A Glass Case of Emotion
Plus the 3 books people said influenced their lives the most
Happy Saturday from Austin.
Today’s hook comes from one of my favorite animated movies. Hit me back with your best guess:
“This is the story of how I died.”
(PS: It's a great example of “Jenga Storytelling” to pull the audience in)
Last week’s answer: When Breath Becomes Air (almost 200 of you nailed it)
A message from... Me!
The interest in this tweet blew me away...
One way to become a better storyteller:
Take your two favorite authors. I recommend one non-fiction and one fiction.
Copy, word for word, their best work. Do it by hand.
I chose Paul Kalanithi and Neil Gaiman.
It’s the single exercise that improved my writing the most.
— Nathan Baugh 🗺️ (@nathanbaugh27)
Jan 5, 2023
In my experience, there are two ways to get good at storytelling:
- Study the greats (what this newsletter is for)
- Practice, practice, practice
I do a lot of practice through StoryWork.
And so many of you liked, commented, and sent me DMs about the practice I decided to turn it into a guided course for you.
Check it out:
The movie Up starts with the tragic tale of Carl and Ellie. By the end of those first four minutes, you want to find your partner and give them a hug.
Up’s opening scene is notoriously sad.
Pixar decided to rip your heart out in the first 4 minutes of the movie.
But what makes it such an effective hook? Why is it the perfect opening?
Here’s a quick breakdown:
— Nathan Baugh 🗺️ (@nathanbaugh27)
Dec 15, 2022
About a minute and a half in, Ellie has a miscarriage. It’s shocking to see in a Pixar movie. But that’s the point. Suddenly, the story of Carl and Ellie goes from happy newlyweds to that of a grieving, lost couple.
Here’s the lead writer on the decision:
“There was a time a few people at Pixar felt the miscarriage went too far, so we tried editing it out. Without it, the montage was not as emotional, of course – but interestingly the rest of the film suffered without it and we didn’t care as much through the whole movie.”
Every one of us has felt hopeless and lost at one point in our lives. As storytellers, the Up writers tapped into those shared emotions to bond the audience to Carl and Ellie.
When we listen to Steve Jobs’ 2005 commencement address at Stanford, watch Nike’s brilliant commercial after Tiger Woods won the 2019 Masters, or read David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water, it’s not the structure or the analysis that make the stories great. It’s the emotion.
How can we pull at heartstrings like these master storytellers? How can we tap into that raw emotion? Combine a healthy dose of practice and preparation with these techniques:
When telling a story, you are not confined to the simple truth. Exaggeration lets you heighten emotion — fear, loss, love. Make the normal remarkable.
Almost always, you want your characters' lives to get far worse before they get better. Exaggerate, get creative. That's when your audience feels. Hence why, when Pixar needed Carl and Ellie to experience sadness, they went with a miscarriage instead of just an argument.
Check out this passage from the first chapter of George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones:
"It was the cold,” Gared said with iron certainty. “I saw men freeze last winter, and the one before, when I was half a boy. Everyone talks about snows forty foot deep, and how the ice wind comes howling out of the north, but the real enemy is the cold. It steals up on you quieter than Will, and at first you shiver and your teeth chatter and you stamp your feet and dream of mulled wine and nice hot fires. It burns, it does. Nothing burns like the cold. But only for a while. Then it gets inside you and starts to fill you up, and after a while you don’t have the strength to fight it. It’s easier just to sit down or go to sleep. They say you don’t feel any pain toward the end. First you go weak and drowsy, and everything starts to fade, and then it’s like sinking into a sea of warm milk. Peaceful, like.”
GRRM personifies the cold (“it steals”), compares it (“but the real enemy”), and uses a paradox: “Nothing burns like the cold.”
His exaggeration of cold gives you the chills. It sets the tone for the entire series — The Song of Ice and Fire.
Storytelling is as much about what you chose to omit as what you include.
Your story must create open loops — places where you raise questions, create slippery slopes, and let your audience’s mind explore on its own.
Omission – withholding info – is a great way to do just that.
Ernest Hemingway shared his Theory of Omission:
“If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.”
Master storytellers bend time to their will. They slow down. Or speed up. On command.
Pacing keeps your story alive. Vary the length of your sentences, experiment with different words, play with the structure of your paragraphs.
Had a slow scene? Speed it up:
- Choppy sentences
- Short paragraphs
- 'ing' words
But then when do you want to slow down?
Right at the climax. It’s a bit counter-intuitive. Slowing down heightens the effect of the most important moments in your story. Make a 3-second moment fill 3 pages. How?
Make your paragraphs longer, add sensory details, use commas, and layer on the drama. Force your audience to hang on to every word.
Great storytellers, from authors to entrepreneurs to producers, have one thing in common. They make you feel a certain emotion.
Lean into that emotion.
I’ll leave you with this gem:
The most amazing thing for me is that every single person who sees a movie brings a whole set of unique experiences. But through careful manipulation and good storytelling, you can get everybody to clap at the same time, to laugh at the same time, and to be afraid at the same time.
What'd you think of today's newsletter?
📰 ExecSum is the only newsletter I read to keep up with what’s going on in the financial markets (and for the memes).
📚 I asked Twitter, “What book has most influenced your perspective on life?” The most mentioned answers:
- The Almanack of Naval Ravikant
- How to Win Friends and Influence People
- If You Give a Mouse a Cookie (personal favorite)
🤖 With AI being all the buzz, here are two interesting tools for you storytellers: