Monday, March 16, 2009

Telling the perfect tale

There’s something about storytelling that attracts 'How-To' lists. While the number of them doesn’t come anywhere close to 'how-to-lose weight' or 'how-to-get-abs-of-steel' lists, it’s a significant and growing genre. A while back I posted a list by movie producer Peter Guber, and now I want to share some insight from the master of story, David Mamet, that I found in his book Bambi vs Godzilla.

Let’s start with the great advice Mamet gives in this quick guide to what makes a successful scene.

1. Who wants what from whom?
2. What happens if they don’t get it?
3. Why now?

That’s a threesome that could be pinned to the forehead of anyone in the business. They go far beyond communication skills right into the heart of effective negotiation and strategy.

But that’s not all. Mamet also shares some age-old tips he’s picked up from the great talents of the movie business industry. Succinct and direct, they have that distinctive Mamet whammy. Just when you think you’ve got it, it swings around and hits you from another direction. I’ve added my own comments to Mamet’s instructions.

4. Stay with the money. Solid business advice whichever way you look at it. In storytelling it means sticking to the big idea. So many good stories get diluted. Keep it simple.

5. Burn the first reel. You can’t get into the story fast enough. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” not “In the late eighteenth century, France was overtaken by blah, blah, blah”. Fairy tales get it right with “Once upon a time”…then into it.

6. If you laughed at the dailies, you aren’t going to laugh at the picture. Stories are written for the people who go to them, not for those who helped create them. All that stuff that impresses your co-workers should be dumped on the floor of the editing room in your head.

7. Get out on your biggest laugh. As any comic will tell you – timing is everything. The rule for stage performers is simple and absolute. “When you come on, be on. When you’re done, get off.” A great story knows when or how to finish.

8. If you can’t figure out what the story is about, it’s probably not worth telling. That one alone is worth the price of admission.