Story and Inspiration from Atlas Shrugged, and The Soul of Atlas

The following quote comes from Robert McKee’s book entitled Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting. I am very impressed with his exposition of the screenwriting process, his endless movie illustrations, and the helpful way he goes about laying it out. I heard about him from Donald Miller (in his book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life. Then, I went out and watched Adaptation with Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep, in which Brian Cox actually plays the character of Robert McKee.

A beautifully told story is a symphonic unity in which structure, setting, character, genre, and idea meld seamlessly. To find their harmony, the writer must study the elements of story as if they were instruments of an orchestra—first separately, then in concert.

Adaptation, starring Nicholas Cage

In Adaptation, Nicholas Cage plays two roles—a severely blocked writer and the writer’s shallow twin brother who decides to try his hand at screenwriting and quickly grinds out a moneymaking script.

Then, as I was reading Story, I thought of Brian Patrick O’Toole, the screenwriter who penned Atlas Shrugged, Part 1. And that, as it turns out, is not a random allusion. In the recent screening (first eight minutes) of Atlas Shrugged, Part 1, O’Toole spoke about his approach to the novel and his quest to capture the essence of Rand’s message. Not to undersell the rest of the people involved in producing this film, but O’Toole is brilliant. While he’s accomplished a lot already, I think we can expect a lot more in the coming years.

With all of this, I’m inspired in my own writing of The Soul of Atlas. For me, the quote below (again, from McKee) resets my own emphasis as I consider putting the final touches on the manuscript. It harkens back to what my friend, Scott, told me early on. Put more of your story into the conversation between these two worldviews. Good advice; that’s what I have tried to do.

When I took a leave-of-absence from my capital markets consulting company in 2008, I set out to finish The Soul of Atlas manuscript that was 70% complete. Instead of putting on the finishing touches, I ended up rewriting the manuscript from scratch. That was entirely due to the influence of “story.” The manuscript I ended up scrapping read like a textbook. When my friend, Scott, read it, he said, “No one is going to be hooked by this, even if they are a Christian conservative, a secular libertarian, a follower of Ayn Rand, or some convoluted amalgamation of the above. You have GOT to tell your story.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. I understood his words, but I had no idea how to do it. So he signed and told me to “just write about your life.” I did, and it was one of the most fulfilling exercises I have every engaged in.

Given the choice between trivial material brilliantly told versus profound material badly told, an audience will always choose the trivial told brilliantly. Master storytellers know how to squeeze life out of the least of things, while poor storytellers reduce the profound to the banal. You may have the insight of a Buddha, but if you cannot tell story, your ideas turn dry as chalk.

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One thought on “Story and Inspiration from Atlas Shrugged, and The Soul of Atlas

  1. This is funny to me, because I’ve recently noticed many people branding themselves as “storytellers,” as it seems to be the “it” title these days. The importance of storytelling is, however, very true. It’s painful for me as a researcher (i.e., a Buddha-type, as per the last quote), who often finds the filler content (i.e., the story) fluffy, boring, and a waste of time. Yet it is sage advice, as I would prefer to fluff up my data and have someone read it rather than provide a list of stats that I find interesting but that will be filed in the annals of “interesting data,” but rarely be read or shared.

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