Lindsay Doran on “The Psychology of Storytelling” | by Scott Myers | Go Into The Story

Lindsay Doran on “The Psychology of Storytelling”

Lindsay Doran holds a prominent place in the Hollywood community (you may learn more about her background here). The fact she is known as “The Script Whisperer” should tell you something about her status as an expert on storytelling.

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Lindsay Doran

Lindsay made a presentation at the WGA Theater in Beverly Hills two weeks ago. It was a terrific event with a packed house. Seven of those in attendance won free tickets via a contest we ran here on the blog. Some of those folks were kind enough to send reflections on their experience at the event which I have aggregated below.

In a wonderful bit of synchronicity, we forwarded those observations to Lindsay… and she sent back responses to each one, allowing me to include those in this post!

Therefore if you were unable to attend the session two weeks ago, click More for a comprehensive overview of the event via the reflections of four attendees, then following their observations Lindsay’s additional thoughts, plus video of her TEDx talk.

Here is what Thom Harp wrote:

“How many of you consider yourself pessimists?” A strange question to kick off a lecture. A clutch of hands in the packed theater went up. “You’ll be happy to know that there is scientific data that proves that you see the world as it is. Now, how many of you consider yourselves optimists?” Most hands shot up. “Well, I’m sorry to say that there is hard scientific evidence to prove that the way you see the world is completely inaccurate.”

Uh…this isn’t going the way I thought it would. And Lindsay Doran seems sunny and happy. Big glasses, a mane of curly hair, she comes across like the hippy librarian who does the fun kid activities. But here’s the thing: she said that optimists are the ones who change the world. Who see a failure as a temporary setback. Who recover better from surgeries, who live longer, who can go to war and not come back with PTSD. Their attitude bends reality to their perspective.

That optimism, that resilience, that’s what screenwriters, actors, directors HAVE to have to survive all the rejection — not only from studios, agencies, et al, but also from their own self-doubt.

And it turns out, that resilience is what audiences most want in their characters. Surviving against horrible odds. The underdog beating the bully. The little man taking on the system. The guy getting the girl (or vice versa).

But somewhere along the course of her 30+ year career Lindsay noticed that movies were getting darker and darker. There were less movies that were purely joyous experiences. And when she put this to execs, one even said “I don’t think of the movies as a place to go to have a good time.”

I felt this as I labored through the most recent RoboCop. I’m not going to lie: I LOVE the original. But I honestly watched it for what it is trying to say. The writers took did a great job of humanizing the conflict that Alex Murphy/RoboCop feels at having what makes hit HIM stripped away. He’ll never be able to make love to his wife (curiously, they gave him one hand as opposed to the original, which means he actually can hold his wife and child, but nevermind). They personalized his struggle, they made me feel his pain…

And I couldn’t care less. It was another “tortured hero takes on the yoke of his burden for the greater good” story. What I miss is the sense of joy from the Richard Donner Superman when teen Clark Kent runs alongside the train. And as Superman, when he catches Lois Lane and says “I’ve got you” she replies “Who’s got YOU?” AND HE SMILES.

Because it’s AWESOME being AWESOME. Yes, with great power comes great responsibility, but what Doran lamented was that audiences no longer are offered POSITIVE EMOTIONS at the movies unless they go to see kids films.

One of the most insightful moments was when Lindsay related an anecdote of asking someone to make a list of what they thought were the best movies of all time. Then they made a list of their favorite movies. For this guy, the first list was full of “important” movies. But at the top of the second was Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey. A SEQUEL. To a COMEDY. For him, every time they said “be excellent to one another and party on” it was a clarion call to a way of being. It made him feel good.

A few years ago, I had a similar moment when I realized that most of my day was spent changing diapers. Here I was, a “serious filmmaker” who loved Kurosawa, Kubrick and Antonioni, dealing with this giggling, smiling creature’s crap. Literally. And like that, I flashed to John Hughes “Mr. Mom” where a beleagured Michael Keaton struggled to make sense of domestic life. And I thought: what movies will I watch no matter what else I was doing when they come on TV? I’d take “Raising Arizona” over “The Last Emperor” (the Best Picture winner that year) any day. From that point on, all I’ve written are comedies.

As much as I think it’s a crime that John Cusack never won an Oscar for High Fidelity or Grosse Pointe Blank, I’m going to let Lindsay fight the system, Doña Quixote style.

Me, I’m going to be like the spider she described who impossibly wove a web across her backyard pool. I’m going to send out my silk line for the joy of doing it and see where the wind takes it.

So you want some “how to” moments. Fair enough. Here were a couple of nuggets:

  • People don’t care about a character’s accomplishments. They care about the moment AFTER the accomplishment where the character shares the accomplishment with the one they love.
  • The accomplishment audiences care about most is resilience. See, that psychology stuff DOES come back around.
  • Every character should have a simple definable WANT. As Sidney Pollack said to her “Nothing can happen until someone wants something.”
  • People value sacrifice most — but sadly, sequels have denied us those cathartic moments, because “you gotta bring the whole band back.”

Here is what Nick Dykal wrote:

Thanks to The Black List and Go Into The Story, I was able to attend the Lindsay Doran event held at the WGA West theater. Ms. Doran touched on a lot of topics concerning psychology and storytelling, but the idea that really resonated for me was favoring relationships and resilience over accomplishment.

When writing screenplays, especially for action, adventure, or thriller genres, we tend to fixate on the protagonist’s accomplishment (e.g. defeating the bad guy and saving the day). This seems to be the most important aspect as it drives the action and moves the plot along. Naturally, we assume the audience will reach peak satisfaction when the hero accomplishes his goal and that’s when the story should end. Not so according to Lindsay Duran. She suggests it’s the hero’s relationships that the audience is connecting with, and it’s upon those emotional resolutions that we should end the story. This makes sense if you get inside your characters’ motivations. In Die Hard, John McClane’s goal is to defeat Hans Gruber, but his motivation is to save his wife. It’s definitely satisfying to see Hans tumbling to his death, but it doesn’t compare to the wonderful moment when John is reunited with his loved ones. That’s the moment everyone in the audience wants to take home with them. So the lesson here is to identify the core relationships in your story and constantly think about how each scene services those emotional connections.

The notion that resilience is more powerful than accomplishment also struck a chord with me. Lindsay brought up the ending to Rocky and I was surprised to find that many in the audience (including myself) had forgotten that Rocky actually loses the big fight in the end. Again, this makes sense if we get outside the box of predictable story structure and get inside our protagonist. It’s Rocky’s drive that audiences connect to. It’s his unwillingness to give up and keep fighting against impossible odds that gets him the respect of everyone, including those within the story who doubted him. The fact that he loses gets overshadowed by the power of his resilience. And the icing is put on the cake when Rocky embraces Adrian and the story of their relationship is brought full-circle.

Here are some reactions from Brian Scully:

When a fundamental shift happens in my internal process, good luck trying to get me to articulate it. And yet, here I am trying to do just that by describing my reaction to hearing the glorious Lindsay Doran speak on February 20th. And I know I’m going to fail. I’m fine with that. I made peace with that before I even started typing. I think it’s because I know that no words can do the experience justice. I know how much of a cop-out that sounds like. But, it’s true. What I do think I can say is this.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about story and my own process since walking out of the WGA Theatre. Looking back over my own material. Seeing how what Lindsay talked about lines up perfectly with what does and doesn’t work. Marveling at how much being told the obvious can still feel like a creative rebirth. Because really, that’s all Lindsay did, and she admitted it from the start. She was going to only state the obvious, and often, hearing the obvious is what we need the most. After all, isn’t it so easy for the most obvious facts to become the most forgotten?

Lindsay closed the talk by answering a question I think is fair to say most of us have asked in our lives: how the hell does a spider web get spun from one tall tree or bush to another? When she found the answer (thanks to Google, that which runs all our lives), she realized that the answer also spoke to why she gives this talk and why we should do as creative storytellers. The spider doesn’t use acrobatics to get to the next tree, or any kind of laborious, perilous physical journey. The spider spins a web because that’s what it loves to do. It’s only thanks to the wind that it can make its way to the next tree. From there, the spider can strengthen the web, move from branch to branch, leaf to leaf, but it always starts the same way: the web is spun in the first place because the spider loves to do it. Where the wind takes the web is out of its control. Sound familiar, fellow writers?

Leave it to Lindsay Doran to be so full of brilliance, she can make me feel emotionally connected to one of my most hated creatures on the planet.

Finally Matthew Hickman, who you will remember went to the Sundance Film Festival as the guest of the Black List and producer Cassian Elwes, wrote up this account:

What did I think of Lindsay Doran’s lecture?

I posted a little blurb on Twitter shortly after leaving the other night which I think summed it up well: Wow. Thanks Lindsay Doran, for teaching me things I didn’t know I needed to learn. And thanks to @WGAWest and @theblcklst for hosting!

Rather than fail to do her talk justice, I’ll point you to an abridged version of it here.

I showed up to the Writer’s Guild theater on Thursday evening not sure what to expect. I read about it via the Black List’s listserv and, being intrigued by Mrs. Doran’s list of requirements for successful drama, I immediately bought in:

#1 It must be arresting and amusing to the drunk.

#2 It must address the question, “How should we live?”

#3 It must address the question, “How does the universe work?”

After seeing ground rules like that laid down, how could I not show up? The first thing I noticed when I arrived at the theater was that it would be crowded. There were probably a hundred people in line by the time I showed up, and for once in my life I was early. Once everyone was seated inside, Franklin gave Mrs. Doran a very warm introduction by stating that whenever he went to work for Sydney Pollack, a man he (and many others) considered to be a foremost expert on the art of storytelling, Pollack asked him to do one thing at their first meeting: have lunch with Lindsay Doran, who Pollack considered a foremost expert on the art of storytelling. (I think the actual phrasing he used was slightly more superlative, but you get the idea — Mrs. Doran is as much of an authority on story as you can ask for).

Stepping up to a podium with five hundred people at the Writer’s Guild theater, after that introduction, you could say my expectations were fairly high for her lecture — and they were completely exceeded. What I loved about Mrs. Doran was how her love of movies brightly shined through her entire talk, the way she made complicated ideas seem simple, and the direct, warm way in which she spoke to us all. Oftentimes with “experts,” it’s easy to detect a degree of detachment, arrogance, or self-satisfaction in the speaker. “I know important things, I’m worth listening to,” is what you can almost hear dripping from their tone. Whatever the opposite of that is, that’s what I experienced while listening to Mrs. Doran — she spoke to us first and foremost, it seemed, as a lover of film, secondly as a student of them — examining how they compare with academic fields, probing them to see what works and what doesn’t — and lastly as of teacher of what she found in her studies.

She told us about positive psychology, the work of Dr. Martin Seligman, and the applicability of his work to what we do in cinema. She told us about the five elements of wellness in this field: positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and positive accomplishments. Upon first encountering this list, Mrs. Doran told us, she was under the impression that someone had made a list of qualities that constitute a good movie. Once she realized they were actually foundational to Dr. Seligman’s understanding of wellness in a person’s life, she set out to find how much overlap this list had with what we love in stories on the screen.

Suffice it to say that the results were surprising, and many assumptions I had about the movie business were challenged. Why are Oscar winners usually depressing, violent dramas, and why do comedies often get so little credit as serious art in comparison? Might it have something to do with the origins of storytelling in our hunter-gatherer societies, where each tale held clues about how to survive another day in a harsh world? Is there a certain part of our prehistoric brains that watches No Country for Old Men and the like while looking for hints on how to survive a South Texas border shootout?

What it is that differentiates the stories we tell men and women, and what do they have in common? More to that point, what recent movie had the memorable plot device of a woman with amnesia who cannot remember her relationship with the man she loves? Those of you who said The Vow, starring Channing Tatum and Rachel McAdams, you’re right. Those of you who said Fast and Furious 6, starring (among others) Michelle Rodriguez and Vin Diesel, you’re also correct. What does the different window dressing of these movies tell us about the way we market movies toward the two sexes? The answers — and unanswered provocations — from Mrs. Doran were fascinating.

For me, at the end of her talk I left with two points resonating in my head about what matters in the stories we tell. No matter whether we’re watching The Vow or Fast and Furious 6 or The Godfather, movies are about one thing, Mrs. Doran reminds us — relationships. The second point is that while it’s easy to look at our movies as hero’s journeys, the movie in the end is never defined by our hero’s accomplishment. It’s about those relationships, and it’s about the attempt — the ability of our protagonist to try, and sometimes fail, without being permanently defeated. We want to see movies about people who are resilient in the face of defeat, and we want to see relationships that matter, because both of those things are what help people get through life in reality. After all, who remembers that Rocky lost his first fight against Apollo Creed? It was in the attempt, and in Adrian’s embrace at the end of fifteen rounds, that we find our satisfaction. That’s obvious, isn’t it? Sometimes, I think, it helps to have someone like Mrs. Doran remind me of what seems obvious.

Here is what Lindsay wrote in response to the observations by Thom, Nick, Brian and Matthew:

Thank you all for these beautiful posts. I can’t tell you how much it means to me that so many of you were inspired and excited by what I shared that night.

Here are a few responses to what you’ve written, just for the sake of clarity:

Thom -

I didn’t mean to convey that the way optimists see the world is completely inaccurate. It’s just not as accurate as the way pessimists see it, and some optimists see the world more accurately than others. We all know people who live in a complete dream world and only see things the way they want to see them. I doubt those people succeed as much as optimists who have at least some grasp of the real world. (But some people might read the Steve Jobs biography and conclude that he lived in a dream world, and he did pretty well, so maybe you’re right.)

I think what the statistics suggest is that audiences respond in huge numbers to stories about people who overcome loss and failure, not necessarily people who win. So box office success might come from a story about an underdog who is beaten by the bully, but gains his self-respect. Or the little man who takes on the system and fails, but gains something else of value. The guy and the girl might not end up together, but maybe she can go home to the red earth of Tara and figure out how to get him back.

I’m not sure who the person was who said that she didn’t think of a movie theater as a place to go to feel good, but I don’t think she was an executive. It was a mixed group that day, agents and others, and I’m not sure why she was there. She appeared to be in her 20s, and that was the thing about her that affected me most. It scared me to think that her attitude might be representative of her generation.

I love the original Robocop, too. My memory of seeing it in a theater is weirdly similar to my memory of seeing Mama Mia in a theater — it felt like the roof was going to come down because people were enjoying it so much. And of course part of what they were enjoying was the ultra-violence. It was, let’s face it, a subversively joyous movie.

I completely agree about the other kind of joy in those early Superman movies.

As to your “how to” moments: What I most worry about when I give this talk is that people will think that I’m saying, “Do this, don’t do that; Use this formula, not that formula; follow these rules, and you’ll be successful.” Mostly I’m repeating ideas from other people that I think are interesting to think about, or at least that I myself find interesting to think about. It’s challenging and disruptive to hear someone say that audiences don’t care about accomplishments, but I don’t believe it’s strictly true. I definitely care that the girl in Flashdance passes the audition — I’m rooting for that outcome and thrilled when it’s accomplished — but I’m fascinated that the scene in which she actually passes the audition isn’t even in the movie. They cut from her dancing and the surprised/encouraging faces of the judges to her running towards her boyfriend holding a piece of paper that we just have to assume is her acceptance into the dance academy. (Most people think the scene in which she’s told she passed the audition is in the movie, including some of the people who made the movie. We don’t just forget how the movies we love end; we forget how the movies we’ve made end.)

So all of these ideas need to be examined and thought out. If audiences cared more about relationships than accomplishments, then maybe The Vow would have made more money than Fast & Furious 6. Men are more drawn to stories about accomplishments, or so it seems, but once they’re in the theater, they seem to care more about the relationships than they realize. But you can take this information and work it out in different ways. Fast & Furious 6 is very clear about being a relationship movie, the proof being an ending with eight people at a table saying grace. But the end of Lone Survivor is a completely different way to use relationships at the end of an action movie. So is the ending of The Godfather and the ending of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the ending of The Social Network and the ending of The Dark Knight Rises. The fun, I think, is to find original ways to balance the two things rather than saying that one thing matters and the other doesn’t.

Also I think Sydney would want his exact words recorded: “Nothing can happen till somebody wants something.” It has a lovely Night Before Christmas cadence to it: “When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter/I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter/And nothing can happen till somebody wants something.”


Some of my comments above apply to what you wrote as well. I’m wary of conveying that you “should end the story” in a certain way. I’m trying to point out what we’re already doing rather than what we should do. I feel bad when I hear someone say, “The studio insisted we end the movie with a kiss because that’s what audiences like.” Citizen Kane ends with a (spoiler alert!) sled that I think is representative of Kane’s relationship with his mother, but one could argue that it only represents his lost childhood or his lost innocence. The fun is in the argument, not the answer.

But your example of the death of Hans Gruber, followed by the family reunion, is perfect. The death scene is extremely cool (almost as cool as Alan Rickman himself), but it’s inconceivable that the movie would end there.

Brian -

I’m so glad that you and so many others related to the story about the spider. It’s a story I’ve intended to tell for a while as a way of saying that my talk is the spider web in the wind and where it lands next is up to the audience. But I realized in a room full of writers, the story had much more meaning than that.

Matthew -

If you’ve read my comments above, you won’t be surprised to hear that I don’t think of those three wonderful precepts as strict “requirements of good drama.” But they’re certainly fun and stimulating to think about. I’m not sure that Margin Call would be arresting and amusing to the drunk, but it’s certainly good drama. I guess I equate “the drunk” with children, or with Shakespeare’s groundlings, and I try to keep in mind that a certain kind of entertainment would do well to keep “the drunk” in mind without drifting into bad taste. I watched “Meet the Parents” in a theater next to a woman holding a two-year-old child, and it was pretty clear that from the little girl’s point of view, the movie was about a cat and about people being hit in the head with a volleyball. And she was perfectly happy to be there, as was everyone else. But Hamlet has (spoiler alert) ghosts in it, and they would be arresting to the drunk as well, as would all that sword-fighting.

Dr. Seligman would say that the list I handed out is “the five elements of well-being” but I think “wellness” fits just as well. It’s very difficult to find the right vocabulary for this stuff because all the words feel negatively loaded. “Happiness” suggests Emmet in the Lego Movie laughing his head off at Where are My Pants? and therefore oblivious to the leader of his country saying out loud that he intends to put all his citizens to sleep. I think “well-being” is vague, and “serenity” isn’t quite right either. We need better words.

But I love that you acknowledge that what I was mostly doing was asking questions and saying, “Think about this! Isn’t it interesting? What do you make of it? If so many movies put the accomplishment before the resolution of the relationship, does that mean we all have to do that all the time? What can we learn from the exceptions? If we decide not to follow that order, how can we make our ending so effective that breaking with convention makes the ending even better? And if we decide to put the relationship scene last, how can we make the last scene so original that no one notices that we’re doing what so many others have done?” I think questions are more stimulating than answers, so I’m glad you came out of the experience with so many questions and so much satisfaction.

I heard from a lot of pro screenwriters who were equally blown away. I’ve seen Lindsay myself and posted about her before — for example, here and here. But for those who have not, here is a special treat: Video of a TEDx presentation Lindsay gave back in 2012:

If any of you attended the recent Psychology of Story-Telling event or have seen Lindsay before, please feel free to add your thoughts in Comments.

And Lindsay, thanks for what you bring in the way of insight to the craft of storytelling and your passion to share that wisdom with writers!

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