Sorry if I’ve been Missing in Action on the blog these last couple of days – it’s been very hectic, and quite intense, this work I’m doing for QUT – Queensland University of Technology.
QUT is a huge campus – it’s the state’s largest university, and their Creative Industries faculty, of which I’m an Adjunct Professor, is very highly regarded.
Donna, whom Jennifer and I met the other day, wanted to know what an “Adjunct” Professor was – in my case it’s someone working in the industry who comes in from time to time and teachers, and gives Master Classes to students to give a “real world” perspective on their curricula.
It’s a part time gig and from my perspective, I take the time to do it for two reasons: firstly, I want to “give back” some of what I’ve learnt in the trenches over the years; and secondly, I want to learn from these young kids. I want to keep in touch with what they’re thinking, and the way they’re doing things.
I would not be so on top of new distribution models and advances in digital production if it weren’t for my work at QUT. I’m mentoring three recent graduates, and I’ve learnt so much from them about social media, trans-media, and new world distribution and marketing.
But the one thing they can’t teach me, and which I teach them, is to how to tell a story.
What these kids are yet to learn is that story telling is a craft and a science. Yes to an extent it’s innate, and it’s intuitive, but there are highly complex craft skills involved in storytelling, and you need to know and understand these before you can hope to tell an effective and original story.
Shakespeare knew them, so did Dickens and the Bronte Sisters and Melville and Jane Austen. Stephen King, himself a former teacher and academic, knows these craft skills – read his non-fiction book about the history of horror writing, called Danse Macabre. It’s required reading for anyone wanting to know how to write, whether it be horror, or any genre of writing.
These last couple of days I’ve been on an industry panel judging student “pitches.” A pitch is when a student comes in and tells us all about the film he or she wishes to make. The student has five minutes to convince us that we should “greenlight” development of the pitch into a screenplay, and eventually into production.
Pitching is hard. I have to pitch all the time – to financiers, distributors, investors. I find it extremely difficult. Pitching requires that you’ve not only worked out the whole film, and the major narrative beats and character arcs, but you then have to articulate this in an effective and engaging way.
Sometimes the best writers are the worst pitchers, because they don’t have the communication skills to properly express verbally what’s in their heads, and what they can put on the page. But unfortunately pitching is an essential part of the film industry, and you have to learn how to do a great pitch if you want to survive, much less prosper.
Yesterday we heard about forty pitches. Each pitch comprised a team of writer, director and producer. Out of all the students we saw, there were only three who were natural and gifted storytellers – who grabbed us from the get-go and left us asking expectantly: What happens next?
So many wanted to give us a reworked version of Breaking Bad, or The Walking Dead, or Dexter. Very few – only one or two – had an original idea.
You could argue that they’re young, and are still learning – but I would argue that an innate storyteller is born, not made. The craft skills are made and learned, the gift of storytelling lies within the mysteries of the DNA.
Today I do the same again – this time for documentaries and trans media. I hope I hear a story that truly excites me. There is nothing I love more than a good yarn well told…