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Regina McCombs Faculty for Multimedia and Mobile, The Poynter Institute Additional material provided by Stanley Heist, Kathy Kieliszewski, Ken Kobré, Josh Meltzer, David Weintraub, and Suzanne White
This chapter is about the many ways to tell a story and serves as an introduction to videojournalism as it relates to nonfiction storytelling. Videojournalism is not reality TV; it is not traditional front-page news articles. The secret to good videojournalism lies in finding and telling well-shaped, powerful stories in multimedia presentation. Most successful stories have a main character.
There are many ways to tell a story. You can do it chronologically—start at the beginning and end at the end. Or, you can disclose the most important piece of information first, and then reveal the rest of the story, bit by bit. You can tell the story through the eyes of your characters, or from the viewpoint of an outsider. As a videojournalist, you get to decide how you will tell your story—in a way that will compel your audience to stop, look, and listen.
NARRATIVE ARC You Tell Stories All the Time
You already know how to tell stories. Don't you do it all the time? When your car breaks down on the way to the hospital? Or your girlfriend or boyfriend leaves you? Or simply because your dog eats your homework? Then, quite naturally, you tell the tale to a friend.
How is your story different from the story in a novel or a movie? First and foremost, of course, your story is real. The events actually happened. They were not figments of your imagination. You did not invent the characters or the plot. Your story is nonfiction.
In this book, we will be dealing solely with true nonfiction stories—with events that actually happened in the past, are taking place right now, or might occur in the future. Herein we deal exclusively with actual events that happen to real people—not to actors, volunteers, or contestants. Again, this book deals only with reality.
Reality TV Versus Real Stories
TV shows like Big Brother or Survivors are loosely referred to as "reality shows." But is reality TV real? Not quite. Reality TV shows such as The Apprentice, Fear Factor, and The Amazing Race are highly orchestrated and often partially fictionalized pieces of entertainment. They would not occur without a producer, multiple camera crews, willing participants, and bundles of money. These shows are contrived contests, not real stories. They would never have taken place without the creative energy of a writer, a producer, and a director. The outcome of such shows may be unknown at the beginning. But the setup is cleverly engineered to produce an almost fictional effect.
Real stories, on the other hand—those you see on television news programs such as 60 Minutes or on the Web at KobreGuide.com—reveal actual people living through the thrills and pitfalls of unadulterated events in their lives without the interference of a script doctor.
STORYTELLING OR NEWS REPORT
So how are stories you tell your friend different from front-page articles published in the newspaper or news segments broadcast on the six o'clock news with an anchor providing the lead-in?
Traditional news stories required starting with the most important fact—a form of news reporting called the inverted pyramid.
News reports sound like this:
A fire burned 30 homes in San Bruno today.
The San Francisco Giants won the World Series yesterday.
Sometimes news reports are just headlines.
Sometimes they have more supporting facts. These reports relate what happened today but don't engage viewers with a character or plot.
Reports rarely introduce you to a subject, follow the subject from one state of emotion to another, see the challenge the person is facing, or reveal how the person resolves the problem. News articles and typical television reports are content to inform viewers. Storytelling, however, not only informs viewers but engages them emotionally.
Let's go back to your original story about the calamity of getting to the hospital despite your malfunctioning car, tragically breaking up with your sweetheart, or losing your homework to your rambunctious dog.
When you tell your interesting story, why doesn't your tale sound like a plain newspaper article or even a report on the evening news? It's because you are telling your story in the form of a narrative, not simply reciting facts with the most important fact at the beginning.
And, of course, your particular story has a sympathetic character—you!
Your story evokes the problems you yourself faced with a car breakdown, a relationship breakup, or mangled homework. "Oh boy, my car broke down on the way to the hospital." You might begin by exposing the problem. Then you might go on to explain what you did about overcoming the problem—how you had to call AAA and get a ride to the hospital in a tow truck; how many phone calls, gifts, cards, and letters it took to make up with your boyfriend or girlfriend; or how reprinting the brilliant 200-page term paper your dog ate almost made you miss the deadline for turning it in.
Your tale features a sensitive character (you!) facing an obstacle to overcome. Your adventure has a story arc—a beginning, a middle, and an end. Along that arc, you interject drama, humor, or insight as you reveal how you overcame the obstacle and what finally happened. In sharing your tale, you are—in the classic sense—a storyteller.
The Rise and Fall of Freytag's Pyramid
The narrative is a classic storytelling form. Just like a movie, a novel, or even a story you share with your friends, the narrative contains a clear beginning, middle, and end. On this path lie an exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement, or resolution—an arc known historically as Freytag's Pyramid.
Exposition provides an introduction to the character(s), the conflict, and the basic setting.
Rising action reveals the complication in more detail.
The climax is the moment of greatest tension in a story, a turning point (for better or worse) in addressing the conflict or complication.
Falling action is what unravels after the climax. In some cases, this may involve continuing suspense, but the story is now heading toward its conclusion.
Finally, the dénouement is where complications are resolved and the story comes to an end.
Freytag's Pyramid, originally developed to analyze ancient Greek and Roman plays as well as those of Shakespeare, applies to documentary-style visual storytelling as well. You need to set up your story—characters, issues, location—in a way that allows events to unfold so that viewers learn more and more about the topic, the ways your characters are affected by it, how they develop a solution (or not), and finally, where they go from there. Just like the cowboy riding off in the sunset at the end of an old Western, at the end of your story, real characters go on with their lives.
NARRATIVE VERSUS NEWS STORY
An Idea Is Not a Story
You may have tons of keen ideas for stories. But don't confuse an idea with a story.
Steve Kelley and Maisie Crow of Maryland's Howard County Times, for example, had the idea to document the effects of an incurable genetic disorder whose symptoms include insatiable hunger, low IQ, and behavioral problems. Although the disease is unusual, merely documenting Prader-Willi syndrome would only have yielded, perhaps, a well-done piece for medical students. But such a piece would not have told a story.
Instead of doing a mere report, Kelley and Crow presented the relationship between a teenage boy with the unusual disorder and his father, the boy's caregiver. The effects of the disease are shown in the five-minute multimedia video "Hungry: Living with Prader-Willi Syndrome." The story reveals how father and son deal with the toll the syndrome takes on their relationship, and the strength they find to survive.
Your first goal, then, is to find the story in your bright idea: how to turn an idea—"Living with Prader-Willi Syndrome," for example—into a story. The subject is the disease. The story is the relationship between the dad and the son who is afflicted with the disease. Once you have found the right story, your next goal will be shooting and recording it, writing a narration or script, and assembling the pieces during the editing process. It is crucial to tell that story in a way that engages viewers emotionally.
Good Storyteller or Bore?
Let's face it. Some people are better narrators than others. Some start a story in the middle and have their audience nodding off within minutes. Others tell a story like it was a recitation of a list of facts. Yet others capture their audience from the opening words of "You won't believe this but when I ..." to the final words "and then I got out safely."
What makes one storyteller electric and another tedious?
And, by the same token, what makes a short video documentary story that grabs viewers by their eyeballs and doesn't let go until the final credits different from a dull documentary which inspires the viewer to click "next" after 10 seconds?
Good videojournalists do not just report facts. They employ classic storytelling techniques to present accounts about real people. They share their stories in the form of short documentaries, usually shown on the Internet, but also on television, sometimes even in theatres. Videojournalism applies the fictional storyteller's techniques of character development and story arc to relate real-life tales of happiness, achievement, struggle, success, failure, and woe.
The secret lies in finding and telling powerful stories.
Kingsley's Crossing: A Compelling Narrative
Photographer Olivier Jobard of Sipa Press and producers Brian Storm and Eric Maierson of MediaStorm tell the story of Kingsley, a poor young Cameroonian man who is driven to emigrate to Europe to find a better life. Why? Because Kingsley faces poverty and stagnation at home. He is poor and going nowhere. He feels he must emigrate, to go elsewhere, to seek an escape. The blazing complication confronting Kingsley is the fact that he must emigrate illegally. As detailed in the multimedia piece "Kingsley's Crossing," the young man faces one perilous hurdle after another.
Kingsley was a 23-year-old lifeguard from the Cameroon in West Africa. As a lifeguard, he earned just enough to pay for food and the rented two-room house he shared with his parents and seven siblings. In Europe—the new El Dorado—Kingsley knew that African immigrants could vastly increase their incomes while also providing for their families back home.
Photojournalist Olivier Jobard was vividly aware of the wave of African immigrants desperately seeking better lives and economic opportunities in Europe. To illustrate the conflicts facing these young people, Jobard decided to document one person making the treacherous, illegal journey from Africa to Europe. After paying the smugglers, Jobard and a friend who is a video-journalist made the crossing with Kingsley.
The multimedia presentation of "Kingsley's Crossing" on MediaStorm.org combines Olivier Jobard's still images with a videotaped interview of Kingsley. The face-to-face on-camera interview introduces Kingsley to viewers. With this effective device, people get to hear the young man's story in his own voice. They are therefore engaged emotionally as he describes his desperate journey in his own words.
SHAPING A STORY
This is your challenge: how to shape your story and design the story's structure. Sometimes—but rarely—you'll know how before you even record the story. Most times, however, the story structure develops while you're working in the field. Sometimes it doesn't even develop until editing begins.
Many storytellers think of structure as a three-act play.
Act 1. Introduce your characters. Let us meet them; give us a reason to care about them and introduce the key layers of conflict.
Act 2. Reveal the complication. This is usually the longest part of the story. The act reveals how the layered complications intensify—there's no easy fix for the conflict from Act 1—until the final showdown: the crisis.
Act 3. Resolve the conflict/crisis, and finish the story in a satisfying way. This act reveals the choices made in the crisis and how these choices are resolved.
Excerpted from Videojournalism by Kenneth Kobré Copyright © 2012 by ELSEVIER Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Focal Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted May 29, 2012
Well researched and produced. Very nice examples and information compiled from professionals in the field. The online references and videos help to introduce a person to seeing how well made videos and multimedia pieces can have impact.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.