Robert McKee: Storytelling Trumps Bullet Points
Ken Burns on the power of story

Storytelling that grabs the heart as well as the head

Map_japanLast week we took the Shinkansen as far as Sendai, and then spent several days driving a rental car 300 km up the winding coastline of Eastern Japan, visiting several of the towns which where hardest hit by the March 11, 2011 tsunami. You can read reports and look at the data to get a sense of the massive undertaking rebuilding the towns along the coast will take, but going to actually visit towns like Ishinomaki, Kesennuma, Rikuzentakata, Ofunato, Miyako, and several other smaller coastal villages was a genuine eye opener and reality check for us. Most of the time we were there, my wife and I did not know how to verbalize our reaction to what we saw. So we were silent. The scale and enormity of the damage was hard to comprehend. Even though I was looking at it with my own eyes, a part of me could not believe it. Then it dawns on you pretty quickly that the complete devastation to buildings and infrastructure is nothing compared to the deep and invisible pain and emotional suffering that people must cope with everyday. 

Ishinomaki_east   Ishinomaki_school
ABOVE Snaps I took a couple of days ago in Ishinomaki. The photo in the right is of Kadonowaki elementary school. The image on the left is in front of the school looking east toward the Pacific. This used to be a crowded urban area before the March 11, 2011 tsunami. (Click photo for larger view.)

Then and now: storytelling through first-person interviews
Just after our return to Nara Saturday, I discovered this short (14-min) film by Japan resident Paul Johannessen. In this short film I think Johannessen captures something that we were sensing ourselves when we were in Ishinomaki last week, but we couldn't verbalize what we were feeling. You might look at this film and just see it as a string of first-persion interviews with some compelling visuals interlaced, but I think it is much more than that.This is a good example of evocative storytelling through first-person interviews. Storytellers like famed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns like to say that a good story is an example of "1+1=3." That is, an experience for the listener/viewer that is in the end greater than the sum of its parts. Although this is a simple and short film, I think it passes the "1+1=3" test. Burns also says in this clip that story is about "being drawn to the things that grab your heart as well as your head." The arrangement and flow of the interviews and the style of the film do indeed grab your heart as well as your head. Of course, the story is not complete—this story is very much still evolving. And so it is too with our own stories. You don't always have to put a period at the end of the last sentence or wrap your story up in a pretty bow. After the film is finished, you want to know more. The lack of a clear ending I think is precisely one of the key messages of the film. The answer to the question of "What shall we do now?" asked in this film is evolving day to day in hundreds of towns and villages and for thousands and thousands of people all over Japan. I highly recommend that you spend the 14 minutes to really watch this film below.

It's Not Just Mud

SeasideI grew up in Seaside Oregon, directly on the other side of the Pacific from Ishinomaki. Our house was right on the beach. When I was a child we had a few emergency tsunami evacuations to the hills; at least one tsunami caused some minor damage. In those days we thought tsunamis in Oregon could be only relatively small and originating far away, allowing several hours time to evacuate. Now we know this is not the case. Recent scientific discoveries, much of it involving useful historic data from Japan, tells us the Cascadia fault just off the Oregon Coast is a very real seismic threat to the entire region, including a massive tsunami similar to the one which destroyed so many lives in Tohoku. My hometown of Seaside, Oregon is particularly vulnerable. Seeing so much destruction on the Tohoku coast, I obviously pondered what a similar event would do to the Oregon coast. Part of the reason we spent so many days on the Eastern Japan coast was to educate ourselves better in hopes that we can help spread the word to folks in Seaside to take the threat very, very  seriously. There is an effort in the Seaside School District to build new schools in the hills of Seaside, safe from the tsunami threat. This is just one thing that must be done (schools are currently near the beach), but it will take a herculean sales job to convince people to come up with the money it will take for a threat that seems like an abstraction unless you really see what a large tsunami can do.  The great pain inflicted upon Ishinomaki and other towns, including the tragic loss of so many children, is unbearable even to imagine. At the very least the lessons from Japan—the most prepared country in the world regarding earthquakes and tsunamis—should be used to save as many people as possible in Japan and around the world when future events occur.




Thanks Garr, this is very humbling.

russ stalters

Thanks for sharing this amazing example of the power of story.


The power of the story comes through in such a compelling and organic way that I didn't notice the storytelling, only the story--if that makes sense. When I felt as though I needed to fly to Japan to help the courageous and hopeful residents rebuild, I knew that the storytelling had grabbed my own heart. Thanks for posting this, Garr.

Doug Weatherbee

Thanks for this Garr. Moving film and stories.

Doug Weatherbee

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