Professor Wu's Rulebook

Writing and psychology: the key to writing a great story

Once upon a time

Books and literature are entwined with human culture. Reading brings with it a touch of magic, saves us time, and turns us into citizens of the world. But when it comes to literature, we tend to think only of those books that we have enjoyed, or those we know have sold well, or those that form the literary canon. Of course we know, somewhere in our minds, that there are also countless other books and stories out there, sitting unread or unpublished, or still swirling around the minds of aspiring writers. So how do stories make the grade and leave a mark in our minds or our culture? What, in other words, makes a great story?

We know that some have taken a scientific approach to answering this question. For others, like Zadie Smith, it has less to do with science, and more to do with “the truth”. It is a question that has been asked – and answered – in different ways for generations, and in 1986, the great Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner weighed in with his own ideas.

Bruner had precedent when he wrote his essay collection Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, which explored the role of the mind in creation of creative works. Two decades previously, he had pioneered the modern study of creativity in the 1960s, and his collection of essays On Knowing suggested creativity was entwined closely with “passion”. This, he said, “like discriminating taste, grows on its use. You are more likely to act yourself into feeling than feeling yourself into action.”

The ideas incepted then stayed with him all those years, evolving in his own creative mind. In one immensely insightful piece from Actual Minds, titled “Two Modes of Thought”, Bruner writes:

“There are two modes of cognitive functioning, two modes of thought, each providing distinctive ways of ordering experience, of constructing reality. The two (though complementary) are irreducible to one another. Efforts to reduce one mode to the other or to ignore one at the expense of the other inevitably fail to capture the rich diversity of thought.

Each of the ways of knowing, moreover, has operating principles of its own and its own criteria of well-formedness. They differ radically in their procedures for verification. A good story and a well-formed argument are different natural kinds. Both can be used as means for convincing another. Yet what they convince of is fundamentally different: arguments convince one of their truth, stories of their lifelikeness. The one verifies by eventual appeal to procedures for establishing formal and empirical proof. The other establishes not truth but verisimilitude.


A story (allegedly true or allegedly fictional) is judged for its goodness as a story by criteria that are of a different kind from those used to judge a logical argument as adequate or correct.”

For writers, it’s interesting to note how Bruner highlights the way storytellers are primarily concerned with the question of how to endow experience with a meaning; and points out the vital distinction between truth and meaning. Scientists find ways to come at a binary truth, which leaves their minds closed and narrow; storytellers explore different “truths” and realities in order to discover new ways of looking at the world, and encouraging readers to do the same – even though there is no single answer; and indeed, only ever countless possibilities.

Bruner contrasts the two modes, which he calls the paradigmatic or logico-scientific, and the narrative, arguing that each is animated by a different kind of imagination:

“The imaginative application of the paradigmatic mode leads to good theory, tight analysis, logical proof, sound argument, and empirical discovery guided by reasoned hypothesis. But paradigmatic “imagination” (or intuition) is not the same as the imagination of the novelist or poet. Rather, it is the ability to see possible formal connections before one is able to prove them in any formal way.

The imaginative application of the narrative mode leads instead to good stories, gripping drama, believable (though not necessarily “true”) historical accounts. It deals in human or human-like intention and action and the vicissitudes and consequences that mark their course. It strives to put its timeless miracles into the particulars of experience, and to locate the experience in time and place.


In contrast to our vast knowledge of how science and logical reasoning proceed, we know precious little in any formal sense about how to make good stories.

Perhaps one of the reasons for this is that story must construct two landscapes simultaneously. One is the landscape of action, where the constituents are the arguments of action: agent, intention or goal, situation, instrument, something corresponding to a “story grammar.” The other landscape is the landscape of consciousness: what those involved in the action know, think, or feel, or do not know, think, or feel.”

Looking at the specific, unique landscape of narrative, Bruner writes:

“Narrative deals with the vicissitudes of human intentions. And since there are myriad intentions and endless ways for them to run into trouble — or so it would seem — there should be endless kinds of stories. But, surprisingly, this seems not to be the case.


We would do well with as loose fitting a constraint as we can manage concerning what a story must “be” to be a story. And the one that strikes me as most serviceable is the one with which we began: narrative deals with the vicissitudes of intention.”

Crucially, Bruner notes that this “intention” will forever be beyond the control of the storyteller or writer; for it belongs solely to the reader (or readers) of the work itself. Just as Sylvia Plath observed that a poem, once made available to the public “belongs to the reader”, so is all art and storytelling, Bruner contests. And he considers how the psychology of this interpretation factors into the question of what makes a great story:

“It will always be a moot question whether and how well a reader’s interpretation “maps” on an actual story, does justice to the writer’s intention in telling the story, or conforms to the repertory of a culture. But in any case, the author’s act of creating a narrative of a particular kind and in a particular form is not to evoke a standard reaction but to recruit whatever is most appropriate and emotionally lively in the reader’s repertory. So “great” storytelling, inevitably, is about compelling human plights that are “accessible” to readers. But at the same time, the plights must be set forth with sufficient subjunctivity to allow them to be rewritten by the reader, rewritten so as to allow play for the reader’s imagination. One cannot hope to “explain” the processes involved in such rewriting in any but an interpretive way, surely no more precisely, say, than an anthropologist “explains” what the Balinese cockfight means to those who bet on it… All that one can hope for is to interpret a reader’s interpretation in as detailed and rich a way as psychologically possible.”

Making a great story, therefore, relies upon a reader’s interpretation of it. It is down to a reader to make a text their own, and extract meaning from it in a way they find suitable. Bruner illustrates this using an extract of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, in which Marco Polo describes a bridge to Kublai Khan (stone by stone).

‘“But which is the stone that supports the bridge?” Kublai Khan asks.

“The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,” Marco answers, “but by the line of the arch that they form.”

Kublai Khan remains silent, reflecting. Then he adds: “Why do you speak to me of the stones? It is only the arch that matters to me.”

Polo answers: “Without stones there is no arch.”’

On this, Bruner reflects that this extract itself can be used as an allegory to explain the key to great storytelling:

“But still, it is not quite the arch. It is, rather, what arches are for in all the senses in which an arch is for something — for their beautiful form, for the chasms they safely bridge, for coming out on the other side of crossings, for a chance to see oneself reflected upside down yet right side up. So a reader goes from stones to arches to the significance of arches is some broader reality — goes back and forth between them in attempting finally to construct a sense of the story, its form, its meaning.

As our readers read, as they begin to construct a virtual text of their own, it is as if they were embarking on a journey without maps — and yet, they possess a stock of maps that might give hints, and besides, they know a lot about journeys and about mapmaking. First impressions of the new terrain are, of course, based on older journeys already taken. In time, the new journey becomes a thing in itself, however much its initial shape was borrowed from the past. The virtual text becomes a story of its own, its very strangeness only a contrast with the reader’s sense of the ordinary. The fictional landscape, finally, must be given a “reality” of its own — the ontological step. It is then that the reader asks that crucial interpretive question, “What’s it all about?” But what “it” is, of course, is not the actual text — however great its literary power — but the text that the reader has constructed under its sway. And that is why the actual text needs the subjunctivity that makes it possible for a reader to create a world of his own.”

How does one write a great story, then? Simply perhaps, by reading the great stories of others. As Bruner writes: “the great writer’s gift to the reader is to make him a better writer.”

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