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THE LITERARY ANIMAL: EVOLUTION & THE NATURE OF NARRATIVE

I've read dozens of books on playwriting, screenwriting, and story. The top five are:

  1. The Literary Animal: Evolution & The Nature of Narrative, Edited by Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson, Forewards by E.O. Wilson; What Happens in Hamlet? Exploring the Psychological Foundations of Drama by Daniel Nettle.

  2. How Not to Write a Play by Walter Kerr, Simon & Schuster, 1995

  3. The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr, Abrams, 2020.

  4. Into the Woods by John Yorke, Abrams, 2014.

  5. Wired for Story by Lisa Cron, Ten Speed Press, 2012.


I just discovered The Literary Animal and of the five, it's the most important. Nettle makes the case that certain story structures and character relationships "...tap into the biases of the evolved mind, and that we have a "...bias toward informational complexity. Great dramas are the kind we cannot look at and say, "I know what that is" but those to which we have to return for a second look and see something different."


More favorites:


"Between 1585 and 1615, 765 new plays were first presented in England. Many were never revived.. Few have been performed in the last hundred years, and even fewer still outside of England. Who remembers Chettle's All Is Not Gold That Glisters, Day and Houghton's three-part The Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green, or Boyle's Jugurth, King of Numidia? Yet from the same two years as these we have Hamlet and Twelfth Night."


"No text offers values or meaning that exist as essential features of itself. Shakespeare's plays are not essentially this or essentially that, or essentially anything. They are, to take up Wiffgenstein's metaphor, far more like natural phenomena, mountain ranges, pieces of scenery out of which we make truth, value greatness, this or that, in accordance with our various purposes."


"It must be the case that the plays, for reasons that are more than accidents of their histories, grab the attention and afford possibilities of meaning."


"Shakspeare asks every spectator...to sympathize with his hero, to fell with him, to put himself in his shoes, to understand his situation, and to attempt, in imagination, a solution. J. Dover Wilson, What Happens in Hamlet."


"At the other end of the spectrum are approaches in which artistic forms are seen as "viruses of the mind."


"Drama, Horace noted, "delights and instructs us." Aristotle added that "learning things is highly enjoyable," and drama is a process of learning things."


"Since primate rank is not entirely hereditary, life is a wheel of fire; with the possibility of rising to dominance and the risk of falling from it al contingent, all dependent on one's own behavioral decisions and the reading and remembering of the behavior of others."


"Place a group of monkeys or apes in a room together, and if they do not fight or mate, they will groom each other. Repeat the same experiment with a group of people,, and if they do not fight or mate, they will talk. And Dunbar's observational studies suggest they they will talk overwhelmingly about the social words they inhabit: people they know in common, the behavior of other individuals, and their own relationships."


"Any activity which could mimic the relevant features of a really good conversation would stand to natural conversation as the opiate drug to the endogenous opiate. It would delight us; some of us would become addicted; we would seek out the best variety. This, then, is a possible theory of the origin of the dramatic mode. It is contrived conversation that stimulates the mechanisms of reward that evolved for natural conversation."


"Drama exploits these informational biases. What does drama concern, if not precisely, the fluctuating relationships between a small number of characters? Where scientific, political, aesthetic, or technical idea impinge, they only become truly dramatic to the extend that they are made to live through the wants and relationships of the characters. And drama in particular tends to concern conflicts over love and status."


"That is, the drama has to be an intensified version of the concerns of ordinary conversations.. One is reminded of the "supernormal" stimulus effect in animal behavior. An egg elicits nesting behavior from a female gull; a football elicits an abnormally strong nesting reaction."


"This, then, is the reason why, in Byron's words, "All tragedies are finished with a death / All comedies are ended with a marriage."


"First, it is striking how easily many of the generalizations about drama made b practitioners and scholars over the years can be fit into the mold of this evolutionary perspective--a consilience ready to be made. Second, the principles can be made specific enough to inform close readings of individual plays, explorations of dramatic form, or proposals for cross-cultural work."


"James Stiller has recently shown, for ten Shakespearean plays, that the number of character presented interacting in the same scene is comparable to the number who generally take part in a real human conversation--rarely more than four. The total number in the play, however, averages around thirty, which is comparable to the mean size of a hunter-gatherer band. Still shows that characters are generally linked bt no more than two degrees of separation; either they interact directly or both interact with some third party. As the dramatis personae gets bigger, however, more and more of the character have no direct relationship to each other. Thus, an upper limit on the number of characters is set by the fact that increasing them beyond a certain point would fragment the person-web into unlinked parts. In terms of teh present argument, a drama that presented a single interconnected group would presumably sequester more attention than one that is fragmentary, which many unlinked threads."


"A quick analysis of the dramatis personae of the ten most popular dramatic films of all time finds an average of 23.2 named characters per film (compared to 27.8 for Shakespeare; ranges: films 7-47, Shakespeare 18-47). This is significant for several reasons. In the film industry, the budgetary constraints of the theater are essentially lifted in virtue of infinite reproducibility. Also, many films employ many hundres of unnamed extras and bit players. Thus, the finding that the number of characters important enough to be named has remained constant or even decreased suggests that network size is a genuine factor in audience engagement in drama.

In fact, there seem impressionistically to be two main types of dramatic networks. The classical Shakespearean type involves around thirty individuals divided into vying cliques (for example, in A midsummer Night's Dream, the court of Theseus, the young lovers, the Athenian workmen, the court of Oberon.) The cliquest then become embroiled in each other' concerns and my come into conflict. Each clique is linked to every other vi some connection, but not everyone in the drama interacts directly with everyone else, hence an average of between one and two degrees of separation between characters. This is the structure of films like The Godfather."


"For example, Lovborg is Hedda's husband's academic rival, but he also knew her separately in an earlier phase of life. Elvsted is married to Lovborg and thus relates to Hedda through him but also went to school with her. Almost all possible combinations of characters are seen interacting, and, thus, the modal degree of separation is one. Many modern dramas are of this type, hence the low character numbers in some films."


"What we ask of the theater is the spectacle of a will striving towards a goal."


"As Aristotle said, a drama must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning is the establishment of what all the different fitness volitions are. The middle section is the movement through behavior and transformation of social relationships toward a way that they may be resolved. In a complex plot, this phase may be characterized by reversals and recognitions. The ending is the denouement: the moment when fitness volitions are either satisfied or dashed (in Aristotelian terms, the change of fortune."


"There are conventionally held to be two main genres in the history of Western drama: tragedy--which concerns serious, often political, conflict and which generally has a negative outcome for the protagonist, and comedy--where the conflict is often amorous in nature, tends to the ridiculous, and resolves favorably. I have argued elsewhere that in fact, tragedy generally concerns status competition , often the control of the kingdom in Shakespeare, for example. Comedy, on the other hand, typically concerns the mating game, that is, the appropriate pairing off of the eligible mating-age individuals within a social network. This analysis applies equally well to A Midsummer Night's Dream and Four Weddings and a Funeral. Thus, these two enduring genres tap precisely into the domains I argued in section D that we should be especially predisposed to crave information about: status change and mate choice."


"The claim here is not that all dramatic works can be easily pigeonholed in this way, but an astonishing number of the most popular ones can. Many will involve elements of several, such as the status competition between Prospero and his brother with which the mating game of Ferdinand and Miranda is interlaced in The Tempest. Often, great plays and films morph and shimmer between several cells as we watch them. In The Merchant of Venice, are we watching the tragedy of Shylock or the marriage comedy of Bassanio? In Richard III, or Taxi Driver, do we sympathize or not with the protagonist, and, thus, are we in the heroic or the tragic cell? Part of the richness is the structural ambiguity that makes us linger longer, seek more information, to try and resolve the problem."


"The human mind is structured in such a way that domain-specific schemata about kinship, love competition, and cooperation are easily evoked, sometimes by a single word or image. Thus, certain stories or situations richly and intrinsically afford possibilities for dramatic meaning, even if that meaning varies in time to place."


"These plays can do all these things and more, but they can do so in part because they can tap into the biases and algorithms of the evolved mind."


"All great dramatic texts (and performances) are polysemous, ambiguous, defying generalization. Many great dramas are deeply ambiguous about who deserves sympathy, which desires predominate. However, this is nto an alternative to the principles adumbrated here. Rather, drama raise the psychological schemata described here and allow their inherent complexity and unsolvability to resonate."






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