Why good storytelling is like sex

Aaron Sorkin, the most anticipated speaker at The New York Times’ session on Storytelling with Story Creators, was conspicuous by his absence (curse you, scheduling gods!), but remaining guests Maureen Dowd and Rebecca Eaton brought dry wit and zingers in abundance.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd opened the seminar with the mother of all namedrops, recalling the time she gave Barack Obama the first season box set of Mad Men. Apparently, the most important man in the world is a huge fan of power struggles in narratives, from the political machinations of House of Cards to the scheming and backstabbing of Game of Thrones. Dowd believes this is proof that in our hyper-connected world of instant messaging and real time communications, there is still a space for high quality storytelling.

“I never join in the handwringing about the future of journalism,” she says. “Whether news is delivered by carrier pigeon, or gets beamed to us someday on our thumbnails, it’s still going to be driven by the same kind of great stories that animated Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare… There’s no doubt that Dickens and Shakespeare would have been addicted to Twitter. After all, as the Bard wrote, brevity is the soul of wit.”

How else do we learn how to function, asks Dowd, if not through stories? “Nobody invents their own vocabulary. We inherit the categories and the forms and the expectations with which we engage the world. You might say that culture is life, pre-lived.”

Dowd was joined on-stage by Rebecca Eaton, Executive Producer for Masterpiece on PBS, who is responsible for bringing Downton Abbey to American audiences. According to Eaton, a compelling story needs to evoke a deep feeling, whether that be love, rage, or fear. “There has to be someone I care about,” she says. “I have to be kept off balance.”

As a curator of gripping drama, what does Eaton look for in a storyteller? “It’s kind of like sex,” she says. “When you’re in the hands of someone good, you just know it.”

Eaton never viewed herself as being a creative person until she began to write her memoirs, instead describing herself as “just the one who gets things done.” But what she found when writing her own story, is that each family has a saga, rich in emotion and intrigue. In that respect, Dowd points out, the Kardashians and Real Housewives have something in common with the masters and servants of Downton Abbey. Each narrative contains aspiration, romance and betrayal.

Conversation inevitably found its way to that other Masterpiece drama, Sherlock, which Eaton initially turned down because she thought viewers wouldn’t be interested in yet another interpretation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation. But what she didn’t count on was the joint chemistry of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, and the writing talent of Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat. In retrospect, she concedes that adaptations and remakes have a certain allure: “In such a noisy landscape, adaptations have a huge leg up because of the recognition. Jane Austen’s appeal is the beauty of her writing; she writes about an ordered society in which love always triumphs.”

Fast running out of time, Eaton then turned the tables on Dowd and bombarded her with quick-fire questions, the most incendiary of which was; “Who are better storytellers, men or women?” Impeccably diplomatic in her answer, Dowd simply stated that anybody who truly cares about stories can be a good storyteller.

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