In order to be maximally compelling, protagonists should be active, the principal causer of effects in the plot that follows. Textual analyses reveal the words “do”, “need” and “want” appear twice as often in novels that feature in the New York Times bestseller list as those that don’t. A character in a drama who isn’t reacting, making decisions, choosing and trying somehow to impose control on the chaos isn’t truly a protagonist. Without action, the answer to the dramatic question never really changes.
That’s from The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr. On first attempt I put this book down in frustration, because the book itself is not framed in the form of a story. But encouraged by Rob Henderson I picked it up again and found a lot of value in it. Storr talks about how stories are framed around a central question: who is this person? He gives a good illustration from Lawrence of Arabia:
When he finally makes it out of the desert, to the shores of the Suez Canal, a motorcyclist on the opposite bank spots him. Curious about this strange white man in Arab robes emerging from the desert, the motorcyclist shouts across the water, “Who are you? Who are you?” As the question fills the baking air, the camera freezes on Lawrence’s troubled face.
Storr also spends a good deal of time with Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of The Day, a story that’s heartbreaking even when summarized. We the reader, and Stevens the butler, are both asking who this man is?
I found Storr’s discussion of the “ignition point” of a story, and his “sacred flaw” method to developing stories to both be thought-provoking and potentially block-breaking for a storyteller.
The textual analysis bit comes from The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers. This book is a tiny bit ridiculous: the authors fed lots of books into some kind of computer algorithm they’ve got rigged up at Stanford, and produce charts like this one:
The Y axis there is “emotion.” While I might hesitate to trust the suggested precision of a graph like this on something as squishy as storytelling, the basic insight – that thrilling stories have a lot of ups and downs – is valuable and rings true.
More on key words from bestsellers:
Both Storr and Archer & Jockers cite the work of Christopher Booker, who wrote a titanic volume called The Seven Basic Plots. When Booker’s book dropped, I was working as a professional TV storyteller and amateur novelist, and I bought it, and set down to study, eager to crack the code.
Booker’s seven categories were kinda wide, though. One of them, for instance, is comedy. I grew suspicious. When I got to this part, I laughed out loud:
I felt like Jim Carrey’s Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon when he realizes the Eastern cancer treatment he’s gone for is just some cheap fakery. Really Booker? Did you miss the FIRST FRAME OF THE MOVIE?!
Too funny. Booker’s work wasn’t in vain, there was still much to consider, but it did reveal the somewhat ridiculous nature of trying to distill stories into simple forms. There will always be tricky exceptions, they escape from containment like mercury.
Guides to story and storytelling remain a passion. The urge to quantify these things seems to drive people half-mad. We all know what stories are, we know one when we hear one, and yet they’re surprisingly hard to pin down.
It occurred to me that NEED WANT DO could be a way to map out your day. You might wake up, for instance, and think:
- I NEED: breakfast burrito from Cofax
- I WANT: breakfast burrito from Cofax
- I will DO: go get breakfast burrito from Cofax.