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The Secret of Storytelling — From One of Pixar’s’ Masters

Read Time: 5 min

I don't normally write posts this long—but this time I couldn't resist. Andrew Stanton's TED talk was something every author—every storyteller—should listen to. 


Andrew Stanton starts off his TED Talk with a joke.

"A tourist is backpacking through the highlands of Scotland and he stops at a pub for a drink. The only people in there are the bartender and an old man nursing a beer. He orders a pint and they sit in silence for a while. Suddenly the old man turns to him and says, 'You see this bar? I built this bar with my bare hands; found the finest wood in the county, gave it more love and care than my own child, but do they call me McGregor the bar-builder? No.' 

He points out the window. "You see that stone wall? I build that stone wall with my bare hands; found every stone, placed them just so through the rain and the cold, but do they call me McGregor the stone-wall-builder? No.' He points out the other window. 'You see that pier? I built that pier with my bare hands; drove the pilings against the tide into the sand, plank by plank, but do they call me McGregor the pier builder? No. But you fuck one goat...'"

And with that opening, Stanton demonstrates what has led him to become perhaps one of the best story tellers of our time.

One of the writers behind Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Wall-E and John Carter, there are many moments in his talk that are applicable to writers (I hope you click play and take the time to listen to all 20 minutes of it) but there are several key points worth discussing further.

1. Storytelling is joke telling.

Stanton says: "Storytelling is joke telling. It's knowing your punchline, your ending, knowing that everything you're saying, from the first sentence to the last, is leading to a singular goal, and ideally confirming some truth that deepens our understandings of who we are as human beings."

It's vital that you keep your end goal in mind at all times when writing—and even those good authors who believe their characters tell the story and they merely pen it to page have a rough ending in mind before they begin (don't believe me? George RR Martin, NY Times Best Selling Author of Game of Thrones — a song of ice and fire series says he has known how the story would end since the first book).

One of my jobs as a copyeditor is to ask: Is it necessary?

I look at how every word fits into every sentence; how ever sentence fits into its paragraph and how every paragraph fits into its chapter. Does it tell the reader something? Does it move the action forward?

As the author you need to have an equally critical lens to keep your readers moving through your pages.

2. Make Me Care

At the conclusion of his joke, Stanton explains that one of the key aspects of storytelling is the ability to make the reader care about the character(s) and the outcome. In the joke he told, for example, we get a sense almost immediately that McGregor has been wronged in some way; we've all been misjudged at some point in our lives and can feel sympathetic. The punch line works so well because it overturns our expectations and plays on that sympathy.

As an author, think about what you can do to make your readers empathize with your characters—then consider how you can surprise them by making things different than they may have initially seemed.

3. Make a Promise

Stanton says that at their beginning all good stories make a promise, "Sometimes it's as simple as "Once upon a time ... "

That promise is the key behind creating a tale the hooks the reader—you make a promise and then make it seem impossible to keep. Think Cinderella—we know fairy tales have to have a happy ending but how is that possible for a drudgery slave? How does she find her prince?

"A well told promise is like a pebble being pulled back in a slingshot [it] propels you forward through the story to the end," Stanton says in the talk. A strong beginning gives you everything you need for a strong middle and a strong ending. I recently read a sample edit for a new author who starts her book out with a young girl contemplating (and attempting) suicide in the first sentence of the first page. It's a promise to the reader that she'll likely deliver (without having read the rest of her book) a reason worth living.

4. Give them 2 + 2 instead of 4

Have you ever read a story and figured it out—then felt really clever for doing so? That's a sign of good writing. It means the author has given you 2+2 instead of just telling you the answer is 4. In Stanton's words: "The audience actually wants to work for their meal.... We're born problem solvers. We're compelled to deduce and to deduct, because that's what we do in real life. It's this well-organized absence of information that draws us in. There's a reason that we're all attracted to an infant or a puppy. It's not just that they're damn cute; it's because they can't completely express what they're thinking and what their intentions are. And it's like a magnet. We can't stop ourselves from wanting to complete the sentence and fill it in."

'Nuff said.

5. Give Your Characters A Spine

This one was almost its own post.

You should have an end goal for each of your characters; you should know what's most important to them and what unconsciously drives them. Characters that we love have a singular goal that propells them forward: think Katniss in the Hunger Games. Her conscious goal is saving her sister, delivering her sister to a better life. But as she evolves and grows as a character a deeper goal emerges, unconsciously. Shown in her first real moment of rebellion, when she and Pita threaten to kill themselves and leave the government without a victor in the first book: a sense of unfairness in the world around her and the idea that perhaps she can change that; a desire to make the world a better place.

On this Stanton references another storyteller—the internationally known film teacher Judith Weston. He says, "She believed that all well-drawn characters have a spine. And the idea is that the character has an inner motor, a dominant, unconscious goal that they're striving for, an itch that they can't scratch. She gave a wonderful example of Michael Corleone, Al Pacino's character in "The Godfather," and that probably his spine was to please his father. And it's something that always drove all his choices. Even after his father died, he was still trying to scratch that itch."

Stanton says that was something that clicked for him illustrated how it's true in several of his films—in Wall-E, the namesake character was trying to find the beauty; Marlin, the father in finding Nemo aimed to prevent harm; Woody in Toy Story wanted to do what was best for his child. But most importantly, he explains, "these spines don't always drive you to make the best choices. Sometimes you can make some horrible choices with them." And that's important because it humanizes; it allows your characters to make mistakes that your readers can empathize with, instead of condone them for.

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