What if you could tell more compelling stories, in business and in life in general? What if a former Pixar writer were to teach you? I recently picked up the book Best Story Wins and got just that. This is what I learned, and how it will help me in photography.

In my work I focus on capturing the personalities of athletes and displaying their hard work and dedication. Ultimately I like to present the athletes that I photograph as a credible hero, and for my images to have a cinematic style. I’d never really looked into actual storytelling techniques though, so it made sense to do a little research on the subject. A friend of mine recommended this book, which I promptly finished in a day or two.

Matthew Luhn – Pixar storyteller

The author of this book is Matthew Luhn, who is heralded as a 20 year Pixar storyteller. Matt’s worked on all your favourite Pixar films: Toy Story, Up, Cars, Finding Nemo and Monsters University. While he started out as an animator, he transitioned into  writing. It’s clear throughout the book that Matt has a solid understanding of what makes a compelling story. What’s more, he understands how his skills can be used by those who aren’t in the business of writing animated films, but instead are trying to promote their brand.

What I learned from this book

While I’m also one of those people trying to promote their brand, I’m first and foremost a photographer looking to create heroes and tell compelling stories about them. The storytelling I try to employ in my work has always been a bit of a trial and error endeavour. What I hoped to learn from reading this book, was how to tell stronger stories using tried and tested methods and structures.
My two favourite sections in the book were on using frameworks for storytelling, and creating authentic heroes. More on that last part in the next section.
The book provides a coherent framework that you’ll instantly recognise. It’s been used in every Pixar film, and virtually any film that’s any good.

  1. A hero’s story starts out with the exposition. We learn about the character, their passion and their flaws.
  2. Then, a life changing event transpires. This sets the story in motion and forces the character on a journey.
  3. On their journey, the character encounters obstacles of ever increasing magnitude.
  4. The characters’s life reaches a stage of crisis, which is a test of the character having changed. Often, a mantra comes into play here (use the force).
  5. The story now reaches its climax, the final showdown, the epic conclusion. The hero can defeat the villain or confront his internal demons.
  6. All story lines are wrapped up and all remaining questions are answered in the resolution.

While I won’t be literally translating this framework into my photography, it offers some great starting points for telling compelling stories about athletes as heroes.

Credible heroism

The section of this book that resonated most with me was on creating authentic heroes. One of the claims it made was that it’s easy to connect with humanness, and hard to relate to perfection. Heroes should be vulnerable and honest, in addition to only being brave and strong.
In sports photography, many of my colleagues opt to shoot over the top photos of the athlete as if they were a superhero of sorts. While I respect the creative choices other photographers make, this approach has never appealed to me. Through reading this book, I now understand why I prefer to shoot a different style. Presenting an athlete as a superhero reduces them to a very one dimensional character and rids them of vulnerability and humanness. This makes it harder to relate to them.
Heroes aren’t perfect, and neither are athletes. My ultimate goal is to present athletes as modern day heroes, but I want their heroism to be credible and authentic, not artificial and one dimensional. It is the exact obstacles, crises and setbacks many athletes face and consequently overcome that make them heroes, and these should therefore be included in the story.