The Science of Story

Confession: I am a huge fan of superhero movies. Specifically, I love Marvel superhero movies. Take a look at any article posted online about the Marvel Cinematic Universe and you will instantly find the heated debates about why the Marvel movies are more successful than the DC movies. The theories range from criticisms of the director to an audience bias against the DC Universe to the heroes like Superman representing another generation’s ideals and losing relevancy etc.

I have another theory altogether: the DC movies just don’t tell good stories.

I solidified this theory after watching “The Justice League”. As a fan of the Avengers movies, I couldn’t wait to see the re-imagined Aquaman and Wonderwoman come together with the rest of their ensemble on the big screen! I loved Wonderwoman, so I thought this movie was going to be great!

Now don’t get me wrong, there were some great parts of the movie, but there were gaping holes in the plot and story that just ruined the movie for me. That’s when I realized, the DC movies don’t have the basics of story down! They are missing the major emotional component that a good story elicits in an audience!

What is a Story?

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I love a good story, and so does the rest of humanity to be perfectly honest. It’s something that is literally hardwired into our brains! What a good story actually is can be something that is hard to quantify, but everyone can immediately recognize when a story is well done.

One of my favorite craft books is Story Genius by Lisa Cron. First, as a psychology major, anything with the brain fascinates me. But what I love most about this book is that it attempts to capture and explain the seemingly elusive definition of what makes a story good. What is that bewitching power that can literally block out the real world around us as we lose ourselves in something that isn’t even real?

According to Cron, story is something that is hardwired into us. She explains that mystery of why we can stay up all night to finish a good book even when we know we will be a total wreck at school or work the next morning. It seems to be something counter-productive, something that should actually hurt us in the long run in terms of survival! I mean, the house could sometimes burn down around me and I wouldn’t even notice if I’m lost in a good book!

Crone explains: “Story is the world’s first virtual reality. It allowed us to step out of the present and envision the future, so we could plan for the thing that has always scared us more than anything: the unknown, the unexpected…Stories let us vicariously try out difficult situations we haven’t yet experienced to see what it would really feel like, and what we’d need to learn in order to survive.”

“We don’t turn to story to escape reality. We turn to story to navigate reality.” –  Story Genius, page 15.

There is not a single human society on earth that has not valued story-telling. It’s how we can learn and prepare for various scenarios that life might throw at us. Now, are we going to probably face a real-life zombie apocalypse or an intergalactic race across the universe? Probably not. But that’s not the actual point… those amazing plot points and steller settings are not what draw us to a good story. A story is about how a person faces difficulty in pursuit of a goal and has to learn and grow through the difficulties in order to achieve that goal. It’s the LESSON that the protagonist, the character we are living vicariously through, learns that we treasure. It’s those lessons that we take to heart so that we don’t have to learn the hard way what happens when you choose work over family, when you don’t stand up against oppressive forces, when you mess with nature (Jurassic Park anyone?).

What Makes a Story Good?

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A good story understands the purpose of story. It hits on what Cron calls the story’s “third rail”, the underlying heartbeat that drives a story forward more than plot. It doesn’t matter what story structure you follow or how beautiful your sentences are (or how cool Wonderwoman looks in that battle sequence), what matters is that your protagonist has a real goal, a real problem, and a real motivation. It’s the difference between “cool stuff just happening” to gripping a reader or moviegoer with a story they can’t stop consuming.

Lisa Cron does an amazing job explaining how to best design a character with believable and meaningful motivations, establish a goal that tugs at the heartstrings, and then design external events to bring that essential character growth to fruition.

If you are currently working on a novel, or even just dreaming of starting one, I highly recommend checking out her book, reading her suggestions for yourself, and using her exercises to help establish the heart of your story! It will help you use the science of the human brain to truly design a story that grips and enchants your readers!

Story Makes All the Difference

So where did “Justice League” (and frankly most of the DC movies I have seen recently) go wrong? I think it essentially comes down to story. They attempt to touch on certain character’s backstories, but it is done so quickly and just “oh by the way” that it lacks any real emotional connection to the audience. You don’t really get a sense or feel of the characters or why they are even doing what they are doing. This is especially true for the “bad guy” in the movie. He didn’t seem to have any dimensionality to him at all, no real background, no real motivation for his “goal”. Any foundations for any of the characters were just a simple line thrown at us here or there. For example, Aquaman is talking to another character who mentions in passing “I know your mother abandoned you…” etc. There is no real feeling behind it, no exposition. We are essentially being told, not shown who this character is and what he’s been through. They didn’t take the time to lay the foundations of a good story before throwing in cool special effects and throwing external circumstances at these characters that we haven’t even really established any connection with.

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That’s where Marvel really does succeed over DC in terms of movies. Marvel takes the time to establish their characters and show us who they are, what they want, why they care. We watch them learn and grow as they wrestle with very real and meaningful questions. Captain America started out as a skinny boy who didn’t know how to back down from a fight, who refused to ever give up. They didn’t just tell us that in passing, there was an entire movie dedicated to watching him fight his way into becoming Captain America. The lesson we learned from him is dedicating ourselves to fighting for what’s right, no matter how many times we get beat back down. Tony Stark didn’t just build a suit, there was an entire movie showing his transformation from a spoiled, selfish arms dealer to a man who fights to protect others as Ironman. We learned what the effects of our actions can be if we place money and status above people in our world. We learned those lessons right alongside Steve Rogers and Tony Stark.

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I hope that in the future the DC movies can build on what they successfully did with the Wonderwoman movie, which is an example of where they established a good story with a deep emotional connection. I still can’t watch that movie and not be moved by the scene where Diana is told that she can’t do anything to stop the suffering of those around her and she basically says “Oh yeah? Watch me do something about it” and she slowly climbs up that ladder into No Man’s Land. If they hadn’t taken the time to develop her as “naive” and “hopeful” it never would have meant something to watch her character faced with suffering and despair. Ultimately, she struggles with that battle of caring or just abandoning the world to hopelessness, and who can’t relate to a struggle like that? Who among us hasn’t had to decide to keep fighting when something in our lives seemed hopeless? That, my friends, is the true essence of story!

Check out Lisa Cron’s book HERE on Amazon!


What do you think about the essence of a good story and the effect it has on us?

Share in the comments below!

2 thoughts on “The Science of Story

  1. I love this article! I think a good story has to be experienced by the author–not just thought up and written down, but really felt deep inside. That is what moves readers. That is why writing is as important for the author as it is for the reader.


    • Absolutely! One of my favorite quotes by Robert Frost is “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader”! I think a good story changes the writer just as much as the reader!


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