Day 3 at TMRE ended with a charming and funny keynote on storytelling, by a man who’s lived and worked it for decades. Francis Glebas has decades of experience at Disney and Dreamworks in their visual development and storyboarding departments, and has written books about his work there (Directing The Story and The Animator’s Eye).
90s kids in particular would be impressed by his visual CV: helping nail the look of Aladdin’s nemesis Jafar, and storyboarding the bittersweet parting scene in Pocahontas. Now Glebas storyboards Sofia The First, a show about a girl who becomes a princess by accident. He shared stories from his career and spun them into useful advice for research and marketing professionals looking to tell a few tales of their own.
Presentations about storytelling tend to take two routes. One is to focus on story archetypes – the basic concepts that sit behind almost all the stories we tell – like “rags to riches” or “boy meets girl”. The other is to talk about story structure – the shape of stories, and the rise and fall of the protagonist’s fortunes. The two things cross over somewhat – “tragedy” is both an archetype (a story with a sad ending) and a particular kind of inversion of a typical story shape, as a protagonist rises then falls, instead of the other way around.
Glebas had things to say about both topics. A storyboarder – the person who draws out the way scripted action is going to look on screen, as if it was a comic book – has an enormous effect on how a story reaches its audience. For instance, he worked on Pocahontas throughout its development – he was in the room when it was pitched, and he went on to storyboard the pivotal scene where John Smith and Pocahontas must leave each other.
This scene, and the story as a whole, had been pitched as a Romeo And Juliet tragic love story, but trying to draw it that way ended up flat. Then Glebas realised – it’s not tragic, it’s bittersweet. Not Romeo And Juliet, but Casablanca. He redrew the storyboards to make the characters’ love more obvious and their agency more apparent – and it worked.
The lesson is that having ‘a story’ isn’t enough. You have to be telling the right story, to get the emotional tone right and leave people feeling happy.
Glebas also talked about effective structure. His watchword is the “four Ws” which explain the arc of a great story. It all starts with a WISH – something the protagonist wants. But then they do something WRONG – overreach themselves, make a mistake, find themselves up against too strong an enemy. It’s then that things are at their WORST – they have not only not got their wish, but they’ve lost what they had.
But, as Glebas put it, “when you are in hell, you reorganise or die”. And the story takes a dramatic upswing (like the neck of a fire-breathing dragon) into WONDER, where by making things right again the protagonist gets more than they ever dreamed possible.
WISH-WRONG-WORST-WONDER. Glebas presented this structural guide as part motivational lesson (“find your inner dragon and ignite your fire!”) and part pragmatic tip on how to structure stories when it’s your turn to tell them. It was a warm, wise presentation.
As with every storytelling guide the precise set of archetypes and the exact ‘universal’ structure varies – but once you’ve seen a few that nets out as a feature, not a bug. Storytelling guides are like diets – it’s a case of finding the one that suits you, not hunting vainly for one that never fails.