Why Story Matters: The Journey Begins…

For the past ten years, most of my creative energy has been devoted to co-creating the world, characters, and stories for the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. And during that time, I’ve been on a quest to figure out how to tell stories more effectively and learning about what kind of stories I want to tell.

From the start, Bryan Konietzko and I wanted our show to transcend the mold of what people expected from a U.S. Action/adventure animated series. We told a continuous story, had a hero who was a reincarnated being, and explored the spiritual side of life. All this, and it was an entertaining, action-packed cartoon. We mixed drama, action, and comedy and both shows have resonated with audiences around the globe.

At the end of 2005, I read an article in the New Yorker about Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy. Speaking in a Carnegie Medal acceptance speech, he said: “We need stories so much that we’re even willing to read bad books to get them, if the good books won’t supply them. We all need stories, but children are more frank about it.”

This quote has stuck with me for years. And the article is one of the few I’ve ever photocopied and saved in a binder. Like a fine wine, that article has aged, the pages yellowed around the edge now. But the wisdom in it still holds true, and today I’m using it as the starting point for a larger journey I’m on.

Why is it that we are willing to read bad books, sit through bad movies, or watch bad TV shows? Do we really have that much time on our hands? Are we really that bored? I don’t think so. It’s because we need those stories. We need them as much as we need food or air or water. In some primeval way, we’ve been hardwired for stories. They help us understand the world around us, help guide us how to live, and show us the potential of what we can become. And today, there are billions and billions of stories in the world, not just in entertainment, but in politics, advertising, and religion. Add to that all of our own personal stories. The ones we tell ourselves about why we are the way we are.

Stories are everywhere.

It’s my intention with this blog to explore stories of every kind, wherever and whenever they appear. From the latest movies and books, to ancient myths and everything in between. I want to find out why it is we need those stories as much as we do and what we can do as consumers and creators of stories to seek out and tell better ones. We need stories that matter. Stories that help us and the world evolve.

Let’s throw out the bad books and start reading the good ones.

I’ve been wanting to start a blog like this for a while, but I told myself a host of familiar excuses why I shouldn’t:

“I’m too busy.”

“I’m not a good writer.”

“No one wants to hear what I have to say.”

The excuses are over. The fear is still there, but I’m writing anyway. I want to tell myself a different story, with chapters like:

“I have plenty of time.”

“I love writing and I’m good at it.”

“People want to hear what I have to say.” Okay, maybe not everyone, but I think at least a few people out there will be interested. Maybe you’re one of them.

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36 thoughts on “Why Story Matters: The Journey Begins…

  1. This is awesome! I’m a writer, myself, and a huge fan of your work and the world of Avatar. In fact, my best friend and I are currently writing a Legend of Korra screenplay for the Nick Writing Fellowship. I was wondering if you have any advice for writing/ coming up with stories for Korra, specifically.

  2. You have no idea how much I look forward to this. You will do great and your insight into this subject will be greatly appreciated.

  3. Thank you for this, Mike. (Big fan, love the stories you tell, yadda yadda.) I am on– or hope I am on– a similar journey as a writer, and I hope… Well, I hope for great things from this. Stories link lives, I think, so this seems like a beautiful place to start.

  4. There’s a lot of perspectives into our reality, and the one we have about something will not be the same someone else has, that’s why we have to keep writing and sharing what we have to say. I think this blog is a great idea, because that’s how you share your experience at reading the life.

  5. What a great idea! Definitely looking forward to seeing what you post here. As a librarian and someone who is creating an iPad app dedicated to myths and stories of the Silk Road (getting my MFA in Interactive Design) this blog sounds very fascinating. I am excited to see what you post here!

  6. Thank you, Mike. I’ve been an avid fan of ATLA and Korra and love your storytelling. I’m at a strange place as a business school student wanting to get into creative work. But I’m driven by a dream I once had, where I was going to die in a week, and my first thought was: what will happen to all the stories I haven’t finished yet? I sent my friend all my outlines and made her promise she would finish them. I woke up terribly relieved that I wasn’t going to die immediately. But that’s never a certainty, is it? I want to live telling stories from the heart as often as I can, because one can never be sure when we’ll be gone and our voices will be silenced. So, no more excuses of “not enough time,” “I’m busy,” “not good enough.”

  7. This sounds fantastic! I’ve always been impressed with the storytelling on _Avatar._ My job is on the directorial side of things, i.e. taking a story that someone else wrote and conveying it to (actors and then) an audience, so understanding and exploration of storytelling techniques is of course central to my career–plus it’s just fascinating! I practically *absorb* any and all content I can find in that area. And something from a creator of a show that I love? HECK yeah.

    Your last section on excuses and changing your own personal story about yourself sounds very much like the kind of talk therapy that I used to be in; it was in fact called “narrative therapy” and it used exactly those kind of techniques. “What facts from your past are you using to support this negative story you’ve been telling yourself? Are those the only facts you should look at? If you pick different facts, how does it change the story–and how does it change how you feel about yourself?” etc., etc. I found it incredibly useful, so there it is: knowledge of storytelling can promote mental health! 🙂

  8. Oh my lord! This is exactly what i’ve wanted for a long time, and i could seriously not ask for a better living writer.
    I so look forward to all your insights.

  9. Hey Mike,

    The story telling in The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra were truly inspirational. They brought out the meanings in life and truly touched me in a way that in thought was never possible from a mere cartoon. But Avatar is more than a cartoon. It is a way of life, a path to follow, a journey to be discovered. It has so much meaning and heart put into it that I truly appreciate what you and Bryan have created. I thank you so much for brining Avatar in the lives of me and the rest of the fandom.

    Avatar has affected me so much so that I’ve actually created a fan site about it. I included the URL in the web site section of this comment form. If you could check it out and even leave a comment, my readers and I would be forever grateful.

    Again thank you for helping to create Avatar and have a great rest of your day!

  10. I cannot express how happy I am to hear you’ve started this blog. I’m a screenwriting major at a media arts college and over the past few years I’ve been disheartened to see how little the college’s courses teaches or focuses on the importance of story. It’s the fundamental element of the medium, yet no time is actually spent on learning about its craft. I’ve taken to studying story and narrative structure on my own and I’m bookmarking this immediately as a new go to source.

    Avatar: TLA contains some of the best story structure and pacing I’ve ever seen in any series. It begs to be used as the textbook example for any show that plans to use serialized storytelling. The placement of mythology heavy, plot moving episodes and lighter, filler episodes is as close to perfection as television can get.

  11. If this is going to be a blog about exploring story, you should ask your readers lots of questions, and maybe bounce off the feedback.
    Whatever this blog winds up being, I’m on board.

  12. Hey Mike, thanks for taking the courage to blog & share your thoughts on story telling. Really appreciated your thoughts on this topic & am excited to read your continued thoughts. I agree & also feel that we are somehow hard-wired for stories & look forward to your further musings on this as well.

    Being Dyslexic, bullied in school & find it hard to communicate at times face to face with folk, even now as an adult – I found story telling & stories are a way I could learn, evolve or even lose myself & yet feel connected & part of the bigger scheme of things.

    I own & am still a book seller now for over 5 years now – (i know we’re a dying breed, but I’ll keep selling great books as long as there are folk who will buy them & publishers who will print them… Why – because I love books – I deeply love ready, hearing & watching people’s stories – it’s hard work meeting all our clients needs – yet we try – there are times when there are lots of great stories being published & other times …. I’ve actually have said to publishers when they show me their books they are selling in, Wow really…. Time to head to the classics & see what we can offer from there… Or sometimes I even encourage folk to re-read a favorite story – this time read it with a different viewpoint – it’s amazing the different types of feedback we get.

    It’s true some folk will read a bad story rather than not read at all >_<. One of my mottos I say to my clients – life is way too short for a bad story – & there are billions of great stories out there… Go great a great story & enjoy it to its fullest 🙂

    Same with a fav TV show or Movie – we know the story – that the plot is the same – yet each time I see/hear something I missed before & then I start to think hmmm what else did I miss…

    Anyway, good on you, for taking the plunge & beginning your blog journey :). I look forward to reading more & re-reading to see what I've missed 😉

  13. Wow I’m really excited for this, as an aspiring writer/animator getting a glimpse of a master at work will be incredibly insightful and enlightening. I’m sure every ATLA and LOK fan out there would love and cherish a look inside your mind. The Avatar world has inspired me a lot, and is the main reason why I want to become an animator. I’m sure this blog will give me even more drive and ambition.

  14. I know saying things like “I’m super excited to see what you have to say!” just seems to add pressure, but I have complete and utter faith in your abilities. Happy writing!

  15. A storytelling blog? By one of my favorite storytellers ever? Count me in! 😀

    I can’t express how happy I am that you’re doing this! I mean, since I’ve been an admirer of your work since I was twelve years old! Avatar helped me find my real vocation, it made me fall in love with everything related to narrative and storytelling and I learned so much from it! Many of the show’s quotes are now my life mottos. It’s been so inspiring for me!

    God, I’m just trying to say: Thank You. Thanks a lot for creating such a wonderful universe and sharing it with the world. Thank you, for helping me find my path and who I want to be in life. I believe, that if I had never found Avatar, I wouldn’t be who I am today, I wouldn’t want to be a writer. I would be stuck with the monotony of everyday life and I would have probably gone mad already!

    Please, keep doing what you do, because it’s wonderful.

  16. This is super cool! I agree with stories being extremely important, for me in video games especially. I’ve played a lot of games, and yeah most of them were fun, but the games that had a heartfelt story still echo in the back of my mind.

  17. This sounds fabulous! I’m really excited to read this. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one thing you said: “Let’s throw out the bad books and start reading the good ones.”

    “Bad” and “good” are such subjective terms, especially in art and storytelling. How exactly do you define a “bad” story? Especially in this day and age, where more people are not just consuming the stories they’re given, but actively reinventing them — through art, through fanfiction, through roleplay, through discussion and debate with other fans. I really hope to see you talk about that (and about fan culture, since I know you follow AtLA and LoK fandoms to a certain extent).

    1. You bring up a good point. A bad story to one person might be a good story to another. Different stories certainly resonate differently for everyone. I think maybe a more precise way to describe it is to to say “healthy” and “unhealthy” stories or “life affirming” or “life negating” stories. Definitely a topic for further exploration. Thanks!

  18. Mike, I think you’re right about bad stories. An observation: whenever I find myself reading mediocre stories (news stories, blog posts, etc), I am always left unsatisfied. I could be reading for hours and not really remember any of it. It’s as if I’m searching for something but not finding it, so I keep stumbling around looking for more.

    On the other hand, after reading 10 pages of Aeschylus or Tolkien, I’ll be set for the rest of the day, or the whole week. No aimless web surfing or vegetative TV-watching. As if my soul is full, and needs time to savor it.

    In sum: great stories satisfy; mediocre ones keep us searching for more.

    Looking forward to where you go with this blog!

  19. Thanks everyone for reading my first post, and for commenting! I honestly thought only a few people would read it. It’s great to know that the idea of this blog and the search for meaningful stories is something that resonates with you all. More to come!

  20. Of course we want to her what you have to say. You’re and inspiration to many and have done amazing work. I can’t wait to see more posts. And I am so excited to see what you and everyone one board have in store for book 2. Congratulations on all the success with AtLa and Korra. Well earned.

  21. This is exactly what I need to be reading. I’ve always loved making up stories since I was in pre-school. When I got older I wrote very few of them down. I never shared (or even now share) them with anyone because I never thought they were any good. After reading this I’m going to try to start. Thanks Mr. DiMartino!

  22. Thank you. We do need stories. I read Hunger Games at a time when I was struggling with missing someone I wasn’t supposed to miss, but through the power of storytelling I came to the realization that it was *okay* that I’d loved him and *okay* to miss him, because I felt those things and remembering wasn’t bad. I was able to process my emotions thanks to a story that was only vaguely connected to my life, but dealt with themes I needed to deal with. I could not have done it without a story.

    I really liked Avatar, but I fell in love with Korra. That’s a story that will stay in my heart long after I’ve forgotten the bills I paid and the jobs I held. Thank you for bringing it to me.

  23. Mike,

    This is everything I’ve been dreaming for in a blog. I am a huge Avatar fan, but your shows also helped shape me into the better writer I have and continue to become. I can’t wait to read your insights into storytelling and shall follow your new blog with glee.

    Amanda

  24. Seems interesting
    It would be great if you did a interview with Aaron Ehasz and his wife, my favorite ATLA writers.
    What is your opinion of them as writers?

  25. Really looking forward to your blog posts! This subject had always interested me. From the desire of those searching for a story to those that desire to create those stories whether they be “good” or “bad”. People seem to look for stories for with answers, entertainment, and for much more. Can’t wait to read more of your blog Mike! I hope you enjoy running this blog!

  26. Like you, I’ve dedicated a lot of time to understanding why people need stories, and the most fundamental reason I’ve come up with is because stories make us feel more alive. Stories take us on emotional and spiritual journeys and help us feel and discover things we otherwise never would.

    The best stories, as far as I can tell, are the ones that leave us filled with a sense of awe. Both Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra did that for me, and they have inspired me and taught me more about what makes a good story than anything else I’ve encountered (with the possible exception of Firefly). Don’t sell yourself short; you know a lot more about storytelling than most people seem to know. Keep up the good work!

  27. Hadnt looked in the comments. And found out i wanted to say everyone else is already saying. Thanks for writing. I realy enjoy reading. learning to tell a story myself.
    Waiting for Korra 🙂

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