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Annotated captions of Andrew Stanton: The clues to a great story in English

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A tourist is backpacking

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through the highlands of Scotland,

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and he stops at a pub to get a drink.

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And the only people in there is a bartender

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and an old man nursing a beer.

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And he orders a pint, and they sit in silence for a while.

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And suddenly the old man turns to him and goes,

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"You see this bar?

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I built this bar with my bare hands

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from the finest wood in the county.

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Gave it more love and care than my own child.

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But do they call me MacGregor the bar builder? No."

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Points out the window.

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"You see that stone wall out there?

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I built that stone wall with my bare hands.

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Found every stone, placed them just so through the rain and the cold.

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But do they call me MacGregor the stone wall builder? No."

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Points out the window.

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"You see that pier on the lake out there?

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I built that pier with my bare hands.

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Drove the pilings against the tide of the sand, plank by plank.

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But do they call me MacGregor the pier builder? No.

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But you fuck one goat ... "

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(Laughter)

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Storytelling --

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(Laughter)

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is joke telling.

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It's knowing your punchline,

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your ending,

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knowing that everything you're saying, from the first sentence to the last,

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is leading to a singular goal,

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and ideally confirming some truth

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that deepens our understandings

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of who we are as human beings.

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We all love stories.

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We're born for them.

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Stories affirm who we are.

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We all want affirmations that our lives have meaning.

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And nothing does a greater affirmation

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than when we connect through stories.

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It can cross the barriers of time,

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past, present and future,

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and allow us to experience

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the similarities between ourselves

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and through others, real and imagined.

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The children's television host Mr. Rogers

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always carried in his wallet

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a quote from a social worker

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that said, "Frankly, there isn't anyone you couldn't learn to love

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once you've heard their story."

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And the way I like to interpret that

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is probably the greatest story commandment,

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which is "Make me care" --

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please, emotionally,

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intellectually, aesthetically,

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just make me care.

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We all know what it's like to not care.

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You've gone through hundreds of TV channels,

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just switching channel after channel,

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and then suddenly you actually stop on one.

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It's already halfway over,

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but something's caught you and you're drawn in and you care.

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That's not by chance,

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that's by design.

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So it got me thinking, what if I told you my history was story,

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how I was born for it,

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how I learned along the way this subject matter?

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And to make it more interesting,

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we'll start from the ending

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and we'll go to the beginning.

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And so if I were going to give you the ending of this story,

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it would go something like this:

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And that's what ultimately led me

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to speaking to you here at TED

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about story.

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And the most current story lesson that I've had

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was completing the film I've just done

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this year in 2012.

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The film is "John Carter." It's based on a book called "The Princess of Mars,"

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which was written by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

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And Edgar Rice Burroughs actually put himself

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as a character inside this movie, and as the narrator.

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And he's summoned by his rich uncle, John Carter, to his mansion

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with a telegram saying, "See me at once."

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But once he gets there,

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he's found out that his uncle has mysteriously passed away

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and been entombed in a mausoleum on the property.

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(Video) Butler: You won't find a keyhole.

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Thing only opens from the inside.

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He insisted,

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no embalming, no open coffin,

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no funeral.

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You don't acquire the kind of wealth your uncle commanded

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by being like the rest of us, huh?

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Come, let's go inside.

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AS: What this scene is doing, and it did in the book,

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is it's fundamentally making a promise.

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It's making a promise to you

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that this story will lead somewhere that's worth your time.

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And that's what all good stories should do at the beginning, is they should give you a promise.

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You could do it an infinite amount of ways.

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Sometimes it's as simple as "Once upon a time ... "

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These Carter books always had Edgar Rice Burroughs as a narrator in it.

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And I always thought it was such a fantastic device.

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It's like a guy inviting you around the campfire,

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or somebody in a bar saying, "Here, let me tell you a story.

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It didn't happen to me, it happened to somebody else,

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but it's going to be worth your time."

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A well told promise

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is like a pebble being pulled back in a slingshot

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and propels you forward through the story

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to the end.

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In 2008,

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I pushed all the theories that I had on story at the time

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to the limits of my understanding on this project.

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(Video) (Mechanical Sounds)

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♫ And that is all ♫

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♫ that love's about ♫

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♫ And we'll recall ♫

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♫ when time runs out ♫

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♫ That it only ♫

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(Laughter)

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AS: Storytelling without dialogue.

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It's the purest form of cinematic storytelling.

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It's the most inclusive approach you can take.

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It confirmed something I really had a hunch on,

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is that the audience

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actually wants to work for their meal.

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They just don't want to know that they're doing that.

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That's your job as a storyteller,

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is to hide the fact

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that you're making them work for their meal.

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We're born problem solvers.

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We're compelled to deduce

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and to deduct,

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because that's what we do in real life.

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It's this well-organized absence of information

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that draws us in.

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There's a reason that we're all attracted to an infant or a puppy.

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It's not just that they're damn cute;

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it's because they can't completely express

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what they're thinking and what their intentions are.

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And it's like a magnet.

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We can't stop ourselves

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from wanting to complete the sentence and fill it in.

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I first started

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really understanding this storytelling device

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when I was writing with Bob Peterson on "Finding Nemo."

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And we would call this the unifying theory of two plus two.

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Make the audience put things together.

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Don't give them four,

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give them two plus two.

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The elements you provide and the order you place them in

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is crucial to whether you succeed or fail at engaging the audience.

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Editors and screenwriters have known this all along.

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It's the invisible application

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that holds our attention to story.

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I don't mean to make it sound

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like this is an actual exact science, it's not.

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That's what's so special about stories,

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they're not a widget, they aren't exact.

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Stories are inevitable, if they're good,

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but they're not predictable.

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I took a seminar in this year

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with an acting teacher named Judith Weston.

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And I learned a key insight to character.

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She believed that all well-drawn characters

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have a spine.

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And the idea is that the character has an inner motor,

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a dominant, unconscious goal that they're striving for,

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an itch that they can't scratch.

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She gave a wonderful example of Michael Corleone,

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Al Pacino's character in "The Godfather,"

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and that probably his spine

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was to please his father.

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And it's something that always drove all his choices.

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Even after his father died,

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he was still trying to scratch that itch.

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I took to this like a duck to water.

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Wall-E's was to find the beauty.

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Marlin's, the father in "Finding Nemo,"

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was to prevent harm.

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And Woody's was to do what was best for his child.

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And these spines don't always drive you to make the best choices.

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Sometimes you can make some horrible choices with them.

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I'm really blessed to be a parent,

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and watching my children grow, I really firmly believe

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that you're born with a temperament and you're wired a certain way,

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and you don't have any say about it,

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and there's no changing it.

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All you can do is learn to recognize it

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and own it.

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And some of us are born with temperaments that are positive,

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some are negative.

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But a major threshold is passed

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when you mature enough

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to acknowledge what drives you

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and to take the wheel and steer it.

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As parents, you're always learning who your children are.

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They're learning who they are.

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And you're still learning who you are.

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So we're all learning all the time.

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And that's why change is fundamental in story.

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If things go static, stories die,

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because life is never static.

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In 1998,

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I had finished writing "Toy Story" and "A Bug's Life"

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and I was completely hooked on screenwriting.

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So I wanted to become much better at it and learn anything I could.

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So I researched everything I possibly could.

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And I finally came across this fantastic quote

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by a British playwright, William Archer:

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"Drama is anticipation

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mingled with uncertainty."

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It's an incredibly insightful definition.

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When you're telling a story,

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have you constructed anticipation?

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In the short-term, have you made me want to know

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what will happen next?

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But more importantly,

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have you made me want to know

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how it will all conclude in the long-term?

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Have you constructed honest conflicts

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with truth that creates doubt

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in what the outcome might be?

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An example would be in "Finding Nemo,"

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in the short tension, you were always worried,

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would Dory's short-term memory

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make her forget whatever she was being told by Marlin.

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But under that was this global tension

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of will we ever find Nemo

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in this huge, vast ocean?

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In our earliest days at Pixar,

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before we truly understood the invisible workings of story,

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we were simply a group of guys just going on our gut, going on our instincts.

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And it's interesting to see

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how that led us places

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that were actually pretty good.

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You've got to remember that in this time of year,

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1993,

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what was considered a successful animated picture

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was "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast,"

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"Aladdin," "Lion King."

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So when we pitched "Toy Story" to Tom Hanks for the first time,

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he walked in and he said,

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"You don't want me to sing, do you?"

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And I thought that epitomized perfectly

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what everybody thought animation had to be at the time.

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But we really wanted to prove

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that you could tell stories completely different in animation.

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We didn't have any influence then,

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so we had a little secret list of rules

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that we kept to ourselves.

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And they were: No songs,

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no "I want" moment,

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no happy village,

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no love story.

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And the irony is that, in the first year,

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our story was not working at all

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and Disney was panicking.

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So they privately got advice

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from a famous lyricist, who I won't name,

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and he faxed them some suggestions.

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And we got a hold of that fax.

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And the fax said,

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there should be songs,

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there should be an "I want" song,

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there should be a happy village song,

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there should be a love story

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and there should be a villain.

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And thank goodness

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we were just too young, rebellious and contrarian at the time.

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That just gave us more determination

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to prove that you could build a better story.

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And a year after that, we did conquer it.

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And it just went to prove

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that storytelling has guidelines,

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not hard, fast rules.

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Another fundamental thing we learned

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was about liking your main character.

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And we had naively thought,

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well Woody in "Toy Story" has to become selfless at the end,

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so you've got to start from someplace.

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So let's make him selfish. And this is what you get.

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(Voice Over) Woody: What do you think you're doing?

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Off the bed.

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Hey, off the bed!

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Mr. Potato Head: You going to make us, Woody?

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Woody: No, he is.

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Slinky? Slink ... Slinky!

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Get up here and do your job.

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Are you deaf?

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I said, take care of them.

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Slinky: I'm sorry, Woody,

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but I have to agree with them.

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I don't think what you did was right.

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Woody: What? Am I hearing correctly?

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You don't think I was right?

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Who said your job was to think, Spring Wiener?

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AS: So how do you make a selfish character likable?

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We realized, you can make him kind,

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generous, funny, considerate,

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as long as one condition is met for him,

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is that he stays the top toy.

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And that's what it really is,

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is that we all live life conditionally.

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We're all willing to play by the rules and follow things along,

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as long as certain conditions are met.

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After that, all bets are off.

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And before I'd even decided to make storytelling my career,

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I can now see key things that happened in my youth

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that really sort of opened my eyes

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to certain things about story.

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In 1986, I truly understood the notion

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of story having a theme.

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And that was the year that they restored and re-released

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"Lawrence of Arabia."

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And I saw that thing seven times in one month.

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I couldn't get enough of it.

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I could just tell there was a grand design under it --

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in every shot, every scene, every line.

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Yet, on the surface it just seemed

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to be depicting his historical lineage

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of what went on.

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Yet, there was something more being said. What exactly was it?

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And it wasn't until, on one of my later viewings,

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that the veil was lifted

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and it was in a scene where he's walked across the Sinai Desert

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and he's reached the Suez Canal,

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and I suddenly got it.

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(Video) Boy: Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!

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Cyclist: Who are you?

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Who are you?

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AS: That was the theme: Who are you?

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Here were all these seemingly disparate

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events and dialogues

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that just were chronologically telling the history of him,

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but underneath it was a constant,

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a guideline, a road map.

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Everything Lawrence did in that movie

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was an attempt for him to figure out where his place was in the world.

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A strong theme is always running through

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a well-told story.

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When I was five,

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I was introduced to possibly the most major ingredient

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that I feel a story should have,

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but is rarely invoked.

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And this is what my mother took me to when I was five.

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(Video) Thumper: Come on. It's all right.

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Look.

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The water's stiff.

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Bambi: Yippee!

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Thumper: Some fun,

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huh, Bambi?

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Come on. Get up.

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Like this.

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Ha ha. No, no, no.

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AS: I walked out of there

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wide-eyed with wonder.

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And that's what I think the magic ingredient is,

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the secret sauce,

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is can you invoke wonder.

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Wonder is honest, it's completely innocent.

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It can't be artificially evoked.

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For me, there's no greater ability

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than the gift of another human being giving you that feeling --

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to hold them still just for a brief moment in their day

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and have them surrender to wonder.

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When it's tapped, the affirmation of being alive,

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it reaches you almost to a cellular level.

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And when an artist does that to another artist,

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it's like you're compelled to pass it on.

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It's like a dormant command

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that suddenly is activated in you, like a call to Devil's Tower.

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Do unto others what's been done to you.

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The best stories infuse wonder.

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When I was four years old,

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I have a vivid memory

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of finding two pinpoint scars on my ankle

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and asking my dad what they were.

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And he said I had a matching pair like that on my head,

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but I couldn't see them because of my hair.

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And he explained that when I was born,

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I was born premature,

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that I came out much too early,

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and I wasn't fully baked;

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I was very, very sick.

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And when the doctor took a look at this yellow kid with black teeth,

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he looked straight at my mom and said,

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"He's not going to live."

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And I was in the hospital for months.

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And many blood transfusions later,

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I lived,

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and that made me special.

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I don't know if I really believe that.

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I don't know if my parents really believe that,

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but I didn't want to prove them wrong.

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Whatever I ended up being good at,

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I would strive to be worthy of the second chance I was given.

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(Video) (Crying)

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Marlin: There, there, there.

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It's okay, daddy's here.

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Daddy's got you.

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I promise,

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I will never let anything happen to you, Nemo.

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AS: And that's the first story lesson I ever learned.

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Use what you know. Draw from it.

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It doesn't always mean plot or fact.

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It means capturing a truth from your experiencing it,

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expressing values you personally feel

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deep down in your core.

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And that's what ultimately led me to speaking to you

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here at TEDTalk today.

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Thank you.

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(Applause)