Tell Me a Story

James R. Elkins

[Stories] stimulate our imaginations and give us little tastes of paradise. These trigger fantasies, which lead us to desires for actions in the real world. Then, as we pursue these goals, the stories guide us through the passages using meaning connections, each story revealing a little bit more of the truth.

—James Bonnet, Stealing Fire from the Gods: A Dynamic New Story Model for Writers and Filmmakers 32 (Studio City, California: Michael Wiese Productions, 1999)

The film's precursor is the story around the campfire.

David Mamet, Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business 70 (New York: Random House/Vintage Books, 2008)

We know what a story is, what it means to hear a story, and what it means to tell one. We use stories in everyday life to pass time, convey information, and establish an identity and a sense of self. Stories help us locate ourselves in a particular place, family, and community, and we use stories to escape these worlds in which our stories have placed us. We use stories to remember; they are a form of basic intelligence. We use stories to survive, to imagine the future, and for a host of instrumental everyday purposes. We indulge stories because they bring us pleasure. We have never been without them; stories are part of our human inheritance.

We are surrounded by stories and are now beginning to formally recognize and make a place for them in both the academic disciplines and in the professions. Today, there is a growing recognition that lawyers are story-tellers. In the most basic sense, we listen to the stories of our clients and then translate them into a form in which legal action can be taken and in which legal action in turn will become part of the story. It is not just lawyers, but judges, too, who are in the story-telling business. It's not much of a stretch to see the judicial opinion as a story. Lawyers have always been story-tellers. Drama is central to the craft of the courtroom lawyer and represents the main attraction of lawyers in contemporary popular culture.

If we lawyers are in the story-telling business, and our work proceeds from a life of experiences with stories, then, paradoxically, we know a great deal about stories even as we are oblivious to them.

One might begin to study stories, their structure and how they work, by reflecting on our own lives as a story and about legal education itself as a kind of story. But first, consider the following:

What stories do you know?

How did you learn these stories?

From whom have the most significant stories in your life been learned?

Do you see yourself as a creator and teller of stories?

How have you used the stories in your life to create a sense of self-identity and a place for yourself in the world?

What kind of person are you in the story you tell about your own life?

These questions suggest, I trust, that you have a large store of what might be called tacit story knowledge. Stories are not only the great delight of children but important for adults as a way of knowing the world and marshalling the resources and character to act in the world as it appears to us.

The narrative and story aspects of film make them, in a sense, familiar and understandable. We know and interpret what we see in films as stories, the same kind of stories we know from everyday life, stories we heard as children, stories that bring us pleasure and stories that create fear, stories we will entertain and those we seem to deny. In reading a story, our interpretation begins by saying (or knowing without saying): "This is a story I am hearing." We must then decide what kind of story it is: inviting/frightening/puzzling/boring. We know what kind of story it is first by our emotional and subjective reaction to it. The story has a place in our psyche or it does not; we are open or closed to the story. This initial reaction to the story is important and provides valuable information but it is often information buried deep beneath its subjective surface.

Notes & Web Resources

N1. "[W]e come back, in one way or another, to the fundamental perception that stories teach us—and teach us in ways, at levels nothing else does." [Frank McConnell, Storytelling and Mythmaking: Images From Film and Literature 3 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979)]

N2. "We all do it [storytelling] naturally. Some of us are better at it than others." [David Mamet, Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business 89 New York: Random House/Vintage Books, 2008)]

N3. "Popular films have their own principles, patterns, and structures. These deal not so much with style and technique as with the psychology of storytelling, which ultimately is the psychology of contemporary human beings." [Howard Suber, The Power of Film xxiv (Studio City, California: Michael Wiese Productions, 2006)]

N4. "The legal storyteller must have a sophisticated understanding of mass communication in order to grasp how truth, law, and justice are constructed in the popular imagination. Only then can she effectively tell her story before a particular lay audience. On this view, law cannot be isolated from the influences of the visual mass media and the shifting styles and content of popular cultural storytelling. In practice, it hasn't been.” [Richard K. Sherwin, Picturing Justice: Images of Law & Lawyers in the Visual Media, 30 U. S.F. L. Rev. 892 (1996)]

"The reality that counts most,” in the legal world, according to Sherwin, “is the one that people carry around in their heads; the popular images, stock stories and character types, the familiar plot lines and recurring scenarios.” [893] “If persuasion is a matter of tapping into the reality that people carry around in their heads and of emulating the habits of perception and styles of thought that come with extensive exposure to mass-mediated popular culture, where else would one turn but to the screen?” [Id.]

"Appealing to the lay public’s narrative tastes requires tapping into prevailing cultural beliefs and expectations about what constitutes good storytelling. . . . [P]opular narrative conventions supply courtroom advocates with crucial information about persuasive story forms and content for lay judgments about truth and justice.” [Id.]

A Story is a Promise

The screenwriting consultant, Bill Johnson, has noted that stories have been with us for a long time and for that reason alone we might want to understand them. As Johnson puts it, "[f]rom prehistoric times when our ancestors gathered around fires in caves, storytellers have been aware of how arranging events in a story-like way held the attention of an audience." It's the attention of an audience that we need to convey information of importance to others, to learn information from others that we might need; an audience is sometimes simply a way to entertain and be entertained. The important point is that all of this has been going on from prehistoric times. Our movie watching is a contemporary form of gathering around the fire to listen to a story.

Johnson defines story as the use of words and images to create life-like characters and events that will capture an audience's attention. And how is this done? By presenting the action of a story as "revolving around resolving some human need: to feel loved, to be in control of one's life and fate, to be able to avenge wrongs, overcome obstacles, discover and understand the meaning and purpose of life."

Is it possible that we might actually watch movies to save our lives? I got this seemingly preposterous notion from Frank McConnell's introduction to Storytelling and Mythmaking: Images From Film and Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979). McConnell begins his book this way: "This book is about film and literature as kinds of story-telling. It argues that stories matter, and matter deeply, because they are the best way to save our lives." (3). Other commentators don't put the point quite so strongly, but lend support to the notion. Johnson lends support to McConnell's statement, which initially seems a bit preposterous in the argument that audiences are captured by films because they present and make apparent life's meaning and purpose. This is the way Johnson puts it:

Through experiencing a story's arrangement of its events, a story's audience has experiences of "life" more potent and "true" than real life. "Life" with meaning and purpose. Where people get what they want if they really believe. Wherein true love exists. Where inexplicable events are resolved. Where even pain and chaos can be ascribed meaning.

Reading Johnson's A Story is a Promise (5th ed., 2011), we get a better view of story from the screenwriter's perspective, why we become ready captives of film stories, and how the stories work at a structural level. Using this insider's view, we can become a better reader of lawyer films.

Perceiving the Foundation of Storytelling

Locating a Story Premise. Bill Johnson, in another excerpt from his book, A Story is a Promise, points out that, "[a]ny story . . . at its heart, must have some dramatic issue of consequence to its audience. . . ." The film's dramatic issue can be stated as the story's premise and its promise. This is the way Johnson puts it:

A story's core dramatic issue is the issue at the heart of a story's promise. Dramatic issues or ideas revolve around human needs: the need to be loved, to control one's own fate, to overcome obstacles, to grow and heal from life's wounds, to understand and make sense of the events of life, to experience life in a deeply felt way.

The important point is that storytellers be able to name the dramatic issue at the heart of the stories they are telling.

Tt is important to note that the premise of the story is not the plot. Johnson explains that the purpose of the plot is to make visible and concrete the dramatic movement of a story. A plot serves to make the movement of a story dramatic and potent by taking character concerns and intertwining them with what's at stake in the story itself, then compelling characters to act to resolve what's at stake in the story while plot-generated events block their actions. [from Johnson, "Perceiving the Foundation of Storytelling]

The plot unveils itself to us in a rather seamless fashion; establishing the premise requires more active work on the part of the viewer. If we don't understand the premise (whether one we viewers construct or one we ascribe to the film itself), we are left with little but the surface features of the film, the plot and the most superficial kind of identification with the characters.

Johnson links the story's premise to "every other element of storytelling"; indeed, the premise is sufficiently important for the screenwriter that each element of the film—characters, plot, conflict, story movement, resolution—are related back to the story's premise. The premise, according to Johnson, is the "foundation" of storytelling. A premise could be compared to a house foundation. It supports a well-constructed story. It is not meant to be artistic or original so much as clear and direct about setting out a story's core dramatic issue and what manifests its movement toward fulfillment.

To visualize a premise, think of a community burned to the ground. If you looked at it before the fire, every house would be unique in some way. After the fire, when all that's left are bare foundations, the foundations all have a similar quality. They all tend to look alike.

A premise is like that. It's not meant to be different, artistic, or unique; unlike any other premise. It's meant to set out a foundation that supports the more visible aspects of a story, its characters and events, just like a house foundation supports the more visible aspects of a house, its walls, roof, windows, etc. [Johnson, Premise—Foundation of Storytelling]

If the story premise is foundational, as Johnson argues, then we might go so far as to say, the premise points to the archetypal dimension of the story. I'll have more to say about archetypes as we proceed.

Bill Johnson essays: [Understanding the Process of Storytelling] [Creating Dramatic Characters] [What a Plot IS]

The Nine-Act Structure — David Siegel

The interesting thing about Hollywood screenwriting is that these folks are working mightily to figure out how to do the most basic sort of thing—tell a story, tell it well, and make it sufficiently compelling that we'll sit for two hours and do nothing but pay attention to the story and, if it's told well enough, go tell our friends they'll lead an impoverished life if they too don't go see the film. Just to keep it all interesting, fundamental, and out of the reach of academics, there is a stack of money to be made for those who get it right. David Siegel, like Chris Vogler, Bill Johnson, Robert McKee and a host of others want to tell us the secret magic of film stories.

The Narrative Impulse: Telling Stories

Donald Williams, a Jungian analyst in Boulder, Colorado, has a work in progress he titles "The Educated Heart," in which he comments on stories and how they work:

When we tell our stories, we want to create a vivid and continuous dream in the listener's heart and mind. As John Gardner says, this dream is the aim of all fiction, all stories. As an analyst, therefore, I look for the language, details, memories, events, and metaphors that make [the patient's] story precise and vivid. I watch for the distractions, defenses, and narrative flaws that break the continuity of the dream. We all, as I said earlier, have a unique, compelling, and coherent story to tell. When psychotherapy works, the patient can tell her or his story with narrative competence and create a powerful, vivid, and continuous dream in the analyst's mind.

Williams contends that

we create our lives and the world with the stories we hear and tell. In other words, we maintain our world primarily in conversation—inner dialogues, face to face conversations, and a vast series of conversations we carry on through books, newspapers, films, magazines, television interviews, electronic mail, Compuserve forums, and paintings worth a thousand words." Williams goes on to point out that, "For most of us, the stories we depend upon work like morality plays (Seek this above all; avoid that at your peril. . .), like manuals for adulthood (Here's how to. . .), or like private prayers to soothe and protect us (Now I lay me down to sleep. . .). Well-ordered fictions can be reliable maps and compasses (You are here, there's a road there. . .) and sometimes cosmologies (In the beginning. . .). We could not make death or birth, love or tragedy, human experiences without stories. We would not recognize, experience, or understand the meaning of loyalty, friendship, sacrifice, wonder, grief, or desire without good stories. We will always need new stories and the retelling of old stories.

Williams takes up stories as a psychotherapist; psychotherapy is fundamentally a matter of telling and listening to stories. We might take Williams a step further: In what sense are our stories, even those not told to a therapist, meant to be therapeutic? What stories have you found to be therapeutic? Therapy, if you look to its Greek roots, means to attend, or treat. Today, we use therapy to mean both in the sense of the treatment of disease or disorder by an expert and by other means that we devise. In what sense, then, can we speak of the film story as therapeutic?

Williams makes, in passing, a point about the truth that we might want to examine: "The old truths can no longer authorize our lives. Today, all truths are suspect." How do lawyer films confirm Donald Williams's observation?

The Human Condition: Essays by Dorian Scott Cole

Cole writes about what happens in films and to film characters by talking about life, philosophy, and psychology. The interesting thing about Cole's essays is that he says so little about film, leaving it to the writer/viewer to make the translation. Cole is a film story consultant interested in the "human condition" and how it is portrayed in films. Cole may be a "script doctor" but he talks about the script as if it were life itself. [Prelude to Meaning] [Meaning Transformation: Creating Characters with Attitude] [Roles We Play] [How Do You Relate to Life?] [Meaning Making] [Meaning and Plurality] [Free Will] [Guilt, Forgiveness, and Justice] [Character Growth—Change, Maturing] [The Process of Change] [Chasing Shadows and Using Symbols] [Life Stories] [Life Story: cont'd]

| Dorian Scott Cole, Writers Workshop Script Doctor |

James Bonnet

The Coming Age of Story: "[P] people everywhere have begun to realize just how important story is and the key role it was meant to play in our lives."

The Hidden Story Structures in Great Screenplays

The Creative Unconscious Self

The Secret Language of Great Stories: Pt 1

The Secret Language of Great Stories: Pt2

The Storywheel

The Golden Paradigm

[Story Course Title List]

Dramatica: A New Theory of Story

Presents a book-length text which explores basic story structures for creative writers. The authors outline four primary narrative perspectives (which they call "throughlines") found in stories: Objective Story, Main Character, Obstacles Character, and the Subjective Story.

Misc. Web Resources


The Power of Story--The Story Paradigm

The Collaborative Art of Storytelling in Films

Myth and Mimesis: Interactive Storytelling as a New Narrative Model

Book Review: Edward Branigan, Narrative Comprehension and Film (1992)

Story: Videos

The Clues to a Great Story

The Secret A Writer Needs To Know To Write A Great Story
[3:56 mins.] [William C. Martell]

Without This Story Tool A Screenplay Doesn't Work
[6:00 mins.] [Jen Grisanti]

Primary Goal Of Storytelling Is To Elicit Emotion: Overview Of Michael Hauge's 6 Stage Structure
[6:08 mins.]

How Do You Tell A Great Story?
[3:06 mins.] [John Truby]

Martin Scorsese on Story vs. Plot
[2:17 mins.]

The Write Stuff: What Makes a Good Novel?
[3:08 mins.]

Screenwrite the Story

Story Molecule

Screenwriting Web Resources

Websites: A Collection of Resources and YouTube videos by Professor Elkins


Recommended Reading


Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (New York: HarperCollins/ ReganBooks, 1997)


James Bonnet, Stealing Fire from the Gods: A Dynamic New Story Model for Writers and Filmmakers (Studio City, California: Michael Wiese Productions, 2nd ed., 2006)(1st ed. 1999)


Bill Johnson, A Story is a Promise: Good Things to Know Before You Write that Screenplay, Novel, or Play (Portland, Oregon: Blue Heron Publishing, 2000)


Kristen Thompson, Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999)


Anthony G. Amsterdam & Jerome Bruner, Minding the Law (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000)



Footnote: "We human beings delight in drama." [David Mamet, Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business 63 (New York: Random House/Vintage Books, 2008)]