Toolbox – Storytelling

How to tell a story

It takes a lot of work to tell a great story. Just ask all the struggling filmmakers and authors, hustling away at their craft in an attempt to get a break.

It takes a lot of work to tell a great story. Just ask all the struggling filmmakers and authors, hustling away at their craft in an attempt to get a break. And, like skinning a cat, there's more than one way to do it. Tell a story, that is. We don't advocate skinning cats.

But don't let any of that put you off. By following our storytelling tips below, you can start to rustle up a pretty compelling story of your own. And who knows? Maybe the film studios will come a-knockin'! We believe in you.

For this series on story, we're using real-life examples from Sylvester Stallone's box office smash, Rocky. So grab your sweatband, put 'Eye of the Tiger' on the stereo, and let's get to work.

  1. 1. Do your research
  2. 2. Inspire people
  3. 3. Know your audience
  4. 4. Write, edit, repeat

Do your research

So you want to tell a good story about a postman. Great! But how much do you know about being a postman in real life? Have you done the job? Do you know someone who has? If not, you've got work to do. The best story is one that you know from experience.

Great storytellers know their subject inside out and back to front. Unless you have firsthand knowledge of your subject, it's time to get your hands dirty. In this case, maybe you should try being a postman for a year. Or shadowing someone on their route (with their permission of course. Otherwise, that's plain creepy).

Before writing Rocky, Sylvester Stallone was a struggling actor. A really struggling actor. He was barely holding things together, and had spent time sleeping rough as he scraped by. But he drew on his own story when writing about another character going through a hard time – Rocky. And that real-life experience is what makes this character make sense.


Inspire people

Stories serve lots of different purposes, and storytellers have lots of different reasons for writing them. However, the most powerful stories are those that inspire people, and motivate them to strive for more.

Just think about the popularity of TED talks, or storytelling podcasts like The Moth. While both feature a variety of stories, the most popular ones are often those that get people pumped or carry a positive message. People want to be lifted up, not dragged down.

Sly definitely had this in mind when he started writing his fairytale, rags to riches blockbuster. He knew the power of storytelling to inspire his audience. And when you leave the cinema after that final fight with Apollo Creed, you're inspired to believe that maybe you could go all 15 rounds with a boxing world champion, too. Or do something as simple as filing your tax return on time. Your call.


Know your audience

Who’s your story for? Who do you want to watch it on repeat, obsess over it, fall in love with it? The first step to giving those people an emotional connection with your story is to understand them. Deeply.

So before you fire up your computer, it’s worth doing some research on your target audience. Which other stories are popular with them right now? What type of protagonist do they identify with? Is there a gap in the market?

While there’s a never-ending stream of sports movies that pit an underdog against a champ nowadays, it was a different story in 1976. Sensing that gap and filling it with the sports story to end all stories could well have been a huge part of Stallone’s success.


Write, edit, repeat

These are the simple ways to take your story to the next level. Get it down on paper (or up in the cloud). Tear it to shreds. Start again. As William Faulkner said, "In writing, you must kill your darlings." Don't get too attached to a certain line or character. Do what's best for the story.

It's also an important skill to know when to ask for help. After a while, we lose all sense of what's good. We can't spot our own mistakes – or the boring bits. That's when you need to show your work to another good storyteller.

Rocky might not be to everyone's tastes. Some people might think – to our horror! – that there are better storytellers than Stallone out there. But no one can deny that Sly used his personal story to craft a tale that's simple, compelling, and profound. That's certainly something to aspire to.


Let us tell you a story

There's an online storyboard creator called Boords. It's well researched. It inspires people. It knows its audience – people like you, in fact. It's a better place to make stories.

Simplify your pre-production process with storyboards, scripts, and animatics – then gather feedback – all in one place. Creating storyboards has never been simpler.

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