What great actors and film directors can teach about storytelling

When an actor’s performance or a director’s vision gets my student-writer’s attention, I always make sure that I read interviews or quotes where he explains his craft, especially the bit about why he thinks his show or film is effective or why he chose to tell that story. I don’t know when exactly this started, but I suppose, I felt some gap in my study of writing and literature in general. I needed new sources of inspiration. So below is a list of artists and visionaries whose work may not be included in top tips for writers, but who nevertheless can teach a thing or two about storytelling.


bryan c

One great actor who needs no further introduction is the versatile and recently, a published novelist too, Bryan Cranston. According to Cranston, “the best-written films or television series have a bit of the opposite of what they are.”  And he explained this by citing as examples the darkly comic moments in Breaking Bad and the sweet sentiment or serious drama in Malcolm in the Middle.  To illustrate better, Cranston said:

You can’t have one train going in one direction all the time.

To me, this makes a lot of sense because a straight drama or comedy for one hour of viewing can be very dry or boring. A good story must have unpredictable moments that surprise the reader or the audience. In my recent post The secret to the perfection of Shawshank Redemption, I talked about unexpected moments of clarity and meaning which may not be exactly “the opposite” that Cranston described, but is essentially the same thing in that it is the magical moment in a story that makes it a little more sophisticated. It could be just one scene or one dialogue, like in Ridley Scott’s The Gladiator, when Maximus teases Proximo after the latter gave him the keys to escape: Are you in danger of becoming a good man, Proximo? Who knew that an avenging Gladiator can also make fun of his master? It always makes me smile when I remember this one line.



If you’ve seen the movie Whiplash or La La Land, you’ll know which visionary is behind such successful films. Damien Chazelle was a jazz drummer who wanted to create movies so he combined both, not in a way that composers like John Williams or Hans Zimmer made them, but in a sort of exhilarating fashion which Chazelle described as fever dreams.

When I watched Whiplash, I was just struck by the  essence of it that I had to learn more about Chazelle’s storytelling technique. And he explained it as the building of a specific world and showing what makes this specific world different. To do this, Chazelle adds that “sometimes it means exaggerating certain kind of aspects” which is what we got in Whiplash, when Fletcher terrorized Andrew on how to be on his father f*king time or when Andrew, after just having been in a car accident, still insisted on playing drums on stage, bloody face and all.

Chazelle talked more of specific things by citing his high school jazz experience, remembering how the conductor searched out people who were out of tune or stopped and started him for hours while the whole band watched. Another artist who used this technique to great achievement is the author of The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini, who showed us what it was like to be in Afghanistan in the 70s. This one’s a giveaway, just two words: kite flying. And anyone whoever read the novel or watched the film knows that this one specific, this seemingly small and unimportant experience between two growing boys, is what made Hosseini’s story timeless and classic. In the movie The Gladiator, the dialogue We who are about to die salute you is also a specific to that part of the Roman history and culture as researched and written by Daniel P. Mannix in his book, Those about to die. 


Lyne, Adrian

As the director of provocative films such as Indecent Proposal, Fatal Attraction, and the last in more than a decade, Unfaithful, Adrian Lyne definitely knows how to tell a story that is stimulating and imaginative without focusing too much on the visuals. God knows our culture needs more of what Lyne wants: movies that create discussion. To wit:

I love it when they haven’t forgotten about your movie by dinnertime and they’re still arguing about it the next day. That’s what a movie should do.

I once had a friend who asked me what I would do or what would happen if we were trapped in a spaceship that can’t go back to earth immediately. It’s not exactly the kind of imagining that Lyne prescribes, but I think my friend certainly has the tool to come up with stories just by asking the question What if? 

In Unfaithful, Lyne have these questions in mind in order to find the perfect story to tell:

  • What if the wife got bored and she met a charming young man she can’t resist?
  • What if she cheated?
  • What would her husband do if he finds out?
  • What would she do if she finds out what her husband did? 

Lyne also talked about stories that are closer to home like relationships. He said he is fascinated by how they work or don’t work, and not in big picture stories (read: movies with themes like saving the world). The “minutiae and breath in one’s face”  is what interests the director —– the intimacy between people. It works because through his films, we get to experience the alienation or fury of the innocent or not-so-innocent lover which becomes inevitable when the erring lover can’t seem to stop his bad behavior. And that becomes scary —– when your lover no longer loves you.  That’s the breath in one’s face that Lyne was talking about ——- when someone very close to or very intimate with you is on the verge of letting go.  And it’s a story worth telling because it can end in many ways. Will the erring lover learn to forgive as in Indecent Proposal? Or will she threaten her lover’s wife as in Fatal Attraction?


In this post, I shared with you 3 ways on how to tell a great or effective story based on my study of the works and insights of a select group of intuitive artists in the film industry:

1. Break the mood by presenting the opposite. If it’s a dramatic story, write scenes with humor. If it’s a funny story, create moments that require a serious tone.

2. Build a distinctive world that has experiences that are only true or original to this world. If the story is about a ballet dancer in St. Petersburg, Russia, portray the ballet world as he or she would experience it in St. Petersburg. Be specific about the experiences.

3. Capture the not-so-often-talked-about intimacy in human relationships and its consequences. Write about married couples or life partners who have real world problems like money or unwanted pregnancy or just plain infidelity and how each respond in ways that go beyond society’s expectations. Imagine the what-ifs and create the outline from this exploration.

These tips are not what we aspiring writers would usually expect to learn, but Cranston, Chazelle, and Lyne have added freshness and deeper understanding that I feel there is nothing more to learn, except the experience of constant writing, of constant imagining itself. I hope I am wrong. Maybe you know of another storyteller who can offer a fresh insight. Feel free to comment.







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