Thursday, December 27, 2012

Time Travel: The natural way to tell stories

Ever since Quentin Tarantino’s film Pulp Fiction was released, people have talked in awe about how that film and others have played with traditional notions of story structure. That film tells its story out of sequence and is therefore innovative, or so the reasoning goes. This is a mistake. Telling stories out of sequence is actually as traditional as it gets.

The idea that story structure is ruled by linear chronology is a common error. As I have often written, and told students, one must look at how stories are told in real life. One must study stories not in their written form, or some other medium like TV or films, but in their natural habitat.

Real-life storytelling, person-to-person, is the parent form of every other form of storytelling. In this ancient and most-used form of storytelling is contained every structural element of story.

 Since stories are all around us all the time, if you can train yourself to pay attention to everyday speech, you will learn more than I—or any book, blog, or teacher—could ever tell you about storytelling.

So, let’s look at stories in their natural habitat to see how we are not married to linear chronology in stories and why. 

Someone might tell you a story like this:

STORYTELLER:  So, I go into work this morning – traffic was crazy so I was about five or six minutes late. I grab some coffee from the break-room. Someone had brought donuts so I grabbed one and everyone in the office started talking about their long weekend and what they did. We did that for about 10, 15 minutes until I noticed the time and mentioned that we should get back to work. Someone was in the middle of a story, so they all stayed in the break-room and I headed back to my office. On the way my supervisor stops me and tells me that I’m fired for too much socializing.

That is one way someone might tell you a story, but it isn’t very likely. Why?  It’s a little boring. Why? Because the listener has no idea why they are listening.  Most of us are natural storytellers and understand that power of structure and the manipulation of chronology.  Most of us know to start with the most interesting part of the story to cue people in to why they are listening.

TYPICAL STORYTELLER: I got fired today! So, I go into work this morning – traffic was crazy so I was about five or six minutes late. I grab some coffee from the break-room. Someone had brought donuts so I grabbed one and everyone in the office started talking about their long weekend and what they did. We did that for about 10, 15 minutes then I noticed the time and mentioned that we should get back to work. Someone was in the middle of a story, so they all stayed in the break-room and I headed back to my office.  On the way my supervisor stops me and tells me that I’m fired for too much socializing.

See how this small change impacts the story? Putting the point up front works to engage one’s audience; that sometimes means hopping to the end of the timeline. “I got fired today” is the end of the story. It’s what everything is leading to. But notice how your brain barely notices this time shift. It’s because it is a natural way for us to tell stories and not anyone’s invention or construct.

We all know people who tell stories the way I did in the first example and those people make us very impatient because as listeners we are straining to ascertain just which details of their stories are germane.

The myth is that Hollywood invented story structure. They did not—they capitalized on it. Structure is not about adhering to page counts or putting the story events in a predetermined order, but rather understanding what order of events is most effective for the story one happens to be telling.

My advice—listen to people talk. Listen to people tell stories when they don’t even know that they are doing it. If the story is engaging, chances are they are instinctively using sound structural principles. You can learn all the “rules” of storytelling by listening to people. All you have to do is take the time.


mchap said...

another great post B. amazon emailed me to say my review of ink spots helped someone else purchase your book (trying to spread the gospel for you). how can one become one of your students/attend your classes? I am a professional screenwriter who'd love to learn first hand from you.

Alberto Gomez said...

Same here! I'd love to attend one of your workshops. I'm a story artist from Madrid. I've spent the last two years reading books, blogs, attending classes and studying movies trying to get better as a storyteller. Your blog and books are the best source of all by far.

Brian McD said...

Happy New Year mchap,

Thank you so much for getting the word out!

Brian McD said...

Prospero Año Nuevo, Alberto!

Happy to know that you my books and blog have helped you so much.

I hope to start traveling more as a speaker so maybe I will end up there in Spain one day to do a workshop.

I hope so.

Thanks again for the kind words.

-- Brian

mchap said...

thanks for the reply. id be willing to do something online in the meantime. lets talk cost etc

i have had alot of mentors, some who've even recently been nominated for screenwriting oscar and their advice doesnt hold a candle to your stuff. please help a brotha out B.

Andrew T said...


I love the blog and love the books! I recently bought Invisible Ink for my niece and I'm hoping it helps her with any writing or interpretation she might encounter.

I'm curious if you could offer more on the development of a story in a future posting. Something that outlines how you take a rough idea to a fully operational story that you can work with.



ShaaaA said...

Great post as usual !
but I was thinking that maybe the opposite can be true if your purpose in telling this story is to put the punch and surprise only at the end ? like in a joke ? I think that in that instance you would manipulate chronology and confuse (a bit) your audience by design.

Happy new year by the way best wishes!!

imyjimmy said...

I just noticed that The Green Mile does this. I did try it out on my screenplay, but it didn't work in my case. But I took comfort in knowing that I tried it at least, that way I knew for sure whether or not it would work.

Brian McD said...

Andrew T,

Thanks for reading the books and blog. Hope the book helps your niece.

Your question about how to take something from the rough idea stage to fleshed out story is a hard one. Every writer has his or her own way of doing that.

First of all not everyone means the same thing when they say they have an idea. Sometimes they have character. Sometimes they a location. Sometimes they have a line. Sometimes they have a scene. Sometimes they have a line. Sometimes they have a feeling. So it is hard to talk about how one takes an "idea" and makes a story.

If you are lucky enough to have a character who wants something and can't get it your life will be much easier. Or if you know what you want to say the rest is not so hard. It's still hard. just not as hard.

What I can do is point you in the direction of my book Freeman which is screenplay with my notes for construction included. In it I do talk about my own process and that may help you.

You should also read Paddy Chayefsky's book Television Plays. He talk about the construction of his plays there. Everyone who writes should read it.

Thanks again for reading my stuff.

- Brian

Brian McD said...


Glad you liked the post. Thanks for reading.

The story dictates how it should be told. When the teller starts to do what they want rather than what the story needs they're in trouble.

The thing about a joke is that the form tells you that there will be a twist ending. You pretty much know when someone is telling you a joke so that's why we listen: A guy walks into a doctor's office with a duck on his head.

We listen to find out what's going on and we know in will have something to do with the man and the duck.

There is no reason to start with the ending. We understand why we are listening.

- Brian

Brian McD said...

Hey Jimmy,

Tell the story like you are telling a friend and you will know how to tell it.

- Brian

Louis Perkins said...

Really interesting analysis. I've always been an awful story teller, I wonder if it's because I'm not doing this. Time to start practicing! btw, if you ever need any dell 5100cn toner, I'm your man.

Key P. said...

Dear Brian:

Just enjoyed reading INVISIBLE INK after buying it at the Writer's Store in Burbank, CA! Interesting thing: The cashier there said it was one of the "best-but-most-undersold" books in their screenwriting inventory, and he wished more people knew about it!

Maybe pass that on to your publishers and marketers, 'cause I certainly found it superior to most everything the "big" gurus" are generally teaching.

Also, I assume you've heard of the many connective tissues between your approach and that espoused by the Dramatica Theory people?

No, they do not discuss story as evocatively as you do, but their complex story theory still parallels yours in HUNDREDS of ways. E.g., they devote much discussion to why stories even exist, and how the standard givens of structuring stories have been around as long as there's been human communication.

Also, while I agree with THE GOLDEN THEME that "we are all the same," I think great stories also include the other side of that equation: "... while still being astonishingly different as individuals!"

It's the push and pull of that tension — will the characters move toward their commonalities OR toward their differences, and which direction will actually save them? — that makes profound stories so profound.

Because I DO have a lot in common with Adolf Hitler, AND with Casper Milquetoast. Yet between those two is a stunning array of positions that might best help me in the current situation I'm facing, and the total context should play into whether I need to be more aggressive or more accommodating — without losing my moral center...

So why don't you try to set up a class or webinar through the Writers Store in Burbank, CA, and come check out Would love to interact more, Key Payton

Brian McD said...

Hello Key,

Thanks for checking out the blog and the books. And thanks too for your nice comments.

Thanks for the info about The Writer’s Store; I will pass that on to “my people”. It would be nice to boost sales, but I have been lucky and the word-of-mouth has been good so sales are a least steady.

As far a Dramatica no one that I can remember has mentioned that to me other than you. But stories are fundamental and ancient so there is bound to be crossover from teacher to teacher and from theorist to theorist and from practitioner to practitioner.

As for The Golden Theme I had been looking for years and years for a common link between all stories – a unifying theory, if you will. What clicked for me was the unifying theme that we are all the same. And you know from having read the book I go on to state my case.

And, as you say, there are stories that celebrate our uniqueness and they are powerful. Like DUMBO, which is a pretty good example of such a story. That story certainly says that differences are good.

Dumbo is different – he is an elephant with enormous ears for which he is ridiculed. But whom do we side with? The ridiculers? No, we identify with Dumbo. Why? Because part of what makes us all the same is that we are all different in some way. We feel what Dumbo feels because we have all felt out of place or different at some point in our lives. And in those moments when we feel out of place or judged all we want is for someone to see our humanity. If this were not true we would not feel for Dumbo the way we do.

These types of stories reinforce Golden Theme. It’s kind of a paradoxical idea – we are all the same because we are all different.

As for Burbank, I have spent a lot of time there in my life and do get there from time to time. Last time I was there to give a talk at Disney Feature Animation. I kinda’ love being at Disney. I really do. So there is a good chance that I will be in Burbank at some point in the future. I’d rather do a workshop or something than a webinar. I have never done one though, maybe I should try it out.

You can always write me at There is something funky going on with my Invisible Ink site, but I am on it. You should be able to reach me through there, if you’d like to.

Thanks again, Key, for the thoughtful comments.

-- Brian

SCRIPTMONK!!! said...

Do you have an example from a good traditionally-plotted film that illustrates this principle? It is hard to see how it can be applied to one's writing without seeing it in action.

You are right about Pulp Fiction not being as nontraditional as people think. The fact is, Pulp Fiction is NOT one story told out of order. It does not even count as a nonlinear story. It is an OMNIBUS film. An omnibus film is simply a collection of separate stories, each with their own plots, beginnings, middles, and ends. The order of these stories makes as little difference as watching several episodes of a single TV series out of order. Pulp Fiction's story structure is nothing new. Just something rarely applied in film. Authors have written omnibus novels for centuries.

Brian McD said...

SCRIPTMONK! (aka Michael Welles Schock), I would first urge folks to observe this phenomenon in real-life human speech and to study that for a while. There is so much to learn about storytelling from listening to how people tell stories.

Off the top of my head "traditionally-plotted" movies(classics, in fact)that start with the end of the story and go back to the beginning are Billy Wilder's films Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard.

Here's an old post of mine that explains why one might want to do this:

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