You Are a Storyteller
By Belief Agency
Human beings are natural-born storytellers. We tell stories instinctively; they’re the basis for conversation and communication. Everything we do as humans requires a story—the way we love, worship, study, and even the way we spend our money. Stories are essential to how we live in the world, allowing us to cope, to understand, to analyze, and to gain context. At their core, stories let us know we’re not alone. And at your core, you are a storyteller.
But for all of their abundance and necessity and all of our practice spinning them, stories are in part elusive. They’re easy to tell, but when it comes to articulating how to tell one, it’s hard. You can get technical: Stories are the telling or retelling of a series of events leading to a conclusion. Or you can get human: Stories impart survival information—they are the collective wisdom of everyone who has ever lived.
In You Are a Storyteller, Belief founder and executive creative director, Jesse Bryan, and chief storyteller, Brian McDonald, discuss the elements that make for a good story. Watch and listen as they analyze classic films, talk through the nuance of structure, stress the importance of the armature, and cover things like “the dark night of the soul.”
In episode one, Jesse and Brian cover the most essential component of any story: the armature. The armature is what holds everything up—the scaffolding so to speak. Not all stories have an armature, but all the best ones do (and we’ll teach you how to spot one).
What will become clear over the course of these conversations is that the best stories—those that impart the most essential information and move us most effectively—are structured. Storytelling, in other words, is a discipline.
The importance of discipline
The way to tell better stories, stories that endure, is discipline: the discipline of storytelling. And this discipline has requirements, just like any other serious undertaking. Like building a skyscraper or sewing a perfectly structured suit jacket, you’d never proceed without blueprints or patterns, respectively.
“I’ve never seen a story that would be hurt by structure.” —Brian McDonald, screenwriter, director, and author of Invisible Ink
You might be wondering, What if it’s too obvious? What if the audiences “sees” the structure? But ask yourself this: When is the last time you saw a story’s structure—in a film or otherwise? What seems obvious or redundant to you is not obvious or redundant to your audience. Story structure is a lot like an arrow. An arrow is designed to not make any noise as it cuts through the air. But that doesn’t change its purpose or effectiveness. Your story, when you write with discipline and commit to your structure, should cut through the air with no friction. The audience will focus on what’s most important: the survival information.
Clarity above all else
We tend to think that when a story is complicated or hard to understand, it must be good. It must be smart. But stories shouldn’t be hard to get—the ultimate aim should be clarity. In other words, the audience shouldn’t have to see a story twice just to “get it.” The unfortunate thing is that we don’t often celebrate clarity, and we make the false assumption that good stories don’t require thoughtful attention to structure; that there’s no formula, only art. We think we have to innovate or subvert to win awards or get more sales at the box office. But that’s just not true. In actuality, story structure ensures you’ll be clear. The stories, from Wizard of Oz to E.T., are strikingly clear in communicating their survival information—that’s what makes them legendary.
You are a storyteller
Because you are a storyteller, you, too, can tell legendary stories—as long as you’re crystal clear on structure and the elements of storytelling. In You Are a Storyteller, we’ll define each and explore how they work in concert so you—whether around the campfire or the boardroom—can tell lasting stories that impart fundamental truths about what it means to not just be human, but to survive.
Required reading & viewing
We’re going to refer to a lot of books and films in You Are a Storyteller. Here’s a curriculum, so to speak, for your journey on how to tell better stories. (You can also see Brian’s 10 Must-Watch Films for Every Aspiring Storyteller here.)
- Kazan on Directing, by Elia Kazan
- Making Movies, by Sidney Lumet
- Invisible Ink. by Brian McDonald
- Conversations with Wilder, by Cameron Crowe
- Peter Bogdanovich: Interviews, edited by Peter Tonguette
- The Collected Works of Paddy Chayefsky: The Screenplays, by Paddy Chayefsky
- Alfred Hitchcock: Interviews, edited by Sidney Gottlieb
- Charlie Chaplin: Interviews, edited by Kevin J. Hayes
- Sidney Lumet: Interviews, edited by Joanna E. Rapf
- Hitchcock, by Francois Truffaut
- Bill Idelson’s Writing Class, by Bill Idelson
- Patterns: Four Television Plays with the Author’s Personal Commentaries, by Rod Serling
- The Art Of Dramatic Writing: Its Basis in the Creative Interpretation of Human Motives, by Lajos Egri
- The Craftsmanship Of The One Act Play, by Percival Wilde
- Billy Wilder: Interviews, edited by Robert Horton
- The Wizard of Oz
- E.T. The Extra-terrestrial
- Terminator 2
- It’s a Wonderful Life
- The Apartment
- Paper Moon
- Norma Rae
- Cast Away
- The Edge