What is Storytelling?

The above image, from this website, shows some of the concept art for “American Dog”, a Disney movie that turned into “Bolt” after its original director, Chris Sanders was removed.  This was apparently due to disagreements over storytelling with John Lasseter, and therefore raises parallels (in my mind) with other projects where the orginal directors/creators were removed for failing to solve “storytelling problems” (Jan Pinkava on Ratatoullie is another case and maybe Glen Keane on Rapunzel Unbraided as well) .

Apart from any talk of conflicting egoes, it does make me wonder: What exactly is good storytelling?

Pixar movies have been used as a gold standard for a while now in critical circles, and on Ratatoullie, Brad Bird is often cited as having fixed numerous storytelling issues in a matter of weeks. But here’s the rub though: as much as I loved the 2 Toy Stories and Iron Giant, I’ve been underwhelmed by later Pixar movies, from Ratatoullie to Wall-E; Bolt was a pretty bland movie as well.

Which makes me wonder what the movies would have turned out like if Sanders and Pinkava had been allowed to carry out their vision; something more personal, less commercially driven perhaps? Or were there really objectively quantifiable problems with their approach? Is good storytelling a subjective thing or is there some sort of universal (or at least human) standard we can point to? (say…a 90% rating on rottentomatoes? :p)

I guess I worry about these issues working on my own stories, particulary the current Malinky  Robot GN: is there  enough direction in the plot? Emotional engagement of the reader? Is the conflict resolution placed at the right time, at the right intensity? What would a John Lasseter make of the Brothers Quay or Jan Svankmajer?

Who exactly do we write for, and to what end?



  1. Well, certainly one that makes the audience go on the journey with the character of the movie. You feel, experience and learn with the characters.

    An element of the unexpected is almost essential. It’s the cliffhanger of scenes, making the audience wanting more, especially after the movie has ended.

    You might want to check out the book Ideas for the Animated Short. It’s available at the library. Talks about storytelling, useful not only for films. There’s another book called Directing the Story. Again, about storytelling, but useful for other mediums as well.

    1. Have read bits of those books actually… but the approach they advocate is exactly what the ‘pixar’ approach is about ; which seems to me to be an update of the hollywood invisible continuity approach of manipulating audience reaction – whereas, say, indie/art house approaches might be more open-ended, possibly emotionally distant. in those cases is it ‘bad’ storytelling? so just a different mode?

  2. It has always been in my opinion that while Malinky Robot LOOKs like it could be in the same genre as Disney types, it’s not. It’s fun, nostalgic and occasionally crass, and most obviously random (but that could be becuz of the short stories format) Maybe you need to go back to asking what you wanted Malinky Robot to be in the first place? And also, sometimes in our eagerness to create something completely new, we fail to realize that being this late in the continuity, almost everything has been done. In cases like these, it may be good to refer to actual stories that inspired the creation and see where you can reinvent it into something else with your own personal touch. (eg. Astrocity) – that’s my graphic design philosophy btw 😀

    I don’t think open-ended endings are necessarily bad storytelling. They are only bad if the writer didn’t know how to end them (and the audience will know the difference) Adrian Tomine has hits and misses with open-ended stories. It would be great if the randomness of Indie could be combined with the narrative of commercial type stories.

    1. heh yeah but then sometimes that also get criticised – like ‘sunshine cleaning’ which generally got poor reviews for trying to combine an indie aesthetic with a happy hollywood ending. i liked it, but i think just goes to show how complicated making a good story is :p

  3. And then there’s the Japanese manga approach, which I don’t really know how to describe.

    Western animation storytelling is really very limited. All they have are cute characters as main characters. This is very unlike Japanese animation, who stories involve more complicated characters, and often times with hard to grasp plot, and weird sub themes.

    Maybe it might be better to look towards non-animated movies for ideas.

    1. watched UP recently and was scratching my head as to where exactly they’d put in those Miyazaki moments they kept mentioning in the press… even miyazaki himself i’m a little baffled by esp in more recent movies; earlier stuff like totoro and pon pomo were great but ponyo seemed neither here nor there… and i get the feeling critics have somehow just switched off and on autopilot herald every new pixar and ghibli movie as Great Art :p

  4. stumbled on your blog via Parkas blog on the Alice in wonderland book that looks great which i am sure going to pick up, but i find this a interesting topic, i always thought the original American dog seemed more appealing, and i too would have liked to seePinkava version of ratatouille just to see what the difference is. As far as what is good story two answers there is the hollywood answer, what “they” call a good story, usually what makes “Them” money, and then there is the background and culture of the individual who some how connects with the story, that is the big difference between the success of western style stories and eastern, most westerns are not familiar or are non interested unless they are told its good, when a major studio presents, one of these films, now i am not a story pro at all just my 2 cents
    great blog by the way love your style

    1. hiya thanks for your comments 🙂 i’m still mulling about all the issues involved… to some extent i guess its cultural, maybe even subjective to a certain degree… for something like “UP” my sense is that quite a lot of pp think its over-pixarised in terms of manipulative storytelling, so the question is more about why the reviews in the media have been so over the top :p

  5. only answer for that is, it the media, pixar is the boy who could do no wrong, don’t get me wrong there body of work is great, but i agree the media does get a little over excited and bias, but again the media is the media, not always a good source for anything, but a lot of people look at the media the same way they look at people with white coats, they think there word is gold. and like you said a lot of it is very subjective.

  6. Story telling I think is when the story you wants to tell, or the issues you want the reader to think of or feel, reaches the targeted audience that you intended to reach.

    So yeah, even a Mills and Boons writer tells a ‘great’ story when the readers love the soap opera, or when the handful of readers ‘gets’ the concept when story written for a small target audience.

    Some might argue Rowling is not a good story teller despite the fact her books sold zillions.

    1. hiya lux… hmm well yeah i think there is a reader/audience element involved with brings subjectivity into the picture, but how do we decide whats good storytelling? is it just relative? or is there some sort of standard we can apply? is commercial success an indicator?

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