Beware The Fear of Being Understood: 5 Tips for Storytellers

Is it better to spend three days in a room with strangers having your head crammed with concepts, or to spend those three days actually working on your creative projects?

Courses and workshops can be funny things in the creative world, and three days can seem an eternity when other jobs, family, ideas and deadlines are battling for your attention.

Plus I’m suspicious of courses run by public art agencies, especially where only a few people can attend. I’ve long wondered whether they produce better artists, or just better results in the agency’s Annual Report. (“We ran a course! People came!”)

Well, I went on a film storytelling course recently. The promised highlights are further down this post, but first, why did I go?

Even though time wasn’t really on my side, I applied because my brain was in a rut. What I felt I needed was an all-out creative storm to kick-start some stalled film projects; I’d abandoned them somewhere on the side of the road and the tickets were piling up on the windscreen.

In my application I wrote that my personal vision for comedy films is that they don’t need to be big or expensive, they just need to be funny and have some heart. But, I wrote, it’s the funny-with-heart aspect that I often find I am struggling with.

The line between funny and cheesy, or funny and cringe-worthy, or funny and lame, is so thin, and I know that it’s not the punchline that can make the difference. It’s what lies in the heart of the character, and what drives their actions, that carries the punch in the line.

Thing is, I know that stuff. But staying true to it is the battle when you’re either bogged down in detail, or so enamoured of your idea’s brilliance that you can’t see the problems with it (oh, not that that’s ever me…).

So then, courtesy of NZ Film Commission and Film Victoria, I spent three days in a room with the entertaining UK writer-teachers Simon van der Borgh and Jonathan Rawlinson, a raft of fledgling and experienced creatives from Australia and New Zealand, and a nice view of the Yarra.

The workshop focused on genre (eg a rom-com, or a zombie movie) and genre hybrids (think rom-com-zom; yes, Shaun of the Dead, they’re looking at you). Genre hybrids are what the kids want these days.

It was an enjoyable jaunt through the history of dramatic storytelling, from Aristotle through the rise of comedy, Commedia dell’Arte, to courtly love stories, Viking sagas, Pacific myths… And that was just the first hour. For an info-ravenous Gemini like me, this was great fun, if sometimes frustrating (during the parts where the roomful of strangers had to share and dissect our own half-baked ideas).

Two months later, many of the lessons I picked up keep popping back, bouncing around between the loose, creative side and the logical, structural half of my mind. That’s the test, I guess. Did it stick? It did. Did I get those three days back? Yeah sort of, every day, in half-hour bursts, with slightly better filters in my brain.

I wouldn’t recommend whittling away a year on every course you can get to. At some point, you just have to do it.

But for now, if you’d like, make a cup of tea and read on for my five storytelling highlights.


Simon and Jonathan issued a word of warning about not trying to be too clever in your script, nor assuming your audience knows more than you are telling them.

Too true. During the course I made the classic mistake of describing a character – a young woman in her early 20s – as a “girl”. For the rest of the pitch, everyone else in the room assumed I was talking about an 8-year-old, and became very confused when I described a kissing scene… Doh.

A screenplay shouldn’t be simplistic but it should be simple and clear. If the audience is always behind the 8-ball, it’s hard for them. “We want to follow intriguing clues but if we are still doing that after two hours, we feel both stupid and angry,” said Simon.

A helpful tool in this sense is the old “What’s it about? What’s it really about?” combo. These are my two favourite storytelling questions. As Simon suggests, never, ever get tired of asking yourself “What is the Dramatic Question in this scene? What are the new questions the audience has at the end of this scene?”

And another wonderful tip: You can have complicated characters, a complicated plot and a complicated technique, but you can’t have all three in the same movie.


Jonathan revealed something I’ve heard many script-readers and producers admit: he reads a screenplay once, and once only.

I’ve done this myself when I worked in development, and I know others who won’t finish a script if the first 10 pages don’t invite them to (again, that’s where my Catholic guilt kicks in; I generally limp along to the end).

Jonathan’s reasoning was that he reads a script in the same way that an audience/funder/investor would watch a film: once, without rewinds. “You can’t turn back to page 10 to find out why something is the way it is on page 50. It’s a flaw in your script if the reader or viewer wants or needs to.”


Long classified as a Screwball Comedy, Simon argues that Bringing Up Baby is the classic Romantic Comedy, in that the action really begins when David (Cary Grant) meets Susan (Katharine Hepburn).

Simon reckons the film – which, remarkably for its reputation today, bombed at the box office when it first opened – contains “the most perfect scene ever written”.

He’s talking about the wonderful restaurant scene, which in and of itself it follows a perfect rom-com story arc. Watch it, love it. I can’t find the restaurant scene online, but while you’re waiting for your Netflix order to come through, enjoy Mr Grant in a negligee.


On the course there was a chap who’d written 25 feature films. His first to actually make it to the screen is currently being produced. What a trooper.

Simon gave the example of the great Billy Wilder, who wrote around forty B movies before he was allowed to make his first A movie!

Simon himself told us that he became a writer after nearly two decades of other creative pursuits. The turning point came when he convinced his family to sell their large London home and rent a smaller house in Sussex. His wife got a job, and he went back to film school at the age of 33.


Always be aware of the tone of your story. Keep it consistent. A shift in tone lets the audience down. A comedy that turns tragic with no warning is a failure.

This isn’t news to me, nor, I’d guess, to anyone who works in storytelling. But it certainly seems easy to forget, and it’s the one aspect of a film, a novel, an album, a series of paintings, or even blimmin’ Tweets, that can make the whole thing stand or fall, depending on what it was you thought you were wanting to say… and who you’d hoped you were saying it to.

Getting a genre right depends in large part on tone. “Genre is the deal you make with your audience,” says Simon. “There’s no good writing a witch film in which the witch doesn’t appear until the final scene. You’re not being asked to conform or bend to, but to meet the expectations of the audience.”

As scriptwriting blogger The Reader says, “When I read a horror, I want to feel afraid. When I read a comedy, I want to laugh out loud and have fun with it. When I read a romantic comedy, I want to fall in love.”

That’s not to say you can’t be playful with a genre. But it brings to mind a very stern warning I was given back at university: “By all means, break the rules. But first, know the rules.”

And again, it struck me how much this applies to other artforms. Stand-up comedy. Memoirs. Dance. Live concerts.

I’ve noticed – in my other job as a musician – how far we can take our audiences if we’ve planted seeds at the beginning of a show that suggest the tone and imply where we can go. I’ve found the more comfortable they feel about the context, the more they are prepared to come with us, the more we can get away with.


It’s a thrilling prospect: “How far can we take this?”. Don’t underestimate it.


5 Responses to “Beware The Fear of Being Understood: 5 Tips for Storytellers”

  1. Marianne

    Thanks so much Gemma – these are great. I especially needed to be reminded about tone. I am rewriting again today and notice occasional, unforgivable, dramatic shifts in tone. Back to work!

  2. Elizabeth

    Not sure about ‘another wonderful tip’. I’m thinking of Godfather 2 — complicated everything, and riveting.

    • toomuchpersonality

      It’s true that there are always exceptions… But I’d dispute that The Godfather’s film technique is particularly complicated. One back story/one current story, interspersed generally in chronological order, without fancy effects… But yes, riveting. One of the best!

  3. Helen H

    Thanks Gemma, I’m sure most of these ideas could be applied to other forms of writing too. Tone is so important.


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