charlie kaufman’s storytelling advice: how would your reaction differ if…?

There’s that famous statistic by Albert Mehrabian that’s gotten quoted probably a million times that communication is 55% nonverbal, 38% vocal, and 7% words only. This is only true in the specific context in which Mehrabian conducted his research, but it’s universally true that the words we use are only a small part of how our audience reacts to us.

Charlie Kaufman shared a very simple piece of storytelling advice that you can use when writing a story: How would the reaction of the audience change if one factor were different? The words of a handsome, charismatic hero would be perceived very different by an audience if they came out of the mouth of someone like, well, say Charlie Kaufman: a little, bookwormish type of man with a timid voice, a nervous voice, stumbling over his own words a bit.

Think about your reaction to me. Think past it. Why do you have that reaction? Why do you react a certain way to certain things? What does your reaction have to do with your wants? How does it correlate? How would your reaction to what I’m saying change if I were older, younger, female, a different race, British.

What does it mean about you, that it would change?

What does it mean about the subjectivity of your opinions?

What if I was me, but had a different demeanor? What if I was more confident? Less confident? What if I was more effeminate? What if I was less effeminate? What if I was drunk? What if I was on the verge of tears?

— Charlie Kaufman, BAFTA lecture on 30 September 2011

This is a great exercise when you’re stuck on a scene, or when you review what you wrote and feel a particular bit isn’t as strong as it could be. Play around with these questions and see what comes up.

Film critic Roger Ebert called Synecdoche, New York the best movie of the decade in 2009, and Kaufman’s Adaptation is one of my personal favorite movies about writing. There’s so much you can learn from studying his work, and he shared some beautiful wisdom on the value of being yourself in the same lecture that extends beyond the realm of creativity and writing.

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