The Ken Burns Effect

Get our Storytelling Newsletter

One of our current projects, about an influential and extraordinary Vancouver woman, is told through anecdotes from the people whose lives she touched. In the manuscript, she comes alive through their remembrances. I was so moved her family and friend’s memories of her, and inspired by the life she lived. Our writer has assembled a whole that is much more than the sum of its parts.

What are the things that matter to us most? What kinds of stories do people remember when we’re gone? What makes this story stand out for me might be explained in a recently released short documentary by Sarah Klein and Tom Mason. Their film, Ken Burns: On Story, features the master documentary filmmaker explaining how he finds and creates riveting stories: His formula is 1 + 1 = 3: a great story incorporates another element that defies logic and reason. It’s complicated and it takes more than reporting. I think what our writer has offered in her manuscript is a deft and sensitive interpretation of a woman’s multi-faceted life.


In this book, the subject’s accomplishments and love for life endure. It’s a prime example of why, according to Burns, we hunger to tell our stories:

“We have to keep the wolf from the door… We tell stories to continue ourselves. We all think an exception is going to be made in our case, and we’re going to live forever. And being a human is actually arriving at the understanding that that’s not going to be. Story is there to just remind us that it’s just okay.

(via Brain Pickings)