August 9, 2014

Pixar's Andrew Stanton Shares His Equation for Making Your Audience Care About Your Story

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 ListEternal Sunshine of the Spotless MindTransformers -- 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.

Link: Andrew Stanton: The Clues to a Great Story -- TED

Your Comment

24 Comments

How did Transformers get me to care about it emotionally, intellectually, or aesthetically?

August 9, 2014 at 7:36PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Abersouth

"each one of these films made us care emotionally, intellectually, or aesthetically, some on all three levels, some on just one." Key terms here are "OR" and "JUST ONE".

Why is Transformers so successful? Because people care about it aesthetically.

August 9, 2014 at 7:49PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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V Renée
Nights & Weekends Editor
Writer/Director

ahhhh, the royal us. Because Transformers fails on all counts for me.

August 9, 2014 at 7:58PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Abersouth

Ahhh...the fart-ful pretentious hipsters have raised their ugly heads once again on this forum..
Aesthetically your ((inset genetic “artsy" film title here, fuck it, let's make up one of such pretentious titles: "INCONTINENCE OF STRAIGHT LINES")) genetic artsy film doesn't take advantage of the big screen as much as transformers does. I could watch your fav artsy movie on my cell phone and get the gist. It's not the same with transformers. Granted, story and dialogue could use doctoring but, the target demographic is clear! Bottom line: very few do robots and explosions like m. Bay. And that my pretentious fart-full hipster friend, is aesthetic!

August 9, 2014 at 10:00PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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tn cal

Well I for one don't like many "artsy" films because they're pretentious and self-absorbed, but like Abersouth and many who grew up watching Transformers as a kid... I found Michael Bay's version to be a steaming pile of gorilla shit. On every level. Other action directors get it. Chris Nolan, JJ Abrams, Steven Spielberg, etc. All aesthetically pleasing directors. All filmmakers who still care about story, characters, yet still enthrall audiences with action sequences, special effects, and loud noises.

But other than including Transformers, I thought this was a great article and appreciated the video link.

August 9, 2014 at 11:34PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Alex

@ tn cal
I don't think I'm a hipster. Blue collar here. So you are a little off the mark, but I do appreciate how much you seem to care about disparaging me as if I was! Thanks! And I'm sure M. Bay gets all warm and fuzzy feeling knowing how much you love him too. Good job!

I apologize. I have a big pet peeve of writing styles that use the term "us" in the royal sense. Because it includes everyone, when it ought not to. I would have used the word "people" or "audiences" because, as has become self evident, not everyone appreciates the one example that has threadjacked thusly. Anyone with any sense in their head ought to be able to realize what makes some movies appealing to audiences. And audiences are fractious. Yes, there are denominators and appealing to more "base" instincts will likely expand your audience. And I didn't give the most magnanimous reading of that sentence, which killed the article (for me, because how dare anyone accuse me of liking that childish crap!)

August 10, 2014 at 7:42AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Abersouth

@ Abersouth: Totally on your side!

I may be much more radical than you as I think that "the masses" and it`s preferences and actions may be an indicator for much but not in the very least for quality or even a sane choice. There is a saying: Million flies can`t be wrong: Shit tastes great!

August 10, 2014 at 8:19AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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mariano

Mike Bay is full of fudge, beer guzzla.

September 3, 2014 at 8:44AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Tom Jones

Hmm. I liked transformers and I don't watch films relying with VFX. I felt Transformers did get me involved in the relationships and the conflict and I rooted for the good guys. As a Story I had all the elements of a great story.. Then I can watch Schindler's List On the other side of the spectrum portraying real life. Wall E was brilliant. Funny enough we go into production in October on a 30 min short with no dialogue only a shot list and a summary along with production schedule and call sheets. For me interesting how its going to work out.

August 10, 2014 at 1:06AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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I don't know if I would call this article Stanton's 'equation' for making an audience care...
When he specifically says: 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.

August 10, 2014 at 1:55AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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bob

Oy…first sentence: "In filmmaking, there are no hard and fast rules that artists have to abide by…"

I used "equation" because of the 2+2 thing.

August 10, 2014 at 5:34AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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V Renée
Nights & Weekends Editor
Writer/Director

... now we Germans just need a way to watch the video from here, it's blocked for us...

August 10, 2014 at 7:35AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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mariano

Get a proxy server software.

As to Stanton's "no hard and fast rules" statement, it makes everything wholly subjective ... which it is. But then it also means that no one is an expert either. Everyone is winging it the best they know how.

August 10, 2014 at 12:39PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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DLD

Uh... wasn't Andrew Stanton the guy who wrote and produced "John Carter"? Maybe he's not the guy who should be lecturing other filmmakers on story. His animated films have been exemplary.

August 10, 2014 at 8:29AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Vidiot

Was the story bad? Like most people I didn't see it.

Either way, one sub-par film does not discredit the guy.

August 10, 2014 at 10:51AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Ant

He also wrote the Toy Story trilogy, Monsters, Inc, Wall-E, Finding Nemo. So…yeah, I think he should.

August 10, 2014 at 6:34PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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V Renée
Nights & Weekends Editor
Writer/Director

The marketing was the flaw, and it prepped those who did watch the film to expect something else than what was on the screen--that is, an moderately impressive adaptation of one of the earlier classic sci-fi novels that does admittedly sometimes put visuals over story, but nevertheless a fun ride.

August 10, 2014 at 10:23PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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BlueFox94

Any other sources for the vid? German copyright protection sucks.

August 10, 2014 at 9:46AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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too quick..the link is in the text to the ted website.

August 10, 2014 at 9:48AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Did they make Transformers into a film? I had a Megatron toy about 25 years ago, he was an antihero.

August 10, 2014 at 4:38PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Lupocide

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August 11, 2014 at 2:32AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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thnks :D

August 11, 2014 at 8:21AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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sagar

I find it amusing how fashionable it is to hate Michael Bay. You don't have to like his style, but your opinion is worth nothing and you are limiting your understanding of directing if you refuse that his style is at least aesthetically interesting, composing many elements to completely fill the frame yet still point your eye towards the focus of the scene. Yes some directors do that with a more deliberate eye, with fewer cuts and fewer low angle dolly dolly shots and "slow motion" and explosions... But shitting on Michael Bay for no reason shuts you off from some valuable techniques, that even the most subtle filmmaker can implement in a meaningful way. There are other directors that I prefer when it comes to action, but with the right story, Michael Bay is great.

August 20, 2014 at 2:01PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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drake

Mike Bay is full of hay.

September 3, 2014 at 8:40AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Tom Jones