Story Lessons from Mr. Rogers

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Academy Award winning filmmaker Morgan Neville’s new documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, examines the life and work of Fred Rogers, and the film seems unusually important and timely for our culture. The qualities that Rogers most valued, seemingly-forgotten principles such as kindness and respect, still occasionally receive some lip service. However, anyone who has risked their life in the comments section of a news article or dared to tip-toe within earshot of a politician can recognize that more “important” values, such as having your own interests served, have submerged Rogers’s “weaker” below waves of cultural priorities.

Fred Rogers was a storyteller. He knew how to take the ideas that were important to him and craft them into simple characters and moments that even the youngest child could understand. While our thirst for the values he embodied would certainly make a great article, our task here is storytelling. So, here are four story lessons we can learn from Mr. Rogers.

1. RESPECT YOUR AUDIENCE

There has been a long debate in the world of artistic pursuits about the tension between the vision of the artist and the role of the audience. Many writers feel that they should just write whatever they want and not think about the audience, and there is some amount of truth in that. However, when we decide to begin asking audiences to pay for our work, whether that audience be a production company or the general public in a movie theater, the artistic dynamic changes and we would be foolish not to consider our audience. There are a number of ways we can provide consideration and respect to those who honor our work with their time. We can respect their intelligence by not pandering to them.

Mr. Rogers could have easily talked to children as unthoughtful beings only capable of being entertained by the diminishment of someone’s humanity. Plenty of others chose this pie-in-the-face method. Fred chose instead to treat children as capable of having deep feelings and understanding more than they often got credit for. He could craft his stories in ways that were appropriate for his audience but that still respected who they were and what they were capable of. Spoon feeding an audience might be tempting. Writing over their heads and then scoffing at them for not being able to piece together your logic might also be a trap you fall into. However, finding how to communicate with your audience in a way that speaks to them rather than past them, over their heads, or by insulting their intelligence is the mark of a master storyteller.

2. DON’T BE AFRAID TO TACKLE TOUGH SUBJECTS

A colleague of mine often offers the advice of a writing teacher he encountered in college, who instructed him, “Write terrified.” Many writers never truly connect with their intended audience because they are never willing to expose the parts of themselves that would make others feel less alone. Tough subjects, whether they be personal or societal, are never easy to write about. Few of us like becoming the target of criticism or some else’s vitriol, especially when we’ve dared to tackle a topic that may be very personal or emotional for us.

Mr. Rogers found ways to address death, divorce, assassination, and racial prejudice that were brave and that his audience could understand and relate to. People don’t often connect Rogers with tough subjects, perhaps because of the grace he demonstrated in handling these issues, kindly explaining the problem and a better solution without ever being condescending. Culture only moves forward as we are able to address our wounds, our shortcomings, and our realities. Writers are on the front lines, shouldering these responsibilities. We can tell stories that not only entertain, but that also challenge our audiences as to who they could be.

3. STRONG CONTENT OUTSHINES FLASH

Most of us have been tempted to rely on lazy writing from time to time, assuming that a director or production designer will pick up the slack if our work ever gets produced. There’s also another form of lazy writing – one where we lean into bells and whistles rather than the strength of the story we are telling. Perhaps we add nudity to a scene where it really isn’t necessary. Perhaps we add a gruesomely violent moment, simply because we know it will be memorable for only that reason. Sex and violence are key parts of storytelling, and often quite necessary for crafting a truthful narrative. But style over substance can cause us to be taken less seriously and reveal our shortcomings as a writer. Strong storytelling, however, is rarely argued with.

Mr. Rogers used puppets that lacked the professionalism of other popular programs. He often told simple quiet stories. However, the impact they had on his audience was profound. The stories sparked their imaginations. New writers already face an uphill battle to get their work read, much less made. Lots of flashy effects, explosions, and exploitative content gives producers a reason to toss the script of an unknown writer aside. Who wants to spend all that money on an unknown quantity? Solid storytelling, however, has launched the careers of more than a few new writers.

4. BE ORIGINAL

It sounds cliché, but being original is much more difficult than we might assume. We might think originality only happens when we begin with a completely blank canvas, but few paintings have had great success without some mixture of the primary colors. No musician sets out to invent a new musical note or chord. Does this mean that all music sounds alike or that originality is not possible in music? Of course not. The same holds true of writing. Beginning with an established archetypal character or motif does not make a story unoriginal. It is the execution of a story where originality most often can be displayed. The audience needs something to relate to – some reason to watch. Eliminating everything an audience might be able to connect to leaves us without an audience.

Mr. Rogers was original not because he was the first or only children’s show on television. He wasn’t original because he talked about things no other children’s show dealt with. It was how he told his stories that audiences still remember. It was his original voice that made everything else work. Completing the journey of removing everything that distracts from or covers up our own original voice is what is necessary if we, too, are to create work that audiences will still be discussing long after we are gone.

~

John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S.  Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.

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