Andrew Stanton: The clues to a great story

Recently I’ve watched a Ted talk presented by Pixar’s filmmaker Andrew Stanton, who wrote and directed “Finding Nemo”(2003), “WALL-E”(2008) and wrote scripts for Toy Story movies and Monsters, Inc. In his talk he spoke about storytelling, how he approaches it when he’s writing a script and why do we love stories.

Stanton says that we all love stories because “Stories affirm who we are. We all want affirmations that our lives have meaning. And nothing does a greater affirmation than when we connect through stories.”(2012). I think that’s something that gets overlooked sometimes when we discuss stories. It seems to me that the main reason people like stories, whether is it a novel book, or a movie, or a story on a radio, we seem to think that it all comes down to the entertainment, how we, humans want to be entertained. But his point is different, or at least he gives it a fresh perspective, as he sees it from a different angle.

As a storyteller/writer you should “know your punchline, your ending, knowing that everything you’re saying, from the first sentence to the last, is leading to a singular goal”. This is important – it shows that stories should be well planned ahead and the ending should be figured out from the start so the middle part is the journey to that goal. Coming up with endings is hard, I realised that while planning and writing the story for my final project and I’m still not satisfied with it.

Another point he makes is to ““Make me care” — please, emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically, just make me care. We all know what it’s like to not care”.(2012) This is something that every scriptwriter should have in a back of his head, that the only way to catch audience’s attention, to entertain them is by making them care. Later on he goes on about how we should make the audience put things together, make them work for it. So instead of giving them everything on a plate, let’s make it fun for them to solve it for themselves. As he says “We’re compelled to deduce and to deduct, because that’s what we do in real life. It’s this well-organized absence of information that draws us in.“(2012).

A character should have a spine, a goal, something they’re striving for. He gives examples of Pixar characters, such as WALL-E, or Marlin from “Finding Nemo”, but what’s really interesting is what he says at the end, that these goals can sometimes lead to some bad decision making, that characters get in trouble because of them, there are new obstacles in front of them. And that’s what makes stories much more interesting and entertaining.

He also talks about how he was struggling in the early days of Pixar, while writing “Toy Story”. At the time there was a certain formula for animation movies. For example there was a lot of singing involved and there was some romance. The story wasn’t working out and Disney was panicking, so they wanted all these things in the movie. But Stanton and the rest refused, and as he says: “And thank goodness we were just too young, rebellious and contrarian at the time. That just gave us more determination to prove that you could build a better story. And a year after that, we did conquer it.”(2012). It shows that there are no hard rules in storytelling, there are only guidelines. However liking the main character is something he says is a “fundamental”.  I think it would be hard for the audience to relate to an unlikable character, especially in the animated movie. Although there are examples of successful stories with unlikable characters in main roles, I’m thinking about House from “House MD”, or Kevin Spacey’s character from “House of Cards”, but I’m not totally convinced they’re unlikable. They might be evil(in House of Cards case), or rude and cynical like House but there’s something about their characters that people like.

According to Stanton one of the most important ingredients that a story should have is a sense of wonder. “Wonder is honest, it’s completely innocent. It can’t be artificially evoked. For me, there’s no greater ability than the gift of another human being giving you that feeling — to hold them still just for a brief moment in their day and have them surrender to wonder”(2012).

He ended his talk with saying that drawing from our own experiences, our own stories is also something a storyteller should do. “Use what you know. Draw from it. It doesn’t always mean plot or fact. It means capturing a truth from your experiencing it, expressing values you personally feel deep down in your core.”(2012)

Andrew Stanton: The clues to a great story, 2012. [online] TED talk. Available at:


Scene breakdown

Voice One: “I shouldn’t say this, because I majored in math, but you have my 1,000 percent attention.” Voice Two: “Wow, that’s a lot! I’m thrilled to hear that! You, I…” Voice One: “Excuse me one moment. Have you heard from Indonesia? Ok.”

Internal monologue/what characters are thinking:

Voice One: “I shouldn’t say this, because I majored in math, but you have my 1,000 percent attention.”

V1 – “OK, let’s get this over with…. But I wonder how is the other deal going? If that goes through I will be rich… Wait what was I going to say? Why I she so happy? Is my phone ringing?”

Voice Two: “Wow, that’s a lot! I’m thrilled to hear that! You, I…”

V2 – “That’s amazing,  this time it will work, I can show him my idea and…”

Voice One: “Excuse me one moment. Have you heard from Indonesia? Ok.”

V1 – “Oh I can’t wait, I need to find out what’s going on in Indonesia!” V2 – “What, are you serious!?” Characters characteristics: Her: Enthusiastic, joyful, idealistic, ambitious, but slightly gullibly. When it comes to Carl Gustav Jung’s 12 archetypes I would say she’s the Caregiver and the Explorer. Him: Cold, distanced, uninterested, apathetic. When it comes to Carl Gustav Jung’s 12 archetypes I would say he’s the Ruler and the Magician. Beat sheet: Scene Shot #1: Opening shot. Showing the café in a wider picture while the camera move closer to the characters. Freezes while the two characters are in a shot. Shot #2: Close up of a male character. He starts talking. Shot #3: Close up on a female character. She replies while laughing Shot #4: Back to the male character, he starts his sentence Shot #5: Split edit, camera’s on a female character again, showing her reaction to what he has to say.

Dialogue writing research

Before I’ve started writing my interior monologue for the next scriptwriting workshop I’de decided to research how to approach writing dialogues and monologues. At first I’ve looked at an article written by Rob Tobin titled “How to write screenplay dialogue”. He uses an example of “Good Will Hunting”(1998) to illustrate how important is the knowledge of your characters, their background and how to develop them. Later he claims that “There is another factor in writing great dialogue. It’s the understanding that there are four key components to any story, whether screenplay, novel, play, or short story: characters, situations, events, and dialogue.” 

In another article that I found, titled “How To Write Great Dialogue”, author, Staton Rabin gives ten tips that are supposed to help young writers improve their work. What I have learnt from it was that again, the context and characters background and relationships are important. That quirky characters are more interesting and that if I want to make my dialogue interesting I need to avoid stating the obvious, telling the viewer what he already knows, characters shouldn’t always say what’s on their minds, or say what they’re doing at this moment(for example if a character is looking for his keys in his room and we can see him looking under the bed, checking every draw etc. there is no need for him to go and say “I’m looking for my keys”).

But what about interior monologues? What exactly are they? Well one way of describing them is that “an internal monologue is like ‘overhearing someone’s thoughts’.” I’ve also started thinking about examples of interior monologues or narrations in movies that I’ve seen. At the start I was thinking about “The Big Lebowski”, or “(500) Days of Summer” but as I’ve quickly realised, these films do have narrators but they are a 3rd person. So a better examples would be films such us “Forrest Gump”, “Shutter Island”, “American Psycho”, “Fight Club”, “The Thin Red Line” or “25th Hour”. Few examples:


How To Write Screenplay Dialogue . 2014. How To Write Screenplay Dialogue . [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 02 November 2014].

How to Write Great Dialogue | Final Draft. 2014. How to Write Great Dialogue | Final Draft. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 02 November 2014].

Interior Monologues in Writing | Write Anything. 2014. Interior Monologues in Writing | Write Anything. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 02 November 2014].


Scriptwriting: Development of my story

After getting some feedback on my initial story I’ve realised how much more I need to put into it. While discussing my idea about the character not realising that his wife is now a zombie and only audience knowing what is going on(because of the reflection in the mirror) I got another idea that changes my story. I decided to abandon the zombie idea and go into a different direction. Now my story is about a man who needs lost his wife in a car accident that he was responsible for and can’t cope with the guilt and needs redemption. The script would be similar to my previous idea, a lonely character in a room. He walks into a room and from the start we can see that he is depressed. It would be just after his wife’s wake ceremony. He looks around a room and sees few pictures of them two together. At this point I was thinking about doing a short flashback scene which could have show how these two met. This would give audience more reason to empathise with the character.  I was also thinking about doing few more flashback, maybe two or three but I’m afraid it would resemble opening scene of “Up” too much. Also it would make the whole animation more complicated to make and it would much longer than I initially planned. Anyway, going back to the story, he would sat by the table and start drinking, then try to turn his radio on but it would work so to fix it he would hit it. The song that reminds him of his wife comes on. Then he hears a knocking to the door, he is puzzled but opens them. There he would see his wife. They would start dancing and he wouldn’t realise that it’s only his imagination. The audience would realise what is going on when her reflection wouldn’t appear in the mirror. He would only later realise what is going on. And I am a bit stuck with what to do next. It would finish very sad with him not getting his redemption which is something that I would rather avoid so maybe him telling her that he’s sorry would in a way give him some peace? I need to think about that ending and come up with an inner monologue for a next week session. I also need to work more on character’s background and start doing some initial drawings and sketches of them.

Personally I’ve been really enjoying these classes and have learnt a lot by now. I really like how fast it help me improve my story as I feel that my previous stories weren’t really entertaining and very flat. Hopefully now I will start writing more interesting stories and characters.

Outline of my story

Original idea: “Dancing with the Death”

Empty dark room, a character is sat by an old table which is full of old papers and empty bottles. He looks miserable and depressed. His clothes seemed to be dirty, his hair is unkempt. We can see some pictures on the wall, of him and his wife that has left him. It’s very quiet until suddenly he hears knocking to the door. He is puzzled because he doesn’t get many visitors. He hesitates but decided to open the door. He opens it and regrets it instantly. It’s the Reaper/Death. The music starts playing(Beethoven’s 5th Symphony). The struggle with the Death continues, but it has a form of a dance. Eventually the main character would manage to push the antagonist behind the door and close it.

As you can see the ending was pretty anticlimactic therefore I’ve decided to modify it a little bit.

The protagonist, Shaun, a male in his 30’s,  is alone in his flat. It’s very dark and full of rubbish, old newspapers and empty bottles. Except few candles the only light source is an old floor lamp. There are pictures on the wall of him and his wife but she’s nowhere to be seen. He hears knocking to the door, even that he’s hesitated he decides to open it. And then we see her. Shaun’s wife, Jill, turns out to be a zombie. The couple fights and “dances” around the  room until Shaun manages to push her outside. He closes the door, leans on it and sighs. Then he looks over at the wall covered in the pictures of them two before his wife became a zombie. This could be the final shot before the credits, or a slow pan to the window where we would be able to see a destroyed city in flames.

I’ve mentioned newspapers as I would like to used them to foreshadow what’s going to happen. At the beginning, while the camera moves we could see headlines such as: “Mysterious disease found in England”, “New victims of the mysterious disease!”, “Martial law introduced by the government!”.

Short Animation Analysis

“Shave It”(3Dar Studios, 2013) is a short animation telling a story of a monkey and how its life has changed after it found a shaving machine. In the beginning we meet the character jumping around the jungle, he finds a lost bag and quickly proceeds to looking what’s inside. At this point it’s worth mentioning that in the background we can see things like an empty bottle, a mirror or dj decks, things that don’t belong to the jungle, so I am guessing that it’s not a first time out character found some lost baggage. He goes through the stuff in the bag but it’s the shaving machine that really catches his attention(close up shot of his face). When he turns it on it reminds him of bulldozers destroying his forest, which clearly makes him angry(close up on his eye). At this point the character decides to use it and shave his fur off. In the next shot we see a new monkey, now he’s trying to imitate being human, he’s wearing clothes and going on a bus to work, and in the background we can see how his jungle is being destroyed. Then we see him getting higher in his company’s structure, to the point when I presume he becomes a CEO. It’s also worth noting that even that he’s trying to be human he still acts a lot like an ape, for example while he’s working, not only is he using his arms and hands but also he uses his legs. There are also shots of him hanging on the top of the building, watching over the city that he now lives. What’s worth noting is how his appearance and his expressions change when he gets promoted. He acts more and more like a human. It all goes on like this until he sees a playground that reminds him of him being a young monkey and how bulldozers destroyed his jungle. Something in him snaps and he goes back to being his old self. We can also see that he’s now trying to act human in front of people but when he’s alone he acts just like a monkey(a shot of him walking in a corridor). Now we can see his master project, a gigantic shaving machine that instead of cutting hair is destroying the city. We can also see new trees and flowers growing in place of the old buildings, and by the end the entire city is replaced with a new and colourful jungle. The last shot that we see is the main character, monkey but he’s no longer pretending to be human as his fur is grown back.


Other shorts I looked at: