I spoke to the Public Relations Society of America’s Charlotte chapter on Wednesday, May 22, 2013. They’re a good group. Sometimes I speak off the top of my head at this sort of thing, but this time I actually wrote out some thoughts, so I thought I’d post them in the spirit of Austin Kleon’s “show your work” idea. If you do any kind of storytelling for a living, these are probably basic ideas … but maybe not.
Thanks for having me here today. I want this to be more of a conversation than a speech. I don’t need much time for a speech, because today I’m going to teach you everything you need to know about storytelling in five minutes.
But first I want to tell you a little story.
My wife (Alix Felsing, Storyboard’s copyeditor) has this uncanny gift for finding the worst possible movie on TV at any given moment. The other night she landed on the SyFy channel, on this movie called Collision Earth.
I’m gonna try to come up with a quick synopsis that does this movie justice.
The event that gets the action going is a solar flare so powerful that it knocks the planet Mercury out of its orbit and sends it hurtling toward Earth. This would be bad.
Along with knocking Mercury out of its orbit, somehow this solar flare also magnetized Mercury, so as it heads for Earth, cars and stuff start flying into the air to meet it.
There’s ONE scientist who knows how to fix this. In fact he has built this giant battering ram in space for just this situation. But for reasons I never did quite follow, this scientist was fired from NASA years before, and his giant battering ram was unfinished and left out in space to rot, and now, of course, NOBODY WILL LISTEN TO HIM.
It just so happens that this disgraced scientist’s wife is an astronaut whose spacecraft is — you won’t believe this — orbiting Mercury. But the solar flare hit the ship so hard that a little while later, the other astronaut on board keels over and dies.
So he’s on the ground trying to save Earth, and she’s up in space trying to save Earth, and they’re actually talking to each other via ham radio — I don’t even wanna get into how THAT happened.
There’s not nearly enough time to tell you all the ways this movie is ludicrous, so I’ll give you just two:
One, this giant magnetized planet that’s flying toward us is just sucking cars off the earth, EXCEPT when the disgraced scientist needs a car to get somewhere; then his car stays on the ground just fine, even as other cars are being sucked off the planet right in front of him.
And two, this astronaut up there, when she needs to move around the spaceship, she doesn’t float through the capsule in zero gravity … she just gets up and walks around like she’s at the mall.
I have only scratched the surface of how stupid on every level this movie is. But we watched the damn thing all the way to the end. When it was over, I looked at my wife and said, “Why did we do that?” But the truth is, I knew why.
And here’s where I tell you everything you need to know about storytelling in five minutes.
First, I’m gonna draw three objects.
This is a sympathetic character. It’s probably someone you like, but at the very least it’s someone you’re emotionally invested in. You care what happens to this person.
This is a hurdle. It’s an obstacle of some kind — could be a bad guy, could be a physical challenge, could be some sort of internal emotional demon.
And this is the pot of gold — some kind of goal, some kind of reward, physical or emotional or whatever.
A story is the journey of this character you care about, confronting and dealing with this obstacle, to reach this pot of gold.
In addition to these three pictures, you need to answer two questions:
1. What’s the story about?
2. What’s it REALLY about?
Here’s what I mean. What the story’s about is literally what happens in the narrative — who this character is, what goal he or she is trying to reach, what obstacle is in the way. The unique set of facts.
What the story’s REALLY about is a way of saying, what’s the point? What’s the universal meaning that someone should draw from this story? What’s the lesson?
When you think about it that way, you’ll find that you end up with a second obstacle and a second goal.
Think about the first Rocky movie. What’s it about? It’s about a no-name boxer in Philly (sympathetic character) who gets a chance to fight the champ (obstacle) and goes the distance (pot of gold).
He doesn’t win the fight — they saved that for Rocky II. The goal isn’t always the ultimate prize. Sometimes the goal is completing the journey. Proving you can go the distance is a worthy goal in itself.
But what’s the movie REALLY about? In a larger sense, the obstacle is not Apollo Creed. The obstacle is Rocky’s own self-doubt. The goal is making something of himself, not just out of pride but so he can prove himself to Paulie and feel worthy of Adrian’s love.
Why is that second layer of meaning important? Because not everybody is a professional boxer. But all of us have doubted ourselves and had other people doubt us. All of us have had the universal feeling of knowing that going the distance is a victory in itself.
That’s what makes stories matter: when you read or watch or hear a story about a total stranger, in a completely different world, and you recognize that story as your own.
Stories connect us as human beings. In fact, they’re part of what MAKES us human beings.
Of course, I’ve oversimplified a lot here today. Most good stories are dense and complicated, with many characters and lots of obstacles and elusive goals. Sometimes they jump around in time and space. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what they’re really about.
But this basic framework — these three pictures, those two questions — lie at the heart of it all. If you don’t have them all, you might have something, but you don’t have a story.
Why did we stay up way too late to watch the end of that stupid movie? Because for all they got wrong, they got the heart of it right. They made us care about this goofy disgraced scientist and his walking-on-the-floor-of-the-spaceship astronaut wife.
The story was about saving Earth. But it was really about love, and the amazing things two people can accomplish when they believe in each other. They can move mountains — not just mountains, but whole planets.
So when the astronaut used her husband’s space battering ram to knock Mercury out of our path like a giant galactic cue ball, I went to bed happy and satisfied.
Because I was reminded, once again, that a good story can save us all.
Tommy Tomlinson is a staff writer for Sports on Earth and writes the Liner Notes column for Storyboard. He has written for Sports Illustrated, ESPN The Magazine, Garden & Gun, Our State magazine, and others. He was a 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist for his Charlotte Observer columns, and The Week named him the best local columnist in America. This piece was reprinted from his blog.