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A Master Class in Storytelling

Last month I took a ‘master class’ in storytelling.  It was by an up and coming film writer who just released the blockbuster Pixar’s INSIDE OUT. I have a great deal of respect for great movies as well as great books, so I wanted to hear from the horse’s mouth how to create great stories for the screen. And now I get to pass along some key learnings to you!

The writer saw great storytelling as emotional. And explained that to have emotion, you need real relationships, and you need to get the audience to believe those relationships. You do that by being specific. By being specific you illumine truth, universal truths.

Let me explain.

As an example he pulled from the audience a few weird facts. One guy could juggle, another could bend his fingers back to his wrist, someone else had had major heart surgery.  As it turned out, many people could relate to these odd facts—they too had had surgery, or could do quirky tricks of a sort. His point was that many of what we assume to be issues specific to us are actually quite universal and relatable.

So emotional storytelling = relationships with specific truths. It’s still a pretty broad equation. Harry Potter struggles with the death of his parents, the abuse of his guardians, and the responsibility of being the chosen one. Can we relate to this? Maybe not the chosen one part, but we’ve all lost something even if it’s a pet, and that’s hard. We struggle under the yoke of our parents, and the responsibilities of getting older, right? That’s universal. So we can relate to it. And invest in Harry. Personal stories are universal stories. Get it?

He went on to tell us that your character requires both a ‘want’—for example, to be a Jedi Knight—and a ‘need’—maybe to become less selfish, or to learn to love, or to accept responsibility for our actions. The character doesn’t need to know the need, but it’s important as it is what the character must come to understand by the end of the story, and it’s what will allow the character to get what she wants. So you as the writer have to know the need!

Another important point the writer brought up is that the supporting cast of characters are all about trying to help the main character accept their need. These supporting characters may also illustrate the need. For example, Darth Vader is a good example of what can become of you if you join the dark side or accept selfishness. The mentor, in this case Obi Wan Kenobi, can act as a reflection of Luke’s potential.

It can be hard to determine where a cast of characters should end, so this is a handy way to look at it. I’ve always used the model that if a supporting character is not forwarding the plot or revealing character in the protagonist, she shouldn’t be there, but focusing the light on the protagonist’s need is another way to consider it and one I’ll be using too.

So don’t take it from me, write emotional, personal stories with big premises and you’ll be a step ahead of everyone.

Categories:   Writing Tips

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