Andrew Stanton, Part 3: “The Clues to a Great Story” (TED Talk)

March 14th, 2012 by

This last Sunday, our featured video interview was a TED Talk given by Andrew Stanton, one of the key members of Pixar’s ‘brain trust’ whose screenwriting credits include Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, Wall-E and the current live action movie John Carter which he also directed [along with A Bug's Life, Finding Nemo and Wall-E].

The subject of the TED Talk: “The Clues to a Great Story.” Given the success of Pixar and Stanton’s participation in it, I decided to produce a transcription of the entire 19-minute presentation. I will be posting it segment by segment for the next week or so because Stanton packed a lot of big ideas into his short talk.

Today: Part 3.

In 2008, I pushed all the theories of story I had at the time to the limits on this project.

[Clip from Wall-E where Wall-E shows Eve his place, she flicks on a lighter, and he first tries to hold her hand].

Storytelling without dialogue. It’s the purest form of cinematic storytelling. It’s the most inclusive approach you can take. It confirms something I had a hunch on, that the audience actually wants to work for their meal. They just don’t want to know that they’re doing that.

That’s your job as a storyteller to hide the fact that you’re making them work for their meal.

We’re born problem-solvers. We’re compelled to deduce and deduct because that’s what we do in real life. It’s this well-organized absence of information that draws us in.

There’s a reason we’re all attracted to an infant or a puppy. It’s not just because they’re damn cute. It’s because they can’t completely express what they’re thinking or what their intentions are. It’s like a magnet, we can’t stop ourselves from wanting to complete the sentence and fill it in.

I first started understanding this storytelling device when I was writing with Bob Peterson on Finding Nemo, and he would call this “The Unifying Theory of 2 + 2.” Make the audience put things together. Don’t give them 4. Give them 2 + 2.

The elements you provide and the order you place them in is crucial to whether you succeed or fail at engaging the audience. Editors and screenwriters have known this all along. It’s the invisible application that holds our attention to story.

* “The audience actually wants to work for their meal”: Perhaps the single best piece of advice in handling exposition: Don’t use it. Let the reader figure it out.

* “Don’t give them 4. Give them 2 + 2″: See above.

* “The elements you provide and the order you place them in is crucial to whether you succeed or fail at engaging the audience”: One key is whenever you answer a question you have set up in the story, raise another question. Questions create curiosity. Curiosity keeps a reader turning pages.

For Part 1 of Stanton’s TED Talk, go here.

For Part 2, go here.

Tomorrow: Part 4.

4 thoughts on “Andrew Stanton, Part 3: “The Clues to a Great Story” (TED Talk)

  1. CJ says:

    The baby and puppy examples were great. I think that’s the reason the “strong but silent” characters like Darth Maul and Boba Fett became such breakout stars in the Star Wars films. When a character talks, for good or ill, he starts to define himself, to fit neatly into a box. But when characters hardly ever talk, yet speak more through their actions, they never get to be pigeonholed. They start to grow in our imagination because we have to do some of the work to flesh them out. They always keep us guessing. As a result, we start to assign them all sorts of characteristics and traits that may or may not actually exist, but which make them more fascinating.

    To a lesser extent, I think this mechanism may also be behind some of the fascination with zombies. What’s going on behind those milky eyes?

    1. Scott says:

      CJ, this is an excellent point:

      “When a character talks, for good or ill, he starts to define himself, to fit neatly into a box. But when characters hardly ever talk, yet speak more through their actions, they never get to be pigeonholed. They start to grow in our imagination because we have to do some of the work to flesh them out. They always keep us guessing. As a result, we start to assign them all sorts of characteristics and traits that may or may not actually exist, but which make them more fascinating.”

      That slots right into the whole ‘less is more’ ethos, and that has certainly served Clint Eastwood well [whose famous red pen has perhaps scratched out half the dialogue for his movie roles].

  2. CJ says:

    Yes, the Man With No Name. Good one. That character comes to mind, too.

  3. [...] Andrew Stanton, Part 3: “The Clues to a Great Story” (TED Talk) (gointothestory.blcklst.com) [...]

Leave a Reply

Connect with: