Marketing firms these days tend to gush about storytelling as if it had just been invented. The standard thinking is that if the word “storytelling” is thrown into a pitch, would-be clients will begin salivating like one of Pavlov’s dogs. The fact that some clients actually do start salivating at the word doesn’t help matters, as it just encourages continued usage of the storytelling term as a catch-all for our creative magic wands.
As content creators, freed from the time bounds of the 30-second spot, we of course want to tell great stories -- but the question of how to arrive at greatness is often veiled in mystery, or thrown into a PowerPoint surrounded by brand language designed to obfuscate. After all, if someone really had a formula for creating great stories, they’d be rich.
It turns out there are formulas, and yes, many people who use them are rich as hell. Just take a drive around Brentwood, California, to see what I mean.
One formula they and others have used very effectively is letting the story find you.
Consider this example: Doris Kearns Goodwin, the Pulitzer-prize winning historian, set out to write the definitive biography of Abraham Lincoln. As her research progressed, a new story idea came to her, one that was far more interesting: the bitter battle for the presidential nomination, and Lincoln’s politically brilliant decision to hand-pick his fiercest rivals to join his cabinet. All of this set against the backdrop of the civil war, which could only have been won with the help of the extraordinary men who had recently ridiculed him in public. This became her remarkable book "Team of Rivals."
Steven Spielberg’s "JAWS" helped create the summer blockbuster genre. Based on Peter Benchley’s bestseller, "JAWS" certainly had all the makings of a great story. But lots of best-selling books flop when they get on screen. How did Spielberg create a hit? He started out with the notion that he had to bring this monster shark to life. So he had a huge mechanical shark made. The problem was that the damned thing didn’t work very well and kept breaking down.
Just as Goodwin let a new story come to her, Spielberg embraced a new direction. If he couldn’t make the shark a visible terror, he’d play to our imaginations with an unseen terror. The famous first scene in the movie with the swimmer being eaten is notable because we never once see the shark. Pass the popcorn.
Documentary filmmakers are skilled at this craft. They know what they’re going after, but they understand they are not in full control, nor do they want to be.
Many clients today may insist on seeing the complete story in script form before signing off on an idea (or a big budget item). I think they are better off signing off on a process. This process entails allowing the creative team to dive into the research, develop the overall framework and point of view for the campaign, and get started with execution. But they must also remain constantly vigilant for the story that’s trying to find them.
The story is like a living thing -- elusive and brilliantly beautiful. If you’re lucky, and you keep your eyes wide open, it will come into view.