The Proof of Story

Story Proof by Kendall Haven

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Story Proof is a great book, deserving to be read by masses of people. . . ”

Story Proof by Kendall HavenTea time was over. I looked out the window of the common room down on Buccleuch Street. The sky, streets, and buildings of Edinburgh were gray again like the clouds. Then Simon spoke up, “Back to work boys!” One by one we stood up and shuffled for the door. As we headed out, I spoke to my professor. I had to get something off my chest. “Jim,” I said, “I’m having a hard time. . . getting my head around the book you asked me to read.”

I waited a bit anxiously for his response. He looked at me, smiled, and said, “Well, reading a book sometimes is like hitting yourself over the head with a book.” I laughed and promised that I would keep trying. The material was complex and new to me, but it also was dull and poorly written. Besides learning about communication theory, I was learning that some of the brightest academics in the world are bad writers.

Joseph Williams’ great book, “Style: Toward Clarity and Grace” tells us in clear and almost scientific terms what makes for bad writing and how we can improve it. The clear and graceful style tightly defined by Williams actually decreases stress placed on short-term memory, thus helping us parse sentences more easily. Any writer, especially academics, can benefit greatly from the sage advice of Joseph Williams.

But style, clarity, and grace may not be enough. What is missing? According to Kendall Haven, story is missing, and Haven’s book, “Story Proof” convincingly demonstrates that story is the essential element of good writing. And this is not just for fiction. Haven claims that we can “storify” expository prose, arguments, and scientific discourse. And by so doing, we can make our writing more interesting and more memorable.

Unfortunately, the main problem with “Story Proof” is that it is not storified, so reading it may be a little bit like hitting yourself over your head. But to be fair, I’m sure that Haven intentionally did not storify “Story Proof,” and he says that we don’t need to storify all the information we present, but I’m just saying. . . perhaps the book could have benefited from more storification.

In spite of this problem, “Story Proof” rocks because story rocks, and Haven shows us why. He presents abundant research that shows we are hardwired to think in stories. Our brains are designed to make sense and remember information through stories.

Haven claims that the scientific proof for story is overwhelming and uncontested, and I think he is correct. But on my first reading, I felt sometimes lost in a mighty load of story proof that didn’t seem to always fit into to long and coherent argument. Actually, it may, but either that argument needs more coherence, or I need to read it again and find it.

In spite of this whiny complaint, “Story Proof” is still a great book, and it deserves to be read by masses of people, academics (especially academics), but also school teachers, business people, and public speakers. The more people who read this book and apply its ideas, the the less we will hear snoring in classrooms and boardrooms, and the more people will remember and enjoy the information they hear.

For me, Kendall Haven’s biggest contribution is his rigorous definition of story. He delineates 8 elements of story, and claims that when we vary these elements when presenting information, we can predict differential recall and understanding in our listeners. Haven’s definition of story is a good one, and it fits with definitions given by other authors such as Jonathan Gottschall who in “The Storytelling Animal” defines story as “Character + Predicament + Attempted Extrication.”

Here are Haven’s eight essential elements of story. A good story has (1) a main character, who has (2) character traits, that make her compelling. The character (3) acts to reach a goal and (4) possesses a motive for why that goal is important. As the character acts to reach that goal, she faces (5) conflicts and problems that block her, and these conflicts and problems create (6) risks and dangers. As she acts to overcome conflicts, problems, risks, and dangers, she (7) struggles to reach her goal, and all this happens in the context of (8) sensory details that make the story feel real.

Other traits could be added to this definition. For example, we could make a distinction between the internal and external conflicts that a character faces in great stories, and we could talk about the main character’s fatal flaw, which she must overcome in order to reach her goal. For example, in the near perfect film “Flight” directed by Robert Zemeckis, the main character, “Whip,” (played by Denzel Washington) has serious personal internal conflicts and flaws that he must overcome, and these internal issues hook viewers making us root for Whip.

But despite these issues, “Story Proof” is an invaluable book, and it is unique in that perhaps more than any other book in the world, it subsumes a vast amount of research related to the power of story. It’s reference list alone is a valuable resource, (which could be improved if page numbers were given with the quotations). But for anyone interested in the power of story, for anyone wanting to improve their own story-telling, and for any scholar who wants to research the power of story and become a better writer, “Story Proof” is an outstanding resource.

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