You’re listening to the Video StudentGuy show and I’m the Guy, Paul Lyzun.
This episode is the second in a series of shows about the process of interviewing. I was working on the episode about Preproduction for interviewing and I found it difficult to limit the scope of things to review. I was persistently adding production details of questionable value, resulting in more confusion than clarity. I found that I was repeatedly reigning myself in by asking, “what has this got to do with the story!” Finally I realized I had completely forgotten to talk about the story process, so I’m taking care of that in this episode.
Story is at the core of planning a successful interview. You can’t arrange meetings or interviews, you can’t reserve equipment and you can’t set deadlines without knowing your story.
A story is not merely an idea, current events or people. A story is a journey of an individual or a group, which your audience is encouraged to follow. A good story includes discovery, emotion, hope and tragedy, leading to some kind of revelation or personal transformation and ultimately an end, which may not always be happy.
Narrative is used in a lot of ways in the English language and in this case just the word Narrative doesn’t add much to our understanding of storytelling. Narrative put simply, means telling a story. The root word is medieval French, narratif , which also means, to tell a story.
Narrative is one of the four classic Rhetorical modes:
- an explanation to provide context for events or characters
- in filmmaking it’s referred to as the “well you know bob” scene
- “Well you know Bob, Normans, from Normandy in France crossed the English Channel in 1066 and conquered England, requiring everyone to speak French, And that’s why there are so many words of French origin in the English language!”
- context, background, providing links and relationships, that’s all a part of exposition
- involves the recreation of a particular experience or person through words, sounds or images
- establishing an idea or position through research, evaluation and logic
- telling a story through anecdotes and personal experience.
Narrative uses the earlier three modes, exposition, description and argumentation, as tools in developing a story. But it’s not what is generally thought of when talking about “A STORY”. Whenever we talk with friends about a movie or a book we’re discussing the Narrative Arc.
The Narrative Arc represents the components and milestones that together build the story. Their importance lies in how much of each you use and what you choose to leave out.
Storytelling is as unique as each individual. We all tell stories; it’s an essential part of being human. Stories have been the primary means of conveying information between people for, forever. Our personal identities are built out of the stories that we tell. While a story can be as simple as a beginning, middle and end, an engaging story creates a connection between the narrator and the audience. Here is a simple story I wrote as an example of how the narrative arc operates:
[Start – Establish routine]
Friends meet on the street and one asks the other how he’s doing and a story follows:
1. You know the five and dime over by the surplus warehouse? Last week, on my way to work I had stopped to look at something in the window when I heard this screeching car sound behind me followed by a bang and a thud I could feel in my bones.
[Inciting Incident – Everything changes]
2. When I turned around I could see the crumpled front end of a car wrapped around a streetlamp. I didn’t see anyone else around. I ran over to the driver side and saw a woman inside, slumped against the car window, blood running down her face.
3. The car’s alarm was wailing like a banshee, which made it hard to think, but I figured at least someone nearby would hear it and call an ambulance. I could see that the doors were locked and windows were all closed. I was worried the gas tank might ignite or something, but I had no idea how to get her out of the car. Then I saw some smoke inside, coming from under the dashboard.
[Obstacle – Tension rises]
4. I looked around for something to break the window but there was nothing to use. Then I remembered there was a pile of bricks behind the drugstore on the corner. I was about to leave when out of the corner of my eye I saw something moving in the backseat. I stared through the tinted window for a second and that’s when I could make out the baby crying, barely, over the stupid car alarm.
5. And in the seconds it took to notice the baby I could see that smoke beginning to fill up the car. There wasn’t enough time to get the bricks.
6. You remember when I broke my arm last month, over by the tracks? I almost passed out from seeing my own blood. I thought I was going to bleed to death. The worst part was seeing the bone sticking out of my arm. Someone had quickly wrapped a sweatshirt around it, but I had a pretty good look. I had never felt so much pain in my life. They patched me up pretty good at the hospital, but the doctors told me to keep it in the sling and don’t put any pressure on it or I could do permanent damage. I’m not stupid, since then I’ve been treating it like it was as fragile as glass. I still get chills and start sweating when I think about that piece of bone pushing out of my arm, like it was trying to escape.
7. Well that’s what I was thinking about as I watched the car fill with smoke. I glanced back at the mom and I saw a little bit of yellow on the far side of the car. Fire. It was just starting to move from the floor to the front passenger seat. I had to do something – fast. There was no time find someone; it was down to me.
8. I didn’t give myself anytime to think about it, I just threw my entire elbow into the window. Bang! It hurt my arm like hell, but especially my elbow which I didn’t expect. Like a super funny bone, it was vibrating. I don’t know why, but I thought the cast would act like a cushion and protect it Instead my arm felt like a peanut rattling around inside it’s shell. So I’m reeling in pain and for all that, there was just a faint spider web of cracks on the window.
So before I could think about, I rammed my cast into the window again and that web spread out a little more dimpling in the center. I was swearing at the top of my lungs, but I knew I couldn’t stop. If there was going to be any point to the pain I had to get the kid and the mom out.
In for a penny, in for a pound eh? I threw my whole body into it and managed to create a small hole. That was when I noticed blood starting to trickle down into my hand.
9. Going for broke and ignoring everything else I punched in the rest of glass and managed to unlock the door with my left hand.
10. Smoke poured out like fog and I couldn’t see for a moment. I don’t know if the tears were from the smoke or the pain, but I could feel them running down my face and after a few seconds I could see inside. I had smashed the back window because I could see the baby was still crying., while mom hadn’t moved the whole time. I crawled into the back seat to the far side of the car and tried to get the baby out, but you know those damn baby seats, they’re anchored into the card like rivets on a battleship. My right hand was useless and my left hand fumbled with the straps, it was taking too much time. In the front of the car I could see the fire was growing bigger, feel the heat, probably because of the air rushing in from the open door. Looking over the front seat I could see the fire closing in on the woman’s body.
11. As I paused to think how to remove the safety seat I could feel my heart pounding and my body shaking as the adrenaline started to drop. Then I remembered I had a paring knife in my lunch bag, so I got out of the car, too quickly, twisted my ankle and fell, on my right arm. Without thinking, I pushed myself off the ground and the throbbing ache shifted to a sharp pain centered on the break in my arm. I looked down at my right hand an could see blood running out from under the cast,
12. I just told myself the ambulance will arrive soon and focused on getting the knife. One step at a time. I grabbed my lunchbox and emptied it on the street, found the knife and went back into the car.
The baby wasn’t crying anymore, though I could see she was breathing. I had to focus on cutting with my left hand. It seemed to take forever.
13. Finally I got the baby seat free and dragged it toward the open door. When I stood up I could feel my legs giving way under me so I got on my knees, wrapped my arm around it, holding it tight to my chest, then swiveled around to set it on the ground. I was shaking so hard from coughing and exhaustion that I thought I was going to drop the baby, so I fell backward with the seat on top of me and then rolled over to set the baby on the ground.
14. Once we were out in the fresh air she began coughing and then started up an unholy wail once again, so I knew she was in better shape than her mom.
15. My eyes were crusted from tears and smoke, but my arm no longer hurt, I couldn’t feel it at all, I wasn’t aware that I had been using it to help hold the baby while I was getting her out. That explained why she was smeared with blood. And why I was feeling so weak and dizzy. I could have given in to fatigue and pain at that point when at last I heard sirens. They didn’t sound too far away, but not close enough either.
16. I was lying down next to the car and I could see small flames under the front end. I needed to get away from the car before it turned into a fireball. I didn’t think I could walk, but I thought I could drag the baby and myself to a safe distance. As an experiment I pushed the baby seat an arms length, rolled toward it, clenching my teeth, took a deep breath and then continued until she was a safe distance awy. Looking back at the car I could see the woman’s face, smoke swirling around her hair with a faint glow from the growing fire behind her.
[Midpoint – Everything changes]
17. I was so tired, and I had trouble focusing. The car seemed so faint, so remote. I did everything I could I thought. I was killing myself for a complete stranger. For all I knew she caused the accident, recklessly endangering herself and her child by putting on lipstick or checking her phone and swerving to miss some animal or pothole in the road.
18. For a moment, fractions of a second maybe, though time seemed to stretch. You know how that happens sometimes, time stops but you notice every little detail, sharp as a tack. She looked very young, twenty something. Despite the smoke and the blood smeared window, I could see that she was pretty, but more than that she had a kind face. I noticed a few worry lines across her forehead and faint laugh lines under her eyes. Unconscious, she displayed a kind of serenity that looked like it could stand against a world of troubles. I just stared at her like that for I don’t know how long and then somewhere I found the strength to get up and stumble back to the car, reach through the back seat and unlock the front door.
19. After all my effort with the baby it was a piece of cake unsnapping the seatbelt, then I gently let her fall out of the car, keeping my body between her and the pieces of broken glass on the asphalt. I could smell burnt fabric and hair. She also had cuts and scrapes, but otherwise I could see no serious bleeding, on the outside.
[Obstacle – Tension rises]
20. I tried to get up but my head began to spin, my legs buckled and I fell. My right side was on fire with pain and my arm was totally useless. All I could do was roll her body away from the car and follow after her. She may have had internal injuries from the crash and for all I knew I was probably making them worse, but all I could think about was the growing sound of the flames behind me, making flapping noises, like sheets in the wind. Joining that was an ominous hissing sound, building slowly, so I kept moving her toward her baby.
[Climax – Denouement]
21. I got pretty close and then I must have passed out, though I don’t remember. I do recall waking up, couldn’t have been more than a few minutes as I was being picked up and put on a cot. EMT had arrived and moved the three of us further away from the burning car. Fire trucks had been able to douse the car so it never had a chance to blow up, but even as they were putting the gurney in the ambulance I could see it was still pushing out a volcano of black oily smoke.
22. We all came out of it in one piece. Mom didn’t have any internal injuries, thanks to the airbag, though she had a nasty burn on her shoulder. It was touch and go with baby because of the smoke, but she recovered quickly and was released from the hospital after only a few days. I had the longest stay in the hospital between blood loss and damage to my broken arm. Also some cuts and bruises, but they were minor.
23. I decided to take another week off from work and I honestly don’t know if I’m going back. The world seems different now. and I’m thinking about making some changes. Jenny, the mom, came to see me a couple times while I was in the hospital and she invited me to have dinner with her and Tracy, once I got out. So that’s where I’m headed, once I pick up some flowers. Jen’s been doing a lot of thinking too, so it seems we have a few things in common.
A story is a journey, a path. You can graph it according to long established guidelines going back to Aristotle and the great Greek playwrights.
Along the journey’s path you discover
- the characters and their relationships
- the motivations that drive the characters
- locations around which goals develop
- and risks, hopes and fears are revealed
It helps if you can chart it. In the show notes there’s a link to an interactive graphic depicting the The Hero’s Journey, according to Joseph Campbell.
The Journey begins with
- Call to Adventure
- Helper’s Amulet
- Crossing the Threshold
- Climax/Final Battle
Start – Establish routine
- which provides a specific location at the beginning of the story
- he passes on this way to work everyday. It’s familiar territory and he knows he has time to spend in front of a store window.
Inciting Incident – Everything changes
- •sudden loud noises break the predictability of his routine and he is faced with a singularly unfamiliar experience
Obstacle – Tension rises
- with the locked doors and the life threatening possibility of fire and smoke he quickly realizes he must act, despite the many unexpected problems he has to solve. Each decision draws him deeper into new experiences that could potentially change the steady predictability of his life
Midpoint – Everything changes, maybe 180 degrees
- so much of the hero’s efforts are reflexive, up to this point, but at last through personal injuries and fatigue he has the time to consider his situation and make conscious choices that will declare the nature of his character
Obstacle – Tension rises
- discovering that he is almost completely disabled he continues to risk his life, pushing himself to the very limit of his abilities without any guarantee of success
Climax – Denouement
- success, after a fashion, brings the story to a conclusion where he has time to consider the changes wrought by his experiences. He knows he’s not the same person and he has a new vision of other lives he can live beyond the one he’s known.
Let’s contrast this with the format of a normal news story, which is constructed in the form of an inverted or upside down pyramid. Here, the story begins with the most important information and ends with the least, working in a manner that allows the audience to leave at any point during the story with an understanding of the most critical information.
But, because all the important information appears at the beginning, there are no surprises. There is no emotional engagement with the characters on the part of the audience.
The story above could be condensed in the following way:
A Mother and her child were trapped in burning car early this morning on Main Street. A local resident was able to pull them to safety before the car burst in to flames.
EMTs arrived in time to resuscitate the victims who were then taken to the city hospital. All victims are in serious but stable condition
Fire trucks extinguished the burning car. No other vehicles or buildings were damaged
The cause of accident is yet to be determined
- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - -
What is a story?
- a news story can simply be a string of events
- but a story that engages the imagination and emotion of the audience requires a narrative arc, a collection of events and personal experiences that build to create an imagined experience, which is greater than sum of it’s parts made possible through the skills of the storyteller and the imagination of the audience.
Once you establish the people, places, actions and motivations of the story you can craft the necessary questions that can develop the story’s dimension and authenticity.
You can’t know the entire story when you begin your story project, but you can develop a series of information gathering goals that will help you develop the parts of the story that create dynamic tension and emotional engagement. Use these goals to seek out people and places that will help reveal the story.
Some thoughts about the character of story
Often one person stands in as the pivot around which events of the story revolve. Through glimpses of action we slowly gain insight into her character.
We see her struggles and weigh her personal traits and defects by her reactions. The struggles lead to a happy ending or sad but there is an expectation of some kind of resolution, moral or personal at the end of the story that is consistent with the things we learn about the character along the way.
We are invited to empathize with the characters and when that’s successful we experience their joy and pain vicariously and possibly learn the same lessons they do. In effect, it creates a sense of community with the characters through empathy and personal revelation.
In a story we expect to see things both familiar and new, to be surprised but gladdened by the experience.
When a well told story is done the actions and the characters are stilled, but the reader’s mind is not.
The peculiar details and turns of the journey is what make the end so satisfying. We can judge by the end either that it was a satisfying trip with a well-earned arrival or feel cheated of our time through a casual, indifferent and inattentive guide.
We expect a story to make some things clear, to create a satisfying definition of the nature of that experience on an emotional level as well as logical.
A story will present questions that provide a mystery piquing curiosity in the audience. There is an implicit pact that answers will be forthcoming, or the audience could lose faith in the storyteller. But not all answers need be revealed. The feeling of mystery and wonder can remain and still leave the audience feeling satisfied.
Details are an important part of story. I could tell you that I went to New York, visited the Statue of Liberty and attended a Broadway show and leave it at that.
But questions beg: what play, what did it feel like to stand at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, or climb to the top and look out from the torch across Manhattan? Was the sky clear, was Broadway crowded, noisy, electric? Details are what draw us further into a story, loosens the bond between the present we live in and our imagination. But detail should be controlled so that there’s room for the imagination to complete the vision and providing the audience with some ownership of the experience.
The storyteller has a right to dole out the story according to his own way. Action comes fast and slow, details thick and thin, characters serious and madcap. Part of a good story is recognizing the storyteller behind the story
Making connections is part of storytelling. Finding relationships between events, characters, and places is a satisfying puzzle that offers the audience the opportunity to actively participate in the revelations that the story presents
When you’re looking for a story it may seem like there are none to be found for miles. We can’t see them, though they’re right in front of us. This is often because culturally we’re so immersed in storytelling, as fish are to water, that we can’t see the stories around us for their common, everyday familiarity. Look close at the familiar and discover the remarkable.
Stories are everywhere. But you can’t pick an engaging story like a flower in the garden. A good story, one that attracts and keeps listeners, has to be built, constructed. You have to present familiar ideas and characters but at the same time provide depth and complexity to retain engagement. The needs and motivations of your characters have to feel real and present in order for your audience to commit to the path of the story and follow it to its end. Crafting a story is work!
Look for yourself
Being able to write a good story is an enormous task full of trial and error and I would recommend that you do a lot of reading on your own for a better understanding. I can’t provide a thorough review of all the steps and variations on writing stories. While I was researching this episode I came a across several blogs with interesting takes on the mechanics and mystery of storytelling with just that one word search.
An online search like this can open your eyes to many interesting books about writing. My personal favorite is Steven King’s book, On Writing. Very practical, straightforward and short, but not light on valuable insight. Perfect if you’re just stretching your legs in this space.
My own experience
I don’t want to leave you thinking I’m passing the buck on the how to of the storytelling process, let me offer some personal insight based on my own experience producing a short film a few years ago.
In 2008 I shot interview and B-roll for a film about 3 professional potters living in New England, which became Handmade in America. My original goal was to examine the lives and work of three craftswomen, at different stages in their lives and careers. Despite their differences, all three were devoted to the practice of creating unique, handmade items used both for decoration and everyday utility. In addition I wanted to contrast their lives and work against our current culture of industrialized mass consumption. In a nutshell I wanted to present the value of things made by hand against the indifference most people feel about inexpensive manufactured products.
Specifically, how practical is it to make a living producing one of a kind objects in a society where low cost, mass produced consumer items nurture a throwaway culture, and value is defined by how recently an item was purchased.
I thought I had a David and Goliath story, but I kept coming up with gaps in the details. I couldn’t find a way to represent the identity of mass production in relation to handmade pottery. I was surprised to find that there are no longer any major manufacturers in the United States of dinnerware or other ceramic utility items, short of toilets and sinks. Also, I discovered my three subjects were successfully independent and self-supporting. Where was the tension, the drama, in that?
Finally I discovered that the story of their success came from the communities they created and were connected to. Their businesses were successful because they provided products and services to a loose community of patrons that extended far beyond the boundaries of their local town.
Once that become the focus of my story I was able to talk to people about the impact each artist had on their lives and how they in turn provided support, both material and emotional, to the potters.
Essentially I surprised myself by discarding my main premise, maybe keeping a small part of it, while focusing on drama that was more authentic and gripping than anything I could create. That doesn’t always happen, but you should be open to the way a story can change direction and push you out of the driver’s seat.
Let me finish this episode by emphasizing a few points. It’s very important to create an emotional connection between the viewer and the story. Provide a path of discovery for the viewer that feels immediate and personal. Include details, which adds richness, and depth that fit naturally into the story, growing more vivid and specific as the story develops. Don’t hide the flaws of your characters for fear they will confuse the viewer. Every mistake and misstep can engender empathy and identification among your audience. As much as possible, let your subjects speak for themselves and allow them to temper each other, independent of direct intervention on your part through exposition or clumsy narrative.
The best stories are the ones that write themselves.
You’ve been listening to the Video StudentGuy show. I’m Paul, thanks for tuning in.
This is the second episode in a series on interviewing skills that I’m posting once a month through 2013. The subject of the next show will be Preproduction, the planning process; all the details you need to consider in order to streamline your interview process.
Links and show notes are on the blog at videostudentguy dot com and you can send me an email at videostudentguy at gmail dot com.
I’ll talk to you later,