There are a handful of luminaries who I happily follow on Twitter with zero chance that they’ll ever follow me back. One of Pixar’s leading directors and screenwriters, Andrew Stanton, is one of those people.
The other day, I saw one of Stanton’s tweets commenting on a TED talk that he conducted back in 2012. The presentation is so incredibly insightful, and contains so many inspirational nuggets of storytelling advice, that I thought it would make a good blog topic. The talk itself is certainly worth a watch in full, though. Here it is.
One phrase in Stanton’s talk stood out to me in particular. It comes courtesy of British playwright William Archer: ‘Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty.’ Stanton calls the quote incredibly insightful. Drama is at the heart of all storytelling, alongside love, as Michael Hauge teaches. So let’s break down the quote.
First: anticipation. To create a good story, you must make the audience want to find out what happens next at every point of the tale. As Stanton explains, storytelling isn’t far removed from joke telling: you must know your ending – your punchline – and everything that occurs prior to the ending must feed into this over-arching goal.
Early on, you should make a promise to the audience that your story will be worth their time. As Stanton explains, “a well-told promise is like a pebble being pulled back in a slingshot, [that when released] propels you forward through the story to the end.” To back up the promise, you need to make the audience care. It’s crucial that they’re emotionally, intellectually, or at least aesthetically invested in the story.
Easier said than done, right? Well, Stanton explains how crafting the superb, largely-silent WALL-E confirmed a belief that he’d had for a while: that the audience are satisfied when they’re working out the story and its themes. Importantly, Stanton advocates, they just don’t want to know that they’re doing it. In other words, you shouldn’t spoon-feed the audience the story, but arrange its elements in such a way that grabs attention. They can anticipate what’s going to happen, but they can’t be completely sure, and they’re trying to work out how you’ll get to the end.
As Stanton neatly summarises, “it’s this well-organised absence of information that draws [the audience] in.” He and fellow Pixar writer Bob Peterson rather grandly call this approach the ‘Unifying Theory of 2+2’. Essentially, the premise is that you shouldn’t just give the audience “4”, but should give them “2” and “2” and allow them to put them together themselves. Of course, the audience often won’t be certain if they’re getting it right until you fulfil your promise at the end.
It should go without saying, but story is far more than just plot. It’s a culmination of plot, themes, dialogue, and characters. Stanton focuses on characters as a key proponent of change in stories, itself a fundamental requirement. As he explains, if a story becomes static, it dies, because life is never static.
All good characters have a “spine” – an inner motivation; a dominant, subconscious goal – that drives them. The character’s spine should dictate the decisions that they make. They may not always be the best decisions, but they must be consistent with the character’s personality. Stanton gives the examples of Michael Corleone in The Godfather: his spine was to please his father, even after Vito Corleone’s death.
Finally, Stanton reveals what he thinks is the key ingredient of all great stories, and one that is rarely cited: the ability to evoke wonder. Stanton calls it the “secret sauce”, and I don’t think anyone could argue against that given Pixar’s uncanny ability to produce heart-warming tales time after time. Unfortunately for us mere mortals, it’s not the easiest thing to imbue our creations with wonder!
To conclude, I’ll leave you with this quote from Stanton taken from the TED talk. He refers to characters in a story, but it’s equally applicable to all of us as we seek for meaning in our lives: “A major threshold is passed when you mature enough to acknowledge what drives you, and to take the wheel and steer it.” Whatever we wish to achieve or create in life, it won’t happen until we understand why we want it, and actively go after it. Andrew Stanton has done just that, and become one of the most respected storytellers in the world as a result.