From Our Print Archives


Vol. •Issue • Page 10

After 100,000 years, a scientific approach to the story

It is difficult to imagine the absence of a science or of research funding for something so big and so old—a human phenomenon that's been around for at least 100,000 years. It's an industry estimated to generate between a quarter trillion dollars and $2 trillion a year, employing between 5 and 40 million people in the United States alone. But that's the case for the story and the reason for holding the StoryCon Summit Meeting on the Art, Science and Application of Story in September in Palm Springs, CA.

The history of science has taken a path from the study of the most easily measurable aspects of nature to the more challenging, ephemeral, upper reaches of human functioning and behavior. The earliest scientists, or natural philosophers, studied the hard sciences: chemistry, geology, astronomy, physics and then biology.

Psychology is less than 150 years old. Less than 20 years ago emotion researchers were still remembering the recent times when emotions were considered too difficult to measure for scientific principles to be applied to them.

It's no wonder that stories, which are so close to the human experience and so ineffable, have escaped the analytic eye of science. Even the visual and musical arts have had centuries to develop a scientific approach to their respective territories. Consider the studies and writings of Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo. It's a much shorter time frame than the written or captured-on-film version of story; the novel, short story, movies and television have been around for a much shorter time.

But things are changing. Recently, it has become common to find the use of scientific terms such as valences, arcs, patterns, anatomy and algorithms to describe the parameters of story. Instead of their usual turf, describing physics or biochemistry, scientists are describing a unique human behavior that had been overlooked, even more so than some other hard-to-measure human dimensions such as consciousness, spirituality, love and imagination.

Stories have always played a core role in what it is to be human. Plato said, "Those who tell the stories rule society." Now, stories—the kinds told around campfires, in blockbuster movies, in TV product and service advertisements, and at water coolers in business offices—are being studied, analyzed and actually used as tools for research.

It may seem reasonable to suggest taking a scientific approach to this subject; but many novelists, screenwriters and playwrights feel threatened having scientific, formulaic reductionism applied to the sacrosanct art of the story. That may help to explain why the science of story failed to materialize for so long.

The power of stories has in some ways been magnified with mass media, the Internet and business, which transmit stories to hundreds of millions, even billions, of people in days or sometimes in just minutes.

The StoryCon Summit meeting brought together experts from the diverse world of story for the first time to discuss the emergence of a science for their field. Among the attendees were neuroscientists, psychologists, corporate consultants, novelists, screenwriters and mythologists.

"We think, plan, and interpret our world and lives with stories," explained StoryCon founder Rob Kall, who organized the meeting. "The story business is one of the biggest, yet there's no science to the creation of stories."

However, "the beginnings of a science of story are starting to emerge," he said. "Besides movies, TV, books, magazines and newspapers, stories play a powerful role in changing individuals, cultures, communities and politics and in business through branding, advertising, and establishing corporate culture. It's amazing that we've gone so long creating and telling stories without developing a science that identifies the key ingredients that make stories work."

The goal of the meeting was to take story from the level of an art or craft to the next tier: a hybrid art, craft and science with agreed-upon terminology, parameters and dimensions. In addition, meeting content was provided that stimulated and satisfied both speakers and attendees with advanced practical and visionary presentations that went beyond the basics.

Some of the story science topics the meeting covered were "Psychoacoustics and Story," by David Sonnenschein; "The Seven Highest Value Forms of Organizational Storytelling," by Steve Denning; "Stories That Can Change the World," by Thom Hartmann; "From Heros to Villains: The Psychology of Characters and Conflicts," by Rachel Ballon Chakras; "Seven Levels of Personality: Connecting the Inner Writer and the Outer Work," by Steven Barnes; and "The Hero and Goddess Love Story," by Ray Bergen.

Major corporations spend millions of dollars every year sending employees to courses on storytelling and structure. David Snowden, of IBM, was a presenter at the StoryCon meeting. He studies corporate culture and interaction patterns to understand and design more effective work interaction structures. IBM has patented some of his story-driven research techniques.

Presenters Richard Stone and Doug Lippman consult with corporations to develop stories that help define corporate culture or develop sales presentations and closing strategies. Another speaker, David Garfinkel, uses story approaches to create strong-selling ad copy.

In the field of entertainment, a single movie can cost up to $200 million. As a result, studio executives hire Hollywood "story doctors" to strengthen scripts. StoryCon presenters Linda Seger, James Bonnet and Richard Krevolin have consulted on scripts for top studios, such as Disney, Dreamworks, MGM and Paramount. They evaluate and fine-tune scripts so the plot lines, character arcs, scene vectors, twists, reversals, audience emotional response patterns, mythic archetypes, hero journey phases, story trance, and a host of other story parameters are all tweaked for maximum story success.

The creation of a science of story is controversial. Some writers and critics raise concerns and fears that story creation is an art and reductionist science will only take it apart and create formulaic commercial stories. This risk also was discussed at the StoryCon meeting.

For more information:

  • Rob Kall, StoryCon, (215) 504-1700, 215-860-5374 (fax), e-mail:, online:


    Email: *

    Email, first name, comment and security code are required fields; all other fields are optional. With the exception of email, any information you provide will be displayed with your comment.

    First * Last
    Title Field Facility
    City State

    Comments: *
    To prevent comment spam, please type the code you see below into the code field before submitting your comment. If you cannot read the numbers in the below image, reload the page to generate a new one.

    Enter the security code below: *

    Fields marked with an * are required.

    View the Latest from ADVANCE


    Search Jobs


    Back to Top

    © 2017 Merion Matters

    660 American Avenue Suite 300, King of Prussia PA 19406