Here is the full text of author Julian Friedmann’s talk titled “The Mystery of Storytelling” at TEDxEaling conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: The mystery of storytelling by Julian Friedmann at TEDxEaling
My name is Julian Friedmann and I am an agent. And I’ll try to speak from an agent’s point of view.
Maybe they’ve never noticed, but agents are in the business of rejection. We reject a lot of people all the time. At my agency, we get 6,000 screenwriter requests every year. And we probably do not hire more than six a year. We know that there are millions of people who want to write, who want to tell stories, but we also know that, most of the time, what they write is not very good.
In fact, it’s extremely annoying. And I would like to try to demystify the process, for it seems that storytelling is somewhat mysterious. There are many experts, and they disagree deeply on many things. And we need to start looking at a really important question, which is: “Why is it so hard to write?” And the answer is, in part, why we have to remember that the story is much more about the audience than about the characters or the plot, and it’s much more about the audience than about who tells the story. I would even say that you can not teach storytelling.
I do not think it’s worth the writers to study this. I am involved in organizing writing courses, so I have to admit that I end up falling on that too. But I say this because I’ve worked with writers for 40 years. I was editor, publisher, agent, executive producer. I’m charmed by the writers and I have a lot of admiration for them.
It takes an incredible dose of courage to put your soul on paper and dealing with probably much less talented people, certainly much less creative, trampling their work. Usually the agents are despised. We have a bad reputation, which is no problem. Once, someone told me, “You’re a very good agent.” I said, “Do not tell people I want to be known as a nasty person.” Once they compared a good agent to a matchmaker, and a bad agent to a pimp. And we are trying to develop long-term relationships, but it is hard. There is a story in Hollywood about why scientists who do cutting edge research for cancer cure are now using agents instead of mice, and there are five reasons for that.
The first is that people in California are crazy. The second is that the animal protection movements are behind scientists who use rats as guinea pigs. The third is that there are now more agents in California than rats. The fourth is that there is no way to get emotionally involved with an agent. And finally, there are some things that mice refuse to do.
Now I would like to talk about adultery, because writers need to be unfaithful. And, with all due respect to the religious people here, the Most Holy Trinity, adultery and the Holy Trinity For me, the Holy Trinity, in my life and in my work, is the writer, the characters and the audience. The writer lives with his characters for a long time, take care of them, after all he created them, and develops a kind of loyalty to them. But very rarely will you have contact with your audience.
Of course, if he succeeds, he will never know more than a minute proportion of it. She probably has very different prejudices and tastes than his. He probably will not want to know about her personal hygiene. Basically, he’s just there to amuse her, to let her on, to stir it up, and in so doing, then leave it. So your primary relationship has to be with your audience, not with their characters.
Well, studying writing is not the best way, so what is it? I think it’s human behavior. It is studying why people behave in a certain way, why are they so irrational, and do terrible and abominable things. Irrationality is something interesting. My mother always used to win the discussions with me saying: “Do not be rational about my neuroses” And there are some experts, people who wrote about movie scripts, which I consider very good, but I do not think most are.
Lajos Egri wrote a book called “The Art Of Dramatic Writing”, whose subtitle is very interesting. The subtitle is: the creative understanding of human motivation as the basis of dramatic writing. So that’s what writers should be doing. Well, we know millions of people want to write. Because? What compels people to tell stories? George Orwell wrote a book, probably one of his lesser-known works, but that I consider his best book. It is called “Why I Write and Other Essays,” in which he tells why he writes, but states that this also applies to most writers. And he gives four reasons. The most important and all-encompassing is pure egotism. Pure egotism. The other reasons are: immortality, take revenge on people who despise us, and try to make the world a better place.
Samuel Johnson would not have agreed with him. He is famous for saying: “No man except a hardhead writes except for money.” He also said one of my favorite phrases about writing when asked to read the originals of a person: “Your book is good and it’s original. Unfortunately, the good part is not original, and the original part is not good.” So I believe that stories define us, not language.
It is always said that language is what defines us. But dolphins have a language, just like whales, the elephants and the chimpanzees have a language, but they do not, at least we know, stories, despite the movie “Planet of the Apes.” Most books on scripts for screens and courses tell us that there is no formula. Many also advise us to write our own experience, one of the main reasons why most of the stories that many people write are very boring. Most of us have very boring lives.
Or is there a formula? A few years ago, while studying with Frank Daniel, a famous teacher, we asked him if when, in an established society, in other words, before there is any writing, when sages sat around the campfire counting moral narratives to try to keep the clan together, assuming they have not read Syd Field or Robert McKee, would they have used the three-act structure? Frank said the three-act structure is actually a function of how the human brain works. You plant information, it fruits. It takes a beginning to get to the middle and then the end. One jokes that in the British film industry is not very well. It has a beginning, a “sting” and an end. Aristotle described the formula, and he did it 2.5 thousand years ago. It did not work only at the time; still works today.
So whoever says there is a formula is wrong, there is. And Aristotle did it in an incredibly easy way to be remembered. There are three words: pen, fear and catharsis. He said, “You have to make the audience feel sorry for a character.” Usually, this is done by forcing the character to undergo unforeseen setbacks.
And that creates an emotional connection of the audience with the character. And, once the writer achieves this emotional connection between the audience and the character, he begins to have some control over the audience. Then, the character is placed in increasingly worse situations. And, because of the emotional connection, of this identification, the audience is afraid. When the character gets rid of that threat, or whatever the situation may be, the audience experiences catharsis. Feather, fear, catharsis.
Well, catharsis is actually the result not an intellectual activity, but the release of chemicals into the bloodstream, especially of the so-called phenylethylamine, also known as “passion hormone.” It is possible to release it into the bloodstream with the ingestion of amphetamine or “ecstasy” or, to do nothing illegal, eating chocolate or having sex. Hence, we can try to save the British film industry distributing chocolate at the movies to anyone watching their movies. People are going to go out and tell their friends how to have fun. But to see that this is not valid only for the Greeks 2,500 years ago, I discovered, in the notes of a program of a series of concerts by Beethoven made by Maurizio Pollini, a very interesting quote: “Beethoven’s preference for happy endings is not, in any way, a tendency for sentimentality, but a musical style similar to Schiller’s philosophy of suffering, struggle and overcoming.” Thus, it is possible to see the pattern: suffering, struggle and overcoming; fear, fear, catharsis; beginning middle and end.
It works. It always worked and will always work. But if you understand all this and do this in your writing. Are they going to write better? No, probably not; it takes more. You need to understand how audiences use your story, why we need stories, what we do with them.
And there is a very interesting example. For years these rock paintings have been known, made 25 thousand years ago, in the famous caves of Lascaux, in the southwest of France. No conclusion has yet been reached on the meaning of the paintings, paintings of animals, and people in the form of little figures. If you know the Maasai, know that in the transition from boys to men, they have to go live in the woods, where they carry a spear, and have to kill a lion. It’s really dangerous.
And what do they do? It is known that they get very drunk and that they do a rhythmic dance until they enter a type of trance. I think these prehistoric caves were the cinemas of that time. I think the hunters went into the caves, they looked at those animals and imagined fear what they would feel when they left for the savannah, or for the woods, to face bears, wild boars, mammoths, saber-tooth tigers. They rehearsed their fear. And I think that’s why we use literature, the theater and the cinema.
So if you know this, you may think, “What is needed now to enable the audience to have experiences with which she can identify? That is enough?” And, in fact, it is not enough, particularly if they are working with movies. We must understand that we, in Europe, we have developed a way of telling stories in the very different cinema the American way. We know that 80% of the box office in Europe goes to American films, because they do far better than ours. Because? Well, they have a bigger budget, can spend more money on development, and have more famous stars. We can not compete with that.
It is a fact, it is a very unequal situation. They also have very accessible characters, as well as enjoying sweet, happy endings. It is very common in the British press to read something saying: “Great movie! What a pity to be so sentimental.” Well, we do it when we need it, too. We did “Four Weddings”, “Trainspotting”, “Dribbling the Destination”, “Billy Elliot” and “East Is East.” They were all incredibly well. Thus, the solutions are: have accessible characters with which the audience engages emotionally. Having optimistic endings, if possible, because we know, statistically, that people like it. Then you have the question of the dialogues. American films have only two-thirds of the dialogues of Europeans.
And this is very important because it means that these movies can communicate with audiences who do not have a high cultural level, even illiterate. I could explain why, but for lack of time, I will not do it now. Another thing that Americans do is to tell stories more visually because, because they use little dialogue, they think almost in storyboard form. And this is important for a very simple psychological reason. We believe in what we see.
We do not believe what we hear. And, in fact, an intelligent script sometimes has dialogues contradicting what we are seeing, because this makes the audience wake up, and instead of reclining as passive spectators, they will lean forward as active participants in the process of watching your movie. We can do it.
Another thing we can do, but we do not do, is shorter scenes. I was told, in a dubbing and subtitling company, that the scenes of American films, on average, are half the length of European film scenes. It’s a huge difference. Well, if you, in your scenes, cut the beginning and end of each, without taking anything that is fundamental for the understanding of the film, end up leaving a gap, which the audience will fill. And in doing so, she’ll feel good. She is watching your film actively, and not passively. It does not cost anything to cut dialogues.
In addition, it gives the composer much more time to use music. And, as we know, music is something much stronger than the words for the emotional connection. And, since your job is to try to create that connection, try. Well, I started today saying, “We are in the field of rejection.” Diana Rigg once edited a book on the worst reviews already made about plays, and the name was: “No Turn Unstoned.” I think that, somehow, we need to face the fact that there will be people criticizing what writers and creative people do. And writers need to be rejected. All great writers have suffered much rejection. We know that. We could actually do a whole TEDx about rejection.
They know the story: the guy goes to a publishing house, imposing entrance of marble, the security man says, “Do you want to talk to who?” He says, “I came to see my editor. I sent my originals to him.” Security looks at the computer screen and says, “Unfortunately he is not, but I can reject him myself if I prefer.” And this shows that you will be rejected by people who are probably not as creative or talented as you are. And that, unfortunately, also usually includes agents.
So, in closing, I want to read to you the best rejection letter I have ever seen. She is, it seems to me, a Chinese economic newspaper, and it was a response to someone submitting an article: “We read your article with immeasurable pleasure. If we published his work, it would be impossible for us to publish any other work of inferior standard. How unthinkable that in the next thousand years let us see something similar, we are, with regret, compelled to return their divine composition, begging him a thousand times to forgive our narrow and cowardly vision.”
So on behalf of the world’s agents, we ask the writers, please, to forgive us by our narrow vision and cowardly. And if, as long as you are egotistically trying to acquire immortality, trying to make the world a better place, or trying to take revenge on the people who despised them, please do not forget, you must entertain us. You have to allow yourself to look at yourself, because when we look at the screen, we are not looking at the actors saying their wonderful speeches.
Not even for the characters you created so prodigally and lovingly. We certainly are not looking at you. We are looking at ourselves, because we are the storytellers, and only we can give them immortality. Thank you.