Why Stories Captivate – Web Page version – Brainy Gecko
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Why Stories Captivate – Web Page version

A transcript from a YouTube video featuring the TEDx Talk by Tomas Pueyo.

The elder Homo sapien hunter shuffled towards the fire. The young gather around him and sit down in silence. They’re eager to hear from the most famous hunter of the tribe. He wants to impart his knowledge to them. So he clears his throat and begins.

There is a 25% probability of finding predators near the river, big felines run 50% faster than humans and trees double the lifespan of helpless hunters. 

Are these young soon to be hunter’s going to remember anything?

Have you been in a situation like that where you were bored to death in a presentation and what about that poor hunter, he spent a lifetime honing his skills as a hunter and way too many hours using Powerpoint? 

And yet his experience is going to die with him because he couldn’t communicate it.

If you’ve ever been in a situation like that where you try to teach something to somebody but you can’t get him to remember anything. Have you ever tried to convince somebody of something with arguments, with reason, but they don’t reason, they don’t listen to arguments? This has happened to all of us. Being right is not enough. We need to be able to communicate in stories because facts and reason just don’t make it.

That’s like the most famous that speakers in the world only spend 25% of their talks telling you facts and 65% telling the stories and the right stories are two to 10 times more memorable than the facts.

Let me repeat that because I just give you facts. So it’s not very memorable. Stories are two to 10 times more memorable in the facts alone. And that’s why the most influential

books in history are series of stories. And that spawned the biggest religions in the world. Stories are powerful, so why don’t we use them more in our everyday life to communicate.

We should be using them all the time, but in fact, we use facts. We use reason, and I think there’s two reasons for that. 

Number one, we’re not really sure why stories captivate so much. I mean we’re rational animals. We use the facts every day. Can we just keep using that.

And the second one is we don’t really know how to craft stories easily. 

I ask myself these two questions all of my life. My father is a filmmaker and we talked about stories at home all my life.

I studied some script writing in Grad school and even wrote a book about stories and story structure. And that taught me how to create the stories, but not why stories captivate. 

And the answer came to me from my job. I have to read a lot of neuroscience for it and the neuroscience of stories is crazy.

So I’m going to tell you about it, but instead of just telling you about it, we’re going to do a little experiment. Okay? As I tell you about the neuroscience of stories, I want you to analyze what’s going on in your brains. All right let’s go.

If I tell you bipedal motion, what are you thinking? Maybe walking. Usually, your brains are trying to decipher the words, maybe put them together. It’s a couple of parts in your brain that is getting activated.

It’s different for all of us. We’re trying to decipher the words, picture them, and it’s hard.

It’s a couple of parts in your brain that is getting activated. It’s different for all of us. We’re trying to decipher the words, picture them, and it’s hard.

If instead I tell you about a group of women who are running and they’re pushing with their feet against the ground as hard as they can, they’re muscles are tensing. The wind is blowing on their faces.

Did you notice that? Was it be different right in your brain, what was going on?

The part of your brain that would make you run in reality got activated and the part of your brain that would make you feel the wind on your skin got activity too. Your brain. Can’t tell the difference between a story hearing a story and actually living an experience.

 It’s crazy. It’s like you’re told reality. They’re creating a virtual world and your brain can’t tell a difference within the real world and the virtual world. 

What if I told you about three evil boys that are chasing you on their bikes…

and they want to hurt you so you try running away, but you can’t because you’re crippled. You still push as hard as you can and you break free and you’re able to run. 

What happened there in your brain?

Did you feel like we’re more engaged? Do you feel like you were there? That’s actually what’s happening in your brain. It feels like you were there because your brain activity is the same as the brain activity in the main character.

And in fact it was the same brain activity for all of us.

You, me, by telling you a story, I was kind of able to telepathically communicate what’s going on in my brain. So it’s like empathy, pure empathy, and all of these brain activity in your brain is making stories memorable. It’s drilling them in your brain. So what is the story from a neuroscience perspective?

It’s an empathy machine. It’s a device that enables you to get into somebody else’s brain to experience their experiences, think their thoughts, and feel their feelings.

It’s pretty cool, right It’s pretty cool, right? So these is why stories are powerful and we need to know how to cross, how to use that to craft good stories, right? And

if you ask Aristotle 2000 years ago, he would tell you about the three acts of a story, the beginning, middle, and end. But I never found that really super insightful. We need a bit more detail to be to craft stories.

 So this is a recipe and then you could use, but I’m not going to tell you about it. I’m going to show you two things before that. 

There’s going to be a few spoilers about the classics. If you haven’t watched them, you should feel bad and these is your punishment right here.

Number two it’s going to go pretty fast. Okay, so grab your armchairs. Ready Alright, let’s go.

We start in the ordinary world is the world of the main character.

It’s a normal world, but there’s something weird about it. Something that doesn’t feel quite right

until suddenly the inciting

incident happens.

It’s an event around the beginning of the story that changes the world of the main character and he doesn’t know

how to handle that


And that’s when the mentor arrives. He’s going to push the main character to face the inciting incident.

The wizard stops escaping and drags him out of the ordinary world to cross the threshold into the extraordinary world, the magical world, a new world, completely different from the ordinary world that he knew.

And there she will meet new allies, and new enemies.

And, we, he will start facing new tests and challenges.




The midpoint happens. It’s an event around the middle of the story that changes the story completely…

because it changes how the main character sees the world.

The character realizes he was wrong, but

he doesn’t know how to cope with that new information…

…he’s weak…

…he’s thinking about it.

And the enemies are taking

advantage of this weakness.

They begin to close in. They are threatening him, they’re surrounding him…

And that’s when they strike.

It’s the crisis

It is the lowest point in the story.

It’s the moment of death…

…of loss.

The main character is on his knees.

…and he realizes…

he/she needs to change something.

It’s the return.

The hero is coming back energized and he is going to face his enemy one last time.

But now he’s changed.

So he’s able to rise

to new heights…

…and now he wins.

Now we see the aftermath.

He goes back to the ordinary world where he came from.

But he’s changed and he won.

And thanks to that he gets his reward.

So this is the structure of stories.

All right, we’re done. No,

It feels quite intuitive, right? Not at all. You ask another storyteller and he’s going to tell you, forget about this recipe. This is the one you should follow.

because  it has all these things wrong. And…

…then you ask another storyteller. He’s going to tell you what story. Don’t even have three eyes. They have five or six or eight or 22 or 31…

…in fact, there are hundreds and hundreds and that’s cool if you’re writing a book or a movie.

But for us, when we just need a recipe, an easy one to follow, to craft our stores for everyday use, we need something simpler, something a bit more fundamental.

What if stories, we’re not linear, but circular? Circular in that the beginning  and end are connected.

After going through the extraordinary world and the adventure, we come back to the ordinary world and thanks to the contrast, we can highlight the differences. We can see it in The Lion King with the birth of Simba, and, after going through the entire circle of life, we finish with the birth of his child.

We see it in 12 Years a Slave. We start off with a group of men dressed in slaves cloths and we end with a group of med who are now free.

We see it in Gravity where we start with a woman alone in space looking at the earth and we end with a woman on earth looking into space.

We can see it in Madmen where in the very first episode of the very first season Don Draper is unhappy, but he solves a very difficult advertising campaign and by the end, 7 years later he is talking about a very difficult advertising campaign but this time he is happy.

And in the Godfather we started with a wedding and finish with a funeral.

So you can see the structure of the circle and the same thing happens just after that in the problem and solution, The inciting incident and the climax.

So for example, going back to the Godfather at the beginning, Michael Corleone says my family are crooks but I am not like them.

What he means is for me, honesty and civility are more important than my family.

By the end of the movie, he’s killed all of his family’s enemies and he is lying to his wife’s face. 

Therefore putting family before honesty and civility. So you can see this mirror image there.

The same thing happens in Toy Story. For example, where we start with Buzz, he lands and he challenges Woody’s leadership.

And by the end of the story, they are friends and co-leaders. And these patterns that I’m telling you about happens throughout the entire story.

The first half is about exploring a problem and the second half is about exploring the solution. 

That’s why in a story, for example, like Matrix, we can see scene after scene after scene from the first half is mirrored in the second half.

It’s crazy. It’s like they took the first half of the movie and then every scene they revisit it in the second half mirroring them.

So you can see now the  structure of stories, right?

The first half is mirroring the second half. There’s this symmetry here and whenever you have two problems they need to connect at some point and that is the midpoint. And that is the mid-point.

The main point is the key event of his story because he brings insight to solve the problem.

The Godfather is the first time Michael Corleone kills putting family before civility and he loves it.

In the lion king, it’s the one who is faster.

The Lion King dies and his son realizes…

…that he cannot be a brat anymore.

He will have to eventually grow up and become the lion king

In Toy Story, it’s when Buzz and Woody are kidnapped and they realize that if they don’t stop bickering, they will die.

In the Force Awakens, it is when Rey touches the lightsaber and she realized that she might be a Jedi too.

So this is the structure of stories and you can see that it’s like a ring, right? A ring structure and these structures happen everywhere,

Not just the movies I’ve just told you about. You can see it in Hamlet, in Macbeth. In fact, in most of Shakespeare’s works,

You can see it’s even farther down. Beowulf, the first epic in the English language has a ring structure.

What about Buddha’s life? And then you can go not just for stories but

SciGirls. For example, every Star Wars trilogy is a ring and all six movies are a ring too.

The first six movies in Harry Potter, every book is a ring and all seven together, are a ring. And you can also see that at the micro level for a good story. Every act, every scene is a ring.

Why is the structure everywhere? Why can we find it really everywhere? Is there something fundamental about it? Well, is the structure of problem solving.

You say the problem, you explore the problem, you bring the insight to solve the problem. You explore the insight, and you saw that.

Stories are problem-solving. So now I’m telling you that stories are problem-solving. And I told you five minutes ago that there are empathy machines, right?

 So how do you put these two things together?

Stories are a way to get into somebody else’s brain to see how they solve problems or put in another way, stories are a way to learn.

See, hundreds of thousands of years ago, almost the same kids were not the strongest. They were not the fastest, but we are the best at solving problems.

Those who loved stories the most could solve more problems. They could survive more, they could have more children and spread their genes.

And that is how we have evolved to love stories because they teach us.

See that hunter, he would have never shared those facts. He would’ve said, when I was your age, I was hungry one day. So I went to the river and as I got close to the river, I saw a lion. The lion saw me, so I started running away, but he was faster than me. So I jumped up a tree and I saved myself.

And what were the young things saying? Oh wow, I should not go close to the river. There are predators there. I should not try to outrun a lion. And if I’m in danger, I should climb up a tree.

The very same lessons that they would never remember before are now drilled in their minds.

You want to use the power of stories. You listened to me and you listened to me. Are you tired of trying to teach people stuff but they don’t remember?

Stop shoving your facts down their throat and start wrapping them in stories. I was tired of trying to convince people and stuff, but they don’t attend to reasons.

But don’t just use one story once. Use Stories at home. Use stories at school. Use stories everywhere.

Stop ramming your reasons down their throats and start using stories.

You testers have the unique intellectual curiosity to seek the truth, master storytelling, and you will spread it. Thank you.