J.R.R. Tolkien. C.S. Lewis. George Lucas. These men mastered the art of storytelling and captured the imaginations of millions. So does storytelling only have a place in the entertainment world? Could your industry benefit from having a storyteller in it? We talked with 4word: Advisory Board Member Sarah-Jane Murray, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, writer, and professor at Baylor University, to learn what makes a story good and why we need more storytellers in this world.
4word: What drew you to the literary and entertainment worlds?
Sarah-Jane: I’ve been in love with stories ever since I was little. I had the good fortune of being born to a father who devours books — in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who reads as much as he does. That influenced me in so many ways. On one hand, he read Tolkien to me every night. And in doing so, he motivated me to want to read the last installment of the trilogy by myself. On the other hand, I was surrounded by books on bookshelves throughout the house. (I’m told I used to pull out the encyclopedia and pour over the classical antiquities sections as a toddler.) So, to me, reading was never an option. It was going to be part of my future. One day, I pulled George Orwell’s ANIMAL FARM off the shelf and declared I would read it in order to practice for reading Tolkien. And you know what? I did.
The other thing I learned from all of this was the importance of reading time as quality time — and family time. My parents gave me an amazing gift by investing so much time in my love of stories. They bought me books when I’m sure they could have used something themselves. Dad worked a high-paced executive corporate job and rushed home so we could have story time with my brother, when I’m sure he and mum would have enjoyed just relaxing a bit at the end of the day. I grew up with hobbits, elves, wizards, and dwarves; and later, when I could read myself, with Aslan and magical realms and tales of King Arthur, as well as science fiction and historical biographies. When I was old enough, that passion translated to television and film. I’ve probably seen the original STAR WARS over two hundred times with my brother — and in fact, did my first simultaneous French to English translation as a child in the movie theatre in France when we went to see THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. The delayed reaction to him discovering Vader was Luke’s father was priceless. I’ll never forget it.
I later earned a PhD in literature, but film stayed close to my heart. And then one day, I realized that the stories we were telling via film and television were truly shaping culture. In fact, high school graduates today are shaped by the media more than family, education, and all other activities. I realized if I cared about the future, I needed to care not only about studying stories but writing them. It was a logical transition — although one that found me and invited me in. I can’t say I saw it coming. I talk more about what stories allow us to communicate in the video below.
4word: You were an associate producer on Erin Bernhardt‘s film, Imba Means Sing. What compelled you to become involved in that project?
Sarah-Jane: My first documentary, PRIMARY CONCERN, produced by Livingston+McKay aired on PBS in 2013 and again in 2014. I learned so much on that project and was able to apply much of my ongoing research on story and writing techniques learned at UCLA. It really honed my skills. It was nominated for a SE EMMY, and I felt committed to helping other promising young filmmakers break in to the business that had opened its doors to me. Upon completing PRIMARY CONCERN, I immediately came on as a writer and producer for the next Livingston+McKay documentary, INEFFABLE, about the future of the arts. It won 2 silver TELLY awards in 2014. We’re also cutting a short film, WHAT IS ART?, to launch some conversations about the importance of the fine arts across the country and that should be out in 2015 also.
I met Erin during an event at the Creative Visions Foundation in California through our mutual friend, Mary Beth Minnis. It was very clear to me that Erin was deeply committed to bringing the story of the African Children’s Choir to the Western world — and, indeed, the whole world. It’s an amazing organization that helps raise the much-needed funds for the children selected for the choir to continue their education. I was touched, also, by some of the footage Danielle Bernstein had put together. Erin expressed to me that they were looking for help to make the story better, and I decided to come on board as associate producer and story consultant to do just that — help them maximize the amazing story they were already telling so that it could garner the most impact possible. I’m really pleased with the results of the process, and I enjoyed working with team IMBA very much. I’m excited to see the film out in festivals in 2015.
I’m also currently associate producer on the second and third installments of the NEFARIOUS trilogy, directed by Benjamin Nolot. If you’re familiar with NEFARIOUS, the films get at the root of sex trafficking. The second part, LIBERATED, looks in detail at the hyper-sexualization of culture. Benji and the whole team are a treat to work with.
And then, to round things out, I was brought in as a writer on NORMAL LIKE ME, a feature film produced by Tom Sanders and that is scheduled to go into production in 2015.
I’m so humbled and excited to be a part of such amazing films.
4word: Storytelling is something you’re (obviously) very passionate about. In your opinion, what makes a good story?
Sarah-Jane: Of course, there’s some degree of subjectivity and taste when we ask anyone who just finished a book or walked out of the movie whether or not they “liked” the story. What’s especially interesting to me — and as I recently discussed in my TEDx “hardwired for story” — we now know more about what makes a good story than ever before. Basically, the research done in the labs of, for example, Paul Zak (at Claremont Graduate University) and Uri Hasson (at my alma mater, Princeton University) shows us two key things: (1) that stories, when they are well told, can alter our brain chemistry, causing us to experience empathy; and (2) they can also allow the brain activities of the person hearing the story to mirror that of the person telling it, to such a degree that our brains make very little difference in activity between hearing the story, telling it, or actually living the experience for the first time. If you’ve ever had to put a book down (I did this with Elie Wiesel’s NIGHT) because it was so real and you had to digest the raw emotions, or you’ve ever sat on the edge of a seat in the movie theatre and felt like you were right there, in the adventure, you’ve experienced this phenomenon of “brain mirroring,” known as “neural coupling.”
Andrew Stanton of PIXAR always says a good story has to make us care. Now, thanks to researchers like Zak and Hasson, we know that certain patterns of storytelling do just that. And this is what I find particularly fascinating: Nothing activates our brains better than the types of ennobling stories, told in three parts, that Aristotle discussed in his POETICS over two thousand years ago. Great stories — or at least their telling — has to be grounded in some serious technique. Storytelling is more of a science than one might suppose it to be.
At the end of the day, though, for me the great story is the one from which I emerge changed or at the very least wanting to change. Maybe I don’t want to go down the dark road to despair chosen by Shakespeare’s MACBETH. Or I want to have the guts to stand up to a totalitarian regime like Dietrich Bonhoeffer did. I want to be inspired by William Wallace and ride out like Robert the Bruce in BRAVEHEART, exclaiming “you bled with Wallace, now bleed with me.” Or I want to believe in the great friendships portrayed in TOY STORY 3. Stories are the great levelers of the world; not because they eradicate our differences, but because they transcend them. Great stories invite us to become better selves — and to go out into the world and live lives of meaning, that impact those around us. Don’t get me wrong, we don’t have to go and be heroes in the modern, secular sense of the word. As a good friend once told me, we just have to learn to be obedient — to answer our call, whether we understand it or (most likely) not.
4word: What have you been able to use your gift of storytelling for?
Sarah-Jane: I’m blessed to share my passion for storytelling with my students at Baylor and in workshops, too. I love working on amazing films that go out into the world and incite people to change, hopefully for the better. And most recently, I’m thinking more and more about the importance of ethics in storytelling. Stories can stir us to action — for better or for worse. (We saw plenty of abuse of that power, for example, in twentieth-century propaganda.) Whether in the classroom, or in a workshop, or even working with a creative team, I notice that when great storytelling is at the core of a project, something magical — transcendental, even, I would say — happens: We all set aside our differences and strive to be part of something greater than ourselves. Whether I’m writing or producing or associate producing a project, that’s my greatest and most humbling honor: To be part of shaping something that represents the producer and director’s deeply rooted passion, to help bring it into life, and to help it have legs so the film (or book) can go out into the world and do what it was always supposed to do — change people’s hearts.
4word: Why does being a good storyteller matter?
Sarah-Jane: We live in story. It’s all around us. It’s how we relate to one another, it’s how we construct our identity, and at the end of the day, it’s how we know God. (Jesus was an expert storyteller.) To be human is to be a storyteller. To be a great storyteller is, in a sense, to transcend our condition and seek out the divine. The problem is, we tend to shut down creativity in school today and promote “sensible” or utilitarian ends to our learning. I believe, as Plato did (in his TIMAEUS) that a civilization that forgets how to tell its story crumbles and dies. How we tell our stories and how we bequeath them to future generations will shape the world. Stories are the guardians of culture — by entertaining ourselves to death, we’re in jeopardy of forgetting that.
4word: What industries or professions could benefit from utilizing good storytellers?
Sarah-Jane: Are you breathing? Do you walk on two legs? Are you a human? Then you can benefit not only from utilizing good storytellers but in being one yourself. In fact, it will reconnect you with part of you that may be lost, hibernating, deep beneath the surface.
Great stories are the key to writing books, making movies, running small businesses, for-profits, non-profits, corporations… wrap your idea in story and people will identify, they will care, they will remember. In fact, to throw out an interesting (and somewhat ironic) statistic proposed by Jerome Bruner in the mid 1980’s, human beings are twenty-two times more likely to remember a story than fact. So if there’s something you care about deeply, and you think others should too, you can circulate all the statistics you want. They’ll never have the same impact as a carefully chosen story that makes your issue personal, that puts a face on it, and that makes us care.
4word: How can someone become a good storyteller?
Sarah-Jane: Read, watch great stories, go to the theatre, devour movies. But most of all, learn a little about how to structure your story in such a way that your story will impact the hearts of others. Just because someone runs, doesn’t mean they’ll jump straight into the Olympic trials. We understand that performing on that level takes practice and a certain skill set. It’s the same with story. Just because we can hold a pen or type words doesn’t make us experts. It shows us, however, that we all possess the basic skill set needed to start practicing.
As humans, storytelling is something we naturally gravitate toward and appreciate. As Sarah-Jane said, everyone and every industry can benefit from utilizing great storytellers. Find the storyteller inside yourself today. That doesn’t mean you need to start writing a book. Just approach everyday situations and tasks with the mindset of seeing the story in it, and you’ll be inspiring those around you before you know it.
How can you be a storyteller in your industry? Do you think the ability to tell a good story would benefit you in your current position?
Sarah-Jane is an EMMY-nominated film-maker, story design expert, and passionate abolitionist who believes great education and great stories can change the world.
Born in Ireland and educated in France, SJ earned a BA from Auburn University and PhD from Princeton. She is also a graduate of the Ecole-Normale and an alumna of the UCLA professional program in screenwriting, where she studied under chairman Richard Walter. She is a tenured associate professor of creative writing and great texts at Baylor University and the founder of StoryRhetoric (storyrhetoric.com).
SJ’s career in both research and film focuses on the power and art of story design. She is committed to projects with broad social impact and won and EMMY-nomination for her first documentary PRIMARY CONCERN (primaryconcernmovie.com), produced by Livingston+McKay and distributed nationally on PBS. She is currently filming INEFFABLE, also intended for PBS, and a short film, WHAT IS ART?, aimed at sparking an international conversation about why the arts matter. Upcoming projects also include story consultant and associate producer credits on the second and third installments of the NEFARIOUS documentary trilogy on sex trafficking and IMBA MEANS SING, the story of the African Children’s Choir. Her first feature film, NORMAL LIKE ME, is scheduled for production in 2015.
SJ lives in Austin, TX but travels frequently to both coasts. She can also be found practicing her salsa routines or heading up the first English translation of the Old French Moralized Ovid for the National Endowment of the Humanities. She is represented by Livingston+McKay (www.livingstonmckay.com/talent-rep).