There are few authors, if any at all, that can match the influence of Stephen King, an ingenious creative who has given a tremendous amount of stories to cinema and television. From low-key dramas like Stand By Me, Misery and The Shawshank Redemption to blockbuster thrillers such as It, The Shining and Carrie, King has done it all.
Continuing to inspire both the big and small screen to this very day, King has recently seen his novel Firestarter adapted into a new movie starring Zac Efron, as well as his 2006 book Lisey’s Story that has recently been serialised by Apple TV.
Despite writing many of his most iconic stories in the late 20th century, King’s influence in the world of literature and visual entertainment is truly impressive.
Writers are preoccupied with memory. They have to be: a story is, at its most fundamental level, a sequence of memories. You can’t have a plot without memory. Endings need a middle. A middle has to have a beginning. Effect follows cause. Consequences follow actions.
Even if a story has a disordered timeline, the fun is in how our brains put it right. We read on, waiting patiently to find out the explanation, what the nasty thing was that was seen in the woodshed, and how that led to what came after.
We humans also tend to see ourselves in terms of story. We look back through our memories to make sense of our personalities. For example, we might tell ourselves, “I’m hard working because my mother abandoned me.” Or maybe, “I steal things because my mother abandoned me.”
But what happens if there’s a gap in the story? Say you pick up a book and it turns out that an error at the printers has erased a paragraph. Or a whole chapter.
You’d worry—correctly—that the whole thing may no longer make sense. And when it comes to us humans—well, we don’t actually know if the self is really built on memory and story. But we like to believe it. So what happens to that belief—to us?—when there’s a part of the story missing?
By British Psychological Society, UK, February 2022
There’s the science of storytelling, stories about science, and storytelling in science – bringing elements of storytelling to traditional forms like the journal article. Is that a distinction you’ve considered?
Definitely. I’ve done lots of writing about science and had to wrestle with some of the inherent tensions around with that: one of the main ones being that mass market storytelling tends towards simplification and good science tends towards nuance and complexity.
For example, there’s often a pressure to identify the hero of the story – this amazing person who discovered this amazing thing – and of course the reality is usually a team of amazing people.
Some scientists seem to think storytelling goes beyond simplification, to handwaving and fabrication, a means of obscuring and misdirecting…
Yes, and for good reason… if you want to mislead people or sell them your one-eyed view of the world, then storytelling is the best way to do it. It’s as dangerous as it is helpful. But there are ways around that. You don’t have to use storytelling for its most egregious purposes.
There are some basic understandings in the science of storytelling that are separate from this – especially things around structure, cause and effect, and simplicity. For my work I have to read a lot of books written by scientists, and even though I’m fascinated by them, they’re often a real struggle for a layperson like me to get through. They don’t understand some of these basic storytelling ideas. They’re often very discursive, over-complex, tend towards jargon… even the ones that are written for the mass market are sometimes like this. All scientists, but especially ones that are interested in engaging with the public, would be well advised to take some of these basic ideas seriously.
It’s been an easy life and when I think back, I wish it were a summer morning after a rain and I were loading my bags into the luggage hold of the bus and climbing aboard past Al, the driver, and the bench seats up front to the bunks in back and claiming a low bunk in the rear for myself.
We’re about to set off on a twenty-eight-city tour of one-nighters, two buses, the staff bus and the talent bus (though actually the tech guys, Sam and Thomas and Albert and Tony, have most of the talent and the rest of us just do the best we can). I kiss Jenny goodbye and she envies me, having been on opera and orchestra bus tours herself and loved them.
The show band guys sit in front, Rich Dworsky, Chris, Pat and Pete, Andy, Gary or Larry, Richard, Joe, Arnie the drummer, Heather the duet partner on “Under African Skies” and “In My Life” and Greg Brown’s “Early.”
Fred Newman is here, Mr. Sound Effects, and we’ll do the Bebopareebop commercial about the meteorite flying into Earth’s atmosphere about to wipe out an entire city when a beluga in heat sings a note that sets off a nuclear missile that deflects the meteorite to the Mojave Desert where it cracks the earth’s crust and hatches prehistoric eggs of pterodactyls, which rise screeching and galumphing toward a tiny town and a Boy Scout camp where a lone bagpiper plays the Lost Chord that pulverizes the pterodactyls’ tiny brains and sends them crashing and gibbering into an arroyo, and I say, “Wouldn’t this be a good time for a piece of rhubarb pie?” and we sing, One little thing can revive a guy, and that is a piece of rhubarb pie. Serve it up nice and hot, maybe things aren’t as bad as you thought.
You do something strange every day. You consume fictions. It’s such an omnipresent habit, shared by all, that we rarely consider the oddity of it.
I’m a fiction writer myself, but I’m also a neuroscientist, so this activity fascinates me. What’s the cognitive utility of learning things that aren’t true? We’re evolved biological beings who need to understand the world to survive, and yet all facts we learn about Hogwarts are literally false. How can any of this information be useful?
Still, fictions surround us. I grew up in my mother’s independent bookstore and I’ve been a writer since I can remember. A significant change in my lifetime is that media, like TV channels, books, magazines, and films, have been condensed into a single one-stop shop: the screen. I call this the supersensorium. Screens are now supermarkets for entertaining experiences. Such easy access to fictions means we often binge watch, we stuff our faces.