Brian McDonald is an award winning American author and screenwriter, having taught classes on screenwriting and the art of storytelling at several major studios such as Pixar and Disney. He has released books containing his knowledge, his teachings of the craft, one of which, Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide To Building Stores That Resonate, is the focus of this post. He also regularly posts analysis and criticism of popular films on his ‘Invisible Ink’ blog (http://invisibleinkblog.blogspot.com/).
McDonald’s angle is this; there is much, more more to storytelling than what is said, or written, by the author, or screenwriter. Dialogue and description only goes so far. ‘Invisible ink’, as McDonald calls it, is just as important. A structure beneath the surface of the story, perhaps not immediately noticeable when present, but jarring and distracting when it is ignored, or not given enough consideration.
Often when I listen to how people evaluate stories, I hear them talk about dialogue. When they talk about “the script” for a film, they are often talking about the dialogue. Or when they mention how well a book is written, they most often mean the way the words are put together – the beauty of a sentence. These are all forms of “visible ink”. This term refers to writing that is readily “seen” by the reader or viewer, who often mistakes these words on the page as the only writing the storyteller is doing. But how events in a story are ordered is also writing. What events should occur in a story to make the teller’s point is also writing. Why a character behaves in a particular way is also writing. These are all forms of “invisible ink”, so called because they are not easily spotted by a reader, viewer, or listener of a story. Invisible ink does, however, have a profound impact on a story.
McDonald draws on a wide and varied range of popular films, plays, TV shows and books to illustrate his points Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Twilight Zone, Casablanca, The Godfather, The Wizard of Oz and many more are referenced.
With any writing guides (or indeed, any advice for pretty much any topic, ever) it’s worth noting that this is not a strict blueprint that must be followed and if ignored, your story will fail! because of course, there are no concrete rules to writing stories. What McDonald strives to get across, is that certain aspects of story can be too easily overlooked, and in the majority of cases, this can lead to a weak theme (or armature, as McDonald likes to use), unreliable characters, unsatisfying endings and the like. With the rise in postmodernist literature, standard narratives are experimented on and played with, many techniques I like to read and enjoy deploying myself. But you’d be surprised how many books which you would consider as unorthodox still play by a lot of the ‘rules’, and how different aspects like ‘ritual pain’ and ‘personal hell’ are present in films that on first glance are nothing alike.
What does it mean to tell the truth when writing fiction? For one thing, it is not about facts. Storytellers are not concerned with facts, just truth. Sometimes facts can even get in the way of the truth. When you are watching a horror movie and you know that the girl in the tank top and panties shouldn’t go into the basement alone, and you know she has other options, but she goes into the basement anyway – that’s a lie. It only happened because the storytellers wanted it to happen, but not because it was a logical thing a reasonable person would do. On the other hand, if the girl does everything you would do, and is even a little smarter but the monster gets her anyway – now that’s scary.
The final chapter contains the screenplay for McDonald’s award-winning short film WHITE FACE, a satirical documentary style affair (mockumentary? I’ve never used that word before but it seems apt) in which several clowns are filmed and interviewed in America, living lives as doctors, engineers, old people; basically, as members of society. It deals with racism, and the prejudice these clowns face in the real world, our world. It’s incredibly well written, and is still used today by businesses as a diversity-training tool.
I didn’t find too much in this book that I would call groundbreaking. But I did catch myself nodding in agreement frequently (no, I really did), because a lot of what McDonald writes makes sense. McDonald’s insight into storytelling is refreshingly sharp and accessible and he teaches you valid and simple points in an effortless way. It’s a short read because it doesn’t need to be long. McDonald makes a point, reinforces it with a myriad of references. And you find yourself thinking – yeah, okay, that makes sense. Writing stories clearly comes naturally to him. Just like Invisible Ink, a good story doesn’t necessarily need to be complex.