John Stevenson's Story Keynote: So good, we had to want it

By ANAND GURNANI | 21 December, 2009 - 17:00

With a John Stevenson Keynote, MDeC made sure that everyone had to want Kre8tif. Sure we all were delighted to be a part of the wonderful event.

Titled, "Story is King or Back to Basics for Success", the John Stevenson keynote was amongst the best sessions ever on the topic of story and its telling. Embedded with quotes that, to aspiring and practicing writers, will be more valuable then gems, John also gave his practical, tangible and powerful tips on how to make content so good that the audience would have to want it.

For anyone aspiring to write great stories and content and make films, the following excerpts from John's keynote need to be printed, enlarged, framed and put on the wall in front of your desk. Seriously!

"The first question I am usually asked is "what kind of software or computer should I use"? I say that the first thing I am interested in is the 'story'. And we all already have the best computer in the world and it is free, our brains and the best software to use is our imaginations. Your best chances for success are far more to do with your story and your characters rather than with tools and software"

"A lot of people don't understand the art of storytelling and find it daunting and impenetrable," continued John. 'But although telling a story well is accomplished through a lot of hard work there are some simple techniques and things you can learn and use."

John then shared some beautiful quotes including those from Uncle Walt himself. Quoting Walt Disney, "Our films are about three things-story, story and story!" "That's how important story was in Walt's film making" said John, "Walt Disney was the first to create a story department and the initial reason was to save costs as careful planning in the story department could save time and money throughout production."

"I honestly feel that the heart and soul of our organization is the story department," Walt Disney said in 1935. Why is it so important? "Because everything that happens in story affects the entire production process." He added.

Quoting the great Greek philosopher Aristotle, "All stories are about how should a human being lead their life. It is the only subject we as a species are interested in. However we are happy to have our stories told to us using symbols for human beings, and those symbols can be ogre shaped, robot shaped, panda shaped-whatever you want."

The next quote John shared was from William Faulkner, "The only subjects worth writing about are the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself."

He then shared his 1 point thumb rule for story writing and content creation. "The only question your audience needs to ask is What Happens Next?"

Stressing upon the aspiring studios and creators to focus on good story and narrative, John pointed out that, "A good story cannot be ruined by poor animation but neither can a poor story be saved by the very best animation".

Highlighting this point, Stevenson showed a student film titled "Kiwi!" which till date has clocked 24 million hits on YouTube! The film had some simple rendering and graphics but was compelling. John shared, "Its not technically pretty and has very basic rendering, but it does have great acting, great story telling, and is great film making. It is evident that this student knows his craft of telling a story, and I would straight away hire the guy!"

    John then shared an important list of questions that he felt every film maker, content creator, and story teller ought to ask himself as he/she went about their work. The great Jim Henson put this 5-question test forth originally and John shared it for the benefit of the audience.

    1. Whose story is it?

    2. What is their goal?

    3. Who or what opposes them?

    4. What are the consequences of failure?

    5. What is changed if they succeed?

Continuing his keynote, John next shared the approach of the Chuck Jones' Yes Session.'

"Chuck Jones knew that negativity could instantly kill an idea" shared John, "So the rule at his place was this. Whenever a writer came with a new idea, they gathered all the team members to discuss and brainstorm and the rule was nobody could say anything negative, one could only say something positive, if you did not like an idea you had to suggest a better one, rather than criticizing". And in the next few hours, charged with a non-negative and fully positive atmosphere, they came up with enough ammunition to build the story and the ideas into something really good.

"And this positive approach works in other areas of problem solving as well." John pointed out.

Another area that John touched upon in his keynote included Improv. The rule is,
Always "yes, and" never "no but…"

"In improv it's all about making your partner look good, in film making its all about making the film look good. Remember it is not about you, it is about the film. When you work with the people on your team make them look good." Shared John.

He also spoke about Reincorporation. Starting and ending with a similar element or point, bringing out the theme of what you have created and digging deeper into it. John also advised, "Avoid any scene which is only continuity. It's not interesting to see someone get somewhere, only what happens when they get there".

Elaborating upon the merits of brainstorming and steering it the way its supposed to be, John shared some tips with a slide entitled "The Tar Pits of Brainstorming."

"Brainstorming can be easily derailed" he said, you need to have some rules written on the board during the brainstorming session. They should read, "No Editing No Evaluating, No Elaborating."

"Just keep getting new ideas! Don't stop to debate, forward momentum is all-important. Don't edit during the session."

John also recommended a few books. Amongst them, a book called 'The Art Of Dramatic Writing: It's Basis In The Creative Interpretation Of Human Motives." The book was first published in 1946 by Lajos Egri & Gilbert Miller. "Go get that book, it's a gem!"

Sharing some insights into the building of characters, John illuminated, "Character is revealed by choices made under pressure. What does your character want? Vs what does your character need? For example what Shrek wants is to be left alone, but what he needs is to be loved. His need is to be accepted for who he is."

He then shared some tips and rules from David Mamet from his book "On Directing Film."

Understand first what the scene means.

What changes in this scene?

What does this scene change?

Quoting Bob Zemeckis, Stevenson then added, "What is the 'Red Dot" of the scene?"
"There is always one big idea that is of greater importance than any other in every scene and if you don't know what it is and prioritize it then your scene will be unclear and weak."

What does the audience take away?

What is the best P.O.V for this scene?

Concluding his keynote, Stevenson shared that Disney was asked in 1951 as to why he spent years working on the stories of his films.

Quoting Disney's answer, "Well you just have to do it! You have to keep experimenting. Keep having meetings. Meetings of minds- and hearts. Keep talking. Keep trying. Keep making drawings. Keep throwing drawings away. Keep doing better- always better. And always remember-make it so good they'll have to want it!"