The Science of Story

I came across this video from the World Science Festival called, Why We Tell Stories: Science of Narrative. In searching the web for books and articles about stories and storytelling from a scientific angle, I’ve found a handful of accessible books about the subject, the best so far being The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall, which I’ve mentioned before. I’m sure there are other, more academic style books on the subject, but I am far from an academic, so those types of books don’t resonate with me.

But as the panelists discuss, the scientific study into narrative is relatively new field. Philosophers and writers have pondered the question for centuries, but only in the last 15 years or so has it been studied with any scientific rigor. Which makes sense why it’s been hard to come by a lot of information on the topic.

The video is definitely worth watching. (The panel starts about 15 minutes in.)

The panel didn’t come to any definitive conclusions, but I came away with a lot of great insights.

–Research suggests that story has the ability to change us. This is a powerful idea which we can see play out in places like advertising and politics. We can be swayed to buy a particular product or vote for a particular person based on the story the advertiser or politician tells us.

–Fiction helps us to create better mental models of each other. This helps us empathize with others more easily. Researchers discovered that parts of the brain that are activated for understanding someone are also activated by story. With fiction, unlike in real life, we can understand why a character behaves a certain way (even if we don’t condone it) because we are aware of his or her inner thoughts and deepest secrets.

–Humans are designed to find meaning. Stories can help us find meaning in what seems at times to be a meaningless world.

–Stories are the social glue that hold a tribe or society together.

–Stories are simulations of the social world. Keith Oatley describes stories like they are flight simulators or virtual realities, where we can test out different social situations without the social risks.

All these ideas have me really excited for the possibility of story and what they are capable of. They truly have the ability to make us the best versions of ourselves and to inspire us to be a positive influence on the world. For me, after reading a great book or watching a great movie, I’m inspired to create. And I’ve heard from a lot of Avatar fans who have told me some amazing and heartwarming tales of how the series and characters have touched people and inspired them to study art, or deal with illness, or deal with the loss of a loved one. Your stories inspire me to keep telling more.

I love that scientists are studying story, but I wonder if treating story like it’s bacteria in a petri dish will take away some of its magic. Will there be a point where we understand its effects on the human brain so well that people can tailor stories to resonate with people? I suppose, but this would be the same as propaganda.

I recently heard a definition of art that I really liked – it must be both novel and useful. And I think that can apply to story as well. Science can probably help us make it more useful, but I don’t know that it can ever explain why some stories become great and others don’t. There are so many factors that go into telling a story, that you can have all the ingredients right, and still come out with a half-baked product.

At the end of the talk, the moderator asked what the future of story will look like. And although stories might take different forms or be consumed in different ways, the kinds of stories we tell won’t change all that much, according to Gottschall. I agree. Old stories like The Iliad and Hercules are still being retold, just in modern media. But the essence of these stories still reflect the values we find important, like courage, overcoming fear, love, and justice.

Do you think scientific study of story will have useful results? Have there been any stories that have changed you?


You really want to know what happened to Zuko’s mom?


The first part of The Search was released in comic book stores today and should be in wide release in the next couple of weeks. And so begins the 3-part story that answers the question fans have had for years — “What happened to Zuko’s mom?”

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked that by fans of the show, because it’s a lot.

While we were working on Book 1 of Korra, Bryan and I pitched a TV movie version of the search for Zuko’s mom to Nickelodeon. They weren’t interested in doing animated TV movies, and chose to pick up Book 2 of Korra instead.  (And yes, we’re still working on it.) Around the same time, Dark Horse wanted to publish ongoing stories with Aang and Zuko, so we started working with the writer Gene Yang to develop new adventures. We decided against having The Search be the first trio of graphic novels, but knew that the graphic novels were a great place to ultimately tell the story. Last year, I spoke with Gene Yang about some of the ideas we had, and he took those ideas even further, which inspired some other story developments. It was a collaborative back and forth and Gene did a terrific job with the scripts. I’m proud of the books and I think it does Zuko and Ursa’s story justice.

Bryan always tells the fans they can blame me for making them wait for an answer, so I’ll take the heat. When we wrote the finale of Avatar: The Last Airbender, we had so much to wrap up, that I thought it was more intriguing to have the fate of Zuko’s mother remain unresolved. It implied that his story wasn’t over, that the lives of these characters would continue on, even though the series had ended. Plus, I thought that the story was full of possibility and that a quick wrap-up would not be satisfying.

I didn’t know if we’d ever get the chance to tell the story, but I was okay with leaving it a question in the viewer’s mind. I thought it was kind of intriguing.

But I never anticipated how much this question would burn in people’s minds, so much so that I’m still being asked about Zuko’s mom over 4 years later. But now I have an idea why.

In The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall writes, “The storytelling mind is allergic to uncertainty, randomness, and coincidence. It is addicted to meaning.” Leaving Zuko’s mom as an uncertainty created some anxiety in people who were looking for certainty and closure. We have a need to find meaning in our stories, and this dangling thread was like an itch that couldn’t be scratched.

So, I’m sorry you couldn’t scratch that itch for the past 4 1/2 years. Now you can. The mystery will be solved. And I assure you, at the end of part 3, there is a definite answer to “what happened to Zuko’s mom?” And that’s what makes me nervous.

Can it possibly live up to the stories all you fans have imagined over the past 5 years? I doubt it.

It’s made me think of our expectations for certain stories. Some books and movies are so hyped, so anticipated, that they never live up to the expectation. Now, I’m not saying this story is as big as Harry Potter or something, but in our small realm of the Avatar universe, it’s pretty highly anticipated.

Remember Lost? How pissed off everyone was because they wanted answers to every mystery that was raised? They left a lot of little itches to be scratched. I know I’m in the minority here, but I was pretty satisfied with the way it ultimately turned out, despite the unsolved mysteries. Honestly, I don’t really care that I never learned the truth about the three toed statue. That’s not what the show was about. What mattered was explaining what that experience meant to the characters. And that’s what I remember.

All this is to say, I hope you enjoy The Search, and that it feels good to finally scratch that itch.

And I may be opening a can of spider-worms here, but if you do read it, I’d love to hear what you think.

A few of my other blogs you might find interesting:

Legend of Korra Soundtrack: Music as Storyteller

Why the Story of Superman Still Matters

Violence and Story, Part 1 & Part 2


Can old stories help us navigate the future?

Sketchnotes for "The Great Cauldron of St...

Sketchnotes for “The Great Cauldron of Story” with Maria Tatar (Photo credit: On Being)

In this fascinating interview with Krista Tippett, Maria Tatar, a professor Germanic languages and literature at Harvard, talks about fairy tales and their influence and impact on our modern culture.  For example, there are the new adaptations of Snow White and shows like Grimm and Once. But she also points out that even the Kardashians and Sex and the City are versions of Cinderella.

Have these old myths and tales always been a large part of the culture, or is this a new trend?  Tatar talks about how we’re all navigating new territory and that there is a comfort in returning to these familiar stories to help us understand our world.

It makes sense to me, though I’m not sure that this is an entirely new trend. Myths and fairytales have always been part of the modern, popular culture, whether it was through Superman and comic books, or Star Wars in the 80’s.

But there are a couple reasons why these “old” stories might be more pervasive now.

First, the types of and platforms for entertainment have grown. Programmers and studios have so many more hours to fill, that numbers-wise, it makes sense that more fairytale-based stories are out there.

Also, with visual effects being so popular and of such a high quality, creatures and locations that a reader could only imagine before are now being pulled off the page and brought to life in a very convincing way. I think that’s why we’re seeing fairytale movies like Alice and Wonderland, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Oz-related stories being released every few months. Not to mention the numerous superhero movies.

But what are these old tales teaching us about our modern world? And can they really help us navigate our complex, global society? After all, these were tales that were told around campfires within small tribes, that had no concept of cel phones, computers, and space travel.

What if these stories aren’t about decoding our external world, necessarily, but our internal worlds? They offer us ways to understand and deal with fear, heartbreak, and disappointment — emotions that are universal and timeless.

And as Tatar suggests, in a world that is in constant flux, we find comfort in the familiar. We humans are kind of averse to change, so if a story will help moor us during the tumultuous waves of live, it’s not surprising that we welcome it.

Perhaps if there is a resurgence in the popularity of fantasy and fairytales, it speaks less to economics and special effects, and more to the fact that people are looking for meaning and a “happily ever after.” For a while now, there has been a backlash to the “hollywood ending” and the “happily ever after” because it’s too easy or too saccharine. But the opposite hasn’t helped stories thrive or find larger audiences. In recent years I’ve noticed a lot of shows and movies with cynical endings, hopeless outcomes, and characters who seems to have learned nothing and are no better off than at the start of their tale.

I am definitely suspicious of stories that are tied up too neatly at the end, but I also like to see a glimmer of hope and to feel that things can get better. That people can change.

I don’t need every one of the stories I read to have a totally happy ending, but I do like to see a character who has gone through tests and trials come out the other end in one piece, a little happier and healthier.

Because isn’t that what we want in our own lives?

Argo: Story saves the day

Quick disclaimer — if you have adverse reactions to spoilers, then you might not want to read on.

I finally watched Argo this weekend. Ever since I heard about this film, the concept really intrigued me. I used to really love old, campy B-movies, and the idea of a CIA agent pretending to make one as a cover to rescue hostages from Iran was very intriguing.

The short review: terrific cast, great direction, and even though you knew the hostages were going to make it out okay, the tension was palpable throughout.

But the part that still sticks with me two days later, is the climactic scene at the airport. Ben Affleck’s character, Tony Mendez, has successfully shepherded the hostages to the airport under the guise of being the producer of a sci-fi film. They are about to get on the plane, when the Revolutionary Guards pull them aside for questioning. It’s like getting pulled out of line by the TSA, but instead of being a minor inconvenience, these people could be killed.

And how do they get out of it? By telling a story. The screenplay of Argo, to be exact.

And it’s not a particularly memorable story. I think there were some aliens, a hero who saves a woman, and a laser gun battle.

But what made the moment work so well in the film, was that the person who told the story wasn’t CIA operative Tony Mendez, a guy who had dealt with situations like this before. No, the guy who stepped up was Joe Stafford, a character who, up until this point in the story, was scared. He didn’t believe in the plan and thought it was suicide to leave the country pretending to be a fake movie crew. But when confronted by the enemy, this guy told the story of Argo to the guards in their native language and didn’t miss a beat.

From a storytelling perspective, it was a smart choice to have Stafford, not Mendez tell the story. Mendez knew the cover story inside and out and he believed in it. Stafford, not so much. So there was more dramatic tension created by giving the moment to Stafford.

At first, the guards were dubious. But Stafford committed to the story, describing the characters and plot, and even showing them some storyboards. The guards were hooked. They lost themselves in the story. They let their guard down for that moment.

This event, coupled with the head guard confirming their cover story, allowed them to board the plane and escape.

Even after the group left, there’s a shot of the guards looking at the storyboard drawings and making laser gun sounds, playacting the story.

Although that scene with the guards apparently did not happen in the real-life events of the story on which Argo is based, it didn’t diminish the meaning:

Story has the power to save us.

That’s what resonated with me. I think there are other messages to be gleaned from the film for sure, but that’s the one that really stuck out to me.

The whole mission hinged on whether this group could plausibly pretend to be a film crew scouting locations for a fictional story. Thematically, it made perfect sense that story saved the day.

Story’s “Sugar Coat”

Since we read and watch stories in order to understand ourselves and our world, it follows that we are looking for meaning in story. In fairy tales, it is the moral of the story – a clear lesson a child (or adult, for that matter) is supposed to learn in order to better navigate society. The most effective stories have a moral, but organically weaving one into a story is tricky. Make it too subtle, and the audience is left wondering, “what was the point?” Make it too obvious, and the audience will feel like its being bludgeoned with a moral hammer and likely reject it.

I hate being told what to do or what to think, so if a story’s lesson is too on the nose, I tend to discount it. I’m thinking of the overly saccharine Hallmark-style movies about “being true to yourself” or “how family is the most important thing” or “following your dreams.” It’s not that these messages are not helpful. In fact, the world needs more messages like these, but how can stories use them in a way that doesn’t make us squirm?

If a story resonates with us, we “drop our intellectual guard”, as Jonathan Gottschall writes in The Storytelling Animal. “Research shows that story is constantly nibbling and kneading us, shaping our minds without our knowledge or consent. The more deeply we are cast under a story’s spell, the more potent its influence.”

And that’s the key — a story needs to masterfully weave together plot, character, dialogue, and setting in order for us to understand its meaning. Oh, and it must also be a really well-told story, full of excitement, suspense, mystery, and passion. And as anyone who’s written a story can tell you, this is no easy task.

To borrow from James Bonnet in Stealing Fire From the Gods, the story is the “sugar coat” that helps make the medicine of the meaning go down. Gottschall calls it “the sweet jam of storytelling.” We’re like kids who need our medicine (the moral) but don’t want to take it. The best kinds of stories are the ones working to make us healthier.

When a story draws us in, we are like putty in the hands of the storyteller who, like a hypnotist, has the power to shape and influence our minds. The example might sound a little extreme, but think of how we describe our experiences with our favorite stories. “I become lost in the story” or “I was totally absorbed by the story” are common phrases we use.

This is the power the storyteller wields, and in the right hands, it’s a power that can be used to inspire us to overcome obstacles in our lives or help us feel a connection with our fellow man.

I highly recommend the two books I mentioned if you’re interested in storytelling as a craft or social phenomenon. I’m sure I’ll return to them many times throughout this blog as a source of inspiration and ideas.