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Andrew Stanton: The clues to a great story

“Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty.” — William Archer

Joan Didion famously remarked that “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” She was right. Business has become a story too. If you want more resources you need to tell a story. If you want to get promoted you need a story. It seems nothing can get done these days without powerpoint. Nancy Duarte has made an art of telling stories through presentations. Companies want their products to become part of our personal narrative.

Most of us know what goes into a good story. We just have to remember it from childhood.

There are dangers to storytelling as Tyler Cowen has pointed out. We deal with complexity by constructing simple narratives. If, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function,” many of us fail.

Adding to our growing body of knowledge on storytelling, filmmaker Andrew Stanton (Toy Story, WALL-E) shares what he knows about storytelling — starting at the end and working back to the beginning.

Storytelling … (is) 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. We all love stories. We’re born for them. Stories affirm who we are. We all want affirmations that our lives have meaning. And nothing does a greater affirmation than when we connect through stories. It can cross the barriers of time, past, present and future, and allow us to experience the similarities between ourselves and through others, real and imagined.

The children’s television host Mr. Rogers always carried in his wallet a quote from a social worker that said, “Frankly, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.” And the way I like to interpret that is probably the greatest story commandment, which is “Make me care” — please, emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically, just make me care. We all know what it’s like to not care. You’ve gone through hundreds of TV channels, just switching channel after channel, and then suddenly you actually stop on one. It’s already halfway over, but something’s caught you and you’re drawn in and you care. That’s not by chance, that’s by design.

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A well told promise is like a pebble being pulled back in a slingshot and propels you forward through the story to the end.

Storytelling without dialogue. It’s the purest form of cinematic storytelling. It’s the most inclusive approach you can take. It confirmed something I really had a hunch on, is that the audience actually wants to work for their meal. They just don’t want to know that they’re doing that. That’s your job as a storyteller, is to hide the fact that you’re making them 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.

And further in the video Stanton explains the spine that drives action and how that fits into the narrative.

I took a seminar in this year with an acting teacher named Judith Weston. And I learned a key insight to character. 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. I took to this like a duck to water. Wall-E’s was to find the beauty. Marlin’s, the father in “Finding Nemo,” was to prevent harm. And Woody’s was to do what was best for his child. And these spines don’t always drive you to make the best choices. Sometimes you can make some horrible choices with them.

More than just stories, Stanton highlights some fundamental psychology:

So how do you make a selfish character likable? We realized, you can make him kind, generous, funny, considerate, as long as one condition is met for him, is that he stays the top toy. And that’s what it really is, is that we all live life conditionally. We’re all willing to play by the rules and follow things along, as long as certain conditions are met. After that, all bets are off.

When done right, storytelling comes from a place of good intentions.

Use what you know. Draw from it. It doesn’t always mean plot or fact. It means capturing a truth from your experiencing it, expressing values you personally feel deep down in your core.