How To Tell A Story

Starting out | Fiction
Join us for a groundbreaking five-day course that promises to give writers a new understanding of their craft, based on years of research by novelist and award-winning science journalist Will Storr.
In the past, scholars have tried to unlock the secrets of successful narrative in a top-down fashion, by deconstructing great stories to see what they have in common. How To Tell A Story takes the opposite approach, by trying to understand ways in which the brain generates and processes story. The human brain is a natural storyteller that turns the events of our lives into a dramatic three-act narrative of crisis, struggle, resolution. Writers exploit these neural functions often without knowing exactly how they’re doing it or why. How To Tell A Story is an accessible course that reveals the brain’s inherent story-making processes and turns them into solid, practical principles that should benefit writers of all levels of experience.

Many writing guides and courses treat story as if it’s a product of engineering: as long as you put the right pieces and parts in right places, you’ll have created something perfect. But story wasn’t designed intentionally by an engineer and there is no ‘grail’ in the form of a precise blueprint. Story resembles much more a product of biology. It’s emerged over many thousands of years from the collective minds of all our generations. Stories are created by brains and flow into other brains – brains that find them scary or funny or dreadful or sad – then the storyteller notes what works and what doesn’t and alters their story for better effect. And so the process continues, on and on, the organism continually evolving. Like any biological species, story exists in no one ideal form and has no one explanation. How To Tell A Story examines its subject from several perspectives, looking at how it emerged in the human species, how it functions, how it helps us as individuals and social creatures, why it’s enjoyable and why it takes such different forms.

The principle upon which all of this is based is that story is a product of brain and mind, and an understanding of neuroscience and psychology can help the writer better understand what they’re doing and why. But the course is also highly practical. How To Tell A Story will give attendees fresh ways of thinking about many aspects of technique, including characterisation, plotting, dialogue, subtext, antagonists and endings. Morning lectures and discussions give way to afternoon workshop sessions during which attendees will work on their own original fairytales, using How To Tell A Story principles.

Fairytales are used as the primary vehicle for investigating how brain and mind processes narrative because they are story in embryonic form. Simple, emotional and effective, the shapes of fairytale can be detected on all forms of storytelling, from tabloid news articles and reality television to the most serious works of literature. Because they’ve been adapted specifically to be told to children, they also reveal much about the history, uses and subconscious appeal of story as well as the nature of the emerging self. Participants will be free to work on either a traditional children’s fairytale or an adult fairytale in a modern setting.

Fundamentally, all storytellers are occupied with the same mission: catching and keeping the attention of brains. Until now, most of what we’ve learned about how to do this has been by trial and error – we see what works in other people’s stories and copy it. In this way, writers are a bit like mechanics trying to understand how cars work by riding around in them and driving them. How To Tell A Story opens the bonnet and shows you the engine.

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Sessions run from 10-4 each day, with an hour's break for lunch. The course itself is divided into four days, each themed around the one representative fairytale, which will be told at the start of the morning. A midweek fifth day is devoted to a guest speakers.

Day one: Cinderella (in which a terrible crisis strikes a plucky hero)

Introduction to fairytales

How change drives brain and story

The pattern-spotting brain

How the brain generates sights, sounds and smells

What is a personality?

The taxonomy of manipulation (the eleven ways people try to control each other)

The importance of empathy

How the secret to writing addictive stories is moral outrage

Day two: Jack and the Beanstalk (in which our plucky hero enters a magical world)

The animist in all of us

Magic and situational psychology

Plot archetypes

Antagonists and the true nature of evil

Alien Hand Syndrome and the modular brain

Why show-not-tell is the language of the subconscious

Metaphor and the subconscious

Fairytales as a protoscience

The ‘magical world’ as explainer of the unconscious

Day three: Guest tutor

Day four: The Three Languages (In which our hero is transformed)

Transformations in fairytales

Transformations in character

The malleable self

How expectation changes who we are

Free traits and the tells that betray them

Free will and confabulation

How characters often don’t know why they’re doing what they’re doing

How salience betrays unconscious thought in character

Subtext in life and story

How character change drives plot and plot drives character change

The plot as journey towards becoming the complete self

What is good dialogue?

The gap

Moral foundations in children

Story as gossip, gossip as policeman

Story as a symphony of change

Day five: Goose Girl (In which justice and happiness reigns)

The fluid tribe of the chimpanzee and human

Our Greek inheritance

  • The roots of individualism
  • The western extrovert ideal
  • East Asian story structure
  • The Hero Maker

    Episodic memory, autobiographical memory and personal plot

    Why antagonists require their own Hero Maker narratives

    Story as a simulacrum of consciousness

    Eudaimonic happiness

    Not just fairytales

    Theories of storytelling

    Freud, Jung, Campbell, Brooker

    A theory of story

    20th - 24th August 2018

    Availability: In stock

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    Will Storr is a multi award-winning longform journalist and author, who specialises in science. His work has appeared in The Guardian Weekend, The ...



    Come to one of the world's great literary cities and study creative writing at Faber Academy's home in historic Bloomsbury. Our London courses take place at Faber and Faber's offices.

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