How to become a great storyteller
Great storytellers are rare. But their impact on society is profound. J. K. Rowling, George R. R. Martin, Chris Nolan, Martin Luther King Jr. …
What is so special about them? Are there unique qualities to superb storytellers that make them stand out from everyone else? And if there are, can you learn them?
In this four-part email series, we will talk about exactly that. I will show you 12 qualities and challenge you to look at yourself as a storyteller who had the potential to grow – as a person and as a professional.
We will derive our wisdom from Robert McKee’s book „Story“ and dive deeper into the lives of storytellers and personal experiences. Are you ready to embark on the journey with me?
„Our appetite for story is a reflection of the profound human need to grasp the patterns of living, not merely as an intellectual exercise, but within a very personal and emotional experience […] Story isn’t a flight from reality but a vehicle that carries us on our search for reality, our best effort to make sense out of the anarchy of existence.
Stories are not a way to escape reality, they are our way to make sense of reality, bring order to chaos and purpose to anarchy. This is what we do – help people make sense of existence and try to figure it out ourselves by using a universal vehicle: STORIES.“
A storyteller is someone who loves life. And while there are here and there are some traits of escapism in our own writing, it can’t serve for us to escape reality.
We take people on our own journeys to make sense of reality. We don’t have all the answers, and this is okay. We don’t need to. We just invite people to come along to our journeys in the most profound and skillful way we can.
And here comes the first one:
1. The love of the dramatic
Clemens Disher fell from the second floor of the London Imperial Hotel. He landed without any injury in the yard, but still had to go to the hospital. The watchdog bit his leg.
True storytellers find the drama in the mundane and find the subtle ironies of life highly inspirational. They love drama. They search for it because they possess a power of observation others don’t.
R. L. Stine derives his story ideas from his everyday observations all the time. He once saw a kid embarking on a plane for the first time on his own, saying goodbye to his parents with both fear and excitement. This small incident, paired with the love of the dramatic, gave him the idea for a book: kids on a plane, returning to a world where their parents don’t exist.
Storytellers see things in the everyday life that they turn into drama, but they also seek out drama in theaters and movies. They don’t only observe the people around them, but they observe what other storytellers are doing and how drama works. They learn its laws and ceaselessly attempt to master it.
In short: drama is their life. It’s their passion. They look for it and seek it out.
For you, it simply means: Develop your daily power of observation in the mundane, and look for the laws and principles of drama in everything you see. Master it. Drama is your A-Game.
2. The love of truth
A police station in Fergus Falls got a call:
„Please come to the park, there’s a blind person walking around for hours, fumbling with his white stick, but he cannot find the exit!“
The policeman hurried to the park and found the blind person. It was the park ranger who skewered the waste.
You see, most people don’t look closely enough. They see something, and they are quick to come to conclusions.
But great storytellers are truth seekers. They are never content with the superficialities. They are willing to go against the flow and look more closely. Investigate.
Why didn’t the person who called the police go to the blind man himself? Why didn’t he show him the exit? Storytellers do just that. They come closer, ask uncomfortable questions, and play out the „what-ifs“.
They are always pondering, analyzing, investigating, and searching for the essence of things. We help the audience make sense of life, remember? Well, we can’t do it if we first don’t investigate and dive deeper into this thing called life.
If you want to become a better storyteller, don’t be afraid of the truth. Especially the truth about yourself.
3. The love of humanity
This one I struggle with. To my defense: I’m a desperate introvert. As much as I love company, it tires me out. I love being alone. I love having my small circle of trusted friends and living in this comfort zone.
But this is not enough. Great storytellers broaden their horizons and learn to love humanity in all its facets. They talk to different people form different layers of society and with all kinds of backgrounds.
More than that. They have the willingness to “crawl inside their skin and see the world through their eyes”, as McKee puts it. While the world sees and person and passes a snap judgment, great storytellers resist this urge and instead, make an effort to understand. Or otherwise, your characters will all sound and act like – you. You will never be able to serve your customer and your audience.
Have you ever read a Tolstoy novel? I am always amazed at his knowledge of the human heart. He writes from different perspectives – male, female, old, young, poor, and rich – but whatever perspective he adapts, you get the feeling that you are INSIDE their heads. That you can empathize with every single one of them because of the great insight Tolstoy provides in his writing.
To give a glimpse into the complexity of humanity, we need to step out of our comfort zone (especially the introverts out there, I know it’s tough) and learn to love humanity by looking for deep understanding and empathy.
4. The love of sensation
Tenet. I just have to mention it, and this is the perfect place to do so.
I love Chris Nolan. For me, he is one of the geniuses of our time. And as a filmmaker, I know that the process of making a film – of transferring something from your head to the big screen – is seriously difficult. It rarely works out.
Kudos to Chris Nolan for bringing us his bold visions of Inception, The Prestige, Interstellar... and Tenet is definitely one of them. Visually. But here's where the sensation comes in.
We have to go deeper. We have to connect on an emotional level, and thus cannot be afraid to explore emotional and psychological depths. If we want to leave an impression, we cannot be superficial.
Tenet for me lacked the emotional investment because of a serious law of storytelling Chris Nolan somehow missed. Again, it's so easy to take a film apart without considering the labor that went into it. But I really want you to understand this principle.
Emotional investment comes from empathy. And empathy comes from deep knowledge. The problem with the main character in Tenet? We never get any knowledge of him whatsoever. He has no past, no backstory, no family, no motivation we could identify with or understand. He lacks intimacy, and thus empathy.
Always make sure to include empathy in your story by exploring the deeper knowledge of human nature. By the way, the villain in Tenet is excellent in this respect.
5. The love of dreaming
Storytellers need to have the courage to be dreamers. And it takes courage to dream. If you dream, you need to be willing to let go of the judgemental voice inside of you, the nay-sayer and, surprise, surprise, the control-freak.
Robert McKee says that we need to enjoy “taking leisurely rides on your imagination just to see where it leads”. And it can lead you to scary places. To bold visions that you don't dare writing or even communicating with others.
Letting a plane crash into a hangar and film is with an IMAX camera (that is incredibly expensive and rare)? Tell a story in reverse? Teach people how to move as if in rewind? Chris Nolan definitely has the guts to dream. And it pays.
6. The love of humor
True story from a London newspaper: Mrs. Lany Turner woke up in a hospital. On her way from Chelmsford to Ipswitch, she listened to the radio. The host said the following words: "During the following Rondo, just close your eyes for double pleasure." She followed suit.
Even the most dramatic and dark stories need humor. This is what will make your readers fall in love with both the story and the characters. It will connect on a subconscious level. It’s “the saving grace that restores the balance of life”, as McKee puts it.
7. The love of language
"Language is power, in ways more literal than most people think. When we speak, we exercise the power of language to transform reality." – Julia Penelope
The movie Arrival (2016) directed by Denis Villeneuve demonstrates the power of language in a unique way. It's an interesting thought experiment that the way we use language influences the way we perceive time – in a linear way.
And that if we learned a new language, one that is completely different, we could look into our own future.
I recently learned that Danes – famously the happiest nation on the planet – have a different concept of language, and that they use it to reframe negative situations.
Language influences the way we perceive reality. It influences the way we view life. And it determines how we tell stories.
In the storyteller's heart, language has a very special place. She uses it to change the reality of her story. And she learns, little by little, to master its immense power.
Your language can be that of Shakespeare of Goethe, or the visual language of Chris Nolan (surprise, surprise) or Tarantino, or that of Walt Disney or Seth Godin.
If your story is a car, it can be a mass-produced Ford or a handcrafted one-of-a-kind Lamborghini Veneno. The second requires more mastery and passion.
8. The love of duality
Duality is defined by McKee as “a feel for life’s hidden contradictions”.
Cambridge Dictionary defines duality as "the state of combining two different things". If you love duality, you're not afraid to acknowledge that reality is more complex than we like to admit and that it's full of contradictions.
And this is important: you are able to combine these contradictions. This way, your stories can reflect – at least to an extent – the complexity that life is.
Let the fact that there is more to life hidden that what meets the eye fascinate you. Don't be quick to judge but instead eager to explore.
9. The love of perfection
A story told to perfection. Like a symphony composed beautifully from the first to the last note. A good stroyteller needs a narcissistic drive to make the story the best it can be. To drive it to perfection.
By accepting criticism from the right people. Storytellers reach a state called "operational blindness" – the inability to look at their story from the outside and judge it realistically.
This is when the editor comes into place. Somebody who receives the power to judge the story and suggest improvements. This is a huge responsibility, and a professional will handle it accordingly. Don't listen to the multitude of voices who throw their opinion around like cheap quarters.
Listen to those you trust, and those who can offer a professional opinion. And remember: only you are the visionary of your story, and only you get to decide what's right for it in the end.
Love this process of transforming your story to the best it can be by exposing it to honest criticism.
10. The love of uniqueness
Pablo Picasso famously said: Good artists copy, great artists steal.
Yet Picasso revolutionized art. His work looked like nothing people had ever seen before. What did he mean?
We steal inspiration. We steal ideas and frameworks. But then, we add something vulnerable and different from our hearts and make it unique.
This is a challenge for every storyteller because it all comes down to balance. You don't want to be so unique that your work cannot be placed in a genre or even understood by an audience. But you also don't want to tell the same story everyone is telling in exactly the same way.
The key is: don't be afraid to be you. Nobody can write the story you write, so don’t desperately try to be like someone else.
And to do that, you'll need to fulfill quality number 12.
11. The love of beauty
I'm a fan of director Denis Villeneuve. Because every film he directs is beautiful. Not all of them work storywise, but the visuals... leave you breathless.
Humans were made for beauty. We enjoy the calm of untouched nature, the sight of a handsome person or the scent of a rare flower.
Good storytellers notice beauty all around them. And they see the beauty of a well-told story much like an architect sees the beauty in a unique blueprint. There is something about a beautifully orchestrated, elegantly constructed story that takes our breath away.
And makes us strive towards that beauty.
12. The love of self
I’m a storyteller.
Have you ever said this out loud? Or to someone else?
Self-doubt is the serial killer of creativity. And only if you can learn to love and accept the things that make you unique will you be able to tell the story you were destined to tell.
What qualifies you as a good storyteller? The ability to communicate in that unique way embedded in human DNA.
You are somebody who tells stories. Incessantly. Passionately. Striving to improve the craft and live a life worthy of his or her calling.
You are a storyteller.