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The Slate

Storytelling in its Purest Form

Forget the flashy special effects. Brush off the elaborate costumes. Disregard the dramatic acting. What really makes a movie shine is the story it portrays. Really, the success of any creative work of art hinges on its ability to generate and convey a compelling story. Without a good plot, your project is doomed from the beginning.

One particularly helpful presentation on storytelling comes from This American Life radio host Ira Glass.  Even though this four-part video series is from 2009, its message remains just as powerful to aspiring and current artists today. Glass’s 30 years in the radio business have taught him the skills necessary to create stories people want to hear. And his acumen doesn’t just apply to the medium of radio. Throughout the five minute-long videos, Glass gives his veteran advice to anyone wanting to tell stories, discussing everything from the building blocks to the long journey it takes to reach the golden land of engrossing storytelling.

You wouldn’t think describing your daily routine would captivate an audience, but Glass suggests that it could be. It depends, he cautions, on the way you present it. For there are two basic components to every story: the anecdote and the moment of reflection. In the former, you have to unroll a sequence of actions- a story in its purest form- to generate a momentum that propels the audience forward. One of the simplest ways to do this is to create a suspense for the audience, as in raising a question and delaying the answer. With the moment of reflection, you have to reveal what it all means. The, “here is why you’re listening/watching/reading my story.” Without it, the story just becomes a waste of the audience’s time.

Here are a few other nuggets of advice from Glass to storytellers:

  • You have to set aside just as much time to find the right story as you would producing it.  
  • Believe in your taste. It’s what drives your creativity and will be your best tool to improving.
  • Do a lot of work. Like, a huge volume of work.
  • Give yourself deadlines. If you don’t stick to them, laziness takes over and you’ll get nowhere.
  • Fight your way through. As Glass says, “You will be fierce, you will be a warrior, and you will make things that aren’t as good as your heart wants them to be.” But eventually, the stories you create will match your expectations.
  • Use your voice. Don’t change yourself entirely for the screen, whether that’s through the story or how you present it. People will appreciate your unique style far more than your imitation of someone else’s.
  • Be interested in other people or in the world. A good story not only has your own personality in it, but will also attempt to connect to the world outside of you. Without it, there’s no drama, no character, no interest.


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