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The Clues To A Great Story – The Coaching Room

Andrew Stanton: The clues to a great story

 The following article is derived from the accompanying video. It is provided as an additional resource for your reading convenience.

In this TedTalk, Andrew Stanton tells his audience “Storytelling –is joke telling. It’s knowing your punchline, your ending, knowing that everything you’re saying, from the first sentence to the last, is leading to a singular goal, and ideally confirming some truth that deepens our understandings of who we are as human beings.”

As he says, stories affirm who we are and are ways to give our lives meaning. And nothing, Stanton explains, does a greater affirmation than when we connect through stories. “It can cross the barriers of time, past, present and future,and allow us to experience the similarities between ourselves and through others, real and imagined.”

Stanton relates that, “The most current story lesson that I’ve had was completing the 2012 film  “John Carter.” It’s based on a book called “The Princess of Mars,” which was written by Edgar Rice Burroughs.


Edgar Rice Burroughs.jpg


And Edgar Rice Burroughs actually put himself as a character inside this movie, and as the narrator. Briefly, he’s summoned by his rich uncle, John Carter, to his mansion with a telegram saying, “See me at once.” But once he gets there, he finds out that his uncle has mysteriously passed away and been entombed in a mausoleum on the property.

Butler: You won’t find a keyhole.

Thing only opens from the inside.

He insisted, no embalming, no open coffin, no funeral.You don’t acquire the kind of wealth your uncle commanded by being like the rest of us, huh?


Come, let’s go inside.”


Stanton explains, “What this scene is doing, and it did in the book, is it’s fundamentally making a promise. It’s making a promise to you that this story will lead somewhere that’s worth your time. And that’s what all good stories should do at the beginning, is they should give you a promise.” “You could do it an infinite amount of ways”, Stanton goes on to say.

“Sometimes it’s as simple as ‘Once upon a time … ‘ These Carter books always had Edgar Rice Burroughs as a narrator in it. And I always thought it was such a fantastic device. It’s like a guy inviting you around the campfire, or somebody in a bar saying, ‘Here, let me tell you a story. It didn’t happen to me, it happened to somebody else, but it’s going to be worth your time.’ “A well told promise is like a pebble being pulled back in a slingshot and propels you forward through the story to the end.”


In 1998, Stanton says he had finished writing “Toy Story” and “A Bug’s Life” and he became completely hooked on screenwriting.

“So I wanted to become much better at it and learn anything I could. So I researched everything I possibly could. And I finally came across this fantastic quote by a British playwright, William Archer: ‘Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty.’”

“It’s an incredibly insightful definition, Stanton says.  “When you’re telling a story, have you constructed anticipation? In the short-term, have you made me want to know what will happen next? But more importantly, have you made me want to know how it will all conclude in the long-term? Have you constructed honest conflicts with truth that creates doubt in what the outcome might be?”

An example would be in ‘Finding Nemo,’ Stanton tells his audience. “In the short tension, you were always worried, would Dory’s short-term memory make her forget whatever she was being told by Marlin. But under that was this global tension of will we ever find Nemo in this huge, vast ocean?”


Finding Nemo.png


“A strong theme is always running through a well-told story.” Stanton says. “ And what I think the magic ingredient is, the secret sauce, is that you invoke wonder. Wonder is honest, it’s completely innocent. It can’t be artificially evoked. For me, there’s no greater ability than the gift of another human being giving you that feeling –to hold them still just for a brief moment in their day and have them surrender to wonder.”

In 1986, Stanton says he truly understood the notion of story having a theme. “That was the year that they restored and re-released ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’ And I saw that thing seven times in one month. I couldn’t get enough of it. I could just tell there was a grand design under it –in every shot, every scene, every line. Yet, on the surface it just seemed to be depicting his historical lineage of what went on. Yet, there was something more being said. What exactly was it? It wasn’t until, on one of my later viewings, that the veil was lifted and it was in a scene where he’s walked across the Sinai Desert and he’s reached the Suez Canal, and I suddenly got it.”


Lawrence of Arabia.png


Stanton references the dialog in the movie “Lawrence of Arabia”:

Boy: Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!

Cyclist: Who are you?

Who are you?

Stanton says, “That was the theme: Who are you? Here were all these seemingly disparate events and dialogues that just were chronologically telling the history of him, but underneath it was a constant, a guideline, a road map. Everything Lawrence did in that movie was an attempt for him to figure out where his place was in the world. A strong theme is always running through a well-told story. When it’s tapped, the affirmation of being alive, it reaches you almost to a cellular level. And when an artist does that to another artist, it’s like you’re compelled to pass it on. It’s like a dormant command that suddenly is activated in you, like a call to Devil’s Tower. Do unto others what’s been done to you. The best stories infuse wonder.”


Andrew Stanton is an American film director, screenwriter, producer and voice actor. His film work includes Pixar’s 1998 A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo, WALL-E, and Disney’s John Carter.  He also co-wrote all three Toy Story films as well as Monsters, Inc.


Andrew Stanton.jpg

Andrew Stanton

By nicolas genin from Paris, France

[CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]


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