The other night, flipping through channels, I came across a Charlie Rose interview with James Cameron. Say what you will about the director of Avatar and Titanic (and Aliens) — he knows how to tell a story. I was so intrigued by his answer to the question “What’s the most important thing you know about storytelling?” that I went to the pbs.com podcast and painstakingly transcribed it.
Here’s what he had to say (minus Charlie Rose’s approving grunts and overtalk):
“You have to find a key into the heart of the audience, which means you have to find universals of human experience and then express them in exotic new ways. So you’ve got to find something that people recognize. As simple as boy meets girl on a ship which is going to sink. But the knowledge that it’s going to sink was a critical part of that storytelling. Because otherwise you had two hours of women in corsets and funny hats before anything happened, before the ship even hit the iceberg. But if you know it’s sinking, you hang around for all that.
“But I think it’s always about the characters and about how those characters express something that the audience is feeling. So it has to have some universality to it, having to do with relationships, whether it’s male-female, parent-child, whatever it is. And then you have to take them on a journey — and then you have to make it excruciating somehow. Challenged, endangered, in pain. Fear, tension, and triumph. Some form of triumph — our values, our victory, something.
“In the case of Titanic, everybody died. Including, at the very end of the film, the main character, but she lived a life that she had learned. There was an energy transfer from one character to another. Which I also think is a fundamental of a love story, that there’s some a flow of energy from one character to another. So I applied that rule set at a very abstract level to Avatar. Because it’s a very different story. But I think you can step back to a very abstract level of general principles. If you apply those principles, that will work.”