Sunday, April 24, 2022

The Science of Story for Writers

by Craig von Buseck @CraigVonBuseck

From the time our children can talk they ask us to “tell them a story.” We collectively spend millions of dollars buying children’s books and taking our kids and grandkids to the movies. Why? Because human beings are created for story.

“The telling of tales does more than entertain,” writes Lee Gutkind, the godfather of creative nonfiction. “It transmits important information between generations, making important events of the past relevant.”[1]

Stories are all around us and we spend a large amount of our time every day in imaginary worlds—some of our own making and others in books, television, movies, podcasts, radio—the list goes on and on.

“Neuropsychologists are discovering that the impulse for story is likely hard-wired into our brains,” Gutkind explains.[2]

Stories are an important part of how human beings think and process reality. As writers we should always be on alert for stories that will make an impact. One of my books is about survivor of the Holocaust who lost most of her family to the diabolical Nazis. When I shared this remarkably moving story with an acquisitions editor at a writer’s conference, he responded that it was “a story that needed to be told.”

And that is our job—to tell the stories that need to be told.

Seeing the Story in the MRI

Science writer Stephen Hall wanted to actually “see” how the brain formed a story. He designed an experiment where he created a story in his mind while he was wired for an MRI brain scan. To everyone’s amazement, the screen showed an area the size of a sugar cube that lit up in his right frontal lobe. Reporting his findings in the New York Times Magazine, Hall spoke of this section of the brain, located in inferior frontal gyrus, as “the storytelling area.” Linked with other sections of the brain, including the visual cortex, Hall referred to these as the brain’s “storytelling system.”[3]

In his book, Keep it Real, Lee Gutkind writes: “Recent research regarding the brain would suggest that narratives of self—both the telling (writing) and the hearing (reading)—stem from impulses basic to our being. We’ve learned that the mind is malleable, that the brain’s neural pathways constantly rewire themselves to order sensory input, creating connections among disparate facts and ultimately spinning explanations about the self in the world.”[4]

We call this process “meaning making.” It is also a vital part of what we do as writers and communicators.

Mirror Neurons and Story

Truly amazing research has emerged in recent years showing what are called “mirror neurons” that cause readers to identify with characters in our books and then respond emotionally to their actions.[5] Writing in Psychology Today, Norman N. Holland explains that mirror neurons have been called the most important discovery since DNA. 

“Mirror neurons map actions that we see others perform onto the viscero-motor and somatosensory representations in our own brains,” says Holland. “Most important for fiction [and all communication], we map on hearing or reading the words describing an action.”

“When we read fiction or see a movie or a play and even when we see a painting, we map these fictional humans' actions, emotions, and sensations onto our own brains' visceral, motor, and sensory representations,” Holland explains. “That accounts for our emotional experience, which comes before our cognitive experience.”[6]

The discovery of mirror neurons explains why we respond emotionally to fictional characters, treating them as real even though we know they are not. I had this experience when I listened to the audio book of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I actually began to cry when the book ended because I knew I would miss the friends I had made while listening to the story.

Life Lessons and Survival

“Story scientists argue that one reason we are so attracted to stories is that their life lessons have survival value,” Jack Hart observes.[7]

In The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall declares that “stories revolve around a handful of master themes.” He lists love, fear of death, sex, the challenges of life, and power.[8] In The Book on Writing, former Dallas Times-Herald writing coach Paula LaRocque also includes what she calls “theme or action archetypes”: quest, search, journey, pursuit, capture, rescue, escape, love, forbidden love, unrequited love, adventure, riddle, mystery, sacrifice, discovery, temptation, loss or gain of identity, metamorphosis, transformation, dragon-slaying, descent to an underworld, rebirth, redemption.[9] 

Every theme incorporates a lesson—and this is part of what draws a reader to a story. The more important the lesson, the bigger the attraction to the audience. 

“Archetypal tales,” LaRocque observes, “are in their essence moral or cautionary tales. In contemporary art, they are sophisticated and subtle extrapolations of universal patterns. They seek cause, consequence, reason, and order. So does humankind.”[10]

Making Meaning

The world delivers the facts and the details. Writers examine the stories and then work to make sense of them—to “make meaning.”

“Stories are the cauldron where drama bubbles,” says William Noble. “Stories, in essence, are the foundation for literary art, and we need to understand that stories contain the seeds that turn an unremarkable event into something meaningful.”[11]

In his book, Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story, John Yorke writes: “The Endless recurrence of the same underlying pattern suggests psychological, if not biological and physical reasons for the way we tell stories. Incapable of perceiving randomness, we insist on imposing order on any observed phenomena… We observe new stimuli … It’s thesis, antithesis, synthesis. … Storytelling, at one level, is a manifestation of this process.”

“Dramatic structure is not an arbitrary—or even a conscious—invention,” David Mamet explains. “It is an organic codification of the human mechanism for ordering information. Event, elaboration, denouement … boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl; act one, act two, act three.”[12]

“Storytelling, then, can be seen as a codification of the method by which we learn,” observes Yorke, “expressed in a three-act shape. A character is flawed, an inciting incident throws them into a world that represents everything they are not. …in the darkness of that forest, old and new integrate to achieve balance.”

“We cannot accept chaos; we have to order it.”[13]

The Best Story Wins

“The most gifted writers are those who manipulate the memory sets of the reader in such a rich fashion that they create within the mind of the reader an entire world that resonates with the reader’s own real emotions,” writes Jack Hart. “The events are merely taking place on the page, in print, but the emotions are real. Hence the unique feeling when one is ‘absorbed’ in a certain book, ‘lost’ in it.”[14]

In the movie Amistad, John Quincy Adams gives an abolitionist colleague a bit of sage advice. “When I was an attorney, a long time ago, I realized after much trial and error that in a courtroom, whoever tells the best story, wins.” Now we know why this is true.

It is the task of the writer to listen for the important and impactful stories that are told—and then craft them in such a way that we make them known, helping people to bring order out of chaos and inspiring them to strive for all God has for them in this world.

Learn more in Craig’s new book, Telling the Truth: How to Write Narrative Nonfiction, Biography and Memoir—coming soon from Bold Vision Books. 

Dr. Craig von Buseck is an award-winning author, popular speaker, and the Digital Content Manager for the Parenting section of More from Craig at


Dr. Craig von Buseck is an award-winning author and the Digital Content Manager for the Parenting section of His most recent book is Victor! The Final Battle of Ulysses S. Grant. Learn more at

[1] Gutkind, Lee, Editor, Keep It Real, 112.

[2] Gutkind, Lee, Editor, Keep It Real, 98-99.

[3] Hart, Jack, Story Craft, 4.

[4] Gutkind, Lee, Editor, Keep It Real, 109.

[5] Hart, Jack, Story Craft, 15-16.

[6] Holland, Norman N. "Stories and the Mirror Inside You," Psychology Today,, accessed April, 2022.

[7] Hart, Jack, Story Craft, 132.

[8] Hart, Jack, Story Craft, 135.

[9] Hart, Jack, Story Craft, 135.

[10] Hart, Jack, Story Craft, 136.

[11] Noble, William, Writing Dramatic Nonfiction, 37-38.

[12] Yorke, John, Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story, 28.

[13] Yorke, John, Into the Woods, 28.

[14] Hart, Jack, Story Craft, 89.


  1. This is an amazing expose of God’s intelligent creation. What it’s lacking is a call to put it in front of every video game playing teenager. They expend hours of focus on fake reality and wonder why their elders are weird.

  2. This is the best post I've read, bar none! I've always known (without knowing why) stories are important. Before I started writing novels, I was a playwright. TH\he plays I wrote for for use in the church. What I learned was that people let down their guard when the think they're being entertained. Then, when they least expect it, the story reaches out, touches hearts, and changes lives. And now I understand why! Thank you, Craig!

  3. This is fabulous information! Craig, you've touched on a subject that I intend to explore in more depth. Thank you!

  4. This is fascinating! Thanks for sharing such great info.

  5. Thank you for this fascinating post! We are truly "fearfully and wonderfully made!" Glory to God!


  6. This is fascinating, Craig! I've always been interested in psychology, and I've been reading quite a bit of brain research lately, so this ties in nicely. I can't wait to read your new book!

  7. Very interesting, Craig. I was just listening to a talk on transformational coaching that refers to our brain as a 'box of stories' and links 'identity' with one's view of one's self in those stories. The potential of using stories - and specifically the theory of mirror neurons - to help folks rewrite their personal stories is pretty awesome! Thanks! As always - miss having you down the hall!