On the Origins of Stories and Attention in Storytelling

Nabokov's The OdysseyHorton Hears a Who: Yellow Back BookLiterary Darwinism: Literature and the Human Animal Literature After Darwin: Human Beasts in Western Fiction 1859-1939 (Palgrave Studies in Nineteenth-century Writing and Culture)The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution

In what follows I will highlight some ideas about gaining and maintaining attention in storytelling from Brian Boyd’s book On The Origins of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, as well as summarise how Boyd relates attention in storytelling to the specific case of Homer’s The Odyssey. This covers part of Boyd’s extensive case study on The Odyssey, which itself is part of a book with wider concerns than just attention in storytelling. The focus is on gaining attention within a single story, gaining attention among other stories, and a specific examination of gaining attention in Homer’s The Odyssey. On the Origins of Stories also has an extensive case study of Dr Suess’s Horton Hears a Who. I recommend the book.

Here is a radio interview with Brian Boyd about the book, an article by Boyd on the book and another article by Boyd called On the Origins of Comics , a review by Michael Berube for American Scientist, and a recent article by Boyd called Why We Love Fiction for Swedish magazine Axess.

Designing an (Approximate) Experience and Understanding Such Designs

Brain Boyd’s biocultural approach to storytelling deals with how an author appeals to the biological capabilities and predispositions of people through strategic storytelling decisions, large and small, and people’s responses to these.

The greatest storytellers create effects particularly salient to the evolved capacities of human biology, in which “character and event can shimmer with implications that invite us back again and again to their stories. Their shifting vistas help keep our attention alive.”

Limited Attentive and Memory Capacity

Human minds automatically send information worth processing to ‘the social cognitive system’ that tracks patterns of agents and actions.

Prioritising Details of Attention and Memory

The moment-by-moment attention that a story receives will be dependent on every little detail, but not every detail will necessarily be relevant to a meaning abstracted from the story.

Cognitive Play: Preparation for Life

Fiction engages cognitive abilities to play hard so that outside fiction they can work harder.


Natural Patterns

Authors shape a person’s attention by appealing to their evolved cognitive predispositions to foreground and respond to the patterns of character and plot.

People are biologically suited to understand and remember character and plot more than any other patterns of phenomena.


Focusing on highly memorable characters is a reliable way to attract attention.

Unity and Diversity: Goals

Unity of action focuses a person’s attention and coheres an interesting pattern, as the character’s goal becomes the criteria of relevance for maintaining attention.

Unity and Diversity: Obstacles

Story is not only about a character’s pursuit of goals but the interaction of goals and obstacles, often obstacles arising from the competing goals of multiple characters.

Since the universe does not depend on a particular person’s desires, and may often frustrate them, to achieve those desires a person needs resolve and inventiveness.

The likelihood of change in the fortune of characters a reader cares for is the third major factor in plot (after goals and obstacles), as this raises the reader’s expectations and rouses their emotions.


Tradition and Attention

Ask yourself: How does your story stand out from others and attract attention?

Appeal not only to first audiences but also to later ones, increasing the staying power of your story by not relying heavily on fads, or contemporary traditions which may be short-lived, to make your story interesting.

Part and Whole

The parts of a united story are not self-sufficient wholes (understood in terms of the design of the story).

A whole story can also serve as part of another story or collection of stories. The potential relations implied between a specific story and others can enrich a person’s experience of that specific story. For example, when reading a sequel a reader can have knowledge, opinions and expectations about the characters, setting, narrative style and so on.

Appeal and Expectations

Stories catch a person’s attention against a background of expectations: especially expectations of human nature (character) and experience (plot).

A person brings specifically artistic or narrative expectations to a story (generic, author-specific, and work-specific) which may drastically modify the way a person attends to details.

A writer cannot know the exact expectations of each reader but can make informed decisions about what may appeal to certain ranges of expectations that are likely to be brought to a specific story.

Boyd goes on to flesh out an understanding related human nature and experience in a more detailed and sophisticated way than just focusing on gaining and holding attention, but that’s beyond the scope of what I’m outlining here.


A straightforward summary of The Odyssey is available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Odyssey, and free online copy of The Odyssey is available at: http://classics.mit.edu/Homer/odyssey.html (Samuel Butler’s english translation).

Unifying Story Action: Returning home

The action that unifies The Odyssey into a single coherent story is that of Odysseus, who is initially away on a quest, returning home to his wife Penelope in Ithaka, despite the dangerous obstacles along the way.

Odysseus’ motivation has not just simplicity and clarity but emotional amplitude

A reader can relate to the unifying story action of The Odyssey on a fundamental level because:

–          It relates to the survival and security of Odysseus and his family

–          It relates to mate selection and retention, defense of offspring and the resources to maintain them

Odysseus’ goals are decisively clear, central to life, emphatically intense, and emotionally rousing.

–          For the characters and for us.

Homer establishes two interlinked problems from the start.

  1. How will Odysseus return to Ithaka?

A problem and goal a reader shares with Odysseus from the start.

  1. How will Odysseus deal with suitors back in Ithaka who want to marry his wife?

A problem that a reader knows lies ahead before Odysseus does.

The Odyssey’s parts are not self sufficient wholes.

The Odyssey is divided into 24 books (though this division is possibly post-Homeric), yet many agree that the poem falls into 4-book units.

Each block also marks a clear advance toward Odysseus’ return to Ithaka and thereby offers a reason to turn up for the next session. Boyd outlines them as follows:

  1. Telemachos and his quest for his father (1-4)
  2. Odysseus’ escape from Kalypso’s island to the Phaikians (5-8)
  3. His account to the Phaikians of his great wanderings (9-12)
  4. His return to the island of Ithaka, to the hut of his local swineherd Eumaios, and his reunion there with Telemachos (13-16)
  5. His return to his palace in disguise as a beggar, subject to the abuse of suitors courting his wife Penelope (17-20)
  6. His disclosure of himself as Odysseus to the suitors, to Penelope, to his father (21-24)

Homer builds The Odyssey by pointing it always toward a single decisive battle, Odysseus’s victory over the suitors upon his return to his wife.

Homer sustains attention throughout The Odyssey “by choosing unexpected angles, rhythms, and ironies for each new phase” of the story.

Each block also marks a shift in scene or strategy, or both. Boyd outlines the shifting dramatic irony of the plot, ie the shifting relation between audience knowledge and character knowledge as follows:

  1. We enjoy the irony that Odysseus is alive and about to return so that we expect a pleasant surprise for those wishing for his return but sure that he never will.
  2. Odysseus’ escape from Kalypso’s island to Phaiakia, the ironies prove quite different as there is audience knowledge that the God Hermes has been sent to secure Odysseus’ release.
  3. The ironies disappear altogether as Odysseus recounts his story directly to the Phaikians.
  4. Irony returns more emphatically and immediately than ever as Odysseus stands before two who love him and do not recognize him, his loyal swineherd, and his son.
  5. The ironies multiply again, as the suitors heap abuse on a beggar they do not know as Odysseus, and unwittingly stoke his revenge with every insult. Meanwhile Odysseus also meets Penelope and his old nurse, Eurekleia, in scenes where the insecurity of his disguise creates a new kind of suspense.
  6. Odysseus springs his deadly long-prepared-for surprise on the suitors, only for Penelope to spring on us and on Odysseus a surprise that takes us all unawares: her reluctance to recognise him as Odysseus (as he has been away for a long time).

This scheme has little to do with the meanings of The Odyssey, but a lot to do with a reader’s desire to attend to the story.

Homer thinks about human psychology not just in terms of his characters but also in terms of his audience. As much ingenuity and insight is required to do one as is required to do the other.


Here is a 5 part audio discussion on YouTube with Brian Boyd on the topic ‘Evolution and Culture’: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.


Brian Boyd’s staff page at the University of Auckland can be found here.

Nabokov's The OdysseyHorton Hears a Who: Yellow Back BookLiterary Darwinism: Literature and the Human Animal Literature After Darwin: Human Beasts in Western Fiction 1859-1939 (Palgrave Studies in Nineteenth-century Writing and Culture)The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution

The Australian Literature Review

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One Response to On the Origins of Stories and Attention in Storytelling

  1. Pingback: Animal Characters with Animal Personalities | The Australian Literature Review

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