Sunday, August 26, 2007

How to tell a story

I tend to over-think issues. Then, I break them down and find the simplest way to tell others. Consequently, what I'm about to suggest may seem overly simple. Anyone can make it more complex if they wish, but the end result is the same.

PJs are story tellers. We tell other people's true stories. Some are happy. Some are sad. The stories need to be told. It's our job to find the stories and tell them to others. This is done with text, images, audio and video. It's best to select the right apparatus for the story, but the method is minor compared to the actual story. A good story can be told with any of these four tools.

"Once upon a time..."
I use a simple starting device to focus a story and keep it on track. I use four words that are familiar to most people over the age of three. Each story starts with, "Once upon a time..."

Each story also concludes with two words: "The end." It's not the end of the world. It's the end of the story. This is when it's time for the reader to react. The reaction might be to go to sleep or to pick up the phone and call a politician. Either way, deadline is the end for the PJ.

Once we have the beginning and the end handled, the center is the juicy story we want to tell. :-)

If I'm writing, I actually write these words before I write the rest of the story. When the story is complete, I delete these words. The same tool works to focus a picture story, video or audio piece.

The best image, clip or sound should be "Once-upon-a-time" (lede) and the second best image should be "The end" (kicker). At the least, the lede image should set the scene and the kicker should conclude the story.

"Once upon a time" and "The end" are powerful words because it means the reporter must tell a succinct story between these words. It also requires the reporter to quickly answer who, what, when, where, how and why. If done well, the (missing) first four words grab the reader, pull them into the story, move them along and deliver them to the end before they realized they were gone.

It works with this story about Mongolian contortionists by Chien-Min Chung:
Once upon a time, there was a girl (who) in Mongolia (where). She dreamed of being a contortionist (what). If she became a professional contortionist, she could help feed her family (why). So, she went to a special school (how). It was physically and mentally challenging. She cried, but was determined (emotional elements - climax). Unfortunately, her family ran out of money (revelation). So, she left the school and returned home to her family's farm (low point). She continues (when = now) to practice at the farm. She still plans to become a professional contortionist. The End.

We just answered all our questions with an interesting story. Finding images, audio and/or quotes to match the story requires the PJ's talent.

Where these words become magical is on difficult stories:
Once upon a time there was global warming (what). It affected everyone (who) in the world (where). It changed weather patterns (how). Global warming is caused when too many greenhouse gasses are in the air (why). It continues (when) to be a problem. The End.

OK, that's the fast version. I'd add an image or two about who's trying to stop it and what/how they're doing. Additionally, there must be some major emotional images of hardship to pull off this story. For this type of story, the people presenting the facts must be authorities.

In all cases, the actions of the people involved move the story along. There's room for reflective moments, but these must create powerful imagery to avoid stalling the whole story.

Each story requires the same questions to be answered. They all must begin and end as quickly as possible to keep the reader. Even the quotes within these stories must lead the reader/viewer to the final conclusion:   The End.

Now we know how these stories work. However, we don't know where they come from. It's equally simple:   Ask people to tell their stories.

Finding stories
Everyone has a story. Some are very interesting. Some aren't. The trick is to find the good ones to present to other people.

Today, PJs could be in any town, walk up to the first person they meet and ask them to tell a story. Say, "I'll start it for you. Once upon a time..." and see what they say. I'd bet it's something interesting.

People are helpful and understand good stories when they hear them. Sometimes, they might refer PJs to someone else with a better story. Often, PJs can find a great story within an hour if they try. Then, it becomes a matter of access and timing. ;-)

Enough for now,

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