"The Clues to a Great Story": 7 lessons from Andrew Stanton.
Andrew Stanton is a director, writer, producer and voice actor for Pixar. His involvements include Toy Story (all four), Monsters Inc., WALL-E, Finding Nemo and A Bug’s Life. He has achieved two Academy Awards and has been nominated for another four.
In March 2012 he gave a TED talk titled “The Clues to a Great Story.” I found it very insightful and wanted to share a few of the points with you. (Scroll to the bottom for the TED video and a fantastic visual summary by Matt Ragland.)
There is immense power in storytelling. We all love stories through whichever medium we choose. To write a great story which outlives generations and remains hundreds of years from now uses great skill (or luck). Here are a few things that Andrew Stanton suggests which may help you woo audiences of all ages:
1. “There’s no place like home.”
Express your truth with what you know. People love stories that deepen and connect our experience as humans.
Stanton suggests that stories are an affirmation of who we are in relation to others. This doesn’t necessarily have to be other people at this moment in time either. A good story continues to to draw people in with the character’s relatability long after it is told for the first time. To do this, it helps if we draw from our own experiences to express what we believe to be true.
Being human is our greatest link to one another. Fay Weldon reminds us that the recipient of the story wants to see themselves in the characters.
“You have the whole human condition to work from, namely, that we are born, we love, we dream, we hope, we grow old and we die. So think big. Find a subject you care about and which you know others care about too, and if they don’t, know that you’ll persuade them to…that energy, that conviction, will be the most compelling and seductive element in what you end up writing.”
2. “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
Make them care.
Audiences want to know that the story they are watching, reading or listening to will be worth the time taken out of their lives. There needs to be a promise at the start that it will be worth it. Stanton explains that helping the audience to care for the world, characters and their outcomes can be done emotionally, intellectually and aesthetically.
“Few, if any, of our readers will have ever faced the specific external conflicts we make our character face in the novel, but all of them will have faced the internal motivation and conflicts associated with the character’s external quest.” (Joseph Bates)
If a reader or watcher really cares about the characters and outcomes of events, it will be hard for them to put the book down, or stop watching. They crave emotional experiences. Apart from creating relatable characters, Jane Friedman suggests a simple way of doing this is to raise the stakes. If there is a large group involved, spend time getting to know and like a few individuals (especially in the beginning e.g. with a celebration) and the emotional involvement will carry over to the whole group. This will help the stakes to continually seem high. She explains that it helps if the stakes involve a person close to them and they will suffer if they fail their goal.
Keep a target audience in mind. Try to create the characters to be authentic. Regina Brooks writes that an audience such as young adults can very easily spot characters that are fake or over the top.
3. “Soylent Green is people!”
Make audiences problem solve and put things together themselves.
We spend our lives asking questions. It is in our nature, particularly in three year-olds. We are inquisitive and sometimes pedantic in wanting to finish a sentence.
“Stories come from mankind’s undying need to explain things” (Hockrow) and also to guess the answers and be right about it.
Have the answers revealed later or leave things open ended. Things don’t have to be spelt out directly, but left to the audience to complete for themselves.
When Pirate’s of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest was released, we had so many discussions of all the things that were left open ended and what might happen next in the story. It gives the audience something to discuss with one another, perhaps even helping fandoms and fanfics to be born.
Stanton suggests that the best way of leading the audience to problem solve, is to lead them to it without knowing it, and for things to be unpredictable.
4. “There’s no crying in baseball!”
Include strong underlying themes, both in the story and supporting individual character’s spines.
A good theme weaves throughout the story, but may not be always obvious. “Theme is the writer’s voice, your voice, the voice of you caring, your story’s soul. Theme is what gets your characters up in the morning” (Brooks).
The main characters need to have strong motivations to reach the main goal or belief that they are trying to achieve. They don’t always need to make the best decisions. This helps them to grow and gain maturity and new perspectives.
“Stories are an effective way to deliver a message…and make the facts feel personal” (Hockrow).
5. “Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”
Create change to propel story forwards.
There are times when pacing needs to be slower, but try not to stagnate. Stories need to grow and continually move. Each scene needs to move the story forward somehow.
Conflicts can be used to help both the characters and story evolve. They can be internal or external and the outcomes depend on how the character perceives the problem or his/her outlook of the situation. Hockrow lists several types of conflicts:
-Paranormal/possibility (pushing the limits of what he believes is possible)
-Cosmic (destiny or fate)
-Social (amongst groups)
6. “You’re going to need a bigger boat.”
Stanton suggests to create anticipation both in the long and short term. Give surprise hurdles. Readers don’t have to get to the end to gain small amounts of satisfaction. Creating effective anticipation for the ending should leave doubt about the required outcomes coming to pass. The audience need to remain curious about what will happen to the hero (or finding out the cause of something that happened earlier).
Raising the stakes can create moments of tension or suspense and help the goals of the main characters grow further out of reach. Subplots can be built around the stakes to help develop a greater connection to audiences and create a natural reminder of the stakes.
Jane Friedman suggests to take general stakes out of play before personal stakes during the eventful moments. “e.g., the protagonist rescues her daughter’s campmates, and then her daughter). Notice, to accomplish this, you’ll probably have to come up with a credible way to separate the personal stakes (in this case, the daughter) from the general stakes (the other girls at summer camp” (Friedman).
Beth Hill suggests that stories are like a stew. Ingredients are mixed and cooked, spices and flavour are added along the way, but the end result is what everyone waits for. As the cooking progresses, people can smell the aromas and anticipate the good meal they will receive at the end. “…endings should come naturally out of the elements that you mixed into the story.”
(Hill has a great list of more ways to build anticipation in her blog post.)
7. “Embrace the Wonder”
Think like Mary Poppins.
Stanton suggests wonder is the magical ingredient. It is certainly magical.
Why do we read books, play video games or watch movies and television? To be immersed in other worlds and perhaps have a little break from our own lives. Perhaps to find that human experience or feel that no matter how difficult things might be; that there is a chance for success. Or at the least, to find inspiration.
Anything can happen in stories; things that can’t happen in our own world. Watching my three year old daughter watch a movie is a wondrous thing in itself. She becomes so engrossed and reacts to what is happening, especially by the end. It is easy to become engrossed in a good story, to completely abandon the real world where all that matters is that the characters and world in the story turns out OK.
“See your novel as a bedtime story…The child wants to go to sleep feeling that when the light goes out, some order has been made of an otherwise chaotic universe. The good have been rewarded and the bad punished” (Weldon).
(These notes could have been so much longer, but I tried to keep them brief. Check out the sources (no affiliations) for more helpful suggestions.)
Bates, J. 2015. Writing Your Novel from Start to Finish: A Guidebook for the Journey, Writer’s Digest Books, Ohio.
Brooks, R. L. 2014. Writing Great Books for Young Adults, Sourcebooks Inc. Illinois.
Friedman, J. 2019. 5 Ways to Ensure Readers Don’t Abandon Your Book.
Hill, B. 2013. Build Toward the Story’s End.
Hockrow, R. 2014. Storytelling Techniques for Digital Filmmakers, Amherst Media, NY.
Stanton, A. 2012. The Clues to a Great Story.
Weldon, F. 2018. Why Will No-One Publish My Novel? A Handbook for the Rejected Writer, Head of Zeus.