The Pixar in a Box series on Khan Academy is fascinating in how it breaks down the behind the scenes process of one of the world’s most impressive storytelling bodies. I’ve long been impressed with Pixar’s ability to tell a compelling story that works for so many audiences; even when I’m less enamored with a particular film than I might be (I didn’t care for Up, for example), I can’t deny that they do it right, with interesting characters, inventive plots, and delightful settings.
The Art of Storytelling is of interest even if one isn’t writing for film, or for that matter writing at all, because it gets to what I think is the heart of the storytelling compulsion. It’s not about writing what you know in the sense of what you have the factual background to cover; a story isn’t a technical manual, and these days it’s easier than ever to find an expert in whatever knowledge you need for a story, be it firearms or mushrooms or the weather on Mars. I think the “write what you know” saying neglects to define its terms: what a person knows might be summed up as the totality of their life experience, beliefs, and values. One way of getting at that is to think about one’s favorite stories and why they are favorites, which is a module in the Art of Storytelling.
When I picked my desert island movies, the three I came up with were Thelma & Louise, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Strange Days. It’s not that I think these are the best movies ever made, though I do think all three are very good. It’s that I walked out at the end of each of them thinking to myself, “They get it.”
Most of my characters are women, though they aren’t always my protagonists. These three films all feature badass women juxtaposed with injustice. In reflecting I found it curious that while I write a lot of women, and at least a few of my stories have dealt thematically with injustice, none of them have thrown the two together with quite as much verve as my favorite desert-island movies have.
The Art of Storytelling also takes you through creating your own what-if scenarios, a thought experiment by no means confined to science fiction (though science fiction writers sometimes act as though we have a monopoly on the question). I guess what I’m saying is that if what comes out of this exercise is something that owes more to Thelma & Louise, Fury Road, and Strange Days than anything else I’ve written so far, it perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise.