The Coen Brothers and the Craft of Storytelling

My one-week online class begins Monday, May 22nd.

I have two favorite contemporary filmmakers. In terms of mainstream commercial films, there is Pixar. For independent movies, there are the Coen brothers. Both are hugely successful in what they do, commercially and critically.

That’s why I’m thrilled to follow up the popular Pixar class I teach with a companion course: Coen Brothers and the Craft of Storytelling.

Ethan Coen and Joel Coen

In this 1-week online course, we will analyze most of the movies the Coen brothers have written and directed including such memorable films as Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou, No Country for Old Men, and True Grit.

Through extensive analysis and discussion, we will dig into six narrative dynamics that appear throughout Coen brothers movies, and enable you to use them to workshop your own original story.

Let’s face it: The Coen brothers have created some of the most distinctive, entertaining movies in the last two decades. They return to certain themes, tropes, memes and talismans like this one: The Howling Fat Man.

We will look at that minutia because… well, it’s just fun. However our focus will be on larger principles that are more applicable to our own writing.

Here is the lecture schedule [all written by me]:

Lecture 1: The Coen Brothers’ Narrative Legacy
Lecture 2: Ordinary Character / Extraordinary Circumstance
Lecture 3: The Long Shadow of Authority Figures
Lecture 4: The Shiny Hope of Grand Schemes
Lecture 5: The Dynamism of Violence
Lecture 6: Morally Complicated Universe
Lecture 7: Unresolved Endings

Plus I will share 6 practical storytelling tips gleaned from Coen brothers movies.

The class includes:

Seven lectures written by Scott Myers
Six Coen brothers inspired storytelling tips
Daily forum Q&As
Workshop writing exercises with feedback
A 75-minute live teleconference between instructor and class members

Movies written by Joel and Ethan Coen have been nominated for 14 Academy Awards, winning 4 times, and nominated for the Cannes Film Festival Palm D’Or 7 times, winning once.

Like Pixar, the Coen brothers have carved their own path and have proven themselves to be master storytellers.

I am excited to share storytelling insights I have learned from studying Coen brothers movies in this exciting 1-week online class providing insights you can use to elevate your own writing.

Consider joining me beginning Monday, May 22 for Coen Brothers and the Craft of Storytelling, a great way to learn principles, dynamics and techniques apparent in the movies of these fine filmmakers to upgrade your own story-crafting abilities.

As the Dude might say, “That’s fuckin’ ingenious, if I understand it correctly. It’s a Swiss fuckin’ watch.”

Sign up now here.


The Coen Brothers and the Craft of Storytelling was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story — Medium

Writing and the Creative Life: Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling (Part 2)

Freytag’s pyramid, Cortisol, Dopamine, and you!

In Part 1, we considered a Harvard Business Review article about the influence of stories on the brain. My thoughts on the article:

For years, I’ve used the term audience identification. Something about your story, most particularly involving your Protagonist, must resonate with a reader. What that boils down to is creating a sense of empathy on the part of the reader with at least one of your central characters. If you do that, you shrink the distance between the reader and the story universe you are creating. Indeed, the reader can begin to live vicariously through the experiences of the Protagonist, the degree of empathy so strong as to pull the reader into the story.

— —

It’s not enough to create empathy. Empathy does not necessarily translate into a compelling story. To do that, we need to craft a narrative that involves some sense of tension. You’ve heard the saying, “You can’t have good drama without conflict”? That is the same sentiment as what is at work here. There have to be problems to solve and obstacles to overcome in order for a narrative to create a sense of tension in a reader. Of course, the presence of this tension presupposes a resolution to it which in turn provides a sense of emotional satisfaction.

The intriguing thing here is that while we, as writers, are thinking about emotions and psychology, much of it apparently boils down to a chemical reaction in the brain.

That chemical is called Oxytocin. This discussion led me to another Harvard Business Review article: The Irresistible Power of Storytelling as a Strategic Business Tool.

It’s not often that you hear Budweiser and Shakespeare mentioned in the same breath. But according to new research from Johns Hopkins University, the Bard’s deft application of storytelling techniques featured prominently in the beer company’s Super Bowl commercial.

In “Puppy Love,” a perfectly adorable yellow lab becomes inseparable friends with a Clydesdale. Sneaking out of his pen, the pup and the horse “talk” in the stables and cavort on an idyllic farm –until someone comes to adopt the dog. The distressed puppy whines and places his paws against the window of the car set to take him to his new home. All seems lost until the Clydesdale rallies the other horses to stop the vehicle from leaving. Reunited, the two commence frolicking in the horse pasture and, we assume, live happily ever after.

Here is the commercial:

Currently at 53M+ views on YouTube, so clearly something at work here in terms of the story. But what?

If Keith Quesenberry were a betting man, he would have cleaned up. The researcher at Johns Hopkins predicted that the Budweiser spot would be a winner after conducting a two-year analysis of 108 Super Bowl commercials. In a paper that will be published in the Fall 2014 issue of The Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice, Quesenberry and research partner Michael Coolsen focused on brands’ use of specific strategies to sell products, such as featuring cute animals or sexy celebrities. But they also coded the commercials for plot development.

They found that, regardless of the content of the ad, the structure of that content predicted its success. “People are attracted to stories,” Quesenberry tells me, “because we’re social creatures and we relate to other people.”

It’s no surprise. We humans have been communicating through stories for upwards of 20,000 years, back when our flat screens were cave walls.

“Especially in the Super Bowl, those 30-second ads are almost like mini movies,” he says. Quesenberry found that the ads that told a more complete story using Freytag’s Pyramid — a dramatic structure that can be traced back to Aristotle — were the most popular.

Shakespeare had mastered this structure, arranging his plays in five acts to include an exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and a dénouement — or final outcome. The “Best Buds” story also uses these elements to great effect. The more of the acts each version of the ad had, the better it performed.

Storytelling evokes a strong neurological response. Neuroeconomist Paul Zak‘s research indicates that our brains produce the stress hormone cortisol during the tense moments in a story, which allows us to focus, while the cute factor of the animals releases oxytocin, the feel-good chemical that promotes connection and empathy. Other neurological research tells us that a happy ending to a story triggers the limbic system, our brain’s reward center, to release dopamine which makes us feel more hopeful and optimistic.

We can now add Cortisol and Dopamine to Oxytocin, all chemical reactions in our brains related to storytelling. But to get there via a story, we have Freytag’s Pyramid. Looking at it, I still see three movements with concurrent chemical reactions:

Empathy [Oxytocin]: Establish a point of emotional resonance with characters.
Tension [Cortisol]: Create a dilemma that arouses disunity.
Release [Dopamine]: Resolve the dilemma that brings about unity.

Yet another way of looking at Three Act Structure.

Of course, this approach assumes we want to write a story that leaves people in a happy place. Obviously there are stories that do not do that. Which is, of course, completely fine.

However there is a reason why a vast majority of mainstream Hollywood movies have happy endings. Actually two reasons: Meet Mr. Dopamine and Ms. Oxytocin!

For the rest of the article, go here.

For Part 1 of this series, go here.

In Part 3, we delve into the science of a well-constructed plot.

Writing and the Creative Life is a weekly series in which we explore creativity from the practical to the psychological, the latest in brain science to a spiritual take on the subject. Hopefully the more we understand about our creative self, the better we will become as writers. If you have any good reading material in this vein, please post in comments. If you have a particular observation you think readers will benefit from and you would like to explore in a guest post, email me.


Writing and the Creative Life: Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling (Part 2) was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story — Medium

Watch: Why the Last 30 Seconds of ‘Prisoners’ is Perfect Storytelling

When it comes to perfect endings, look no further than Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Prisoners.’

[Warning: Spoilers ahead! If you haven’t seen ‘Prisoners’ and plan to go in blind in the near future, we recommend that you skip this article.]

Denis Villeneuve is a master of suspense. His frequent collaborator, cinematographer Roger Deakins, is a master of framing. But it wasn’t until Villeneuve’s 2013 film Prisoners that the director proved he was also a master of endings.

In a new video essay from One Perfect Shot, H. Perry Horton demonstrates how the final 30 seconds of Prisoners comprise the perfect movie ending. As Horton points out, you can make or break a thriller in its final moments; either the carefully wound strings come unspooled, or they tighten, revealing a beautifully crafted work. In the ending of Prisoners, before the screen goes dark, Villeneuve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski communicate an entire film’s worth of themes and character without the aid of dialogue or any further exposition.

Read More

No Film School

Watch: The Unique Storytelling Power of a Martin Scorsese Cameo

When Martin Scorsese appears in his films, it’s more than just a mere cameo.

Spotting director cameos is like playing the cinematic version of Where’s Waldo. Alfred Hitchcock was famous for appearing in his own films, but others like John Carpenter, Robert Rodriguez, and M. Night Shyamalan have also done so in most of their work. While these cameos are mostly trivial in nature, or an entertaining continuation of a cinematic tradition, there’s one director that has brought great significance to his time on the other side of the lens: Martin Scorsese. In this video essay from Fandor, Leigh Singer explores how the director uses his appearances on screen to add dimension and complexity to his characters and stories.

Scorsese has appeared in many of his own films, including Mean Streets, Raging Bull, and even The Wolf of Wall Street as one of the people Leonardo DiCaprio’s character dupes into buying penny stocks over the phone. But perhaps his greatest cameo, or at least the one most people remember, is as the man who gets into Travis Bickle’s cab and talks about killing his wife in Taxi Driver.

Read More

No Film School

Watch: Kenneth Lonergan Reveals the Emotional Journey of Storytelling

Every moment of the storytelling process is filled with emotion.

If you’re a fan of Kenneth Lonergan’s films and plays, you know that he tells stories with characters wrestling with their deepest emotions, many times struggling with very real existential crises. And yet, Lonergan also has a wonderful sense of humor that he laces throughout these emotional tales.

The Oscar-winning screenwriter of Manchester by the Sea and much lauded playwright recently gave a very interesting talk for the BAFTA Screenwriters Lecture series, where he works through his personal experiences and describes how they relate to his writing and directing. Check out the lecture below, and if you don’t have time for the full talk, you can read our takeaways after the video.

Read More

No Film School

5 Secrets to Pixar’s Storytelling

Here’s what we learned from the first chapter of Pixar’s free storytelling workshop.

As we recently announced, Pixar’s latest partnership with Khan Academy explores «The Art of Storytelling» through six lessons. The animation house has partnered with Khan in the past, with numerous free tutorials on animation craft. This is the first time, however, that Pixar is opening up about its greatest contribution to the filmmaking universe: story.

In addition to employing some of the finest and most creative writers in the industry, Pixar has a unique process when it comes to storytelling. Each film spends at least a year in the research and development phase, where writers are encouraged to experiment—and fail.

«We Are All Storytellers,» the first lesson in the new Khan series, was released last week. We checked it out and compiled the most pertinent lessons. If you intend to try this lesson yourself, be forewarned: one of the exercises is to choose your top three desert island films, so set aside some serious soul-searching time.

Read More

No Film School

Sundance 2017: Superb ‘Brigsby Bear’ is a Nerdy Nod to Storytelling

Brigsby Bear

As a movie lover, I’m inherently aware of how important storytelling is to inspiring and invigorating all of us. It can bring us together, make us feel hopeful, and teach us that we should always keeping dreaming, and always be ourselves. Brigsby Bear, a Sundance film co-written by and starring Kyle Mooney, directed by Dave McCary and produced by the Lonely Island guys as well as Phil Lord & Chris Miller, is a wonderful ode to the power of storytelling and friendship. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this film as much as I did, but there is a genuinely sentimental side to it, on top of all the laugh-out-loud comedy, that elevates it from something fun to something truly memorable. You won’t be able to forget the Brigsby Bear after seeing this. ›››

Continue reading Sundance 2017: Superb ‘Brigsby Bear’ is a Nerdy Nod to Storytelling


FirstShowing.net

Sundance 2017: Complex Storytelling in Superb Snow Noir ‘Wind River’

Wind River Film

I’m just going to come right out and say it here right at the beginning — Taylor Sheridan is one of the best screenwriters working today. It’s not even debatable. And with Wind River, he shows that he is just as capable and talented at directing as well. Wind River is the feature directorial debut of screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (of Sicario and Hell or High Water previously) telling a riveting murder mystery in the snowy mountains of Wyoming. Sheridan’s screenplay is brilliant, filled with metaphors and truthful characters and twists and turns and thrilling moments, all intertwined within themes of grief and vengeance and survival and good-vs-evil. It’s topped off by fine performances from the entire cast, making this an invigorating film. ›››

Continue reading Sundance 2017: Complex Storytelling in Superb Snow Noir ‘Wind River’


FirstShowing.net

Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling

My popular one week online class begins Monday, January 16th.

17 movies produced. 16 movies #1 at the box office. Worldwide B.O. gross over $ 10 billion. Average B.O. per film: $ 650M+ by far the highest average per film of any studio in Hollywood history.

It’s not just dollars and cents, it’s also quality storytelling. 26 Academy Awards, 7 Golden Globes, 3 Grammys. Indeed 8 of Pixar’s 17 films are in the IMDB Top 250 Movies of all time.

No disrespect to Disney, but I think the real Magic Kingdom lies 397.8 miles north of Anaheim in a city called Emeryville, California where you’ll find this:

Longtime GITS readers know of my fascination with Pixar having blogged about them dozens of times. Due to having two sons who quite literally have grown up in what someday is likely to be called the Pixar Era, I have seen every one of the company’s movies, most of them several times.

In my estimation, the filmmakers at Pixar are master storytellers.

But how do they successfully wrangle magic time after time in their films? Are there lessons we can learn from Pixar to inspire and upgrade our own writing?

Up-up-upgrade your writing with Pixar story-crafting principles and practices.

Those are two key questions I undertook in creating the online course Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling which begins Monday, January 16. My answer: An emphatic yes!

First off, there are the practices Pixar uses in developing, breaking, writing and rewriting a script. In our 1-week class, we go through that process step by step, then see how we can adapt that approach to our own writing.

Then there are several narrative principles evident in Pixar movies, six of them we focus in our online class: Small Story / Substantial Saga, Special Subculture, Strange Sojourners, Separation, Sentimentality, and Surprise. Going through every Pixar movie, we explore how these dynamics work in the context of each narrative and their overall applicability to storytelling.

There are 7 lectures, each of which I wrote, the content buttressed by an exclusive interview I conducted with Mary Coleman, Senior Development Executive at Pixar since the days of Toy Story 2, so we get a real inside look the outfit’s creative process.

IMPORTANT UPDATE: I am expanding this class to teach it at DePaul University and have added two more principles: Sires and Siblings, Stumbles and Switches. If you take my SMC online class, you will be the first people to explore that content with me!

The class also has a Logline Workshop where you can post a story idea and revise per peer feedback. And two teleconferences to accommodate peoples’ schedules where participants get a chance to dig into the course content with me as well as discuss anything related to writing, screenwriting, and movies.

Trust me, this Pixar class I teach is INCREDIBLE!

Here are some nice comments from just a few folks who’ve taken the class:

“I was lucky enough to be able to take Scott’s Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling class. It was my first class and a wonderful experience. I learned a ton and now have some important utensils that will help make all my stories better. Scott’s a great teacher and it was a pleasure learning from him!” — Valencia Stokes

“This course is awesome. I refer to these notes and lessons all the time.” — Traci Nell Peterson

“A course on Pixar movies? Apart from legitimately letting out my inner child and renting Up ‘for research purposes, I learnt about the ethos of the Pixar Brain Trust and the essential elements contained in all of their movies. Scott took us on an all-inclusive week long journey into why Pixar are so successful and how to practically apply this to your own script.” — Camilla Castree

“I recommend this course wholeheartedly. Plus you get to watch Pixar films as homework.” — TheQuietAct

“Scott Myers is a brilliant teacher and unites his knowledge and experience, insight and depth of thought in his lectures as well as he is providing help and support to his students. I highly recommend the class.” — Eva Brandstätter

Consider the great characters Pixar has created. Learn how and why they work, and bring those insights to your writing.

A few words about the format: I’ve been teaching online since 2002, worked with over 1000 writers in that context, and honestly believe it is superior to the onsite class environment in many ways:

  • You can do virtually everything on your own time: Download lectures, read forum conversations, add your own comments, upload writing exercises and assignments. In your pajamas. In bed. Drinking coffee. However you want to access online course content, you can do it.
  • As opposed to listening to a teacher present lectures verbally, you get to download lectures and read them. Again at your leisure, but even more importantly, instead of feverishly trying to jot down notes from a verbal presentation, here you get everything laid out for you. I take great pride in my lectures, as they not only provide great content, they also have a narrative flow to them. Yes, they tell a little story.
  • Feedback and conversations online tend to be much more thoughtful and therefore beneficial than onsite settings. Why? Because instead of off-the-cuff, random comments, participants online tend to spend more time and reflection in composing posts for online.
  • Finally I’m constantly amazed at how much of a community emerges in online class environments. Writers from all around the world and somehow we bind together into remarkably vibrant learning communities, time and time again.

So if you’ve never tried an online screenwriting class, come on in! The virtual water’s fine!

For more information on Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling which begins January 16, go here. And if you really want to treat yourself well, consider The Craft Package.

IMPORTANT UPDATE: I am adding two new Craft classes in 2017 — Dialogue-Writing Workshop and Scene-Writing Workshop. They are BOTH included in The Craft Package which means your savings are now nearly 60%! Automatic enrollment in all 10 classes! Immediate access to the Craft curriculum to go through at your own pace.

Get lost trying to write your story? Let Dory help you find your way!

I am updating lectures to include Finding Dory which has grossed an incredible $ 1.02 billion in worldwide box office revenues.

So kick of the New Year with some incredible insights into crafting a story with the practices and principles at work in Pixar movies. I look forward to the opportunity to work with you! Or to put it another way…

TO INFINITY AND BEYOND!


Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story — Medium

Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling

My popular one-week online class begins on Monday, January 16!

17 movies produced. 16 movies #1 at the box office. Worldwide B.O. gross over $ 10 billion. Average B.O. per film: $ 650M+ by far the highest average per film of any studio in Hollywood history.

It’s not just dollars and cents, it’s also quality storytelling. 26 Academy Awards, 7 Golden Globes, 3 Grammys. Indeed 8 of Pixar’s 17 films are in the IMDB Top 250 Movies of all time.

No disrespect to Disney, but I think the real Magic Kingdom lies 397.8 miles north of Anaheim in a city called Emeryville, California where you’ll find this:

Longtime GITS readers know of my fascination with Pixar having blogged about them dozens of times. Due to having two sons who quite literally have grown up in what someday is likely to be called the Pixar Era, I have seen every one of the company’s movies, most of them several times.

In my estimation, the filmmakers at Pixar are master storytellers.

But how do they successfully wrangle magic time after time in their films? Are there lessons we can learn from Pixar to inspire and upgrade our own writing?

Up-up-upgrade your writing with Pixar story-crafting principles and practices.

Those are two key questions I undertook in creating the online course Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling which begins Monday, January 16. My answer: An emphatic yes!

First off, there are the practices Pixar uses in developing, breaking, writing and rewriting a script. In our 1-week class, we go through that process step by step, then see how we can adapt that approach to our own writing.

Then there are several narrative principles evident in Pixar movies, six of them we focus in our online class: Small Story / Substantial Saga, Special Subculture, Strange Sojourners, Separation, Sentimentality, and Surprise. Going through every Pixar movie, we explore how these dynamics work in the context of each narrative and their overall applicability to storytelling.

There are 7 lectures, each of which I wrote, the content buttressed by an exclusive interview I conducted with Mary Coleman, Senior Development Executive at Pixar since the days of Toy Story 2, so we get a real inside look the outfit’s creative process.

IMPORTANT UPDATE: I am expanding this class to teach it at DePaul University and have added two more principles: Sires and Siblings, Stumbles and Switches. If you take my SMC online class, you will be the first people to explore that content with me!

The class also has a Logline Workshop where you can post a story idea and revise per peer feedback. And two teleconferences to accommodate peoples’ schedules where participants get a chance to dig into the course content with me as well as discuss anything related to writing, screenwriting, and movies.

Trust me, this Pixar class I teach is INCREDIBLE!

Here are some nice comments from just a few folks who’ve taken the class:

“I was lucky enough to be able to take Scott’s Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling class. It was my first class and a wonderful experience. I learned a ton and now have some important utensils that will help make all my stories better. Scott’s a great teacher and it was a pleasure learning from him!” — Valencia Stokes

“This course is awesome. I refer to these notes and lessons all the time.” — Traci Nell Peterson

“A course on Pixar movies? Apart from legitimately letting out my inner child and renting Up ‘for research purposes, I learnt about the ethos of the Pixar Brain Trust and the essential elements contained in all of their movies. Scott took us on an all-inclusive week long journey into why Pixar are so successful and how to practically apply this to your own script.” — Camilla Castree

“I recommend this course wholeheartedly. Plus you get to watch Pixar films as homework.” — TheQuietAct

“Scott Myers is a brilliant teacher and unites his knowledge and experience, insight and depth of thought in his lectures as well as he is providing help and support to his students. I highly recommend the class.” — Eva Brandstätter

Consider the great characters Pixar has created. Learn how and why they work, and bring those insights to your writing.

A few words about the format: I’ve been teaching online since 2002, worked with over 1000 writers in that context, and honestly believe it is superior to the onsite class environment in many ways:

  • You can do virtually everything on your own time: Download lectures, read forum conversations, add your own comments, upload writing exercises and assignments. In your pajamas. In bed. Drinking coffee. However you want to access online course content, you can do it.
  • As opposed to listening to a teacher present lectures verbally, you get to download lectures and read them. Again at your leisure, but even more importantly, instead of feverishly trying to jot down notes from a verbal presentation, here you get everything laid out for you. I take great pride in my lectures, as they not only provide great content, they also have a narrative flow to them. Yes, they tell a little story.
  • Feedback and conversations online tend to be much more thoughtful and therefore beneficial than onsite settings. Why? Because instead of off-the-cuff, random comments, participants online tend to spend more time and reflection in composing posts for online.
  • Finally I’m constantly amazed at how much of a community emerges in online class environments. Writers from all around the world and somehow we bind together into remarkably vibrant learning communities, time and time again.

So if you’ve never tried an online screenwriting class, come on in! The virtual water’s fine!

For more information on Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling which begins January 16, go here. And if you really want to treat yourself well, consider The Craft Package.

IMPORTANT UPDATE: I am adding two new Craft classes in 2017 — Dialogue-Writing Workshop and Scene-Writing Workshop. They are BOTH included in The Craft Package which means your savings are now nearly 60%! Automatic enrollment in all 10 classes! Immediate access to the Craft curriculum to go through at your own pace.

Get lost trying to write your story? Let Dory help you find your way!

I am updating lectures to include Finding Dory which has grossed an incredible $ 1.02 billion in worldwide box office revenues.

So kick of the New Year with some incredible insights into crafting a story with the practices and principles at work in Pixar movies. I look forward to the opportunity to work with you! Or to put it another way…

TO INFINITY AND BEYOND!


Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story — Medium