In filmmaking, there are no hard and fast rules that artists have to abide by, but one axiom always proves to be infallible: story is everything. And even though each and every one of our lives is essentially one great, big story, learning how to tell one isn't as effortless as our lives seem to be. Here to give you some truly invaluable, practical advice on how to put together a narrative is Pixar writer/director Andrew Stanton (Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Wall-E), whose 2012 TED Talk not only sheds light on what makes a story great, but what tools you can use to make your story great by inspiring your audience to care.
The filmmakers at Pixar are the masters of storytelling. This isn't news -- the vast majority of us have read their 22 Rules of Storytelling a billion times. The secret to their narrative success is less about a stringent formula than it is about understanding how people experience stories (experiencing empathy is a huge part of that). In other words, a story can have the "perfect structure" and still fail to make the audience care about the characters and their journey.
Stanton addresses this at the beginning of his TED Talk, saying that making your audience care ("emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically") is "probably the greatest story commandment." And it's true. Schindler's List, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Transformers -- each one of these films made us care emotionally, intellectually, or aesthetically, some on all three levels, some on just one.
But how do you get your audience to care? That's the central question. How do you get people who are so busy caring about their own lives, issues, and problems to care about your silly little movie? Well, it doesn't take an untimely death or an unrequited love. It does' take lacquering on the sap or non-stop explosions. It takes preparing a "meal" for your viewers without feeding it to them. It takes giving them a chance to participate in the storytelling process. In response to a scene from Wall-E, Stanton says:
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.
He calls this concept the "Unifying Theory of Two Plus Two". Since we're all natural problem solvers, it brings us great satisfaction to solve problems put in front of us. Contrary to what it might seem, we actually like to work for results rather than be given them, and this goes for watching films, too. Audiences don't tend to enjoy films with a lot of exposition and over-explanation or over-simplification of plot and character motive, because it takes the fun out of putting the pieces together themselves; it denies them the chance to engage in the story, to participate in it, which, in the end, doesn't inspire them to care.
Make the audience put things together. Don't give them four, give them two plus two. The elements you provide and the order you place them in is crucial to whether you succeed or fail at engaging the audience. Editors and screenwriters have known this all along. It's the invisible application that holds our attention to story. I don't mean to make it sound like this is an actual exact science, it's not. That's what's so special about stories, they're not a widget, they aren't exact. Stories are inevitable, if they're good, but they're not predictable.
Stanton offers so much more in his TED Talk, so grab a notebook, a pen, and take notes as you check it out. His insight on storytelling is probably some of the most valuable you'll come across anywhere.