Movie Mechanic Under The Hood: Storytelling, The Most Important Skill

There is no skill more important than storytelling. In this new series, I want to examine the movies that use expert storytelling and discover how those skills can be adapted into other movies, and possibly everyday situations. Today’s exploration is tackling the general idea of storytelling. Future entries will break down storytelling into components.

As long as there have been humans, they have been sitting around campfires and sharing stories of amazing tales. I recently went on a camping trip with the local boy scout troop. Before we started, I told the boys we would have “times.” Whether those times were good or bad was up to them. We lost the map to the campsite, so we were forced to punch in the campsite into Google Maps. The road led us from the major divided highway, to a single lane road, to a graded dirt road, to an unkept mountain path. Recent rains had washed out the roads, and after bouncing up the mountain trail, we came to the shelf of the mountain…and immediately got stuck in mud. After 20 minutes of piling pine needles and laying down sticks and rocks to help the wheels get purchase, we were able to get the car loose. As we continued along the muddy mountain road, we passed a Ford Fiesta buried halfway up the car and completely abandoned. We bounced along for another quarter mile before we once again found ourselves mired in the mud.


At this point, we realized that Google Maps relied on a signal to operate, a signal we no longer had available. With no way of knowing how far the campsite was, we decided to hike for a bit to see if we could reach the camp before sunset. After hiking a mile and a half, the sun was dropping quickly. We had only one option left: hike back to the truck and set up camp.

It was dark when we made it back to camp. The truck provided enough light for us to pull out our gear and set up the tents and kitchen, while I gathered stones and wet kindling for a fire pit. The other leader and I struggled a lot in the thick mud to put up camp, and frankly, the boys were oblivious to the intense frustrations we were experiencing as leaders. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. We wanted to make sure that the boys had good times. After about two hours of work in the cold mud, we had a fire roaring and tents set up. The other leader brought out the stove and propane tank, only to realize that the hose had the wrong attachment and was useless. We dropped a griddle and Dutch oven into the campfire and managed to cook some rare steaks, some potatoes and carrots, and hamburger patties.


As we sat around the campfire, the other leader told us a story: When he was 12 years old, he and his dad went on a hunting trip in Southern Arizona near the Mexican border. Because of threats from javelina and drug cartels, in addition to their hunting rifles, they each carried a revolver for personal protection. When they reached the hunting blind, the dad kicked back and dozed off, leaving his 12-year-old son to his own devices. He began playing with the revolver, pushing the magazine out, spinning it, and popping it back in. After a minute, BANG!, the gun went off right into his ankle. His dad awoke in a panic, took the revolver and looked at the gunshot wound. The bullet was a hollow point, and had shattered as soon as it hit his bone, disintegrating the joint. His dad helped him to his feet to see if they could hike back to their truck, over a mile away, but the terrain was rough, and they almost instantly stumbled. With no ankle joint, he collapsed instantly in pain. His dad hiked back to the truck, found a forest ranger, and contacted emergency services. A helicopter flew to a nearby peak from Tucson, and a team of EMTs hiked a quarter mile down the mountain with a stretcher to retrieve him. The EMTs carried him almost directly vertically back to the helicopter where he was airlifted to Tucson for treatment. Although doctors were able to reassemble most of the bone fragments, they were not able to remove all the bullet fragments, and to this day he carries those bullet fragments as a reminder of that rough camping trip.


“The point of that story,” said the scout leader, “is to tell you that this camping trip is way worse.”

Storytelling was born around campfires, and campfire stories reach us in ways other stories don’t. The movement of the flames and the dancing of the light of the speaker awaken something primal that demands your full attention. Perhaps we evolved to pay more attention to stories in the dark. That means that at some point, campfire stories became critical for our survival. Tales of overcoming threats passed on knowledge of how to kill primal beasts, how to fight through extreme elements, and how to protect little ones from being eaten.


Nowadays, we don’t have a campfire to sit around. Instead, we have moved from the mountain campfire to the movie theater. The bright campfire has been replaced by the screen and projector. The dark woods have been replaced by stadium seating. But, as far as we have come technologically, the instinct that drives us into movie theaters is the same instinct that compelled our ancestors to tell tales of daring do around the embers of the campfire. So, when you are sitting in a theater watching Pikachu solve a crime, or Avengers time travel to save their friends, you are actually improving your survival skills.


I hope you look forward to this series. I would love to hear your thoughts and stories as well. Please make sure to leave a comment about your favorite stories in movies, TV, or wherever!

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