The Art of Storytelling – why we shed our tears just by reading a book? Because we have social brains which enable us to feel empathy for others. We all love good stories which move us from within and even they have the power to change our belief. Let’s take a look at what makes a good story.
Humans Are Storytelling Creatures
What’s the art of storytelling?
You take fresh strawberries out of the fridge, wash them with cold water; put that vivid red, plump, and juicy strawberry in your mouth… When someone tells us about motion, our motion cortex gets active. When someone tells us about certain foods, our sensory cortex light up and start drooling.
By simply telling a story, you could plant ideas, thoughts, and emotions into the listener’s brains. A story, a sentence with cause and effect, have a power to change the chemicals in the brain not just in language processing parts, but any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story like eating a juicy strawberry.
Whenever we hear a story, we want to relate it to one of our existing experiences. That’s why metaphors work so well with us. While we are busy searching for a similar experience in our brains, a part called insula is activated, which helps us relate to that same experience of pain, joy, disgust or else.
We link up metaphors and literal happenings automatically. Everything in our brain is looking for the cause and effect relationship of something we’ve previously experienced. This function used to be critical for our survival because we had to distinguish who or what could be safe or dangerous.
As a social creature, we are biased toward engaging with others, and effective stories motivate us to help others. The key to our hearts is a story. People are not inspired to act by reason alone, but emotions. We think in a story which allows us to envision the future.
The Art of Storytelling – Narrative Design
Stories that are personal and emotionally compelling have the power to motivates us to change our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. We need a narrative design which can grab listeners’ attention in the first place. To do that, we don’t have to invent the whole new vehicle for a story but must know the basic structure of a good story. Every engaging story has a certain structure which is often called the dramatic arc.
Essentially, a story expresses how and why life changes.
It starts with something new, surprising with the background, and increases tension with difficulties that the characters must face and overcome. This is the event that triggers the story to begin. It is often because of some failure or crisis in their past and the characters work on to solve them.
And then it leads to a climax – a point of no return – where the characters must look deep inside themselves to overcome the crisis. And once this transformation occurs, the story resolves itself and the consequences of the story which would be the bookend of the narrative.
This structure sustains attention by building suspense while at the same time providing a vehicle for character development. The climax of the story keeps us on the edge of our neural seats until the tension is relieved at the finish.
A narrative is the sequence of events, but it’s also what creates the tension in the story. You can’t waste any minute of your listeners. You tell only the parts that propel the story forward.
Emotions are gasoline for the art of storytelling.
People are moved by emotion. Stories have the power to change the attitude of people, but only when their hearts resonate with the story.
They don’t act alone on rational mind, but emotion drives people even more powerfully. And people behave based on their feelings, emotions.
The actual story material isn’t what separates a good story from a bad one. What makes the difference is the emotion the storyteller puts into their narrative.
Merely stating a set of facts and events can’t bring the emotion in readers, but a story can create empathy for real people, drawing the listener into a narrative.
Emotional simulation is the foundation for empathy and is particularly powerful for social creatures like humans because it allows us to forecast if people around us are friendly or hostile as we need this skill for survival.
Such a neural mechanism keeps us safe but also allows us to rapidly form a relationship with a wider set of members of our species than any other animal does.
This ability allows us to engage in the kind of large-scale cooperation that builds massive bridges and sends humans into space.
We storytellers should look into ourselves deeply and find our emotional core.
How did you feel about the events you are describing, how you felt when your story happened? What troubled you most and what was motivating you to overcome it? How did you feel about your surroundings and what triggered your emotion?
By delving into your own emotions when events happen, how you feel and react is the key to touch listener’s hearts. Be honest and clear with your emotions. What moves you move listeners emotions.
The art of storytelling lies in dirty laundry. Let us tell you what we mean.
What evokes our emotions? What makes a story exciting? We need the problem, the difficulty, and the struggle. You want to display the struggle between expectation and reality in all its nastiness.
In a personal level, it can be self-disclosure, sharing secrets. Self-disclosure is one of the important storytelling skills. A good storyteller is aware of her level of disclosure and used it skillfully.
When you tell the story of your struggles against real antagonists, your listener finds your story exciting and wants to know more about it. Yes, we need enemies, antagonists who stand in your way, oppose you, and give you a negative impact. That’s what gives your story momentum.
What makes life worth living does not come from the rosy side, but the energy to live comes from the dark side. It comes from everything that makes us suffer and makes us think deeper. As we struggle against these negative powers, we’re forced to live more deeply and more fully. Negative powers make us take action, move us forward to solve the problem and make us better persons.
The accumulation of antagonists creates great suspense. The more powerful the enemies, the better storytelling because we don’t find a story with weak enemies really amusing, do we?
Oxytocin, Empathy, and Transportation
The art of storytelling is boosted by oxytocin.
Oxytocin, a neuropeptide known as the
cuddle hormone, is a key signal telling people to it’s safe to approach. It is responsible for empathy and narrative transportation, which happens when one loses oneself in the flow of the story.
You don’t make listeners to feel empathy with the characters in a story, they won’t listen to you.
No empathy, no transportation.
Oxytocin is produced when we are trusted or shown a kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others. Encourage oxytocin production and you can motivate people to engage in cooperative behaviors.
When you feel a sense of belonging, nurturing, and community – that’s oxytocin dancing through your veins. It’s simple; if you treat me well, I’ll treat you well in return. In most cases, our brains will synthesize oxytocin when we are treated well and this will motivate us to treat them well in return. This is how we form a society expecting others to be nice generally.
In order to motivate a desire to help others, a story must first sustain attention in readers. Attention is a scarce resource in the brain because it is metabolically costly to a brain that needs to conserve resources. How to grab attention from listeners, it’s by developing tension during the narrative.
Why should listeners or a person on the street care about the story you are promoting? How does it change the world or improve lives? How will people feel when they finish reading? These are the components that make information persuasive and memorable.
Now we know a story can inspire new thinking, influence people’s perceptions, and engage new behaviors. The simpler a story, the more likely it will stick.
The art of storytelling begins with self-knowledge.
Self-knowledge is the root of all great storytelling. The more you understand your own humanity, the more you can appreciate the humanity of others in all their life’s struggle.
Stories fulfill a profound human need to grasp the patterns of living – not merely as an intellectual exercise, but within a very personal, emotional experience.
Stories function as Trojan Horse, the audiences accept the story because our brains are wired for a story and a good story is always a gift to us. It’s like planting seeds in people’s hearts and it grows inside them. A good story lives inside listeners.
But the story is actually just a delivery system for the teller’s agenda. You can say a story is a trick for sneaking a message into the fortified citadel of the human mind. Make sure you plant good seeds which can encourage people to take an action in a way they feel good about themselves and the world.
We all live with countless stories around us; our attitudes, fears, hopes, and values are strongly influenced by a story. All great stories illuminate the dark side which we often try to hide unconsciously. But that is where the core of your story lies and a story that embraces darkness produces a positive energy in readers; only when you bravely face your own struggle and really look into it, your readers would appreciate your story. So now, shall we go on the journey in our dark side?
NARRATIVE TRANSPORTATION: WHAT IT IS AND WHY EVERY STORYTELLER NEEDS TO KNOW IT (MUSE STORYTELLING)