Storytelling with Tom Schlesinger

by Dominica Malcolm

Tom Schlesinger will be in San Francisco this weekend for his two-day workshop, The Heroine’s Journey: Storytelling through Myths, Dreams and Movies. He answered a few questions for us about storytelling and the workshop.

DM: You’ve worked with people with various creative professions, not just writers, or filmmakers. How are you able to tailor lessons in storytelling that can work so well across the board like that?

TS: Whether you’re working in fiction or non-fiction, telling the story of your company, or the story of your life, stories are an ecosystem of the storyteller, the story and audience, all connected through universal themes. I discovered this when I first started studying with Joseph Campbell and became fascinated with the creative process. I realized that the emotional journey we take when creating stories actually runs parallel to the emotional journey of our characters. And if we stay true to our creative journey, this is the same journey the audience will ultimately experience.

For example, all stories begin with characters leaving their comfort zone. This is also what happens when we begin writing a story. We can feel the same anxiety and fears as our characters when our inner voices challenge us by saying: “Who are you to write this story.”

Leaving the comfort zone is a universal experience that connects the storyteller, characters in the story and the audience. The Heroine’s Journey is a brilliant way to map the arc of these universal experiences.

In the workshop, we also explore the seven ways that all stories function. Stories, like humans, have a common anatomy based on how they function. For example, one way that stories function is through dilemma, where a character has to choose between two things that both have positive values. This is typically a choice between an outer passion and a relationship desire.

Most storytellers experience this kind of dilemma every day in their own lives when they try to find the balance between their creative work and their family or relationship responsibilities.

So all stories are part of an ecosystem, and they all function in similar ways.

DM: Your upcoming weekend event, The Heroine’s Journey: Storytelling through Myths, Dreams and Movies, sounds like it has a feminine focus. Can you explain a little about that, and why you feel it’s important to delve into that side of storytelling?

TS: There’s an outer and an inner reason for exploring the feminine in storytelling. The outer reason is that we are finally seeing a number of stories driven by complex female protagonists that range from Carrie in “Homeland” to “Jackie”. Since female protagonists function in unique ways, it’s a mistake to apply the Hero’s Journey or generic rules of dramaturgy to them. In the workshop, we see how the focus is not only on outer actions but on the inner emotional complexity, as revealed through relationships.

The inner reason for exploring the feminine in storytelling is based on the Jungian view of feminine energies like empathy, listening, sharing, intuition and instincts. These are the very qualities we need to create compelling stories and these are the very qualities that are suppressed in our patriarchal society. In the workshop, we learn how to acknowledge these values within us, and create stories from this place of the deeper feminine. Mythologist Maureen Murdock wrote the seminal book about this called The Heroine’s Journey.

So you’ll not only learn how to chart the character arcs of female protagonists, but also how to write these kind of stories. Keep in mind, however, that Heroine Journeys are not always gender specific. Billy Elliot is also a Heroine’s Journey.

DM: What are the major elements that you think are important to consider when telling a compelling story, that you’ll describe in more detail in your workshop?

TS: Another key element in storytelling that covers a lot of narrative territory is that meaning comes through contrast and opposition. If you’re trying to make a point like all corporations are corrupt, then there’s no opposition and you’re not telling a story, you’re making a one-sided argument. The notion that meaning comes through contrast and opposition relates to the outer worlds of the story, the orchestration of your characters in the character web and the inner world of theme or what the story is about. In Erin Brockovich there is an outer contrast between what is justice, and how the system of justice functions; Erin’s dilemma is that she is torn between finding justice for the victims of PG&E’s toxic water spill and being a responsible mother; and there is an inner contrast between her instinctual drive to help people and to mother her children.

DM: Without giving away all your wisdom, can you mention a couple of films that you like to use as examples of good storytelling?

TS: Erin Brockovich and Little Miss Sunshine are two films that I use; The Good Wife and Homeland are two television series that I use. With these examples, we can explore the different ways that female protagonists and male protagonists achieve their goals but more to the point, the unique way that transformation and change takes place in these stories.

DM: Is there anything else people might be interested in knowing before signing up for your workshop, that tells them why they should learn from you?

TS: After writing two successful screenplays that were sold but not produced, I experienced writer’s block and depression. This began my journey into exploring the relationship between the creative process and the stories that we’re telling, with brilliant guidance by my mentor, mythologist Jean Houston.

What I learned from Jean is that stories are in our DNA, in our cells and in our bones and that it is our job to allow them to be expressed. How do you do this? In the Heroine’s Journey workshop, you actually experience what it’s like to go on the journey. We do this through storytelling, watching film clips, experiencing harmonic sounds and creative imaging exercises so that you have a bodily felt experience of the journey.

This suggests other key aspects of our inner feminine when creating these stories: allowing and receiving.

In this way, receiving becomes an act of creation.

If you’re interested in taking Tom Schlesinger’s two-day workshop, The Heroine’s Journey: Storytelling through Myths, Dreams and Movies, you can sign up through Eventbrite. It’s on Saturday Dec 31st 10am-6pm and Sunday Jan 1st 10am-5pm at Victorian House in San Francisco. For more information about Tom, or if you can’t make the workshop but you’re interested in learning from him in the future, visit his website at

Tom SchlesingerTom Schlesinger has taught storytelling seminars at Pixar Animation Studios, Lucasfilm, the Esalen Institute, the Red Bull Media House, the American Film Institute, the Mill Valley Film Festival, the Writers Guild of America, the Directors Guild of America, and the Saybrook Institute.  Tom was the story mentor on the female-driven Academy Award-winning Nowhere in Africa and Academy Award nominee, Beyond Silence; he was the writer/consultant on the HBO documentaries A Small Act and Prom Night in Mississippi, featuring Morgan Freeman, and was Creative Producer on Shirley: Visions of Reality, which premiered at the Berlinale and has been shown internationally.