The Stanton Effect: Inspiration from a TED Talk

Just to give you a head’s up: I’m postponing my third giveaway until next week. (Sorry. I won’t tell you ahead of time what this giveaway involves. Mwwwhahaha!) Since this post is already long, I’ll post again this weekend to let you know who won the gift card and a preorder of Kate Sparkes’s book, Torn. Now, on with our regularly scheduled broadcast. . . .

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The other day, my friend Sharon told me about a TED Talk by writer/director Andrew Stanton. Since I was familiar with his Pixar movies (Toy Story 1, 2, 3; A Bug’s Life; Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, WALL-E, and others), I was eager to hear what tips he had for telling great stories. (I didn’t see John Carter, the sci-fi film he co-wrote and directed [2012], though I read A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs.)

The TED Talk in question is below. There is, however, a small amount of graphic language early on. Just want to warn anyone who might be offended.

Because of its rich tapestry of information, this is one of my favorite talks. Here are some of the storytelling tips Stanton mentioned that really resonated with me:

• Make me care.
• Give a promise that your story will take the reader somewhere worthwhile.
• Invoke wonder.
• Capture a truth from your experience.

There were many other points. Because of that inspiring talk, I have decided to host a series of guest posts on the points Stanton discussed. I’m calling this series the Stanton Effect: Inspiration from a TED Talk. I’m excited to have such a stellar line up of bloggers and authors coming to the blog in the next few weeks to share their thoughts. From time to time, however, I will break away from the series with a post or two about a giveaway. But don’t worry. I’ll get right back to the series.

Today, I’m leading off with Stanton’s first point—make me care. It captured my attention, because it is the number one reason why I usually stop reading a book or watching a film—I simply didn’t care enough.

Make me care. In grad school, my advisors told me the same thing over and over and over again: “You have to make me care about this story.” Yet forging a heart connection with a reader is tricky to do. Tricky, but not impossible. Think of the last story you really connected with. We connect when we can relate to a character’s struggles or hopes.

If you watched Stanton’s TED Talk, you saw a scene from Finding Nemo that absolutely tugs at the heartstrings. The scene below is the beginning of that scene.

We connect as we think about the losses in our own lives. Though Stanton made a different point when showing the scene, I can’t help thinking of how the filmmakers caused me to care without making me feel manipulated.

DarkestPartoftheForest_coverI also think of a book I’ve read twice now: The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black. In the opener, Black describes a glass coffin that is pivotal to the main character’s story. (You learn that fact on the book jacket.)

It rested right on the ground, and in it slept a boy with horns on his head and ears as pointed as knives.

As far as Hazel Evans knew, from what her parents said to her and from what their parents said to them, he’d always been there. And no matter what anyone did, he never, ever woke up. (1)

Black made me care, because the unusual image of a boy in a glass coffin stirred my curiosity and reminded me of fairy tales I love. But most of all, I cared because Black showed me what Hazel was interested in right off the bat. I cared, because Hazel cared.

Another way Black made me care is through her obvious concern for her characters—good, bad, or in between. She cared enough to show them at their strongest or most vulnerable without making a judgment call either way. I can’t help contrasting her efforts to the number of times I’ve heard an author admit to disliking a certain character in his/her own book—usually the antagonist. An author’s dislike of his/her character is always a red flag for me. I need to care even about the most morally repugnant individual in a story. If I don’t, I’ll head for the exit quickly.

If you saw the series, Avatar: The Last Airbender, on Nickelodeon, you’re familiar with this dude:

zuko

Prince Zuko

Avatar-Episodes-Book-1-Water-300x300Slight spoilers in this paragraph to follow. (Be warned.) Throughout the first book of the series—Water—Zuko is clearly working against the heroes. Though he has his own agenda, I couldn’t help caring about him, because the writers (including series creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko) made him a well-rounded character. They showed the physical and emotional wounds motivating his actions. They also gave him an antagonist. I cared, because they cared.

If we want to make readers care about our work, we need to love our characters. We don’t have to approve of their actions, particularly the bone-headed ones. But we definitely need to understand why they do what they do. Caring about them is what makes a story great.

Black, Holly. The Darkest Part of the Forest. New York: Little Brown and Company, 2015. Print.

Andrew Stanton from zimbio. Zuko from earnthis.net. Avatar book 1 DVD cover from avatarthelastairbenderonline.com.

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34 thoughts on “The Stanton Effect: Inspiration from a TED Talk

  1. This is such an important point. I’m torn about the book I’m reading at the moment (Red Shirts by John Scalzi) because I don’t care about any of the characters but the plot is just clever and amusing enough for me to keep reading. GoodReads recommended The Darkest Part of the Forest to me just the other day, and I’m quite keen to read it.

    Zuko ❤ I love that that show makes you care about everybody.

    • I thought about reading Red Shirts, because I sometimes read his blog. Hmm. I might hold off on reading it for now. I’ve got other books to read.

      I recently watched Avatar Book 3 again. Love Zuko!!!

      • That was my reasoning, too. I follow him on Twitter as well and quite enjoy his discussions there, but I’m wondering if maybe his books aren’t for me. (I finished Red Shirts this morning before work, it’s only a two-star book for me)

      • You know, I haven’t read any of his books, though he’s a best-selling author. I thought the premise of Red Shirts sounded clever too. But a two-star book isn’t what I’m looking for right now.

  2. Very good point for just about everything. I keep thinking about being in school and trying to care about some the things I was learning. If one doesn’t see a point in it then it’s hard to pay attention and retain. Probably goes for just about everything in life. Sticking to books, I can think about a few that I trudged through or gave up on because I didn’t care. Seems to have more with movies, but I tend to hold out with those on the off-chance that there will be that one scene to change the tides.

    Do you think some authors miss this mark because they already care about the characters, so they think the reader will automatically be the same? Not a conscious thought, but one that unknowingly gets them to hold back.

    (I plan on working on my post this Saturday. Looking forward to it.)

    • Great! Your post will go up after Nancy’s!

      I keep hearing the old saying, “There’s a story for everybody.” That’s probably true of some of the books I stopped reading. I didn’t care, but perhaps someone else connected with them more. Yet in some cases, an author who presents a character he or she thinks people might like because that type of character is normally popular (I’ve seen a lot of romance books featuring hot guys with multiple tattoos and razor stubble) without putting any effort into making the character real or less cliché, might be in for a rude awakening by a jaded audience.

      • That does seem like a common romance character. Scars are another thing that I saw in many of the books I read. Then again, every genre has stuff like that. The grizzled, alcoholic warrior past his prime comes to mind for fantasy.

      • One of my main characters has a scar, so I’m in the thick of that. 😀 All I need is a grizzled has been and a scruffy tatted guy and I’ll have the complete set. I can add them later.

        I think you should write another post about a character store. Three cliché characters or one?

      • You can make a scruffy, grizzled tatted has been guy who got a scar while getting the tat. It’ll melt people’s brains.

        I’ve been thinking of something that the store can sell again. The cliche thing is a possibility. My only worry is that the topic always seems to bring in some high emotions. That and I figure a cliche to one person is new to another. It’s such an odd thing.

  3. Yes! Stories reel us in when driven by believable characters residing in the “real world” (even if that world is make believe ~ like Harry Potter and Hogwart’s).

    When characters are “real,” we understand where they’re coming from, we relate to their challenges, we feel their pain, and we want to see them succeed => so we keep turning pages.

    • So true, Nancy. A skilled author can make a character seem like a friend. Glad you brought up Harry. I’ve never turned pages as fast as I did when I read those books!

  4. Excellent post, L. Marie! I agree, if we don’t care about the character, what’s the point in reading. This is what I love about the “Good News” segment of our local news. The reporter never fails to make me care about the person and warm my heart. Thanks for sharing the link. I look forward to listening.

    • Thanks, Jill. I used to love to watch the “Someone you should know” segments on our local news.

      I really liked what Stanton said about loving people once you hear their story. That’s so true. Once we walk a mile in someone’s shoes, we appreciate that person more.

    • I’m going to have to put that in my Netflix queue then. I wasn’t sure how it would at the box office. Maybe it gained new life with its release on Blu-ray/DVD.

  5. If I can figure out how to make people care in a sound byte, I’ll rule the world. Gosh, making people care is so hard, especially when they’re bombarded with stuff all day, every day. I do it best in my appearances…….because to get people to pick up a book in the first place, we have to make them care about IT.

    • Ha. So true. But he made people care by his incredible body of work. Who doesn’t know Finding Nemo??? But someone who announces that she just walked over 400 miles–that would earn my attention instantly. 😀

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