Tag Archives: story archetypes

Here Be (Inner) Dragons: The Art Of Storytelling

Day 3 at TMRE ended with a charming and funny keynote on
storytelling, by a man who’s lived and worked it for decades. Francis Glebas
has decades of experience at Disney and Dreamworks in their visual development and
storyboarding departments, and has written books about his work there (Directing The Story and The Animator’s Eye). 
90s kids in
particular would be impressed by his visual CV: helping nail the look of
Aladdin’s nemesis Jafar, and storyboarding the bittersweet parting scene in Pocahontas. Now Glebas storyboards Sofia The First, a show about a girl who
becomes a princess by accident. He shared stories from his career and spun them
into useful advice for research and marketing professionals looking to tell a
few tales of their own.
Presentations about storytelling tend to take two routes.
One is to focus on story archetypes
the basic concepts that sit behind almost all the stories we tell ‘ like ‘rags
to riches’ or ‘boy meets girl’. The other is to talk about story structure ‘ the shape of stories, and
the rise and fall of the protagonist’s fortunes. The two things cross over
somewhat ‘ ‘tragedy’ is both an archetype (a story with a sad ending) and a
particular kind of inversion of a typical story shape, as a protagonist rises
then falls, instead of the other way around.
Glebas had things to say about both topics. A storyboarder ‘
the person who draws out the way scripted action is going to look on screen, as
if it was a comic book ‘ has an enormous effect on how a story reaches its
audience. For instance, he worked on Pocahontas throughout its development ‘ he
was in the room when it was pitched, and he went on to storyboard the pivotal
scene where John Smith and Pocahontas must leave each other. 
This scene, and
the story as a whole, had been pitched as a Romeo And Juliet tragic love story,
but trying to draw it that way ended up flat. Then Glebas realised ‘ it’s not
tragic, it’s bittersweet. Not Romeo And Juliet, but Casablanca. He redrew the
storyboards to make the characters’ love more obvious and their agency more
apparent ‘ and it worked.
The lesson is that having ‘a story’ isn’t enough. You have to
be telling the right story, to get the emotional tone right and leave people
feeling happy. 
Glebas also talked about effective structure. His watchword
is the ‘four Ws’ which explain the arc of a great story. It all starts with a
WISH ‘ something the protagonist wants. But then they do something WRONG ‘
overreach themselves, make a mistake, find themselves up against too strong an
enemy. It’s then that things are at their WORST ‘ they have not only not got
their wish, but they’ve lost what they had. 
But, as Glebas put it, ‘when you
are in hell, you reorganise or die’. And the story takes a dramatic upswing
(like the neck of a fire-breathing dragon) into WONDER, where by making things
right again the protagonist gets more than they ever dreamed possible.
WISH-WRONG-WORST-WONDER. Glebas presented this structural guide
as part motivational lesson (‘find your inner dragon and ignite your fire!’)
and part pragmatic tip on how to structure stories when it’s your turn to tell
them. It was a warm, wise presentation. 
As with every storytelling guide the precise
set of archetypes and the exact ‘universal’ structure varies ‘ but once you’ve
seen a few that nets out as a feature, not a bug. Storytelling guides are like
diets ‘ it’s a case of finding the one that suits you, not hunting vainly for one
that never fails.