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What is the job of a storyteller?

This week I’m so pleased to have a guest blog from Brian McDonald. You can hear more from Brian at his blog and website.

Brian McDonald

Brian McDonald is an award-winning writer/director/producer who has worked in film, television and comic books and as a story consultant for both Pixar and Disney Feature Animation Studios. His award-winning short film White Face was sold to HBO and Cinemax and is used in corporations nation-wide as a diversity-training tool.  He scripted Abe Sapien: Drums of the Dead, the first Hellboy spin-off comic book, as well as Lost in Space and Predator – Strange Roux for Dark Horse Comics. He is also a teacher of story construction and the author of several books on the subject: Invisible Ink, The Golden Theme, Freeman and the forthcoming book Ink Spots.


Notice that in the title for this piece, I said storyteller rather than writer. That is because it is my belief that we use the wrong verb to describe what we do. Because we use the same word – writing – to describe both the physical action and the mental process, we are often confused about what our jobs are.

Many of us take our job to mean wordsmithing – the carefully crafted order and poetry of the words themselves. When people speak of “good writing” this is often what they mean.

But what about those who crafted stories before the written word? We know that stories existed long before anyone learned to write them down. We know that those cultures that were late in adopting written language had a long tradition of storytelling. Would you call people with no concept of writing “writers”?

In relatively recent times, silent movies made use of visual communication – early filmmakers told stories with pictures. Even today some storytellers who work in the medium of comic books sometimes discard words from their panels. On the subject of silent films, many of them were made up on the spot – Charlie Chaplin worked this way. Was he a writer? I would call him a storyteller.

Okay, so what, you may ask. Writer, storyteller, what’s the difference? The difference is that calling yourself a writer does not tell you what to do; calling yourself a storyteller gives you a direction – a mission.

I meet people everyday who are writers but don’t know what to write. They write pages upon pages of beautiful sentences about colorful characters. Or they write descriptions of exotic places. And they may do these things masterfully. Yet somehow they can never finish that novel or screenplay or whatever. Or, if they do finish, the material just lies flat somehow – it fails to move readers (or agents or publishers). Why? No story.

As a child I was interested in storytelling, but was a poor speller. What I found out was that teachers cared very little about the content of my writing, but a great deal about my misspellings. I became very familiar with red pen markings on my papers. I could have written, “It was the best of tymes it was the wusrt of tymes…” And out the red pen would have come with no mention at all of the content.

What I did not know was that I was dyslexic. In those days I was seen, at best, as “not applying myself.” At worst, and most often, I was understood as just not being very bright. The students who could spell were the golden children. It did not matter that they had no knack for telling interesting stories.

James L. Brooks, winner of 9 Emmys, who created the classic Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, and others, is a terrible speller. The late Stephen J. Cannell, creator of more than 40 shows including the hit The Rockford Files, author of several best-selling novels, had terrible dyslexia.

I could mention more writers with such cognitive issues, but my point is that these guys were much better storytellers than spellers or wordsmiths. Storytelling is a noble craft that has been with us since before we had an alphabet. We should embrace it.

Now the world seems populated by folks who can “write well” but were never taught the first thing about how to tell a story. In fact, plot and storytelling are often seen as a lesser form of writing. Those writers who sell millions of books are often called bad writers by the wordsmiths.  But what these best-selling people are often good at is getting folks to turn pages, or tune into their television shows, or buy movie tickets.

Often when I ask students or other writers to define for me what a story is they have no definition at all. They sometimes fumble for one, since they have never been asked to think about it. But if you don’t know what a story is how can you set down to write one?

A story is the telling of a series of connected events leading to a conclusion.

The Golden Theme: How to Make Writing Appeal to the Highest Common Denominator

So? But that simple sentence tells you what to do. It says that your story must have a reason to be told – a theme. That’s what the conclusion is. In its most simple form, it is the moral of an Aesop fable. Every piece of the story is leading to that conclusion. All elements are there to support the author’s point.

This may sound elementary, but most people who call themselves writers act as if they do not know this. They try to put their colorful characters into interesting situations in the hope that a story will emerge. If that doesn’t happen, the manuscripts sits in a drawer or hard drive, unfinished and abandoned.

Why is having a point or theme important? Because only when you have something to say do people bother to listen.

In my book The Golden Theme I explore the idea of why human beings tell stories. Why does every culture on earth tell stories? Because stories teach us to survive. This is why stories need conflict – because conflict is what we need to learn how to survive. No one needs to learn how to survive the good times.

Survival can take many forms. It can mean actual physical survival: This is why people went in droves to see 127 Hours — a film about a young man trapped alone for days under rock and how he eventually severed his arm to escape.

But stories can turn on cultural or spiritual or emotional survival: Stories can tell us how to find love. We need stories to live. I don’t mean this in an artsy way. I mean in a practical way. We could not live without stories.

You are a storyteller. This is a noble and important job – treat it as such. Know what stores are and know what you want to say. If you are a wordsmith, all the better. It will only help. But be a storyteller first.

–Brian McDonald


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