low status and as soon as humba humba in in a liter? I mean, how do you get the reader to care about a PDF file? Well, you just put a much worse paedophile in the story and have him kill him. So you know, so So, you know, again, in the book, I talk about Lolita in a lot. So that's not the only thing that happens. But when you actually thought about, you know, really interrogate what the or what Nabokov did with Lolita, and Humbert Humbert from the perspective of the psychology, it's, there are so many little things he's done to manipulate us to care about Humbert Humbert. And it's all about making him low status, making him selfless. You know, he, he doesn't do the really bad things is one of the kind of most egregious parts of that plot was that the liters mom had to had to die in order to get his hands on the liter, rather than have Humbert killer. She was just randomly run over in the street, and it's like, Oh, come on. That's so bad. But he couldn't have hung but killer because then you just lose. Did you loser said? Yes. So he's constantly constantly constantly thinking about, you know what you were just saying? He's constantly thinking about how the audience is feeling. And he added any, he managed it beautifully. I mean, Jesus, to get you to care about a pedophile is quite an extraordinary Feat.
Alex Ferrari 1:22:04
Yeah, exactly. And towards the end, even as Walter White was coming to his end, I still kind of cared about him. We do. Yeah, it's so weird. And she's like, this guy's a monster. He's a monster. But he's like, he's kind of a good monster. It was just such. It's just such an amazing transformation. Now, I'm gonna ask you a couple questions. I asked all my guests. What are three screenplays or three movies that every screenwriter should study? Oh, my God, that's a really good question.
Will Storr 1:22:39
I mean, you I'm going to show my kind of era now. Because they're all from the same era. But like, I love doubt. This, we are just extraordinary. You know, like, one of my I was once teaching a class and I had somebody in the class who said she knew the person who wrote that. And she said, Even he didn't. So if any of the people watching don't know doubt, it basically is based around a Catholic priest, and you'll never doubt is, is he a pedophile again? Is he a pedophile or not? And even the, the guy who wrote the screenplay, didn't know, he hadn't decided. So it's really amazing, fantastic screenplay about doubts about that. I love American Beauty, because American Beauty is another example of a story which is relentless in its plot, but also really moving really deep in you know, incredible characters. So that was my second one. And what other screenplay would I say is essential, would say Tao American Beauty. And let's say Magnolia is I think that's another one another Philip Seymour Hoffman, one day, there's another one, which really, there was such a great period, you know, the kind of late 90s 2000s for really amazing American film that didn't compromise in terms of watch ability, but was really well, it was elevated to the level of art, I think,
Alex Ferrari 1:24:06
yeah, it was, I think it started with the 90s, the early 90s, with the Sundance crowd of filmmakers, but a lot of those guys came in and made those films, but then the studio started giving the money to a little juice behind them. And that's how like American Beauty and Magnolia and those kind of films were made. Now, what is the lesson that took you the longest to learn whether in the in your business or in life,
Will Storr 1:24:31
in my business is pretty interesting. brevity. You know, a lot of my books used to be quite long. And you know, is this an English writer Jon Ronson, who, who he does screenwriting to actually but I interviewed him when I was a young man in my early 20s is a big hero of mine. And as I was leaving his house, I said to him, john, I've got just one bit of advice for me. He said, Yeah, brevity, and I thought as a bit of advice, brevity is rubbish. But it took me like 20 years to work out, yeah, it really matters. It really matters and actually really great writing is that is that, you know, clarity is concise, but packed with meaning, you know, so that's the difficult stuff is easy to write 120,000 word book, on on the science of storytelling is much harder to run 80,000 or 60,000 word book on storytelling, but if you if you crack the brevity, you'll get much bigger, much bigger audience.
Alex Ferrari 1:25:25
You know? Yeah, that's
Will Storr 1:25:26
the creative lesson that the person is, is that is that is that brevity is, is really hard, but really important.
Alex Ferrari 1:25:35
I know when I was I always used to be told, like I asked some of my early when I was early on, like what advice he gave me that go patience. And I'm like, Ah, that's crap. patient. Patience. Bullshit. That's crap now. And now, when people ask me, What do you like patients, man? It's such a long road you don't understand. But you can't understand when you're 20. You don't understand patience.
Will Storr 1:26:01
When you're 20 you don't understand brevity. You think? Well, my amazing ideas.
Alex Ferrari 1:26:06
I'm the best tire this tire of my genius. I'll just say Oh, waxaa
Will Storr 1:26:20
Get to the point.
Alex Ferrari 1:26:21
I've got I've got Games of Thrones to go watch. I don't have time for you, sir. Yeah, exactly. Um, and then where can people find you and your books and more about what you do.
Will Storr 1:26:36
So willstorr.com willstorr.com And I tweet at Will Storr. And on YouTube, if you just Google my name on YouTube, there's a there's a free it's free kind of five videos of introduction to science of storytelling with some basic the basic ideas and some sort of takeaway kind of tips. So if any of you are interested in the stuff I've been talking about, hit YouTube and as they say, there's five short films that I've made on there as a kind of starter.
Alex Ferrari 1:27:12
Oh, my God. Well, I like I said before me, I could talk to you for hours about this. This is a really been an amazing episode. I have probably another 20 questions easily that we can keep talking about. But what I'm gonna take your advice brevity, sir, brevity. So um, thank you again, so much for coming on the show.
Will Storr 1:27:32
Yeah, really, thank you so much.
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- The Science of Storytelling: Why Stories Make Us Human and How to Tell Them Better
- Will Storr – Official Website
- Will Storr – Twitter