Tag Archives: story

Surprising candour

On Sunday I attended a wake for a friend. I only knew a couple of people there so I wandered about looking at the photos of a lady, teacher and artist who will be greatly missed.

In doing so, I bumped into a young man (“11 going on 12” in his words) and began a surprising conversation. After establishing he was, like my son, a big fan of explosions and Mythbusters, I asked if he had any siblings present. No, he told me. One sibling had been stillborn and another was born prematurely and didn’t survive. He himself had also been born exceedingly premature, with problems with bleeding in his skull. He showed me scars on his hand from a) picking a scab; b) a recent injury and c) tubes inserted to keep him alive as an infant.

He is, apart from a great kid and a top conversationalist, a reminder that the seeds for stories are everywhere. As I have said many times on this blog, to find stories you just need to wander about with your eyes and ears open.

Incidentally, as part of my commitment to finding the best books for boys, I asked him his favourite author. His vote was for Anthony Horowitz for the Alex Rider series.

Story: Hope over fear

The best-selling bible of screenwriting, Robert McKee’s Story, dedicates its initial chapter to the purpose of storytelling – a quest for the universal human truths that bind us together. McKee says “Story isn’t a flight from reality but a vehicle that carries us on our search for reality, our best effort to make sense out of the anarchy of existence”.

My life, as a journalist, author, parent and human, has been a search for story. I firmly believe that it is by hearing each others’ stories that we learn to see beyond differences in skin colour, socioeconomic background, faith and philosophy. Story brings insight, appreciation, empathy. From these flow compassion and tolerance.

The biggest story in the world today is the inauguration of the new American president.

What I find moving is how the entire globe seems to have invested so much hope in this one man. Listening to talkback radio today and viewing online comments it felt like the world had been starved of hope. As if we’ve been weighed down. Scared. Deadened. Left to winnow for meaning in consumerism and other hedonistic pursuits. (Ouch. Where did that sentence come from, Tim?)

Conscious of the weight of expectation on President Obama’s shoulders, I read his inauguration speech with anticipation. There were several phrases that stood out for me and numerous examples of powerful use of story (along with a forceful repudiation of the outgoing administration).

The phrases:
“We gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.”


“There are some who question the scale of our ambitions – who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.”

Later still:

People will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.

The context of the latter comment was a challenge to foreign ruling powers opposed to US interests. Nonetheless, it works as a stand-alone statement for all to absorb.

As to the President’s use of story, here’s a blog post from The New York Times’ Timothy Egan that sums up how the world was watching, seeking “a story to inhabit”.

Let’s hope we find it.

Turning to books 2

Further to my previous post, here’s what the doyen of screenwriting teachers, Robert McKee, says in his book, Story:
“Imagine in one global day, the pages of prose turned, plays performed, films screened, the unending stream of television comedy and drama, 24-hour print and broadcast news, bedtime tales told to children, barroom bragging, back-fence internet gossip, humankind’s insatiable appetite for stories. Story is not only our most prolific art form but rivals all activities – work, play, eating, exercise – for our waking hours. We tell and take in stories as much as we sleep – and even then we dream. Why? Why is so much of our life spent inside stories? Because, as critic Kenneth Burke tells us, stories are equipment for living.”

McKee goes on to say: “Story isn’t a flight from reality but a vehicle that carries us on our search for reality, our best effort to make sense out of the anarchy of existence”.

I was fortunate enough to attend an intense three-day course with McKee a few years ago. Here’s what he wrote in my copy of his book: “To Tim, Write the truth.” I take this to be part of McKee’s crusade for stories with meaning and universal relevance – as opposed to the soulless material excreted from major film studios with an eye on revenue rather than story.


Among the various e-newsletters I subscribe to is Good Experience, which is written by usability expert* Mark Hurst. In his 26 August edition Mark quotes a Wall Street Journal article about how many senior managers have little idea of the typical consumer experience of their customers.

As Mark puts it, this is easy to fix with LBWA – Listening By Walking Around. It sounds simple but it isn’t. The truth is that too many managers are so busy managing stuff that they lose track of how real people use their products or services. But what has this got to do with being an author, you ask.

Many people don’t know how to find a story. At a recent workshop I conducted, some of the students didn’t put pens to paper for lack of ideas. Others looked at what their mates wrote and changed a word or two, rather than coming up with something unique.

Stories are everywhere. They’re in the reason your teacher arrived at school looking unshaven and red-eyed. They’re in the old woman collecting aluminium cans from bins in your local park. They’re in the teenage couple arguing on a railway platform and the cranky mum walking three paces in front of a bawling toddler at the supermarket.

All you need to do is LBWA – and then ask yourself what has led to this scene or what will follow it. And why.

* Cool job, eh? It’s all about watching how people do stuff – and then thinking how to make it easier.