On Being a Story Consultant
Appreciating the often misunderstood
Recently, a student at Falmouth University in Cornwall (studying for a Master's Degree in Screenwriting and Storytelling), asked me a couple of questions about what I do as a story consultant. While many have a complete misunderstanding of what the work entails, my role as consultant really boils down to a single concept: collaboration without the ego.
The following are my off-the-cuff answers:
Could you define what your current role is?:
I'm the founder/CEO and lead developer of Narrative First, Inc. — a story consultancy serving writers from every medium (film, television, novels, plays, podcasts, and game design). Since 2016, I've helped writers get on the Blacklist, documentary filmmakers get to Slamdance, novelists write bestselling novels, and many many more amateurs get their stories off the ground.
I also helped develop the Disney+ series, Tangled: Ever After.
Could you define the role of a story consultant?:
The hardest thing for any writer to do is to find objectivity with his or her work. Writing is a primarily subjective process--the Author dives into the heads of their characters and illustrates from that gut instinct.
The unfortunate thing with subjectivity is that it is prone to all kinds of bias: what looks good from our point-of-view might, and often does, come up incomplete and inaccurate from another perspective.
The story consultant is there to provide an objective "outside-in" look at the project in question, pointing out subjective bias and missing pieces in the story's argument ("story holes"). While there is a certain amount of opinion involved, the very best story consultants back off from inserting their ideas into a project, and instead provide alternate standards of evaluation that the Author can then choose from.
With Narrative First, Inc. and our application Subtxt, story consultants ascertain the meaning behind the Author's story (his or her intent in writing the project, i.e. what their dramatic argument is) and then compare Subtxt's intelligent outline against the work in question.
By using an outline generated from a model of human psychology, the story consultant keeps objective and distant, focusing energies on helping the Author elevate the integrity of their argument (their story).
Could you explain some of your backstory and how it led directly to the role that you have now?:
Sure (this one takes some time)...
In 1992, I was approached by Andrew Stanton and John Lasseter to join Pixar's story department for what would be their first animated feature. They had seen my CalArts student film and thought I would be a good fit.
Of course, I declined.
At the time, Pixar was only doing Lifesavers commercials and besides, what I really wanted to do was become a Disney animator. So I spent the summer working at Magic Mountain while Andrew and John went back up north to make Toy Story. 😫
Thankfully, I did become a Disney animator. But not before spending my first year out of CalArts writing and boarding for legendary animation director, Chuck Jones. Yes, that Chuck Jones (still so grateful after all these years to have worked with one of my heroes, and discovering a new one, production designer Maurice Noble).
At Disney, I started as an assistant on Pocahontas, Hunchback, Hercules, and I think Mulan (can't remember), before being promoted to Character Animator on Tarzan.
Unfortunately, by the time I reached that goal, Pixar had become so successful that Disney decided to stop making 2D-animated features, so I had to find work elsewhere. Luckily, I landed at Dreamworks where I animated on their last two 2D-animated features, Spirit and Sinbad.
After that, I exchanged my pencil for a mouse and became a 3D animator, working on a million films for DW starting with Shrek 2 and Madagascar, and ending with Croods and Me and My Shadow (which was supposed to be a 2d/3d hybrid!).
It was during the 7-year stretch between Shrek 2 and How to Train Your Dragon that I started to turn my attention back to story. I found it extremely difficult to animate on films that I thought didn't have great stories (S2 and Dragon were the exceptions) and so I set about finding a way I could contribute.
First, I turned my attention back to my alma matter, the California Institute of the Arts, and taught Story Development there for seven years. I met some amazingly talented young students there (some of who are now acclaimed writers and directors!), and loved the opportunity to talk about story at a higher level. Teaching there was basically a LIVE version of the hundreds of articles I've written on my company's site, Narrative First.
I loved teaching at CalArts, which is why I'm glad I can now do the same thing online (just without the 50K/yr. price tag!). But I also knew I needed to do more.
Eventually, I sold a film concept/property/story treatment to Dreamworks and as part of the deal switched over to the Story department. I worked on Peabody and Sherman, but not for long--I wasn't really interested in becoming a "gag"-man--I was more interested in the story as a whole, knowing that was where my strengths lied.
So I left, and took a bit of a detour as I returned to Disney to animate on many theme park rides (the Mine Train ride in Florida, and Snow White's castle in Shanghai). It was there that I hooked up with Executive Producer Chris Sonnenburg at Disney TV and helped develop the beloved animated series, Tangled: Ever After.
Time ran out at Disney Special Projects, so I packed my things and landed a directing gig at Dreamworks TV. I directed several episodes of Puss n' Boots, a unique situation where I was able to put some of my story concepts and ideas into action.
But it was at the end of that project, that my now wife suggested--no, demanded--that I set out on my own and create the story company I always dreamed of. Stop working for other people. And so I did. Which brings us to--
Why didn't I get started earlier?
Since 2016, I've been helping writers, directors, executive producers, novelists, playwrights, game developers, and even documentary filmmakers write stories and I've never been happier. Seeing them receive awards or accolades for the work we did together is extremely rewarding--even moreso than if I had set out to do it all on my own.
Which is why, in 2017, I decided it was time to find a way to scale myself beyond what I could physically do during the day, and set out to create an app to do just that.
And that's how Subtxt came to be.
I taught myself frontend and backend development. Spent endless hours writing code and debugging code. And during the pandemic, found a way to carry the meaning of a story all the way down into a single scene.
Which I find pretty remarkable.
It's not a magic bullet--but, it is magic. And I'm grateful for each and every user (numbering in the thousands now!), who tells me they appreciate all the work I put into it.
It's those encouraging words that mean so much, especially when you're someone like me who thinks there is always something new to learn about telling a story just around the corner. With the technology behind Subtxt, I can consistently and frequently update the application whenever I discover something new.
And watch it spread out and reach so many across the world within a matter of milliseconds.
It's the re-writing process at scale. And it's instantaneous.
And I'm thankful to be a part of it.
How active are you in the different stages of production?
Generally, only in the beginning. With something like the Tangled television series, I did reappear from time to time to work out Season arcs, or to check up on the "tentpole" episodes that anchored each Season (more on that experience here: Unravelling the Story Structure of Tangled: The Series and Outlining a Television Series with Dramatica.
Like everything to do with story structure--even if you're just using Subtxt on your own--you work out the outline ahead of time, and then put it away as you go to write. Only to return when you want to check your work, or start another story.
Can you please kindly go into detail about what that working relationship is like between who you have to answer to? (such as producers):
The working relationship with an executive producer/showrunner is much like what I explained above in regards to the role of a story consultant. First, sit down and figure out the artist's vision behind the project (there's always a vision). Then, measure that against the psychological model in Subtxt and nail down the key Character Motivations and overall message of the piece. With that set, generate the intelligent outline.
Generating the outline is one thing (it's just a button tap!), but interpreting it is where most of the story consultant's work comes in. Most creatives/producers don't have the patience, nor drive (nor should they) to understand all the various ins and outs of what it means to carry a thematic argument from beginning to end. They just want to write a great story.
So what I do is look at the outline, compare it against the work in question, and then offer up a handful of different options of what a certain Storybeat MIGHT look like. I never say, "It HAS to be this way" because that would then be inserting my own bias into the piece.
Instead, I offer up different suggestions as to what could possibly work and invariable there is one that speaks to the artist or--even better--they come back with, "Well, what about THIS idea instead…" Because it's usually a development or projection of one of the ideas I threw out there, it usually DOES work…So, I just answer in the affirmative, the producer jots down the story idea, and we move on to the next scene.
What does the future hold for you? Is there a defined career path that you are following?:
I'm getting close to making Subtxt feature-complete. From there, it will be a constant iteration on that as I continue to consult with creatives. In addition, I've started teaching a cohort-based course through Maven (The 2nd Act Solution, essentially a six-week crash course in how to figure out the meaning (Thematic Premise) behind your story. And then how to interpret the outline from Subtxt generated from that meaning.
I'm constantly iterating and developing the theory on which Subtxt is based on (Dramatica), extending it based on my experiences using it in a practical setting.
In addition, I have other ideas on how to make things even better for writers in the future (leveraging crypto…).
In short, the only career path I'm following is the one guided by writing stories...
What is your relationship with the scriptwriters? How much direct interaction do you have with them?:
That depends. If they appreciate my help and are open to my input, the back-and-forth is extremely productive. If instead, they don't understand how it's possible to be able to predict the ending of a story based on what the story is trying to say OR they just don't buy into the idea that a complete story is a dramatic argument and that there is a benefit to having an orderly argument, well then…it's not AS productive. 😆
But 9/10 when I'm working directly with the writer (i.e., they hired me) the relationship is that of any other collaboration with the ONE EXCEPTION that I'm not there to offer up my opinion or try to take ownership of the project.
I'm just there to help.
When consulting or giving feedback, how often are there conflicts surrounding the direction of the story, and if there are conflicts how are these disagreements/conflicts resolved?:
This is NEVER an issue, because the story consultant is not the writer. If the writer disagrees or doesn't see the idea I suggest, then it's on me to figure out an alternative idea that fits in with THEIR vision.
If I felt that passionately about an idea then I should be writing that story myself. That's not the case with the work I do, it's always about helping the writer realize THEIR artistic intention.
My job is to hold space for their artist's intuition--and then find a way to bring some order to it.
What advice would you give to others wanting to take a similar career path of being a script and story consultant?:
First, make sure you're comfortable with the idea that almost no one will understand what it is you do--not even writers 😂
Then, drop every last bit of ego surrounding your ability to come up with story ideas. Many new writers (and even some older ones) have trouble with this. My training at CalArts and then my several decades as an animator pretty much stripped me of any ego…I can't tell you how many times I worked on something I thought was great, only to have it torn down and trashed to the point where I had to literally return back to the drawing board, and start all over again.
If you can do that, you're well on your way.
Second, make sure you LOVE to help other artists realize their vision. If you don't, then you should just work on your own projects.
I understand that your area of expertise and approach to story and narrative analysis is the Dramatica story theory, could you give a brief summary of what that is, and do you also use any other storytelling framework or terminology when consulting on stories (Save The Cat terms for example):
The Dramatica theory of story has one given: that every complete story is an analogy to a single human mind trying to resolve a single inequity. A story is really a model of a Storymind--such that Character, Plot, Theme, and Genre are really just analogies to the Motivations, Methodologies, Evaluations, and Purposes within the human mind.
Save the Cat! and Hero's Journey are audience-based paradigms: both observe finished stories and find patterns within what they see.
Dramatica is the only theory of story based on an AUTHOR-based paradigm. As such it comes off cold and uninviting as it is more interested in what the Author is trying to say with their work, rather than explaining what works in a commercial or cultural setting.
The very best analogy is one of cooking: Save the Cat! and Hero's Journey are concerned with the experience of eating a great meal…and then try to figure out the ingredients afterwards…not always an easy task (and often quite inaccurate).
Dramatica is concerned with the ingredients that go into a great meal…with only a notion of what it will taste like afterwards.
One is subjective (Cat, Hero's Journey), the other objective (Dramatica). You can use both on the same project, but you can't use both at the same time (you can't be both subjective and objective at the same time).
The best part about Cat and Hero's Journey is that you have a good idea of how it will be experienced - the bad part is that you often forget key ingredients that make the meal complete. 😄
The best part about Dramatica/Subtxt approach is that 100% know all the important parts you need to cover…but you just can only guess at how it will be experienced (which really, is how it is with any work of art).