Transformational Storytelling: A conversation with Tom Schlesinger

Over the last couple of months I had the chance to conduct a series of interviews with screenwriting teacher Tom Schlesinger about his approach to screenwriting and his two upcoming seminars in Munich in Berlin. Here is a condensed version of what we discussed:

Tom, what is transformational storytelling?

Transformational Storytelling is when we tell stories that entertain, inspire and reach cross-cultural audiences on meaningful levels.

They are compelling narratives where we connect emotionally to characters going through a change and transformation. We enjoy seeing these stories over and over again because they bring deeper meaning to our lives. That is, we are able to see our life issues from a new, fresh perspective.

Transformational Storytelling is best captured in the mythic storytelling paradigm of the Heroine’s Journey.

How is the Heroine’s Journey different from the Hero’s Journey?

The Hero’s Journey relates more to an individual’s initiation, facing your shadow issues and bringing the wisdom back to your society. The Heroine’s Journey relates more to a group initiation into the deeper feminine where change takes place on a societal level.

In a simple sense, we can say that the Heroine’s Journey begins where the Hero’s Journey ends. That is, when we experience outer success we may feel an empty, vacuous space inside. In her book The Heroine’s Journey, Maureen Murdock points out that outer success in the male-driven world is often at the expense of inner serenity. We’ve used our masculine side to be successful at the expense of ignoring our feminine side.

Masculine and feminine are terms from Jungian Psychology that define different types of behavior. Masculine refers to doing, thinking, taking results-driven actions, and having our outer world be our major frame of reference. Feminine refers to being, feeling, compassion, connection with nature, imagination and sharing, whereas our inner world is our primary frame of reference.

The intention of the Heroine’s Journey approach to storytelling is to find the balance between our masculine and feminine sides, the balance between our outer and our inner worlds, the balance between doing and being.

Does the Heroine’s Journey only apply to female protagonists?

No, the Heroine’s Journey is not gender specific. It did arise when Maureen Murdock realized that that Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey was not an adequate paradigm for the rites of passages that women experience.

But it’s not exclusively about female protagonists. BILLIE ELLIOT and WITNESS are also a Heroine’s Journeys.

Why do you use the Heroine’s Journey when teaching transformational storytelling?

The Heroine’s Journey is a quest to find your authentic voice and to be able to express your voice for the greater good of your supportive tribe or community. This feminine, inner journey is a movement from being self-centered to being group centered.

The Heroine’s Journey is also a paradigm for our creative process as storytellers. My teacher Jean Houston would often say that stories are in our bones and in our DNA. It is our job to be the midwife and allow them to be released and expressed. In Native American traditions, every star in the sky is a story and the stars select us to tell the stories. These are feminine approaches to creativity, storytelling and life.

Why do you use the Heroine’s Journey to explore dramedies?

To answer this, we need to first look more closely at dramedies: they are a hybrid genre of family drama and comedy. In simple terms, families are a metaphor for problems and issues in our communities and societies — so family themes connect the audience to current societal themes and often address taboos — issues that are swept under the rug. For example, death is a taboo subject in many western societies.

The main confluence between the Heroine’s Journey and dramedies is that the initiation and transformation is through group or community experience rather than an individual experience. In dramedies, this means that the family or surrogate family goes through the change or transformation, not just the main character.

Like the Heroine’s Journey, dramedies take the audience on a deep emotional journey into shadowy family themes, but also can give the audience a sense of hope, which is a catalyst for transformation.

How do you do this?

The key is knowing how to orchestrate the characters in your family or surrogate family, sometimes called the character web. For example, the main character does not have to successfully reach an outer goal, but by maintaining her feminine values in the face of opposition, she can experience more of an emotional or spiritual victory.

Does this apply to fiction as well as non-fiction films?

Yes, there are also documentaries that use this strategy. Consider the ‘characters’ in SEARCHING FOR SUGARMAN – they’re colorful, authentic and can bring an authentic sense of humor into the story. I sometimes call this human comedy: it’s not the ‘ho-ho-ho-laugh-out-loud’ knee-slapping kind of comedy but a warm compassionate humor where you feel and empathize with the characters.

What can participants expect to gain by coming to your workshops?

My success in writing and developing these stories is based on the concept that form follows function. We first explore how stories functions before talking about the forms that they might take. We can waste weeks if not months of time talking about the forms the stories are taking and trying to revise them, but if you don’t understand how stories function, you’ll probably spend most of your time in development hell.

Participants will learn concrete tools to create and develop their transformational stories.

Can anyone write and develop transformational dramedies?

In my experience, we work in the genres that match the way we perceive the world. If we find meaning through relationship and are able to allow humor to surface even in grave situations, without it being an escape, then certainly you can write, produce and develop transformational dramedies. In this light, I’m reminded of how Joseph Campbell would challenge us by asking: ‘Can we maintain a sense of joy amidst the sorrows of the world?

Tom Schlesinger is writing and co-producing two feature length dramatic comedies — “Thief River” and “Second Line West” — for Sunrise Films in Toronto. He is also co-writing and producing a documentary, “The Beatles in India.” He teaches storytelling workshops at Pixar Animations Studios, Lucasfilm, the Red Bull Media House, the International Film School, the American Film Institute, the DGA and the WGA.


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