Ben Snyder – The Foundation of Narrative Storytelling

Ben Snyder – The Foundation of Narrative Storytelling


– I’m David Pemberton, it’s really cool to see some of you from last year. And I’m very excited to bring year two of this collaboration
between the SVA Library and the MFA Visual Narrative Department, the Storyteller Series, year two. And I met a bunch of you
first year people yesterday and again today, and I think
you’re all wonderful and swell (audience chuckles) and let me tell you
about this event series. The Storyteller Series at
the School of Visual Arts invites visual stories
from all walks of life, careers in media to share their work, professional practice, personal develop in creative approach to visual narrative. This series is open to the
public and SVA students and is presented by MFA Visual
Narrative and the library. Again, I’m super stoked, seeing
the faces from last year, I don’t know, it’s
bringin’ back last summer, it was a lot of fun, and
we’re gonna have a lot of fun this summer, and with that, I
wanna bring on Lucea Spinelli. (applause) – Hi, everyone, I’m Lucea Spinelli. I’m representing the
Visual Narrative Program and I’ve been spearheading
this amazing series that we’ve had, this is
our second summer now. We’re very excited to
have Ben Snyder tonight. Before I begin, just a little bit about the Visual Narrative Program. MFA Visual Narrative is a
low-residency MFA program with two years online and
three summers in New York City. It takes a visionary
approach to storytelling that equally emphasizes creative writing and visual communication across media. When words and images come together they can create powerful
visual narratives, stories that can touch
hearts, change minds, and even change the way we
see our world, story first. That brings me to Ben Snyder. Ben Snyder has written, adapted and sold a number of feature scripts. His feature film, directorial debut, 11:55 with Julia Stiles and John Leguizamo is currently streaming on Showtime. His short films have
played on PBS’s On Story and at the Cannes Film Festival. He was the story consultant for the Sundance award-winning
documentary, The Wolf Pack. Ben has developed television
with HBO, BET, Channel 4, Lionsgate, and was a staff writer for the upcoming Netflix series, Grand Army. His digital series Nobody’s Nobody, starring Andre Holland
and Michael K. Williams is in development at Warner Bros. Ben’s plays have been
produced at P.S. 122, the Vineyard Theater, Crossroads Theater, the Apollo Theater, New
York Stage and Film, and at HBO’s U.S. Comedy Arts Festival. His play Shoe Story was nominated
for the NAACP Image Award. Another play of his, In Case You Forget, is published in the anthology, Say Word, Voices from Hip Hop Theater. And he’s a member of
Labyrinth Theater Company and the Writers Guild of America East. Ben teaches screenwriting and TV writing at Brooklyn College, Feirstein
Graduate School of Cinema, Monclair State University
and Saint Francis College. Please check out his work to see more of what he does at his
website twicepaper.com. So without further ado,
I welcome Ben Snyder. Thank you so much. (applause) – Good evening, good evening. – [Audience] Good evening. – This is gonna be a little interactive, so could people fill these
seats from the back, please? I would much appreciate it. You will be up here, not tonight, but someday when you’re
releasing your graphic novel, your photo exhibition,
your animated whatever. You will do Q and As and it’s nice to not have a row of empty seats. When I come to these
things I sit in the back because I’m like, “Is
this gonna be interesting, “maybe I’ll sneak out.” I will not take it
personally if you sneak out. I’ll assume you had prior engagements and you just were here
for, I’m gonna keep talking until the rest of you come up. Are you still messing with my sound? Kind of like when you’re at a wedding and you don’t wanna dance, but you have to ’cause it’s like, you
gotta make the party. You get on the dance floor and you’re like, “Yay, we’re celebrating.” It’s a service, I didn’t get three of you. You’re coming to me, thank you. All right great, welcome. Do you wanna come to the front? Okay, I’ll move this. What I’m planning to do is go through a few elements of craft that I think apply to anyone that works in
narrative that are universal. I’m gonna start with some foundation, basic building blocks and then move to, thank you, more advanced moves. But stop me at any time,
I’m gonna be asking you some questions impromptu,
not just the front row, I’m gonna start with you
two gentlemen in the back. But before I get into it, I
wanna do two quick analogies that I made up myself that
I like, so bear with me. I’m gonna talk at you a little bit, and then I’m gonna talk to you, and then you’re gonna talk to me. So imagine that you came in here and there was a pile of wood. Anyone work in wood, no, okay. And I said, “Okay, tonight what we’re “gonna do is, we’re gonna make chairs.” You would look at me like, what. And I say, “Everyone, get up.” “Take some wood, there’s
hammers and nails over there, “there’s glue, and clamps,
and screws, and saws. “And over there in the back, there’s paint “and glitter and stickers if that’s what “you want on your chair, let’s go.” And eventually one
person would be the first and we would gather our
wood, and we’d start putting our chairs together. Everyone in here knows what a chair is, you know how a chair looks,
you know what it does, you’re very intimate with
chairs, you spend a lot of your time in chairs and we could all tonight within the time
frame make a chair. And I could make a really beautiful, cool, strange-shaped,
painted-all-kinds-of-nice-colors chair, but when you sit in my
chair it will collapse. The legs will most likely break. But what’s your name? – [Thalia] Thalia. – Thalia, if Thalia has studied carpentry and knows the correct way
to conjoin a leg piece to a seat piece, when
you sit in Thalia’s chair it will hold your weight because she has studied the craft of carpentry. We study craft in narrative storytelling so our stories don’t fall apart. And it’s not to say one
is better or less creative or beautiful, but it’s
really to hold the story, to hold your story as well
as you want it to be held. Do you know what it means
when a story falls apart? Sometimes you’re in the
middle of telling a story and it starts to fall
apart before your eyes and some people stop or
apologize, some people start embellishing and
lying to save the day. We know how that feels,
it’s an awful moment. I’ve take attention from
everyone and this is not a good story but I’m in the middle of it. All right, my next analogy. I was on a plane ride from
New York to Los Angeles that flew out of Newark and
had a layover in Los Vegas ’cause it was cheaper and I
ended up sitting next to a guy with some shoulders and some muscles and some tattoos and chatty. And he was on his way to fight somebody, so I talked to him, it was interesting. He’s a professional
fighter, he runs a gym, not in Newark, another
small city near Newark. And he trains people, and
I looked him up afterwards, he has a few thousand
views, he’s not a superstar, but he’s a mixed martial art fighter. And that’s what he does for a living. And that’s very different from
what I do, so I was curious. And I asked him, I said, “I haven’t been “in that many fights, and it’s a blur.” So I said, “If my ambition
in life was to just be “really efficient at beating people up, “if that’s all I wanted to do, “what’s the best martial
art ’cause there’s so many. “There’s the Brazilian jiu-jitsu guys, “there’s the Muay Thai, there’s Capoeira, “Sambo, really tough
Russian, you know what I’m “talking about, some of you
know what I’m talking about. “What’s the best?” And he looked at me like
I’d asked a stupid question and he said, “There’s no best. “Any martial artist that tells you “their style is the best is
not a real martial artist.” So this guy’s taking this very seriously, and I said, “So, what should
I do, what do you recommend “if I just wanna get tough?” And he said, “Pick one
system, doesn’t matter. “Could be akido, could be
judo, could be kung fu, “pick a system, master it, and it will “be there for you when you need it.” And he’s thinking self-defense. I’m gonna give you a system tonight, and I’m not gonna tell
you it’s the best system, but if you master it it will be there for you when you need it. Okay, I’m done with my analogies. I’m gonna start with building blocks. This is basic, basic, basic and then I’m gonna move to the things that are born out of these ideas. The first words I’m
borrowing from Aristotle. And you probably heard them
in your AP English class a long time ago or like last year. But I’m gonna start there so we have a common language to build from. I’m gonna start with
protagonist, protagonist. Can you see that? What is your definition,
your working definition of a protagonist or what
you remember hearing? There’s no wrong answers, I’m
not gonna say that’s wrong. Anyone wanna jump in? Yes. – [Audience Member] It’s
a character in a narrative that the audience can
relate most strongly to. – Great, I saw another
hand popping up, yeah. – [Audience Member] A main
character that’s going through some sort of change over time. – Excellent, yes, no, glasses, yes, okay. – [Audience Member] Hero. – A hero or a heroine. Now if we have multiple characters, if we are in some sort of an ensemble, how do we know who our protagonist is, how do we identify them? They’re hard to find in some stories, what is the distinguishing characteristic? Someone mentioned change. What was your thing again you said? – [Audience Member] A
character that the audience can most strongly relate to. – We’re relating to, I’m
gonna suggest that it starts with wants, right? It’s someone that wants something. Some story theorists
would go as far as to say, “Your character description is a lie.” The bio that was read of mine is a lie. All we are is our wants and
what we do to pursue them. You all came to this program this summer because you have a want and
this is how you’re pursuing it. And that says more about your character than any adjectives,
you get what I’m saying? So it’s about a want, and
hopefully it’s a big want, hopefully there’s some
emotions tied up in it. But someone who wants something. Actually, let’s do a few. In the back, sir, can you give me a name of a character, any
character, make it up, a name. – John Smith.
– Say it again. – John Smith.
– John Smith, okay, great. John Smith is our character. What does John Smith want more
than anything in the world? – [Audience Member] To be loved. – To be loved, great. And is this, to specify a little bit, does John Smith want romantic love or the love of family or community or God? – [Audience Member] Community. – Community love, okay,
wants to be loved by. Can I have a name? Elizabeth, is that your name. Okay, a character name. – Oh, I’m sorry.
– It’s okay. I’m picking on you ’cause
you’re in the back. Make up a name. Lydia, great name. What does Lydia want more
than anything in the world? Money, okay, I’ll take that, why? Does Lydia wanna buy something? Is Lydia in debt to somebody? Why does Lydia want money? To provide for who?
– Family. – Great, more interesting. Okay, we get this. Give me a name. Emily wants what? What does Emily really want? What is Emily after? – Fame.
– Fame. Does she wanna be famous
in any possible way or for something specific? – [Audience Member] Just fame. – Just fame, I want the
most followers on Instagram, I want anything, anything
that can get me famous, I’ll take it, okay. We got this? Are you all working in
a narrative right now? Do you have a story percolating? Yes, raise your hand if
you have a narrative story that you’re developing,
revising, starting. Some of you, a lot of you. Can you answer the question of who your main character is, and
what they want, can you? – You say yes, can you say it? – The story I’m working on?
– Yes. – [Audience Member] The
main character is Stella, and she wants to escape
a dangerous situation. – Okay, very clear. Antagonist. What did we learn about antagonists? At one point in your life somebody might have said, “Man verses
man, man verses nature.” Did we hear this at some point? I saw a hand, was someone
gonna speak about antagonists? Yes. – [Audience Member] The antagonist creates escalating conflict for the protagonist. – Great, the antagonist
creates an escalating conflict for the protagonist, and how
does the antagonist do that? What are they doing? Exactly. They are the obstacle. Are we familiar with
Freud’s pleasure principle? We heard this before, heard
of Freud, Sigmund Freud? Complicated figure, so he suggested that all pleasure is the build
up and release of tension. That’s where human, sentient
beings experience pleasure. So we enjoy eating because it releases the tension of hunger. It physically feels good
to go to the bathroom because it releases a tension,
maybe on your bladder. Some people enjoy sex because it is a release of sexual tension, right? All pleasure is a a build up and a release of some kind of tension. So in the narrative world
our job is to build, build, build tension with
a want and an obstacle or a want and many obstacles
and eventually release it and that’s why we, not
we, but we the bigger we go back and listen to the same stories, watch the same stories, read the same stories over and over again. It’s pleasurable for that reason. That’s why we work in these
terms, does that make sense? I wanna break this down
a little bit further. I think it’s useful because we can have people, we can have situations, tell me if I’m writing too small. I’m worried about turning the page, it doesn’t look like
it’s gonna flip nicely. And we can have a psychological
antagonist, psychological. Let’s make up a love story real quick. Can I have a name, any
name for our character. – Martha.
– Martha, great. And who is the object
of Martha’s affection, who does Martha want to be with? – John Smith.
– John Smith. (audience chuckles) Martha wants to be with John Smith, Martha wants to be with John Smith. And I’m gonna make a person the obstacle. But John Smith’s sister
says, “Martha, get away “from my brother, you’re not good enough “for my brother, get
away from my brother.” Okay, so we have a person that
stands in her way, I dunno. Martha wants John Smith but they situation. She’s married, Martha is
married and this is a big deal that she wants to be with someone else, she does wanna leave
her family, thank you, she has a situation to deal with. Martha wants John Smith,
John Smith wants Martha. They would be so perfect together, everybody wants to see them together, but Martha doesn’t think she’s
good enough for John Smith. She has this voice in her
head like, “You’re so stupid, “why would you think he
would even look at you?” And Martha is her own antagonist. Does that make sense? Let’s do a couple. Can I have a name? – Rhonda.
– Rhonda. Rhonda wants what? On who, what does revenge mean to Rhonda? – [Audience Member]
Someone stole Rhonda’s cat. – So just to clarify, is the cat now dead or is it about it getting the cat back? – [Audience Member] Getting the cat back. – And exacting some kind
of revenge on the cat thief or is it just rescuing the cat? – [Audience Member] Maybe rescuing it. – Okay, so Rhonda wants to rescue her cat. Her cat has been abducted, save the cat. (laughter) She wants to save the cat. Why? What’s stopping Rhonda
from getting her cat back? Okay, like has a crush on? Her crush stole her cat. (laughter) The person she wants to
be with stole her love. Nice and complicated. What kind of antagonist is this? What kind of obstacle is this? She can’t get her cat back. It’s a situation, someone
said psychological, these are not hard and fast rules, these are tools, these are strategies. It could be both, it could
be kind of in the middle. Can I get a name? What does Andrew want? Andrew wants food, is there a specific kind of food or just any food? – Tacos.
– Tacos. – So there’s this funny
thing, the more specific we get the more universal we get, that’s another storytelling adage, right? If you say tacos that’s even better, but if you say fish tacos or whatever, what kind of tacos does Andrew want? – [Audience Member] Street
tacos from his home town. – Street tacos from a home
town in another country and you said, “And there’s
cauliflower in it.” (laughter) Cool. Why can’t Andrew get
tacos, what’s the obstacle? It’s too far away. What were you gonna say,
did you have one, no. No money, what? – He lost his passport.
– He lost his passport. So what kind of antagonist is this? That’s just a situation. Could we adjust this, could
we make it into a person that’s stopping Andrew
from getting his tacos? Is it possible? So the tacos he loves are
made by a specific restaurant and he’s been 86th, there was an incident and they’re like, “You
can’t come back, dude. “What happened is not okay,
and you can’t get them to go, “no, we’re not serving you these tacos.” And now we have a narrative
with some tension, right? And that’s all we need. It could be as much as wanting
to get to White Castle. Can you go back to your story, while we’re working on stories here. Can you say what your character wants and why can’t they get it? Can anyone? That’s the key, that’s
the most important thing. I’m gonna say a lot of other things, but that’s like the base. Who’s working on something? Okay, can you tell us, it’s
a narrative, it’s a story of some kind, do you
have a main character. – [Audience Member] Yes. – What’s your character’s name? – Deke.
– Deke, what does Deke want? – [Audience Member] He wants
to go home to his small town and prove that he’s made
something of himself. – Okay, he wants to go back and say, “Look, I did something in the world,” to the town he came from. What is the obstacle of him doing that? Why can’t he just go do that? – [Audience Member] He
can’t take it, it has to be given to him by the people. – So he wants them to
see him a certain way and they’re gonna decide whether they see him that way, okay. What type of obstacle is that? It could be psychological,
it could be a person, it could be a situation, right? It sounds like he has a deep
need for external validation, which is a psychological
condition a lot of us suffer from. Great, thank you for sharing that. Any questions about this
so far before we move on? Yes. – [Audience Member] Do you find that by making the antagonist very specifically one of those that it comes more universal, specific, like you were saying, like it just works better
for your narrative? – If you just pick one? A lot of the things we like are a hybrid. I think. But what I mean by being
specific is getting what their want as specific as possible and understanding where
that comes from for them and then what’s stands
in the way as specific. Not the vague of I want to buy something and I have no money is not as interesting as what thing might we wanna buy. I wanna buy this specific
pair of shoes, right? Or whatever it is. I’m gonna change colors. Very high tech. So, what do they want? And why can’t they get it? This is it, this is your mantra. If you can answer this
question you’re good to go. Right, you’re ready. I wanna look at a few quick examples from short animated films
you might have seen before, but we’re gonna watch for these components and then we’re gonna analyze
them a little more closely. The first two are from Pixar. Pixar uses the tools of
narrative storytelling perfectly, the most efficient possible way
that you could use the tools which is why some of us
appreciate what they do. Do we like Pixar, are we fans
or we’re like on the fence? Yes.
– Very good. – Who hates Pixar, who’s like,
“I don’t like what they do.” No, okay, I haven’t found anyone yet. But I’m curious to hear that critique. This is an older one of the earlier, not the first, but one
of the earlier shorts. All right, let’s discuss. I didn’t make this, but clap for Pixar. (laughter) – [Audience Member] But you showed it. – I showed it, I showed it, it’s fun. Who’s the main character? Snowman, what does snowman want more than anything in the world? To get the girl, to get the babe. And why can’t the snowman get the babe? – [Audience Member] Stuck in a snow globe. – Stuck in a snow globe, what
kind of antagonist is this? It’s purely situational, it’s one thing. Okay, so I wanna pull out a few. They do so many things in
such a short amount of time, that was like three minutes, no words. So the first thing I wanna talk about is once you have these two things. You have the tension, what we call dramatic tension that this creates. And we start mapping how we’re
gonna plot our narrative, one thing to thing about is our tactics. What do we do to get the thing we want? What did the snowman do,
what’s the first thing he did to try to escape his surroundings? Anyone remember, the very
first tactic, what’d he do? He took off his nose, he’s
like, “I’m gonna try my nose “on the wall,” and that didn’t work. And then what did he do? He did, he threw his fake house. And then what did he do,
jackhammer, his face fell off, and then what, dynamite, he
eventually got to dynamite. Do you notice anything
about these tactics? There’s an escalation,
and with that escalation, escalation, sounding it out so I spell it right, escalation and there’s risk. And why, why do we do that? How would this have
played, imagine if Pixar made this same story and
the first thing he did was get out dynamite
and blow up his world, and then the second thing
he did was take off his nose and hammer it, how would that have played? Would that have worked as well, why not? Why do we enjoy escalation? Tension, we’re building the tension. Also in real life, we want
something, we do the simple thing and then that didn’t work, we do something a little bit riskier,
riskier, next thing you know we’re doing something
very outlandish to get the thing we want and we
enjoy that because we enjoy tension and hopefully
the release of tension. Any thoughts about that? Another piece that they do
very well in everything is these big emotions, hope verses fear. At any moment in our story, your story we wanna know, what are we hoping for, what are we rooting for,
what’s the rooting desire, and then what are we afraid, there’s a little tension
right here, right? What’s gonna happen, he’s falling asleep, am I gonna say something? I’m a teacher too. But you know you don’t have to be here, if I was your teacher I’d say, go get some water splash it in your face, but I’m not gonna say that to you. That’s funny tension. Hope verses fear. If we’re rooting, our rooting desire is one we can get
behind, our rooting goal. Are we rooting for the snowman, were you kinda like, “I
wanna see him succeed.” And what are we hoping that he’ll get? The girl, why, what is it
that that represents to you? – What he wants.
– What he wants, right. Love, connection, we all want that. We all wanna get out of our snow globes. It’s something we can
relate to and root for ’cause it’s something
we want for ourselves. So we’re hoping he can get the girl, and if he doesn’t get
the girl, what happens? – Comedy.
– Comedy. Comedy happens as he doesn’t. He’s alone in the snow globe. Now after he blows up
his world with dynamite, he’s now teetering on the edge of a table and then he’s falling. Now what’s the worst
thing that could happen? – He dies.
– He dies. Life’s over, you shatter and you don’t exist anymore, snowman. So he’s falling through the air, so now it’s death, death, death,
and then he looks up, and sees an emergency exit, how smart. And he gets out, and it’s
like, maybe he will find love, hope, hope, hope, and he’s
falling and he’s falling, but he lands in a fish tank. Man, he’s gonna be alone forever, but then there’s a girl in the fish tank. Ah, hope, love, and then
it falls on his head. Right, hope, fear, hope, fear, do you see what they’re doing there, what they’re doing to your emotions? When we work in genre whether the genre is some kind of action or
horror or these big genres, they do it the most intensely, right? We just got away from the last zombie, oh no, there’s one in
the trunk or the car now, whatever the thing is,
right, we know these tropes. But these are the big emotions. And the last adage that
I’m gonna pull from this which I love, you
might’ve heard it before. I didn’t make any of this up by the way, if it’s online, I’ll credit all the people that I know to credit, is we like when things turn in surprising yet inevitable ways. Have we heard this before? Surprising, yet inevitable, inevitable. Have you heard this before,
some of you have, I dunno. I’m gonna sit with it for a second. So what we hate, we hate
when things are predictable, so we want it to be not predictable. But the other thing we don’t like, I’m speaking for everyone in the world. We don’t always like things to be random especially at the end,
they don’t make sense in any kind of narrative logic. So imagine this same
short we just watched, he does all these things, he finally gets the TNT, it cracks, and
the water gets out and he pushes through, and he goes
and he gets the girl, cool. There is an inevitability to that. He’s trying to get out, he gets out, but it’s kind of predictable. It’s like, okay, he was trying to get out and then he got out. I could’ve seen that
coming, we don’t like that, I’m speaking for all of us again. Imagine he’s falling,
he’s teetered on the edge, he’s falling, and then a
bird swoops in a grabs him and takes him out a window
that we haven’t seen yet up to a nest, and he’s up there and baby birds are pecking on the window. That’s how some of us might end it and it’s like, yeah, that’s
funny, but it’s random also. You’ve made us care about this one thing, and then you did this whole random ending. If you can surprise us and
be inevitable, it’s amazing. It’s hard to do that consistently. Big turns that we don’t see coming in the story, but fit
into the narrative logic of what we’ve established. Does that make sense? So that’s a nice thing to strive for and stop me at any time
for questions or comments or whatever you have, any
questions or comments or whatever? I like the way it sounds when I talk quietly on the microphone. I wanna play another one, this’ll be the last Pixar piece that I play. This short grew up to become
the Incredibles and then they totally ripped it off
for the second Incredibles ’cause I’m not sure they knew what to do. Here it is, let’s watch, it’s
three minutes and 40 seconds. All right, so who’s the main character? The babysitter, and
what does the babysitter want to do or achieve, what’s the goal? Does the babysitter have a need? To babysit, great, simple, very simple. And what is the obstacle? The baby, it’s a person. And how is the baby the
obstacle to the babysitter? Super-powered baby makes it difficult, challenging, or impossible
for the babysitter to do her job, which is her grand passion, which is what she wants to do. So I want to pull out
a few more strategies that they’re using really well. The first one is, they
give us a framing device. What’s the first scene? Where are we? – [Audience Member] She’s
recalling the whole. – Right, so we’re past an event,
we’re at an interrogation. What is the impact of this strategy, how does this effect you as the audience? – [Audience Member] We
know she didn’t die. – Okay, we know she didn’t die, and something happened. There was an incident
that required somebody in a dark room to do an
investigation interview on tape. That’s a lean-in, we’re
like, “What happened?” How would this have played if it started just with a babysitter
showing up to babysit? What’s the difference if it starts just at the day she shows up to
babysit at this house. – Would’ve been boring.
– Boring. What’d you say? – It would’ve felt random.
– Yeah. Say, okay, so what? We’ve inherited an interest because of how they’ve framed it. They don’t have to do anything. She can just, “Okay,
Mrs. Parker or whatever, “I got the baby, we’re
gonna play some games now,” but we’re interested ’cause we know something’s gonna happen. They’ve dangled that in front of us. And now we’re gonna watch
to see how it plays out. That’s one use of a framing device and we return to it at the end. Another strategy, a
very powerful strategy, they use a tiny bit
here is dramatic irony. Dramatic irony, I could
spend the whole night just talking about this one. Have we heard of dramatic irony? Yes, a lot, can you explain it? – [Audience Member] When
the audience knows something the character doesn’t,
like when we see the baby teleporting before Kari
knows the baby’s teleporting, which brings tension because we’re waiting for her to figure it out. – Exactly. Right, I’m up here, bla-bla-bla, blah. I turn around to do something,
there’s a sign on my back that says kick me, or I’m a jerk, right? And I turn around and you laugh, but I think you think I’m funny and we play this out until, “When is he “gonna realize there’s
a sign on his back?” That’s the comedic potential. There’s also the dramatic
potential, right? There’s a very deadly scorpion
right here on the shelf. And our audience, whatever that means, whatever medium we’re in knows that. And I keep coming back here
to mess with the computer and the scorpion gets
ready to kill me with venom and there’s a tension, am I
gonna get stabbed, am I gonna find out the thing that
the audience already knows? The most classic example we’ve heard is the Alfred Hitchcock
bomb under the table. Do you wanna hear this one again, or we’ve heard it before, say it, say it. Do you wanna explain it? – [Audience Member] It’s
suspense verses surprise. – Yes, you have to choose,
you can have one or the other. We can have, and this
is not the nicest time to talk about these things,
this is a Hitchcock classic, we can have a big explosion
and there’s carnage. That’s surprising, shocking or we can have people sitting around, having coffee and we see under a table,
a bomb counting down, two minutes, bla-bla-bla-bla-blah,
Trump, bla-bla-blah. 45 seconds, bla-bla-bla-bla-blah,
Game of Thrones, bla-bla-blah, 10 seconds,
you know, will they discover, that’s the tension, that’s the suspense. You can choose surprise verses suspense. – [Audience Member] Where
does the irony come in? – So it’s ironic because
we know and they don’t. I didn’t name it, that’s what it’s called, it sounds like it’s silly
like, oh, how ironic, but it’s a classic narrative strategy of what you allow your reader
or your audience to know that a character does not,
and how that builds tension ’cause it’s all about serving tension. And the tension, the longer you hold it, the more tension it
has, so there’s a moment in what we just watched
where she’s on the phone, some weird things are happening
and the baby floats up to the ceiling and she didn’t see that. They quickly release the tension ’cause the baby pours milk
on the babysitter’s head, but if they kept that going longer then it’s like, ooh, when
is she going to find out and that’s what’s I guess ironic about it. Questions about that? You can do a lot with that. Is anyone revising something
they’ve already created? Is that where we’re at or we’re like at brand new or inception? – Inception.
– Inception, okay. – Revising.
– Revising, it’s interesting to re-approach a moment, a scene, a panel,
whatever you’re working in and say is there any way,
some people could know things that others don’t, is that a more interesting take on this moment? These are all tools for your toolbox, you don’t have to cram it in, but just to have in your repertoire. Let me ask you, in the three
minute, 40 second thing what was the most heightened, exciting, dramatic moment in what we just watched? – Fire.
– Fire! It was the most production value, we had operatic horror
sounds that got very loud, we had the flames rendered. Well, how did that work, why
was that the most dramatic? What happened right before it? – [Audience Member] She
showed him some cards. – We started doing flash cards. Why, why did we do flash
cards, what’s going on there? When there’s something
working in a narrative, and it’s working really well,
that moment worked really well it’s really nice to look
at the mechanics underneath and say how does that work, can I do that? Can I do something like that? They utilized an ancient vaudevillian comedic device for that, which
is called The Rule of Threes. Have we heard of this, anyone? Heard of it, anyone wanna explain it? You wanna give it to us? – [Audience Member] Sure,
when you have something that happens three times,
the first two create a pattern, and the third
time subverts that pattern, which usually is humorous, so like ’cause she had two flash
cards where nothing happened there’s the expectation
that nothing will happen on the third so when something
does happen, it’s a surprise. – It’s a big surprise. We’ve established a pattern. I hold up a card, the baby
does something adorable, I hold up a card, the baby
does something adorable, okay, now we have a pattern. I hold up a card and
something horrific happens. Now if the first card caused that, would it have worked as well? No, I would guess it wouldn’t, and this is something
you can use in anything. And this is the foundation of a lot of classic comedy routines. I knock on the wall
twice, and a drop of water drops from the ceiling,
well that’s curious. I knock on the water,
two drops, sure enough. They must have some bad
plumbing in the basement. I do it a third time, and a brick falls on my head and I die or whatever. (laughter) We establish a pattern
and then we disrupt it with something surprising,
shocking, hilarious, et cetera. But these are old strategies,
Pixar did not make them up, they just do them very
well, like by the textbook, perfect execution of the strategy. Is it cool to play something,
one more little clip, like a three minute thing? So some people like Pixar,
most people like Pixar, but some people are like,
“That’s not my style. “My style’s gritty or it’s messy. “I don’t want it to be
so clean and polished.” Anyone feel that way about your stories? I’m not doing cartoons for
kids, I’m doing something. So I wanna show you
another cartoon, it’s not for kids though, but this is
an example of taking the tools and rather than having them
work perfectly on the surface, burying them a little
bit, and getting the tools a little bit dirty,
making it a little messy. And this might speak to some of you that are like, while I appreciate Pixar that is so far from my aesthetic and how I wanna tell stories. This is the last clip I’m gonna show and then we’ll get into something else. This is called Talking Cure. Why do you say it’s brilliant? What about it do you think is brilliant? – It hits the mark with every joke. The lead-ins and the
payoffs just hit the mark. – So comedically.
– The timing, yes. – And comedy is all about timing, right? Not a Pixar, very different
style, very different approach. Anyone feel like this is more
in line with your aesthetic? Some of you, no, I don’t know, you, okay. I don’t know anything about
your project, I wish I did. I’m hoping some of this might be useful. So who’s our main character in this piece? – The client.
– The woman. The client.
– The client. The person who’s seeing a therapist. What is it that she wants,
do we know what she wants? She’s actually very clear about it. She wants a relationship, and
how does she wanna get it? – [Audience Member] Without working or putting herself out there. – Yes, she doesn’t wanna take any risks. She doesn’t even want people to see that she wants something. She wants it to be totally
unknown to the world. And she wants it to happen, right? What stands in her way from finding love? Herself, like all these
obstacles she’s created. So there’s something deceptively complex about the structure here. At the end we have a
voiceover narration, right? And what are we seeing, what is she doing, what’s happening at the very end? – [Audience Member] She’s
updating her private profile. – She’s writing a private profile. She says, “This is my perfect
day,” she’s updating it. She’s maybe creating it, and what happens at the very end, what’s the
last thing that happens? She gets seen by who, who sees it? – An IT guy.
– An IT guy, an administrator. She may have already gotten the thing she wants and doesn’t know it yet. It feels very loose and fun and hilarious, but there’s a method to the madness here. They’re doing something really
smart, structurally too. I don’t know if there’s
a better way to say this, but I think about putting
the tools on the surface and we can feel them and see them or burying them in the dirt of our story and getting them nice and messy
so they’re not as obvious. That make sense, ’cause we
have a lot of different styles and there’s not one
way to use these tools. They’ve been used for thousands of years since we all gathered around fires and told stories and created language everywhere in the world not to get all Joseph Campbell on you but it’s true. You got my joke, thank you. All right, any questions, I’m gonna make this screen dark so it’s not shining, yes. – [Audience Member] Can you talk about what the psychiatrist character
is doing for that story? – Great, I have ideas, what
do you think the psychiatrist character is doing for that story? – [Audience Member] Adding
an additional character. – Okay, you have a thought? – [Audience Member]
She’s almost an obstacle because you realize she’s
maybe a bad psychiatrist. – What is she doing for
a lot of the session? – Talking about herself.
– Talking about herself. This is maybe the sign, maybe. I know that can be a strategy
in therapy is to relate. She’s talking about herself. What was she doing when
she was young maybe? – Bully.
– Being a bully. – She was a bully. She might have put
leashes on girl’s necks. Maybe, we don’t know. Our main character, what
kind of person is she? – Gentle.
– Gentle, right? So for me she’s a counterbalance, she’s the opposite, she’s showing someone who lives and moves in the
world in the opposite way. Which helps me understand both characters in conversation with one another and it’s fun to have them
in a therapy session, she’s trying to help her
and she’s maybe the worst person on Earth to help
her with her problem. Great, any other thoughts or
questions before we move on? What time is it, how we doing? – 7:40.
– 7:40, okay cool. I wanna do one more tool, a big one, and then I’ll check in with you and see if we wanna do a
more conventional Q and A or we want more of these
things, more tools. So the big one that I wanted to make sure I got to is stakes. In writing workshops and
I’ve taken a lot of them and led them, and been in them a lot of times when people give feedback they’ll be like, “Yeah, yeah,
but the stakes, the stakes, “I don’t know about the
stakes, raise the stakes, “the stakes aren’t very high, “stakes, stakes, “stakes, stakes.” They throw that word around a lot at least in the programs that I was in. Have we heard this word? Thrown around. What are people talking
about when they say stakes, what does that mean, yes. – [Audience Member] The pressure
applied to the protagonist or whoever’s going through
conflict in the story. – Great, the pressure,
what were you gonna say? – [Audience Member] What’s on the line. – Yeah, what’s on the
line, what’s the pressure. I think that’s exactly right. Narratively I like to think about it as what happens if they fail? As a way to think about
stakes, so what’s on the line, you could just say consequences. I was about to, but then I
felt like I couldn’t spell it. I’m gonna try, consequences,
no, consequences. That’s an easier way to put it. Yes. – [Audience Member] Does
it also get to the question of why do we care about this? – Yes, yes, thank you. Another I feel like
very unhelpful comments people might give your story
is, but why do we care? I don’t know if I like
your main character, who cares if you like them,
that is so far from helpful. And with that unhelpful note, some people will be like “Okay, let me work on that. “I’m going to give them a puppy, “no, I’ll give them an older dog “that they’re nursing and I’ll show them “help someone cross the street,
I’ll do all these things “to demonstrate how likable they are.” That is not what makes us care. What makes us care is if we understand what happens if they fail, right? It’s working in the wrong direction. When we clarify the stakes,
then we get a buy-in from our reader from
our audience for whoever is looking at your work or
experiencing your story. Let’s go back to, what was the love story we were working on? Who were those names, it was John Smith, no, it wasn’t John Smith, was it? Martha wants John Smith, is that it, okay. So Martha wants John Smith and
there’s some kind of obstacle whether it’s John Smith’s
sister, oh she’s married, that’s the best one. She’s married, she wants John Smith. Now what happens if she
doesn’t get John Smith and let’s not add anything to it. Let’s just say assuming
there’s nothing else to know, she doesn’t get John Smith, what happens? – [Audience Member] She’ll be unhappy. – Okay, she’s disappointed. She remains in a marriage to someone maybe she doesn’t wanna be with or she’d like to be with someone
in addition to that person and she’s disappointed,
maybe she’s heartbroken. Maybe, I don’t know. Let’s mess around with the stakes, meaning let’s mess around
with the consequences. If, what’s her name again, if Martha fails to get John Smith and I’m gonna try to turn up the stakes a little bit. If Martha fails to get John Smith, she won’t get tenure at her
university ’cause John Smith’s on the committee, I don’t know, who cares? If Martha doesn’t get
John Smith she’ll die. Ooh, I just turned it up really high because her partner is gonna
kill her, I don’t know. Oh, I’m gonna turn it down a little bit, not so crazy, she needs to get John Smith because she needs to stay alive, but it’s not like someone’s gonna kill her it’s if they’re together she can get the bone marrow transfusion, eh. – [Audience Member] She
can stay in the country. – She can stay in the country, ooh, that’s cool, I like that. Now what happens to her partner, are they going to get
sent ’cause she’s married so I’m assuming she’s
not married to a citizen, so she’s gonna leave her person, get with someone else
to stay in the country and her partner’s gonna be expelled, okay. I’m gonna raise the
stakes as high as I can. Imagine it as a knob that
you crank you or down, I’m gonna say that if Martha doesn’t get with John Smith, the
whole universe will die because the child that they’re
going to have in the future will save us in a war against
robots, Terminator, right? That love is very
important to the universe. The consummation of that
relationship will save all life. That’s turning the stakes really high. You don’t have to, let’s mess
around with this a little bit. I think stakes is worth talking about. Give me a name. – [Audience Member] Sam. – Sam, let’s sit with
Sam for a second, Sam. What does Sam want? What would he like? – Did you point to me?
– I pointed to you, yeah. Sorry, sorry, what would
Sam like more than anything? – [Audience Member] Sam wants
to regain his own voice. – Okay, he wants his voice back. He lost his voice and he
wants to get his voice back. – [Audience Member]
Well, maybe metaphorical. – Yeah, I like that. Why can’t he get his voice back, yes, why can’t he get his voice back? – [Audience Member] He doesn’t have enough money to get a surgery. – Okay, so there’s actually
a medical procedure that Sam could do to get his voice back, but he just doesn’t have the money for it. We have a want, we have tension. Let’s make it matter a little bit more. What happens if he fails
to get his voice back? What is the consequence of
failing in this situation if he can’t get his voice back? – [Audience Member] His
career as an actor is over. – Okay, he’s done, and he’s just starting to have a moment, there’s some agents that wanna be with him and sending him out and he needs this thing, okay, great. Any other ways to adjust the stakes, if he doesn’t get his
voice back, what happens? – [Audience Member] He
internalizes everything. – Okay, he’ll spiral
into a deep depression and stop functioning as a person. – [Audience Member] He’ll
kill all his neighbors. – He will kill his neighbors? – [Audience Member] If he gets depressed. – Okay, when he loses his voice, the other voice takes over
and he becomes not a nice guy. Let’s find another one,
let’s find another one. Give me a name. – Jody.
– Jody wants what? – [Audience Member] To
become a famous chef. – Is there a type of cuisine? – [Audience Member] Yeah, Italian. – Okay, Jody wants to be an Italian chef. Like real Italian or Italian-American? – Real.
– Real Italian, good. What stands in the way,
why can’t Jody be a famous? – [Audience Member] She
cannot taste things well. – Okay, Jody has no taste. (laughter) Some chefs say that people
with limited taste are better. They say smokers are better chefs ’cause they overseason, I
don’t know if that’s true. You’ve heard that before?
– No. – In the restaurant
industry, you’ve heard that. Okay, no taste, wants to
be a famous Italian chef. Okay, other than being disappointed, if Jody fails to become a famous
Italian chef, what happens? What’s the consequence? – [Audience Member] She’s
from a long line of chefs so she’ll disappoint her family. – She’ll be disowned and she
won’t get her inheritance. And she’ll be not allowed
to be part of this family. She’s getting kicked out of her family. We didn’t turn it up to Terminator 2, but the stakes have
raised, and we’re like, “Ah, I see why this matters so much.” Anything else? If she doesn’t become
this great Italian chef. – [Audience Member] She’ll have to go back to her day job that she hates. – And it’s actually demeaning and abusive. Okay, and now we’re like,
“Ah, man, I want her “to have her grand passion
’cause I want my grand passion. “I don’t wanna have to go back “to that thing I don’t wanna do.” Let’s do one last one, name. – Alex.
– Alex wants what? – [Audience Member] To visit the moon. – Why can’t Alex visit the moon? What stops Alex from visiting the moon? Say it again. – [Audience Member] Lack of training. – He hasn’t been trained properly by NASA? – Yeah.
– Okay. Wants to go to the moon,
doesn’t have the training. This is a situation, I’m assuming. Why does it matter, what happens if he doesn’t get to the moon? – [Audience Member]
His dad is an astronaut who left something for him on the moon. – Ooh, ooh, and now I’m interested because there’s a family tie,
but there’s also a mystery. What did he leave him? Mysteries make me care more, right? When I get to the last
page, when I finish the film I want to know what was left on the moon. You see how this works? Stakes can be further subdivided
into three categories. External, internal, and philosophical. Let’s discuss, so the external stakes in a story are the real world, physical, tangible thing that your character wants to achieve, do, accomplish. The internal stakes are
what’s at stake emotionally. The one we just did,
this outer space voyage. Emotionally it’s did Dad love
me, am I loved by my father, did he think I’m okay, does he think I’m good enough, whatever
the emotions, right? ‘Cause that’s not necessarily enough to carry a narrative, the actual real world external thing is I
need to get to the moon. Does that make sense, and
these two work together. We have our thing we’re trying to achieve, but there’s emotions involved
that say why it matters. And I’m gonna stay with this one. At a certain point if I
don’t get to the moon, I’m gonna say I’ll die or
I’ll be stuck in outer space. If you’re on the way in an outer space mission, stakes are high. It’s life and death, right? Or that’s how it is in
the movies, I don’t know. And then this one is complicated. Have we heard this one before? This is new, okay, cool. The philosophical stakes are actually a more dynamic way to think about theme. Storytellers talk about theme in all kinds of unhelpful ways. Sometimes they substitute theme for genre. Cool, but what does that mean for us as trying to create
robust, dynamic narratives. Or theme is what are we
left with at the end. Again, not necessarily
the most dynamic way to think about the big ideas. So I’m gonna say the stake,
the philosophical stakes are when we take two competing ideologies. So we have an underdog ideology and then we have a dominant ideology. And I’m gonna say dominant and oppressive. And we put them in competition. And if our character succeeds
then we’ve overturned an ideology that is bigger than our story that effects everyone,
that’s a philosophical idea. So I’ll do one quick
example and then we can play with this a little bit more, which is the best example I know
is the movie Star Wars, the original, 1977, A New
Hope, have we seen this? Has anyone not seen it, it’s okay? That’s okay, if you haven’t
seen it, no judgements. So I’m gonna catch you up real quickly. There’s a kid named Luke, who works on a farm and what does he want? – [Audience Member] To go to outer space. – And what does he wanna be? – A pilot.
– A Rebel pilot. – He wants to be a Rebel pilot. He wants to get involved,
there’s a war going on. And he’s like, “I wanna get off the farm, “I wanna get into the action.” And his uncle tells him what? – [Audience Member] “No,
I need you at the farm.” – We need you at the farm. And there’s a moment where he looks off at the three setting suns
and music is swelling, and he’s like, “I just wanna not be here. “Am I gonna be stuck at
this farm my whole life “or can I dream of something greater?” And a lot of things happen. I’m gonna skip ahead in time. And he saves a princess, his
friend dies, blah, blah, blah. It’s the very end, he’s made new friends, he’s lost some friends, and there’s a final mission he has to do. What does he need to do
at the end of the movie? He needs to destroy
something, the Death Star. So he has external stakes,
destroy the Death Star. If he fails, what happens? – [Audience Member] The
Rebel base is destroyed. – So the whole rebellion
is crushed, right? And who are they fighting with? – The Empire.
– The Empire, the evil Empire. P.S. that’s us. What are the emotions inside of Luke? What are we feeling? – [Audience Member] He
wants to feel like a hero. – Am I allowed to be a hero or am I just some podunk farm kid? Am I allowed to be great? Can I be great, is this real,
can I believe in myself? And then the ideologies, what’s
the ideology of the Empire? What do they believe in,
what’s their world view, how do they think the world should work? The dark side, yeah. – [Audience Member]
Through fear and control. – Fear, control,
intimidation, power, right? And we take what we want, and if you’re in our way, we’ll kill you. Right? That’s the Empire, that’s what empires do, that’s how they move. Now the Rebels, what’s the
world they wanna build? It’s not the Empire, but what is it? We can’t just be against something, we need to envision what we want. What are the Rebels about,
what do they represent to us? – Cooperation.
– Cooperation. Can we be community, can
we take care of each other instead of living in fear,
domination, and selfishness can we actually be communal,
can we have a love ethic that drives us where we take care of each other, are we allowed to do that? So these are what we’re looking at. And when this film was
shown all over the world in many, maybe every language,
at the end of the movie, people jumped up and screamed. It hit theaters in a way no
other movie maybe has since. And a lot of that had to
do with the stakes at play. So within 22 seconds,
should I show it to you? I’ll just show it to you,
I have it right here. I’m gonna show you the
last minute of this film and then I wanna unpack it. Let me find it. Star Wars. Maybe hope, A New Hope. Sorry guys, not finding it, I’m
gonna tell you what happens. – [Audience Member] You have a movie file called Star Wars stakes. – I did?
– Yep. – That’s probably it, thank you. It’s very small on my screen. Can you edit this moment out of the talk? (laughter) There it is, thank you. All right, bla-bla-bla-bla-bla-blah. Okay, important to note, he hired a guy to fly him to
save a princess, Han Solo. They did that successfully,
now there’s the final battle, Han Solo says what to him? He says, “I’m outta here,
this is a suicide mission, “I didn’t sign up for this, bye. “Good luck, nice knowing you.” And they fly out and there’s
a lot of fighting in the sky and people are being killed. And this guy Darth Vader
he gets behind people he locks them in and then he kills them. And these are people, some of
these people we care about. So I’m gonna cut to the
end, the last few minutes. All right, so let’s discuss real quickly. External stakes overturned are what, what did he do to overturn
the external stakes? – Blew up the Death Star.
– Blew up the Death Star. The internal stakes, how
do we know emotionally he’s getting what he wants? – The Force.
– There’s a voice in his head. His dead mentor is talking
to him beyond the grave. How are the philosophical
stakes overturned, how do we know that we can
root for love and compassion over cruelty and abuse? Yeah.
– Han Solo. – Han Solo, yes. It’s not Darth Vader, it’s a friend who actually is the most
selfish person in the universe who comes back selflessly risks his life to save his friend and philosophically the ideology that we are rooting for. We wanna believe a love ethic can win, but we’re not sure. We look at the world, we’re like, “Does a love ethic really win?” And this is the resonance
of the big ideas, putting two ideologies in
conflict with each other in your stakes, does that make sense? And I know I’m showing the most maybe Hollywood blockbuster whatever. It’s obvious here, but it
works in small stories, in intimate stories, in family
stories, in everything else, these tools are universal, so
just if you can trust that. I think I’m out of time, but maybe quick Q and A if you want a Q and A. If not, well, let’s see, anyone
have any questions for me? I tried to squeeze in
too much, I apologize. – Great, awesome.
– Thank you. (applause) All right, and enjoy the rest of your intense summer program. – [Audience Member] I
have a quick question, how did you become a storyteller, what brought you in to this? – Professionally I started
in theater as a playwright. I like telling stories as a kid. I was told that was
something I was good at. People let me cut in line in the cafeteria ’cause I had written a good story. But I started in the
theater, and then I ended up doing film and then
more recently television, but that was my trajectory, yes. – [Audience Member] So when
you start with an idea, how do you personally pull that idea out of you, like what is your process? – It depends if it’s something
that I’m an expert at, and that it’s part of my lived experience. I’ll procrastinate
doing a lot of research. That’s helpful, but it’s
also me avoiding the work I need to do, if you know what I mean. But then I’ll go to these questions, main character, what do they
want, why can’t they get it, what’s at stake, and build from there. So I start with a big thing. I can do real examples, right now. I wanted to do a project
about small cities and medium size cities that
had lost their industry and what happens to unemployed populations and the kind of violent options, whether the option is to join the military ’cause they’re still hiring or to get into some kind of informal
economics which can be very violent depending on where you do it. And those big ideas of post-industrial late capitalist America. That’s a big idea, and I found
my way into a friend who, the film that I made is
about a friend who was involved with gangs and
then got into a situation that was kind of scary and so he joined the military to escape. And it’s about what
happens when he came home and what was waiting for
him, and what wasn’t, these big ideas that I wanted
to look at, the economics, but I found my way into that story, does that answer your question? Cool. Any other questions? Thank you all, have a good night. (applause)

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