Storytelling Isn’t Magic. It’s a Craft that Anyone Can Learn

Let me ask you a question. And I want you to be completely honest. Do you invest as much time and energy into storytelling as you do into every other aspect of filmmaking?

Put another way, do you spend as much time with your characters as you do with your camera? Do story structure and plot points get the same level of attention as your edit and color grade? Are you as committed to taking your audience on a journey as you are to making the film technically proficient?

If you’re anything like I was a few years back, chances are the answer to each of those is a firm "nope.”

It’s not that I didn’t know better. In fact, three-years-ago-Robert knew that storytelling was really important — everybody on the internet said so. Plus, all of my best experiences at the movies hadn’t come from spectacle or technical wizardry. They came from stories, well told by filmmakers who knew what they were doing.

However, as a young filmmaker myself, I had no clue how to tell a story (which was clearly evident in everything I made). And even if I had wanted to learn storytelling, I had no idea where to start.

I began to develop the impression that some people were just born storytellers, while others were born to help them tell those stories. I figured I was in the latter group.

That’s why I hunkered down and focused on cinematography in college, and that’s why I never really bothered trying to learn the fundamentals of storytelling. It seemed like a much safer bet to just learn how to shoot and light.

But then, as I began writing more about the craft of filmmaking and exploring it in depth, I stumbled on a set of tutorials called Storytelling the Stillmotion Way, and sure enough, everything started to change.

What On Earth is a “craft” anyway?

I’ll get back to my story in a little bit, but first I want to talk about the term “craft.”

For a lot of us, it brings to mind visions of elementary school, playing around with construction paper and popsicle sticks and Elmer’s glue and q-tips and cotton balls. Sadly, that’s not the kind of craft this article is about. Womp womp.

Instead, a craft is simply skilled work of some kind.

Historically, the term refers to people who made or fixed things with their hands. Think cobblers and silversmiths, coopers and brewmasters — people who made the practical items of everyday life.

But in modern times, a craft can be physical work, knowledge work, creative work, or some combination of the three. It can be a profession or a hobby. There’s really no restriction on who can take up a craft or what they can do with it.

Crafts are also, by nature, a reflection of the people who pursue them. It’s all about an individual voice shining through in the smallest details of the finished work. So, whether we’re talking about handmade goods, lines of code, or a film, they’re all unique in some way because the people who crafted them are one of a kind.

Last, and perhaps most important of all, crafts can be learned.

Being skilled in a craft has little to do with natural talent. Instead, it’s the result of deliberate practice over the course of years.

I don’t know about you, but I find this definition of craft to be liberating. It’s not only a useful framework for approaching your existing work, but it’s a tried and true process for developing and mastering new skills.

And best of all, almost anything in your life can be treated like a craft.

The five principles of the craftsman’s mindset

If you’re interested in approaching your work and skill development like a craftsman, there are a ton of great books and articles on the topic. However, I’ve got a quick little crash course here that will get you started.

In a guest post over on Filmmaker’s Process (a cool filmmaking site I run), Tyler Jones set out to identify the some of the practical steps someone can use to approach their work more like a craftsman.

What he came up with is simply called the craftsman’s mindset, and it can be applied to just about anything, whether that’s writing, coding, woodworking, filmmaking, or anything else.

The craftsman’s mindset has five key principles:

1. Devote yourself to the 1% rule

The craftsman has a growth mindset, and is always seeking to improve. But meaningful improvement rarely comes in giant bursts, especially once you’ve been practicing awhile. Instead, it comes incrementally, over long periods of time. In order to do this, the craftsman seeks to be just 1% better at some small aspect of the craft every single day. It may not feel like much at the time, but it adds up to amazing things in the long run.

2. Embrace failure

Patrick has already covered the importance of embracing failure in one of his fantastic videos. But as a quick recap, failure can be painful, but it’s also one of our greatest teachers. Every time we fail — and it will happen — we need to learn to see it not as something negative, but as a stepping stone towards something even better. There are always lessons in failure, but we can only learn from them if we don’t let the failure debilitate us.

3. Become an apprentice

Reading about something, or watching YouTube videos, will only get you so far. Instead, seek to learn by doing, preferably under the direction of a master of the craft. Ideally, you’d find someone you can actually work with, someone who will invite you into their process and teach you first hand. Barring that, look for courses (whether in person or online) taught by masters. Don’t be afraid to ask real questions and solicit honest feedback. That’s where improvements come from. And most important, apply the lessons you’re learning to your work. Knowledge is useless until it’s applied to something.

4. Push boundaries

The craftsman doesn’t do what’s easy or what’s safe. Instead, he’s committed to trying new things, exploring new ideas, and stretching his abilities beyond what feels comfortable. It’s all about real, meaningful growth, which only comes from challenging ourselves and pushing further. This is the catalyst to failing more quickly, more often, but as we mentioned, those failures will push you to be even better.

5. Share your knowledge

This last one may seem counterintuitive, but craftspeople are open and giving with their knowledge. Not only is teaching a great way to continue the legacy of the craft and share it with future generations, but teaching it helps you understand the craft better. Here’s a great quote from Tyler that sums up this point well.

“There will never be a day when there’s nothing left for you to learn, or one when you have nothing valuable to offer someone else. Be open to sharing the things you have learned with others. It will help to drive your personal growth as well as the growth of your craft.”

Using these five principles, you can start approaching anything like a craft. You can work towards mastery with your current skills, tackle any aspect of personal or career development, or build a completely new set of skills. Say for example, storytelling.

Storytelling isn’t magical or mysterious. It too is a craft

Most of us know by this point that filmmaking is a craft, or at least a series of individual crafts that combine to form a whole.

Screenwriting, cinematography, editing, production design, visual effects, etc are all skillful work. We know we can learn and master them if we study smart and put in the work. They’re crafts.

Storytelling, on the other hand, just isn’t in that same category for a lot of filmmakers.

Sure, most every shooter these days says they’re a storyteller. They’ll even proclaim it loudly on their website and reel. But when you observe their process, the time just isn’t spent on story.

Honestly, the reasoning is simple. Everyone knows that story is important, but we don’t give it the time or attention it deserves because it seems intangible and mysterious, something more philosophical than practical. It feels like something that can’t really be learned. You either tell good stories or you don’t.

But storytelling can, in fact, be learned by anyone willing to put in the effort. It’s a skill like any other. And because of this, you can treat it like a craft and achieve incredible results that way.

In case you’re new here, that’s what this site is all about. We’re dedicated to the craft of storytelling, and we’re always finding new ways to share that craft with people and help them apply it to their own work. But I digress.

The main point here is that storytelling, like every other piece of the filmmaking process, is a learnable skill. There’s nothing mysterious about it.

And if you dedicate yourself and apply the craftsman’s mindset when learning how to tell a story, you’ll be rewarded with more engaging characters, better plots, and happier clients/audiences.

Wrapping up

If I’m being honest, I didn’t “get” storytelling immediately. What I found in Stillmotion’s early storytelling videos made sense on an intellectual level, but I didn’t quite understand how it applied to me, or why it was important.

But even though I wasn’t immediately transformed into some kind of magical storytelling wizard, there was still a fundamental shift in mindset that’s made all the difference ever since.

I went from seeing story as something that I wasn’t born to do, to something that I could learn if I put in the time. I started viewing story as a craft, a process, and a framework for all of my work to come.

I’m not a great storyteller yet, or even a particularly good one for that matter. But I know that if I remember the craftsman’s mindset and keep taking small, consistent actions towards that goal, I can be. And so can you.