Conference info

Will Storr on the science of storytelling

Will Storr, author of the best selling Selfie: How the west became self-obsessed, closes this year’s 2019 Well Told Conference. He tells us, good story taps into instinctive human behaviours

He begins by asking the audience, “Why do smart people believe crazy things?”

The brain tells a story, that we’re the heroes of our own lives, he says. “The brain creates a sense of self,” he adds.

“When you’re coming up as a writer…you’re lead to believe storytelling is storytelling because it’s done by a genius”



Storr’s talk finds justification for our reading habits in our biology and human history.

He begins by examining the neuroscience behind the eye and our perception. He says the brain is a storyteller, therefore we must understand science to write a good story.

As humans, “we’re constantly investigating,” he explains. Everyday, our brains are analysing the story we’re seeing, “looking for anything unexpected”.

The unexpected signifies a change, and a change is where a story begins. According to Storr, great journalism and great interviews “connect moments of change”.

Storr gives examples from Karl Marx to Suzanne Collins to highlight where change works to tell a story.

Good long form journalism “doesn’t just fall into the realm of facts”. The brain isn’t interested in facts: “It’s interested in change.”

Stories which ignore cause and effect, and follow an ‘and then’ format are bad writing. Journalists must avoid this if they are to write good journalism.

However, it’s not just cause and effect that the brain understands. He says that good longform journalism taps into all instinctive human behaviours.

Another instinct he identifies that constitutes good journalism is gossip. He explains that gossip is an integral part of human history, originating in tribal behaviour which helped protect the tribe.

“That’s exactly what journalism is: gossip.”

Gossip stems from antagonists, and our moral instincts refute selfishness. Storr says, humans have “mastered the idea of cooperation, unlike all the other apes, we’re really good at cooperating.”

It is for this reason we hate selfishness, and selfish people cause upset, affecting people. To that effect, when someone acts against the tribe, we gossip. He pulls up a study to highlight how gossip sells because on an intrinsic level it’s what we do. “They would create the emotion of moral outrage,” he says.

Gossip turns into moral outrage, and moral outage drives journalism. You don’t hear about moral outrage without wanting to do anything about it.  We want to hear about people doing the bad stuff to protect ourselves and protect the tribe’s interests

When a villain arises, so does a hero, who is the opposite. In every story with a villain, there is opportunity for a hero to be born, “a moment of supreme selflessness that defines the hero.”

To summarise: a good longform writer needs to understand how the brain processes information in order to write a great story.

Will Storr’s new book The Science of Storytelling will be available soon.






Words By Juliette Rowsell and Corrie David

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