The art (and craft) of storytelling

Last weekend I took part in a fantastic (and, astoundingly, free) masterclass on storytelling.

This was delivered over two days in Glasgow by the writer, story consultant and Pixar genius Matthew Luhn, and Hazel Marshall, a vastly experienced writer and former BBC story advisor.

Although the masterclass was aimed at those looking to get into screenwriting, there were universal truths that apply to storytelling across any medium – creative and factual.

Day two of the Story workshop at BBC Scotland

Organised by Creative Loop, the masterclass aimed to strike a balance between inspirational and practical, with day one devoted to Matthew and Hazel explaining the theory behind great storytelling, and day two taking the form of a practical workshop to run an idea through the stages of the process, in small teams.

I won’t try to cover everything from my 15 pages of notes, but I want to share my main take aways for anyone who might be interested in storytelling, whether you’re working with fact or fiction.

The idea

It all starts with a What If? idea, according to Matthew.

“What if a rat wanted to become a French chef?” (Ratatouille)
“What if a robot wanted to fall in love?” (Wall-E)

This is also known as the hook: the source of the story’s conflict / action, and what makes it unusual or unexpected.

The only way to make a beautiful idea, according to Hazel, is to push past the ugliness. In other words, get out of your own way.

Some of our team’s premise ideas, based on two random characters: a lawyer and a Scottish teenager

The building blocks of good stories

“We tell stories to search for meaning and significance in our lives. We all need to understand death and to cope with death, and we all need help in our passages from birth to life and then to death. We need for life to signify, to touch the eternal, to understand the mysterious, to find out who we are.” – Joseph Campbell, author of Hero With a Thousand Faces

All stories have two recurring similarities:

  • A hero / the human psyche
  • A beginning, middle, and end*

* If not, it’s not a classical story structure, and more likely either Minimalist or Antistructure. Classical structure appeals to most of the world, whereas the other two have limited audiences.

Matthew discussed the elements of inspiring stories with reference to Pixar’s Up…

Exposition: the who, what, where, why
Up: boy meets girl, timid v adventurous, their life story

Inciting Incident: turn the protagonist’s life upside down (in a cautionary tale, you give the protagonist what they want)
Up: construction worker is hit on the head

Progressive Complications: the journey begins, obstacles, reversals
Up: Carl takes balloons and floats away, but the little boy is still on the porch

Midpoint: major goal reversal
Up: Carl starts to care for little boy Russell

Crisis: character has experienced redemption but can’t attain it (often mantras or songs can spark an epiphany, such as “trust the force”)
Up: Carl reads his wife’s message about having an adventure

Climax: character has seen the light and acts on it
Up: Carl throws memories out of the house, so it can lift up again

Resolution: all stories/characters wrapped up
Up: Carl is there for Russell’s ceremony

Matthew also shared a useful tool for building your story from the initial idea: The Story Spine.

This is a simple form that can give even the most rudimentary ideas a story structure.

Once upon a time… (exposition)
And every day…
Until one day… (inciting incident)
And because of that…
And because of that… (progressive complications)
And because of that…
Until finally… (crisis / climax)
And since that day… (resolution)
The moral of the story is… (theme)

Explore the world of your story:

  • Make sure everything is based on truth (Pixar talked to psychologists for Inside Out)
  • Know the world better than the audience
  • Explain the rules of the world in the exposition

Working out the theme

The theme is why people love films; it’s the take away or lesson:

Crime doesn’t pay – The Untouchables
Love conquers all – The Princess Bride
The truth will set you free – The Matrix
Being over-protective won’t lead your loved ones to a better life. Life has to take its course and you have to learn when to let them go – Finding Nemo

Never have a character verbalise the theme – people hate being told what to feel.

But you can hint at it: “If you never let anything happen to Nemo, nothing will ever happen to him.” – Dory

When telling a story you should always ask:

  • What is the take away?
  • What is the lesson?
  • How do you want the audience to feel?

Respect your audience: don’t speak over or below them.

Only have ONE main theme for your story.

It’s how the hero changes at the end that illustrates the theme.

Character development

Matthew pointed out that a character can motivate an entire idea – e.g. a sad lonely robot (Wall-E)

Ask: what is the main character’s personal hell?

It’s also important to think about the character’s…

Fears: fear from the past, and still to this day
Strengths: not talents, but character traits
Flaws: things said about you behind your back
Dark Side: worst character trait / your lowest low
Traits they admire in other characters: not talents, but character traits

Make characters CHANGE, for good or bad.

Characters should speak differently, and be identifiable from their dialogue, according to Hazel:

“Listen to people – in shops, on buses, at home or work. Some people speak in a direct manner, others never say what they mean. Some use a lot of words, some very few, some constantly interrupt. Really listen to how people speak. It’s rarely in full sentences and often they won’t directly answer each other. If they’re shy they may never ask for what they want.”

Crafting your story

How much to tell?

‘Kill your darlings’ – if it doesn’t add to the story, take it out, no matter how brilliantly written it is, Hazel said.

Also, three commonly cited rules:

Get in as late as possible
Get to the point
Get out as early as possible

Scenes and stories should have:

  • Conflict
  • Emotion
  • Build to a high point
  • A surprise element

There has to be change and movement in every scene or story.

How to edit your story

“By the time I am nearing the end of the story, the first part will have been reread and altered and corrected at least 150 times. I am suspicious of both facility and speed. Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.” – Roald Dahl

Look for something different every time:

  • Story
  • Brevity
  • Clarity
  • Voice
  • Words
  • Cliches, tenses, adverbs and adjectives

Go to someone you trust for feedback / fresh eyes – but tell them the kind of feedback you want.

First draft: heavy lifting, where you encounter problems, the story (the hard part)
Later drafts: play with words, cut out cliches, the words (the fun part)

More editing tips:

  • Be active, not passive
  • Hide your knowledge (too much jargon, complication)
  • Follow the pattern, and find rhythms
  • How could I write this differently?
  • Is it doubling up? (with what you see on screen)
  • Don’t use too many adverbs and adjectives
  • Use emotional language

Hazel’s tips for writers:

  • Just get something down. It’s easier to work with something than nothing.
  • First drafts are always awful. But they do get better.
  • Push beyond stereotypes and cliches.
  • Writing can be hard work. Show up. Put the hours in. Some days will be harder than others. Keep going…
  • Know the purpose of every scene.
  • Read your work aloud. It’s the best way to pick up errors.
  • Listen to people. Look at the world around you. Keep a notebook with you.
  • Don’t always write on the computer. You notice different things when you write by hand.
  • Keep an eye on adverbs and adjectives. Don’t let them take over.
  • If you skip over a paragraph or page or scene, so will the reader.

And finally… celebrate when you finish something!


In summary, this really was a great workshop to be involved in. The Sunday session was also a good way to meet other writers, producers and creatives from across Scotland and beyond. Everyone seemed to go away full of energy and enthusiasm. Thanks again to Creative Loop – and to Matthew and Hazel.

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