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5 Life Lessons I’ve Learnt From The Business Of Storytelling

By Marilyn Tan

I’ve been in the business of telling stories for the past 17 years, and in my capacity as a TV Director and Story Producer for documentaries and reality shows, it’s been my job to unearth and craft compelling stories through scripting and interviews with characters and contestants.

Every show is different and each one requires you to deal with your characters and storytelling in its own unique way. But what I’ve found revealing are the insights that I’ve picked up along the way, and the realisation that they also apply to life.

It’s not everyday that your work teaches you something about life, which in turn helps you to do your job better. So here they are. The 5 life lessons I’ve learnt from this business of telling stories:

1. Seek out resistances!

More often that not, an engaging story begins with resistance. By resistance, I am referring to a feeling of discontent or unease towards a particular situation, event or person. People experience resistances because very simply, they don’t accept what is happening to them and this makes them unhappy.

Understanding your character’s resistance is a key aspect of storytelling because within it lies their unique story and personal struggle. How your character then overcomes their resistance makes for an engaging story.

Observation here is key because people express resistances differently. Some express their resistances outwardly, by being vocal about them during an interview or by taking action, like confronting others. Others are more reserved or are concerned with how they come across on camera and so, hide their resistances internally. But there are always tell-tale signs. Micro-expressions such as sideward glances, pursing of the lips, making light of a discussion topic during an interview, all hint at resistances within your characters.

Similarly, all of us experience resistances at certain points in our lives. Look out for the moments, situations and people you feel a resistance towards, because therein lies a story that matters to you. It matters to you because it still bothers you, even if it may seem insignificant. It could be a passing comment someone made, or a look you noticed on a colleague’s face when you expressed an opinion. It might even be an internal resistance, where you’re disappointed with yourself for taking an action you now regret.

No matter how petty your resistances seem, it’s important to seek them out, because if you don’t, they’ll continue to affect the quality of your life.

As we go through life, we should strive to create new and exciting experiences, not re-visit and re-live the old and bitter anecdotes. Seek out your resistances and once you’ve found them, look within to resolve them.

2. Look within for the answers

People experience resistances precisely because they have processed and interpreted external events in a very personal way. To get to the heart and truth of your character’s story, you need to be asking questions that get your characters to look within.

If you trace resistances to their very genesis, you’ll uncover that they are usually tied to personal fears, insecurities or even desires.

It can be awkward asking people very pointed and personal questions because you are getting them to consider themselves the root of their resistances. It’s even harder asking yourself these questions.

The temptation is to brush these questions aside, to give perfunctory answers, or to blame an external person or situation. We like to pretend we have a hold on things, we brush things off as them not being that big a deal, and many of us don’t like looking bad in front of others.

But I have come to realise that the only way you can truly overcome your resistances, is to make a change from within since that is where your resistances originate.

You cannot control other people and external events in your life, but you can control the way you choose to interpret and respond to them.

3. Be an active listener

To get to the heart and truth of your character’s story, you need to really do just one thing – be an active listener.

As an active listener, your sole intention is to listen to what your characters have to say and nothing else. You are not secretly judging them nor wishing they were more succinct in their answers, you are not thinking about what you’ll have for dinner later, you are not letting outside thoughts creep into your mind. You are fully present and engaged in listening to what they have to say.

You’ll be surprised at how much someone will open up to you when you are actively listening to them.

People can tell when you’re distracted or when you don’t seem to value their opinions and points of view. Micro-expressions give you away when your thoughts stray or when you judge them.

How comforting would it be to talk freely to a friend and get things off your chest, knowing that you were not being judged? How appreciative would the other person be, to know that you were creating a safe space without opinion and criticism for them to express themselves?

The next time you chat to someone, be an active listener. You’ll be amazed at how much the other person opens up to you and the connection you’ve established.

4. Call for time outs!

Crafting stories is exhausting. You’re constantly engaging your brain and thinking of various permutations and ways of presenting information. Actively calling for time outs is crucial so you don’t become overwhelmed and frustrated, and take it out on other people, your work or yourself. How disastrous would that be!

It can be hard to actively tear yourself away from your work, especially when you’re in the groove and you feel like you need to continue working. But I’ve found it necessary to take regular breaks. By the time you desperately feel like you need one, it’s probably too late.

When you take a time out, step away and do something that has absolutely nothing to do with work. I often go for a walk around the block, grab something to eat, or chat to a friend (but not about work). You don’t want to be talking about work even when you are not actually working, because then you wouldn’t be taking a break, would you?

If you give your mind that break, you’ll come back with fresh eyes and renewed energy. If you have truly stepped away from work, even if it’s for just fifteen minutes, you’ll return a little happier, more focused and productive.

To maintain your sanity in life, it’s important to actively call for regular personal time outs as well. These are time outs from the demands of one’s life – of being a spouse, a colleague, a parent, a dutiful child. Immerse yourself in activities and interests that give your mind a chance to relax and focus on something other than the demands of your life.

Go for a yoga class, exercise, pursue an interest you’ve always wanted to try, take part in a social or leisure activity, catch up with friends. Really do just about anything that has you being totally present in that activity, so you are truly enjoying that moment.

You’ll come out of it with a renewed sense of energy and a better mindset to tackle the demands of life.

5. Don’t be a part of the drama

In any work environment, especially during intense periods where you’re constantly problem-solving, drama rears its ugly head to distract you from the task at hand and to provide an illusionary distraction for you to let off some steam.

Drama can be found everywhere especially through gossip, or people wanting to form alliances at work. Many commonly mistake drama for excitement and some people even thrive on it. But don’t engage in it because once you’re ensnared in drama’s net, it’s hard to break free, and the more entwined you become till drama consumes you completely, and you lose your focus on the truly important things.

I’ve discovered how important it is to keep the drama on the screen or on the page, and not to be a part of it.

Likewise in life, you are the keeper of your own happiness. Guard it fiercely. You have only so much energy and time in a day. Don’t get caught up in the drama of someone’s story, or even in the drama in your life.

Consciously choose to direct your time and energy to pursuing your goals and interests, to ideas and actions that contribute to the quality of your life instead.

It’s not easy but it all lies in your hands. Only you have the power to shape and determine how you want the story of your life to turn out.

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