Feb 25, 2015

On story structure

I was thinking this week about story structure. There is a rhythm to news stories, and when you produce them every day it becomes mechanical. Clunk, clunk, clunk.

So you have to force yourself to think about things like story structure sometimes, especially for an exceptional story.

Here's one. It is a story about an old man, lost in a snowstorm, who abandons hope and prepares himself to die. He is rescued at the last moment by an ex-politician who mistook him for a seal, then carries him to safety.

There are a few different ways that you could structure that story for broadcast. Somehow, you have to bring out that marvellous moment when we realize: that's not a seal, that's a man.

This lesson from This American Life's Ira Glass was in my mind. Glass is a master storyteller, and he makes a case for the power of anecdote. There's a great force behind the question, "what happened next?"

You want to present a piece of bait, Glass says. Constantly be raising questions and answering them. What is that dark shape lying on the ground?

"You can feel through its form, that when you have one thing leading to the next, to the next," Glass says. "You can feel inherently, that you're on a train that has a destination, and that he's going to find something."

I say, we have to begin with Charlie Parker, the former MLA with the seal question. In news we usually start with the most important information, but you can't have a big reveal if you give it all away at the top. It's rather unusual to find that the main character of your story is, himself, the big reveal, but this is why it's good to think about story structure sometimes.

Here are a few more thoughts on story structure:

Anyone who writes (particularly for broadcast) should listen to Ira Glass on storytelling.

Totally worth dissecting the essays of Joan Didion. In Blue Nights she describes writing in a way that sounds more like musical composition - putting down marks on the paper to determine the rhythm of the words. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live," she wrote in The White Album. "We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely... by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the 'ideas' with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria — which is our actual experience.”

From the Nieman Foundation for journalism: "Stories give shape to experience."

Kurt Vonnegut gives an amusing talk on story structure.

No comments:

Post a Comment