In July, I shared a video essay by screenwriter Michael Arndt on insanely great story endings. The 90 min presentation is a brilliant excavation of how narrative works, and how crisis and catharsis interweave to create ‘insanely great’ story endings.
The Oscar winning screenwriter of ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ and ‘Toy Story 3’ has also created a shorter lecture on story beginnings.
Here are the key steps Arndt identifies set up a good story beginning:
Step 1: Show Your Hero Doing What They Love Most
The first step to setting up a story is to identify the protagonist or hero’s ‘grand passion’. This is their defining trait, the centre of their universe. As you introduce the character the universe they live in, you show your hero doing the thing they love to do the most.
Step 2: Add a Flaw
The character’s grand passion however, contains a flaw. Usually it’s the dark side of their natural love, a good thing that’s taken too far, a fear or a weakness. What is key however, is that the hero’s flaw is tied to their deepest love and desires.
Step 3: Add a Storm
In the early stages of the story, usually around page 10 of a screenplay, you want to establish ‘storm clouds’ on the horizon of the main character’s world. Your character is walking down the road of life, on a nice bright sunny day, and then BABOOM! ~ something comes and totally blows their joyous life apart and irrevocably changes the path they are on.
Step 4: Add Insult to Injury
This bolt from the blue not only interferes with your character’s life but skewers them through their grand passion to their deepest flaw. This wound, changes their whole sense of what their future is going to be. To increase the stakes at this early point in the story, add insult to injury, making the whole world seem a little bit beyond unfair.
Step 5: Make Your Character Pick the Unhealthy Choice
All of this serves to set up the character journey of your protagonist for the rest of the story. Your hero’s grand passion has been taken away, the world is revealed to be unfair and he or she comes to a fork in the road, and they have to make a choice on how to deal with their new reality.
There is a high road to take, a healthy responsible choice, or a low road to take. As the audience, we are barracking for the hero to do the unhealthy, irresponsible thing, because we feel his or her pain.
Bring It Home
To put everything right, your character must make a journey that is the rest of the story. By the end of this journey, hopefully, not only will they get back what they lost, but they will have healed the flaw they had which was tied to this deep passion and desire.
The key point of Arndt’s analysis is that the essence of your story, comes out of your character’s deepest desire and darkest fears. The thing they love gets stolen away from them, and the world is revealed to be unfair. Their journey to reclaim their lost passion, heals their deepest fears, their wound and flaw and re-establishes equilibrium and peace.
And this is what makes insanely good story beginnings.
Without inner narratives we would be lost in a chaotic world.
We are all storytellers; we make sense out of the world by telling stories. And science is a great source of stories.
Not so, you might argue. Science is an objective collection and interpretation of data. I completely agree. At the level of the study of purely physical phenomena, science is the only reliable method for establishing the facts of the world.
But when we use data of the physical world to explain phenomena that cannot be reduced to physical facts, or when we extend incomplete data to draw general conclusions, we are telling stories. Knowing the atomic weight of carbon and oxygen cannot tell us what life is. There are no naked facts that completely explain why animals sacrifice themselves for the good of their kin, why we fall in love, the meaning and purpose of existence, or why we kill each other.
Science is not at fault. On the contrary, science can save us from false stories. It is an irreplaceable means of understanding our world. But despite the verities of science, many of our most important questions compel us to tell stories that venture beyond the facts. For all of the sophisticated methodologies in science, we have not moved beyond the story as the primary way that we make sense of our lives.
To see where science and story meet, let’s take a look at how story is created in the brain. Let’s begin with an utterly simple example of a story, offered by E. M. Forster in his classic book on writing, Aspects of the Novel:
The king died and then the queen died.
It is nearly impossible to read this juxtaposition of events without wondering why the queen died. Even with a minimum of description, the construction of the sentence makes us guess at a pattern. Why would the author mention both events in the same sentence if he didn’t mean to imply a causal relationship?
Once a relationship has been suggested, we feel obliged to come up with an explanation. This makes us turn to what we know, to our storehouse of facts. It is general knowledge that a spouse can die of grief. Did the queen then die of heartbreak? This possibility draws on the science of human behavior, which competes with other, more traditional narratives. A high school student who has been studying Hamlet, for instance, might read the story as a microsynopsis of the play.
Despite the verities of science, we are compelled to tell stories that venture beyond the facts.
The pleasurable feeling that our explanation is the right one—ranging from a modest sense of familiarity to the powerful and sublime “a-ha!”—is meted out by the same reward system in the brain integral to drug, alcohol, and gambling addictions. The reward system extends from the limbic area of the brain, vital to the expression of emotion, to the prefrontal cortex, critical to executive thought. Though still imperfectly understood, it is generally thought that the reward system plays a central role in the promotion and reinforcement of learning. Key to the system, and found primarily within its brain cells, is dopamine, a neurotransmitter that carries and modulates signals among brain cells. Studies consistently show that feeling rewarded is accompanied by a rise in dopamine levels.
This reward system was first noted in the 1950s by two McGill University researchers, James Olds and Peter Milner. Stimulating electrodes were placed in presumed brain reward areas of rats. When allowed full unrestricted access to a lever that, when depressed, would cause the electrodes to fire, the rats quickly learned to repeatedly depress the lever, often to the exclusion of food and water. Realizing that our brains are capable of producing feelings so intense that we choose to ignore such basic drives as hunger and thirst was a first step toward understanding the enormous power of the brain’s reward circuitry.
Critical to understanding how stories spark the brain’s reward system is the theory known as pattern recognition—the brain’s way of piecing together a number of separate components of an image into a coherent picture. The first time you see a lion, for instance, you have to figure out what you’re seeing. At least 30 separate areas of the brain’s visual cortex pitch in, each processing an aspect of the overall image—from the detection of motion and edges, to the register of color and facial features. Collectively they form an overall image of a lion.
Each subsequent exposure to a lion enhances your neural circuitry; the connections among processing regions become more robust and efficient. (This theory, based on the research of Canadian psychologist Donald O. Hebb, a pioneer in studying how people learn, is often stated as “cells that fire together wire together.”) Soon, less input is necessary to recognize the lion. A fleeting glimpse of a partial picture is sufficient for recognition, which occurs via positive feedback from your reward system. Yes, you are assured by your brain, that is a lion.
An efficient pattern recognition of a lion makes perfect evolutionary sense. If you see a large feline shape moving in some nearby brush, it is unwise to wait until you see the yellows of the lion’s eyes before starting to run up the nearest tree. You need a brain that quickly detects entire shapes from fragments of the total picture and provides you with a powerful sense of the accuracy of this recognition.
One need only think of the recognition of a new pattern that is so profound that it triggers an involuntary “a-ha!” to understand the degree of pleasure that can be associated with learning. It’s no wonder that once a particular pattern-recognition-reward relationship is well grooved into our circuitry, it is hard to shake. In general—outside of addiction, that is—this “stickiness” of a correlation is a good thing. It is through repetition and the sense of familiarity and “rightness” of a correlation that we learn to navigate our way in the world.
Science is in the business of making up stories called hypotheses and testing them, then trying its best to make up better ones. Thought-experiments can be compared to storytelling exercises using well-known characters. What would Sherlock Holmes do if he found a body suspended in a tree with a note strapped to its ankle? What would a light ray being bounced between two mirrors look like to an observer sitting on a train? Once done with their story, scientists go to the lab to test it; writers call editors to see if they will buy it.
People and science are like bread and butter. We are hardwired to need stories; science has storytelling buried deep in its nature. But there is also a problem. We can get our dopamine reward, and walk away with a story in hand, before science has finished testing it. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the brain, hungry for its pattern-matching dopamine reward, overlooks contradictory or conflicting information whenever possible. A fundamental prerequisite for pattern recognition is the ability to quickly distinguish between similar but not identical inputs. Not being able to pigeonhole an event or idea makes it much more difficult for the brain to label and store it as a discrete memory. Neat and tidy promotes learning; loose ends lead to the “yes, but” of indecision and inability to draw a precise conclusion.
When we make and take incomplete stories from science, there are moral consequences.
Just as proper pattern recognition results in the reward of an increased release of dopamine, faulty pattern recognition is associated with decreased dopamine release. In monkeys, the failure to make a successful prediction (correlation between expected and actual outcome) characteristically diminishes dopamine release exactly at the time that the predicted event is anticipated but fails to occur. Just as accurate correlations are pleasurable, lack of correlation produces the neurotransmitter equivalent of thwarted expectation (or worse).
Once we see that stories are the narrative equivalent of correlation, it is easy to understand why our brains seek out stories (patterns) whenever and wherever possible. You may have read or heard about the famous experiment in which University of Illinois psychology professor Daniel Simons asked subjects to watch a video and count the number of times a ball is dribbled by a basketball team. When focused on counting, the majority of viewers failed to see a woman in a gorilla suit walk across the playing area. In effect, well-oiled patterns of observation encourage our brains to compose a story that we expect to hear.
Because we are compelled to make stories, we are often compelled to take incomplete stories and run with them. With a half-story from science in our minds, we earn a dopamine “reward” every time it helps us understand something in our world—even if that explanation is incomplete or wrong.
Following the Newtown massacre, some experts commented on the killer having Asperger’s syndrome, as though that might at least partially explain his behavior. Though Asperger’s syndrome feels like a specific diagnosis, it is, by definition, nothing more than a constellation of symptoms common to a group of people. In the 1940s, Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger noted that a number of patients had similar problems with social skills, eccentric or repetitive actions, unusual preoccupation rituals, and communication difficulties, including lack of eye contact and trouble understanding facial expressions and gestures. The 2013 decision by the American Psychiatric Association to remove the diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome from its guidebook for clinicians, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders (DSM-V), for failing to conform to any specific neuropathology, underscores the all-too-common problem of accepting a clustering of symptoms as synonymous with a specific disease. Syndromes are stories in search of underlying causes.
Similarly, studies of psychopaths have shown a diminished volume of gray matter in specific regions of the prefrontal cortex. But these findings aren’t the sole explanation for violent acts. Because it is impossible to stimulate a specific brain region to produce complex and premeditated acts, we are left to conclude that while certain brain conditions can be correlated with a complex act, they are not necessarily causing it. Likewise, brain scans that reveal abnormalities in mass murderers may help us understand what might have contributed to their behavior. But the abnormalities are no more the sole explanation for violence than childhood neglect or poor nutrition are. They are stories, albeit with a detailed neurophysiological component, but stories nonetheless.
When we make and take incomplete stories from science, there are often moral consequences. How much personal responsibility should we assign to an individual with a damaged or malfunctioning brain? What is the appropriate punishment and possibility of rehabilitation for such a person? Only when we openly acknowledge the degree to which science is presenting its observations in the form of story can we address this moral dimension. We must each work out our own guidelines for when we think scientific data has exceeded its bounds and has morphed into the agenda and bias of story. Of course this is always going to be a challenge in the absence of a full array of scientific data.
But we can begin by being aware of the various ways that storytelling can insinuate itself into the presentation and interpretation of data. Good science is a combination of meticulously obtained and analyzed data, a restriction of the conclusions to those interpretations that are explicitly reflected in the data, and an honest and humble recognition of the limits of what this data can say about the world.
Loose ends lead to the “yes, but” of indecision and inability to draw a precise conclusion.
When reading science reports, we should also search for information on the limits of the data. Were assumptions made? What do the “error bars,” or graphic representations of variable data, say? We may not always understand the data limits, but we should be worried when some discussion of them is completely absent.
In the end, scientists have the tools, language, and experience to tell us informed, engaging, and powerful stories. In turn, we should judge their studies in the same light in which we judge other artistic forms. Like a literary critic, we should assess the preciseness of language, the tightness of structure, the clarity and originality of vision, the overall elegance and grace of the study, the restraint with which they present moral issues, how they place their studies in historical, cultural, and personal context, and their willingness to entertain alternative opinions and interpretations.
The methodology of science remains one of the great advances of humankind. Its stories, properly told, are epic poems in progress, and deserve to stand alongside the great stories of history.
In this short video, screenwriter Michael Arndt, outlines the ingredients of what he believes make a great film ending. Oscar winner for best original screenplay, ‘Little Miss Sunshine’  and best adapted screenplay ‘Toy Story 3’ , Arndt also worked on the script for ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’  and is a true veteran of the craft.
He emphasises several times throughout the presentation that he does NOT intend to state that story telling is formulaic. His analysis merely is an attempt to understand how great stories work by taking the viewer to the point of emotional catharsis.
Arndt points out that many scripts fail to deliver on their endings. While the girl gets the boy, or the hero wins the prize, much of the emotional catharsis of story resolutions are sorely lacking. With much reflection, he has identified three important ingredients for a great story, which when resolved create a great ending: a personal stake, an external stake and a philosophical stake.
To illustrate what he calls, ‘insanely great’ endings, Arndt uses ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’ , ‘The Graduate’  and his own ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ , each which within only 2 short minutes, bring resounding emotional climax and catharsis for the viewers.
Watch the full video presentation via the link below:
The Orchid Thief is a 1998 non-fiction book by American journalist Susan Orlean based on an article that Orlean wrote for The New Yorker. It is based on her investigation of the 1994 arrest of John Laroche and a group of Seminole Indians in south Florida for poaching rare orchids in the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve.
Laroche, a Miami eccentric, hit upon the idea of collecting endangered species of orchids from swampland that was Seminole territory, by using real Seminole Indians to obtain his specimens and exploiting their legal right to use their own ancestral lands.
Laroche narrates a poetic passage about the beauty and mutability of the Orchid and the limitless shapes and forms they take to attract insects, insects which in turn imitate their shapes and coloring and fall in love with the flowers, propagating them in a curious dance of nature. Orlean’s writing centered on the power of singular passion to drive a person’s life.
Adaptation, is a 2002 American comedy-drama, directed by Spike Jonze and written by Charlie [and Donald] Kaufman, based on Orlean’s book. Kaufman who had been hired to write a screenplay of the book, experienced writer’s block. He ultimately wrote a script based on his experience of writer’s block while adapting the book into a screenplay.
Kaufman has a similar singular passion to Laroche, the passion to create a truly unique story, one that is far from the formulaic Hollywood scripts he abhors. The film then is a a pun, referring both to Darwinian principle of adaptation among Orchid species as lauded by Laroche, and the ordeal for Kaufman of adapting a book into a screenplay.
Kaufman co-credits the screenplay to his twin brother, a curiosity since Donald does not exist outside of the screenplay. Donald is everything Charlie is not – confident, successful with women, a hack writer. Faced with the surprising news that Donald’s script for a clichéd psychological thriller, called The 3, is selling for six or seven figures in Hollywood , Charlie resorts to attending a screenwriting seminar in New York to seek inspiration.
Needless to say the film slides from biography of man with writer’s block into a ludicrous conglomeration of elements of a Hollywood thriller, drugs, sex, guns, chases, even a crocodile attack. Charlie visibly perks up once he knows how to convert the book into a film and closes wondering which international superstar will portray himself in the film.
The film is both teller and told, both narrator and narrated. One is left realising that we have not watched a story of a man adapting a book into a screenplay, we have in fact been watching the story of a man telling the story we are watching, co-written by a character within the screenplay, leading us on a merry dance of adaptive creativity.
But what more would you expect from the writer-director duo who brought us ‘Being John Malkovich.’
“Señor Don Gato” is a children’s song loosely translated from the traditional Spanish song “Estaba el señor Don Gato” [yet with the melody of “Ahora Que Vamos Despacio“].
The song recounts the misadventures of Señor Don Gato, a tom-cat who receives a love letter from ‘a lady cat, who was fluffy, white, and nice and fat‘ and in [mock ?] paroxysms of joy, falls to his untimely death. The English version was published in a Grade 3 music book in 1964.
While simple in form, the song displays many of the hallmarks of classic tragedy and scene creation as outlined by Aristotle in his timeless, Poetics (c. 335 BCE).
Let me explain.
Somewhat profoundly, Aristotle, put forth the idea the play should imitate a single whole action which,
has a beginning and middle and end.
By this blinding insight, Aristotle means that the events follow each other by probability or necessity, and that the causal chain has a beginning and an end.
According to Poetics, the tragedy is devised around a knot, a central problem that the protagonist must face. In our case, the knot arrives in the form of a love letter for Don Gato prompting his heart to react with violent emotion.
Aristotle continues: the tragic play has two parts: complication and unraveling. During complication, the protagonist finds trouble as the knot is revealed or tied and these complications arise from a flaw in the protagonist character ultimately leading to his or her undoing.
In the case of Señor Don Gato, this flaw is arguably either the vulnerability of his heart to love, or the invulnerability of an alley-cat to be tied down to love. Which of these plague our protagonist is up to the audience interpretation.
Aristotle continues: in the second part, named the unraveling, the knot is resolved. To explain this, two types of scenes are of special interest: the reversal, which throws the action in a new direction, and should happen as a necessary and probable cause of what happened before, and the recognition, meaning the protagonist has an important revelation. .
You need only listen to four more verses to hear how Don Gato’s dilemma is resolved through a rather amusing reversal scene through perhaps a recognition of Don Gato’s true heart orientation.
Perhaps, the ballad of Señor Don Gato follows the pattern of a comedy, rather than a tragedy, however, we cannot discover that from Aristotle’s Poetics since the second part of his work, the part addressing comedy, was lost.
For now we will have to settle with a tragical reading of Señor Don Gato according to Aristotle.
When Winnie Foster decides to run away, a rather curious set of adventures unfolds. The 10 year old is the rather lonely only child of the wealthiest family in Treegap, a small village on the edge of a rather mysterious wood.
One afternoon around twilight, Winnie and her grandmother hear mysterious music wafting from the wood and Grandma reports it is “fairy music” which she has heard throughout her life. Winnie’s curiosity is piqued as no one ventures into the private woods owned by her family; even the cows circle around the forest rather than passing through.
Winnie’s family are visited by a “man in a yellow suit” who is asking questions about families in the area. When Winnie shares about the fairy music from the wood the man questions her more closely, almost greedily.
Despite her every move being monitored and scrutinsed by overbearing grandmother and mother, Winnie manages to escape her iron fenced yard one morning, to run away. She ventures into the forbidding wood only to discover a delightful grove and clearing with a giant tree and spring.
Here in the wood she meets 17 year old Jesse Tuck. What unfolds next is an adventure in which Winnie is “kidnapped” by the Tuck family for discovering their secret – a spring granting immortality.
The family share their story with Winnie of how they came across the the spring by mistake and have been frozen in time ever since, never ageing a day. They have kidnapped Winnie to protect the secret and intend to return her home once she agrees to protect their secret also.
Little do they know that “man in a yellow suit” is following them and eavesdropping on their conversations. His intentions for the forest and the magical spring are less than pure and so Winnie, Jesse and the Tuck family must work together to thwart his plans to sell the spring water for profit.
Written in 1975 by Natalie Babbitt, Tuck Everlasting has sold over 5 million copies and is listed as one of the “Teacher’s Top 100 Books for Children”. The story wrestles with some big questions about life including mortality, morality, land ownership, and love.
The Tucks attain what is so enviable, eternal life. And yet in the words of Angus Tuck, to stop ageing naturally is to become like a rock on the stream of life, unmoving along with all the other elements in dynamic relationship with each other. It is a constant grief to the Tucks to see life pass on without them and to live forever. At any cost they must stop the “man in the yellow suit” from selling to the public what seems so desirable and yet what would wreak havoc on space and time.
Winnie too faces the decision to run away with the Tuck’s or to live on, a mortal life, and take with that the joys and sorrows of ageing and finally death. Natalie Babbitt’s story is a bitter-sweet meditation on the gift of life, the decisions of love and the mystery of nature including ageing and death.
Put an exploding bomb threat into a story and one gains pace, tension and agency. Put a supernatural being of evil intent into a confined space with unsuspecting victims, and one gains heightened adrenaline rushes.
What is significant to both games and stories is that the creation of rules necessary to an fully immersive experience. Placing tightly buttoned rules around characters – rules of etiquette, legitimacy, land title, inheritance, and so forth – effectively binds protagonists into both a believable universe worth investing emotional energy in, and also creates a highly tense, problem ridden one.
Aristotle in his seminal work Poetics, describe the primary motivator for a protagonist to be a wound, a life forming incident which leads them astray and into conflict. As an audience we want to follow them to find out how they resolve it, or find catharsis..
The greater the conflict or the limitations around the protagonists on this journey, the greater the emotional release, the catharsis, upon resolution.
Give characters hateful parents, remove them of parentage as strays or orphans, constrict them as “bastards” without any chance of legitimacy or claim to title, confine them as slaves, restrict them as women without rights, or give them a deformity or curse them as outcasts, place them within intricate systems of religious belief, confine them to socioeconomic controls or limit them within elaborate traditions which demarcate what they can and cannot do.
In other words, place blockages for your protagonists at every turn, the more that exist, the more tension is built, and the greater the payoff when they break through to liberty.
These are steps to human freedoms.
Stories, which are made of the creation and release of tension, are thus fed by the hero journey, or the journey of the human towards freedom.
However, the hero journey tells us that ultimately, there comes a point where the human cannot progress further into freedoms without facing an ultimate sacrifice. Freedom is only truly won by the very surrender of what is sought.
At this point the hero faces a “death” experience – a death to freedom itself, lest freedom become a new task master not unlike the old. This death to self, and self-giving to others, prompts the rebirth of an enlightened hero, in possession of not only freedom but connectivity to hope again.
Imagine that you invented a devicethat can record my memories,my dreams, my ideas,and transmit them to your brain.That would be a game-changing technology, right?But in fact, we already possess this device,and it’s called human communication systemand effective storytelling.To understand how this device works,we have to look into our brains.
This awesome TED Talk by Uri Hasson illustrates the power of “neural-entrainment” a process of creating synchronicity between brainwaves among groups of people, by simply telling a story.
Hasson shows how story telling creates shared feeling and shared thought in much the same way that metronomes will syncronise their rhythms when sharing a vibrating base.
Such synchronicity is powerful and dangerous as it illustrates how bias can easily be transmitted among groups. However, the onus is on us to consider what stories we absorb, and what stories we share. We should continue to share stories and ideas freely, since together we are more powerful than we are alone.
Any one who loves TED talks will love this article, featured in Business Insider on March 30th. Written by Carmine Gallo, its main point is:
If you want to “connect” with another person, tell more stories.
Harvard professor Amy Cuddy thought she had made a mistake.
In 2012 Cuddy, stepped on a TED stage to deliver a presentation on how body posture influences behavior. In addition to the data, she shared a deeply personal story of how she fought her own battle with “imposter syndrome” early in her career.
The story was unplanned and unscripted. Cuddy’s “mistake” turned out be lucrative, as the video went viral and sparked a New York Times bestseller, “Presence.”
Sharing a personal story changed Cuddy’s life, and it could change yours, too.
“What sets TED talks apart is that the big ideas are wrapped in personal stories,” Charlie Rose once said on the CBS news program 60 Minutes. Rose nailed it.
When a speaker is invited to take the TED stage, they’re sent a stone tablet engraved with TED Commandments. Among the most important commandment of all:
“Thou shalt tell a story.”
In my analysis of 500 TED talks (150 hours) and interviews with some of the most popular TED speakers, a clear pattern emerges. TED talks that go viral are made up of:
65% personal stories
25% data, facts and figures
10% resume builders to reinforce speaker credibility
Duke professor Dan Ariely’s TED talks have been viewed 12 million times. Ariely often shares the tragic story of when he was involved in an accident as a teenager — an accident that left him burned over 70% of his body.
In the hospital, it took about an hour for the nurses to rip off his bandages to re-apply new ones. “As you can imagine, I hated that moment of ripping with incredible intensity. And I would try to reason with them and say, ‘Why don’t we try something else? Why don’t we take it a little longer — maybe two hours instead of an hour — and have less of this intensity?'”
The nurses assumed they knew better than the patient. They didn’t. The experience led Ariely to study behavioral economics and to write the bestselling book “Predictably Irrational.” Today, Ariely’s compelling personal story has made him a sought-after advisor to governments and organizations around the world.
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is learning about the power of personal story. Sandberg’s TEDx talk on “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders” has been viewed more than 6 million times and launched the Lean In movement. Personal stories make up 72% of Sandberg’s now-famous presentation. Remarkably, Sandberg wasn’t going to tell a story at all.
While preparing for the presentation on women in the workplace, Sandberg did what came naturally. The former management consultant amassed mountains of statistics on things like how many heads of state are women and how many women make up the C-suite in corporate America.
Just before she took the stage, Sandberg found herself unable to focus on the speech. She confided to her friend Pat that she was troubled about something that had happened before boarding the plane for the conference. Her 3-year-old daughter, upset at the fact that her mother was leaving, clung to her leg, pleading, “Mommy, don’t go.”
Pat suggested to Sandberg that she should share the story with the mostly female audience. “Are you kidding?” she responded. “I’m going to get on a stage and admit my daughter was clinging to my leg?” Sandberg eventually took her friend’s advice and opened the presentation with a deeply personal story revealing the challenges she faced as a working mother.
If it hadn’t been for a personal story, we probably never would have heard of “Lean In.”
By accident, Sandberg had discovered what neuroscientists are discovering in the lab:
Stories alter brain chemistry that in turn triggers empathy in your audience. When the brain hears a compelling personal story, it triggers a rush of chemicals including dopamine, cortisol and oxytocin, the ‘love molecule’ that makes us feel empathy for another person.
At Princeton University, researcher Uri Hasson has discovered that when one person tells another person a story, the same regions of their brains light up on fMRI scans. He calls it “neural coupling,” which simply means
the two people are having a brain sync.
No other tool of persuasion has the same effect as a personal story. If you want to “connect” with another person, tell more stories. It’s a commandment worth following in every pitch and presentation.
Blake Snyder was a well known American screenwriter and theorist, and his book “Save the Cat” is a leading guide to writing for screen. In it, he outlines several tricks of the story telling trade.
One strategy he outlines is for getting the audience to side with the protagonist early on. Featured in the title, Save the Cat! it describes the manner in which the screen writer introduces the hero in an early scene doing something nice, for example, saving a cat. This creates a bond of empathy between them and the audience.
According to Snyder, the inspiration for this particular example, was the movie Alien, in which Ripley [Sigourney Weaver] saves a cat named Jones.
The contrast can be as powerful. For example, the opening montage of the TV series, House of Cards, features the protagonist Frank Underwood, [Kevin Spacey] finding an injured and whimpering dog.
He considers for a second, before strangling the dog and then calmly states:
Moments like this require someone who will act, do the unpleasant thing, the necessary thing.
This scene chillingly sets up his character and the whole trajectory of the TV series with its exploration of the intricasies of political ambition and power.
Saving the cat, killing the dog,: such simple motifs connect the audience viscerally to characters through emotions of empathy or distrust.