Brian McDonald (Ep. 4)
BY Future of StoryTelling — May 13, 2020

Charlie Melcher speaks with Brian McDonald, screenwriter, director, author, and teacher of story structure.

Available wherever you listen to your podcasts:

Apple Podcasts  |  Spotify  |  Google Podcasts  |  Stitcher  |  iHeartRadio 

Charlie Melcher: Hi, I'm Charlie Melcher, founder and director of the Future of StoryTelling, and I'd like to welcome you back to the FoST podcast. Today I'm joined by master storyteller, Brian McDonald, who in addition to being a screenwriter, director and teacher, is the author of the essential books Visible Ink, The Golden Theme and Ink Spots, and host of the You Are a Storyteller podcast.

But before we jump into the conversation with Brian, I'd like to share some news about the Future of Storytelling's response to the COVID-19 crisis. Like so many other live events, we recently made the difficult decision to postpone this year's Future of Storytelling Summit. Our next FOS gathering will now take place on June 9th and 10th, 2021.

Charlie Melcher: While we're saddened by the lost opportunity to connect in person with our great community, we've decided to use this opportunity to fuel our efforts to share and discuss great storytelling in new non-physical ways. This podcast is chief among those efforts and we're thrilled with the response we've received thus far. We hope you'll continue joining us each week, and more importantly, we hope our show will help spark meaningful conversations in your own life.

If you know someone who might enjoy listening and engaging in such conversations, please do share this show with them. Our newsletter, FoST in Thought, is another way for us to keep our community connected and engaged, not only with us, but with each other. So if you have any news about cool virtual storytelling events or about your own work that you'd like to share with our 30,000 strong audience, shoot us an email

Finally, I'm excited to announce a new virtual film series we're curating called Films with Friends. During each virtual screening, anyone who'd like to participate can join a synchronized film watching party with live commentary from a guest master storyteller. The first virtual screening will take place on Wednesday, April 15th at 9:00 PM Eastern time. We'll provide more info at the end of this episode. So now, let's go to the conversation with Brian MacDonald.

Today I'm going to talk with master storyteller, Brian McDonald. Brian is a 30 year veteran of Hollywood. He's worked in every corner of the industry as a writer, producer, director, and most of all is a teacher of story structure. He's like a Jedi master of storytelling who regularly teaches at some of the most celebrated film studios in the world, such as Pixar, Disney, and Industrial Light and Magic. His book, Invisible Ink is the best how-to book for storytelling that I've ever seen, and it's a must-read and Hollywood and has influenced the work of so many of the world's best writers and directors.

Today, Brian is chief storyteller at Belief Agency in Seattle, and I'm also incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to work with Brian as he's one of our expert presenters as part of the Future of Storytelling's curriculum that we offer to companies such as Microsoft and Ford to teach storytelling in the digital age.

Welcome, Brian. It's great to be here with you today. Thanks for joining us on the podcast.

Brian McDonald: Oh, thanks for having me, Charlie.

Charlie Melcher: So Brian, you have been studying, living, breathing stories your entire life. Can you tell me why our story is important and where do they come from?

Brian McDonald: Story is an interesting thing because I hear the word thrown around a lot. Most people don't have a working definition of story. So the definition of a story is stories are the telling or retelling of a series of events. That's a dictionary definition. I actually add to that definition, leading to a conclusion, meaning having a point.

But what stories are for, if you think about it, there's never been a culture anywhere in the world, throughout time, throughout culture, there's never been anybody, any group that hasn't told stories. So we all tell stories, every one of us, every culture, every time. So if that's true, which it is, then it must have been selected for, right? That the people who don't tell stories are not here, right? So it must have been selected for, it must've been something we needed.

And so, I believe that stories exist to pass on survival information. There are a lot of clues to this and one of them is that every writing teacher will tell you that stories need conflict. So looking at that for a long time, I realized that stories need conflict because conflict is the thing we need to learn how to survive, right? So they're inherently interesting with conflict because that's what stories are for.

Charlie Melcher: So what's a good example of how stories help people to survive?

Brian McDonald: So there's all kinds of survival, right? There's cultural survival or emotional survival. A lot of 12 step programs, things like that, are helpful for emotional survival, right? So you hear somebody else's story or you tell your story and there's some emotional survival that happens there. So there are all kinds of survival, so don't get hung up on the physical nature of survival.

But, having said that, there are a couple of stories that I like to use to illustrate this idea, and one of them is that big tsunami that was in Asia. Was this now 10 years, maybe 12 years ago? Whenever it was?

Charlie Melcher: I think it was 2004, right? The one that hit in-

Brian McDonald: Yeah, yeah.

Charlie Melcher: Asian tsunami, yeah.

Brian McDonald: Yeah. So that tsunami... So there are these people called the Moken, and the Moken, they have this story that's been passed down from generation to generation about what a tsunami looks like and how to avoid it. It's about seven waves, and in the story, there are these details like the water will recede, which is what happens before the tsunami.

And so they've passed this down. And during the tsunami, there's a 60 minute story where they interview one guy about it, an old man who was there who knew the story and warned everybody when he saw the signs because he knew the story and they all headed up to higher ground and they all survived. No Moken died during that time.

Charlie Melcher: Wow. That's amazing. Because I think that that tsunami killed almost 230,000 people, and you're saying that entire tribe survived because of the story that had been passed down orally through thousands of years of their traditions?

Brian McDonald: Yeah. And I think that's what stories can do. Stories can give you the benefit of an experience without having to go through the experience yourself.

Charlie Melcher: We can all think about sort of stories in our own lives, things that our parents told us that were kind of family lore that we've understood over the years. And now that you say this, it makes me think about really all they were trying to do was to pass on some knowledge that might help me be successful or survive in life.

We've sort of established that stories are an evolutionary conceit or tool that help us learn things that keep us alive. Let me ask you this question. Do you think that everyone is a storyteller?

Brian McDonald: I think everybody has to be. Yeah, I think everybody is a storyteller. Often when you say story, this is the other thing that happens when you say the word story or storyteller, is that people automatically formalize it in some way. So they automatically think of a book maybe, or they'll think of, well, storytelling, it's interesting, they often think our children or child's storytelling, or they'll think tribal. But what they don't think is that, every day when they're having conversations, that they're telling stories. Any play, any book, anything at all comes really from just people talking to each other. You can't really have a conversation without pretty quickly going into a story.

Charlie Melcher: And that's because stories are so memorable. It's because we connect to them emotionally. It's because they're how we really learn, right?

Brian McDonald: You can't go through a day without seeking out stories of some kind. It might be a new story. It might be curling up with a book. It might be talking to friends. It might be watching a television show, but we can't not have stories. It's almost, it's a steady diet. It's a constant thing with us. It's like breathing. Even when we're asleep, we tell stories to ourselves, right? It never stops.

Charlie Melcher: That's very true. And mine often wake me up in the middle of the night.

Brian McDonald: Sure. Yeah.

Charlie Melcher: So if everyone tells stories all the time, are there certain things that people can learn to be better storytellers?

Brian McDonald: Well, the problem is this. Pretty much everyone understands how to tell a story well until they sit down to write a story, and then everything they know goes out the window. Because they choke a little bit, and they think it's got to be something different than what they do every day.

And so I think everybody is a natural storyteller, but I think until they learn to listen for that in themselves and in other people, they won't quite understand the mechanics of a story. It's they're so natural to us, we don't think about it.

Pretty much everyone understands how to tell a story well until they sit down to write a story, and then everything they know goes out the window. Because they choke a little bit, and they think it's got to be something different than what they do every day.

Charlie Melcher: So I've heard you talk about armature of a story.

Brian McDonald: Uh-huh (affirmative).

Charlie Melcher: Can you explain what that is and why it's important?

Brian McDonald: Well, I started working in film when I was a teenager, but when I started as an adult, I was working at a special effects house, like creature house, creature shop where they made all kinds of, this is the 80s, the mid-80s, and they made all kinds of monsters and aliens and that kind of thing. And so I was the low person on the totem pole. I didn't do much of that kind of work. I did a little bit, but mostly I was kind of the gopher person.

And I would watch these sculptors make these little mocketts, little sculptures of whatever the creature was that was in that movie. And when they sculpted it, they had to make a wire frame armature. Sometimes people make armatures out of wood or something, but there's also something called armature wire, which is just for this. They sculpt the thing over that armature.

So that's the one of the most important parts of the sculpture is that armature, that skeleton that holds the clay up, otherwise it would collapse on itself after, sometimes a couple of hours, certainly in a day or two. And so, it's one of the most important parts of the sculpture, but it's completely invisible to people.

There's an armature in your story and everything is built around that and that is the idea you're trying to communicate. What are you trying to say with this story? What's the survival information at the heart of this story?

Charlie Melcher: So every good story is built around a clear message, a clear armature?

Brian McDonald: Yes. Now there are people who, they'll get their back up about that because they think not all stories have a point, but they pretty much do. If you learn how to listen, you'll hear it. Often people will start their story with their point. It's just the way people talk. If you learn how to hear it, it doesn't sound like you're imposing something on a story by having a point. If somebody just starts talking and you don't know their point, pretty quickly you get bored or you get confused or you're like, "What am I supposed to be listening for?"

You know, I often hear people say, "Well, can a story be about mood?" Right? It's like, well, first of all, that's not the way people talk. So that's a trick of literature, I think this mood idea, and here's what I mean. If I walked up to you on the street and I said, "Hey Charlie, I got something to tell you. A clear blue sky, seagulls in the distance, the sound of waves crashing against the shore, hot sand beneath my toes, a cool breeze kind of brushing over my skin. Okay, I'll see you later, Charlie," you would say that I didn't tell you anything. But if I said, "Hey Charlie, my trip to Mexico was amazing. Clear blue skies," all that same stuff, right? Now you know why you're listening. It changes it. Same details, because you know what to listen for.

Charlie Melcher: So what are some of the principles of a well-structured story? How does somebody organize a story?

Brian McDonald: There are three major sort of pieces of the story. So you would have your proposal, you have your argument and you have your conclusion, right? And your proposal is also related to your armature. It's your armature. So your proposal might be, "I wouldn't do business with that guy." Right? That's your proposal. "I wouldn't do business with that guy." What's your argument? Your argument is your story. "Well one time, this, this, this, this. Then I heard he blah blah blah, boom, boom, boom." Right? And then, so your proposal, argument and conclusion, again, stories are often circular, you come back around to the beginning. "Yeah, if I were you, I wouldn't do business with that guy." Right? That's how you do it. That's just how people speak.

Charlie Melcher: So let's talk a little bit about storytelling today. It seems that there's a tremendous amount of dystopian storytelling. I was speaking to a friend who works at Scholastic, the publishing company that that does a lot of children's books, and she was saying that almost all of their young fiction is dystopian.

Brian McDonald: Yeah.

Charlie Melcher: Why do you think that is?

Brian McDonald: I have a friend who, she's actually a former student, G. Willow Wilson, who's a novelist and a comic book writer and a graphic novelist. And she talks about millennials being taught, all their lives essentially, that the world's going to end, right? The global warming and all these things, right?

And so, they've been taught this all their lives and so they are preparing for this emotionally I think, and mentally. And I think she's right about that. I think that's part of it, right? Here we're living through a pandemic right now as an example, right? That's going to shape young people in a very specific way now, and they're going to tell stories in a very specific way about how to survive things like this. I think that's part of it is that they are preparing for a world that they've been told is very dangerous for them. And they're not wrong about that, but often, I think they are getting rid of the hope and I think that's dangerous.

Charlie Melcher: They're losing hope. Oh, that's pretty profound. Do you think that the storyteller has any responsibility, any sort of moral responsibility to put out stories that are more hopeful, that can paint a picture that's a positive one of the future?

Brian McDonald: I think that the storyteller's responsibility is to tell the truth. Look, the world's not all bad and it's not all good, right? So there's always some hope and I think it's important to tell the truth about that. Or there's always some good.

One of the reasons I think that we gravitate towards somebody like Anne Frank is that she was able to even say that she thought there was goodness, right? That if she hadn't said that, I don't know if we'd be reading her story the same way. That becomes the lesson in that piece, that becomes the armature of her piece, that people are basically good.

Charlie Melcher: Yeah. So now, I mean, it makes me think about some of the needs that we have in this time of social isolation and fear of the power of empathy in storytelling and its ability to bring us together. Can you speak a little bit about that? And by the way, I have happen to know that there's some parts of your own personal story that are very powerful around understanding empathy.

Brian McDonald: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, a story cannot work without empathy. It can't work. So empathy is a major component in storytelling. And there are techniques you can do to make an audience empathize more with a character if you're telling a story, or more with yourself if you're telling a story, and the more you can do that, the more resonance your story will have.

Charlie Melcher: I watched just the other day this your talk at the EG Conference where you very powerfully told the story of your brother and his murderer. And it was an incredibly powerful personal story and really one about empathy building. First of all, I recommend to our listeners to look it up and go watch it, but would you mind sharing just a little bit of that personal story with us?

Brian McDonald: Yeah, sure. So in December of 2015, my brother was randomly murdered. He was walking down the streets and had a confrontation that we're not sure exactly what it was about with a guy on the street. And then this guy pulls out a gun and shoots him and kills him.

What happened was, actually, I had gotten married shortly after that. The murder trial started when I was on my honeymoon. So I would get these texts on my honeymoon about how the trial was going. And when I got back, I immediately went to the trial. So right from essentially, I mean, almost from the airport to the trial kind of.

That day, the defendant was going to take the stand. This woman, who I didn't really know, said something when she found out this guy was going to take the stand that day and she said, "Now we get to hear how hard it is to be a crack dealer," and she was really dismissive. And I thought, "Well, this is interesting." The first thing I thought was, "Well, I bet it is hard to be a crack dealer." That's actually the first thing I thought. And I thought, "You know what? I'm going to listen to this guy's story. I'm going to just listen because I want to understand this person who killed my brother. I need to understand him." If he was a terrible person, that would come out in the listening, if he was a good person or whatever, I don't know.

So I just listened. And it turns out this guy was born into a gang. His family were gang members when he was born. His father goes to prison when he's young. His father ends up in prison, and his mother has all these kids and everything. And so what this guy does to help out his family is start selling drugs. Then he goes to prison for selling drugs. He decides when he's in prison that he doesn't want to go back to prison. Well, actually, while he's in prison, he learns a trade. But when he comes out, he's not hired. Nobody will hire him.

There's a study that that shows that a white man with a criminal record has an easier chance of getting a job than a black man with no criminal record. So here's a black man with a criminal record. So he learned this trade, he doesn't want to go back to prison, but he's not hired. And that's legal, right? "Well, you're felon. No, I'm not going to hire you." But you can also be denied housing legally. And in fact, not only can you be denied housing, but you are not eligible for any government assistance, meaning you can't get food stamps, you can't get public housing. And if your parents or one of your relatives or something is in public housing, they can lose it if they put you up.

So what does that mean? You throw somebody out on the street, they have no way to make a living, they have no place to live, what do you think they're going to do? So if you take all of that into account, what happened was I got very angry at the system and less angry at him. If the system had found a way to take care of him, this guy who shot my brother, my brother would be alive.

So it was the empathy for this person who killed my brother and understanding his situation, and also understanding that although we didn't grow up in a gang situation, my brother and I grew up poor, so we were also victims of the same system, poor school district, all that stuff. And so it wasn't very hard for me to imagine a set of circumstances where my brother might've ended up on the other end of that gun. And if he had ended up on the other end of that gun, I would've wanted people to understand his humanity. And I thought if I would want that for my brother, then I have to extend it to this man. So that's what I did, and stories helped me do that.

Charlie Melcher: That's Incredibly powerful. And you are modeling the kind of learnings from stories that I guess we aspire and hope can come from powerful storytelling, that is stories that can actually help to change society.

Brian McDonald: Yeah. Stories change society all the time.

Charlie Melcher: Right. I saw a great example of this the other day when a woman from the CDC was on television. And rather than quoting just stats about how important it is that we protect ourselves so that we don't infect our families, she told a story of her grandmother and her great grandmother and how her grandmother had exposed her great grandmother to the Spanish flu, and her great grandmother had died of it, and how her grandmother had had to live her entire life with the guilt and knowledge that she was the cause of her mother's death.

Brian McDonald: Yeah.

Charlie Melcher: And you can't hear that story and not feel the lesson of that story instantly.

Brian McDonald: Right. Right. Right. And not only that, I tweeted about this the other day, but, you know, people, when they need stories, they understand exactly what they're for. When they need to communicate a powerful idea, they know they need stories. They do it all the time. All of us do it. And when we are looking actively to survive, we also know to seek out stories.

Charlie Melcher: Which is kind of a beautiful, bringing us back to the beginning, right, we're looking for those ancient wisdom stories like the Moken had to help us figure out how to survive in a time of natural disaster. This is not a tsunami, but it's a pandemic, and likewise, we need to look back to our ancestors for that wisdom, for that survival information that can help us ride out this storm.

Brian McDonald: Yeah, exactly. If this happens again in a hundred years, they're going to look back at us and see what we did and see what we didn't do. "What did they do right? What did they do wrong?" They're going to look, they're going to study this, the same way we're looking at 1918.

Charlie Melcher: Well, with that, I just wanted to thank you so much for being part of this podcast and it's always such a pleasure to get to talk about stories with you, Brian. Thank you so much.

Brian McDonald: Oh, thanks for having me, Charlie. Thanks for asking me. It was fun.

Charlie Melcher: Thank you for joining us, and a special thanks to Brian McDonald. If you enjoyed hearing Brian share his thoughts on storytelling, I've got some exciting news. Brian will be hosting the first edition of FOS' new virtual film series, Films with Friends, coming this Wednesday, April 15th at 9:00 PM Eastern time. The event will also allow you to join us virtually for a synchronized screening party of the classic film, Tootsie, during which Brian will share insights about the film's storytelling structure. If you'd like to join us, sign up for our newsletter\signup for updates and further details.

Lastly, if you enjoyed this discussion and would like to hear more, we'd really appreciate it if you'd subscribe to and rate our podcast. And if you know someone who'd enjoy our show, please be sure to pass it along. The best thing you can do to help us as we try to get this off the ground is to spread the word.

Thanks again for your time and a big thank you to our production partner, Charts & Leisure. We'll see you next week for another conversation. Until then, please be safe, be strong and story on.