A story can mean many things. We communicate in stories. Lists become narratives, unconnected thoughts are threaded together to form coherent monologues, we make sense of fiscal wrong doings, politicking, and our daily lives by story after story. We are nothing, if not storytelling machines.
We’ve told stories marking walls, placing letters and words against each other, placing objects in within co-ordinates of space and time, by the power of oratory, and within the plastic arts figuring out how to transform our ideas onto a medium, which does not compare literally to the spoken word.
How do you express unyielding love, avarice, or disappointment in a video sentence, which does not include people expressing these explicitly? How do you express this as a sentence?
A guide to stories focuses briefly today on video. How to you produce a good story, particularly in docs that involve several characters.
- Find an idea. Research whether that idea has surfaced before. If it hasn't proceed to 5. if it has continue to 2.
- Compare and contrast your idea with the others you’ve found. Perform a literature/video review. How is yours any different and what makes it unique? In other words perform a critique* of the film and make an attempt to understand its target audience.
- Map out your idea from your findings and show it to friends, colleagues or a supervisor. Note of caution, beware of friends who are likely to praise rather than critique your endeavours.
- Ask yourself whether the idea as it stands is doable with the resources in time and effort you can make available.
- An idea is just that but in looking at points two and three those involved transformative elements of the idea into a video. If the idea is the pitch, your treatment is how it will work. Ask yourself is the story weighted by an issue or characters driving story? Write this out. The process of writing — the mental to the physical — has a transformative effect to creativity.
- Whatever the issue we tell stories by trying to get empathy and how the issue affects people therefore you need characters. Everyone is a character but not everyone evokes character traits an audience finds compelling. So the search becomes finding people and discarding people to help you tell the story. If this doesn't work go back to one.
- Visualisation helps you map out the story. That requires understanding what you characters are likely to say. This, where necessary, therefore involves speaking to them beforehand asking the type of questions that you would ask in their presence. This exercise is usually an empirical one, asking open-ended questions that may either reinforce or in many occasions add new knowledge that might debunk the perception of your idea. If the idea still works proceed, if it doesn't go back to point five to re-pitch the story. Furthermore you want to get an idea of what your interviewees look like and the ecology of their surroundings — where you intend to shoot your film.
- The surroundings will help to shape composition and mis en scene. Compare what you're hearing or see point number two. What your subjects look like will have an impact on the viewer. Our judgements are framed by what we see. It's not about beauty per se. It's not about being unattractive. It's about whether the person you're speaking to, for want of a better word has a ‘character face’, in the same way in radio and podcast some people have a ‘character voice’.
- One of the BBC’s approaches is to produce copious notes of your interviews and to transcribe these. The idea to become familiar with what you interviewees are saying. This should help you construct, and, or otherwise reframe your story.
- Based on your research that includes your interviewees you should be able to attempt what's commonly referred to as a pre-shoot script. It's a visual literary map about the story and how its form allows you to play with the plot. And that word plot applies to fictional as well as the factual films. This is one of the most testing processes as you are now entering the psychology off story formation and reception. This involves the film styling which I'll come back to you in greater detail in another post. There’s a quick cheat called the Four Ms that move on your story. They exist in either:Camera, in-camera, narrative, transitions (physical and literary).
- A-B-C-D-E-F vs E-A-B-C-D-F vs A-C-B-D-F These three different permutations reveal different ways of structuring the film and are by no means exhaustive of structure. There is the sequential approach expressed in time and your cognitive assessment about how one event follows another chronologically. There is the initiating incident approach. This often expresses the event approaching a denouement or event that might excite the audience. Then there's the parallel sequencing story, a bit like a page turner in a book with different but related stories in alternating chapters. Any one of these could work as a plot structure. But some stories are better suited to particular plot constructions. How do you know which one works? Go to number three.
- Produce a rough cut of your story. Go to number three and two. Embrace critiquing as a way to improve your story rather than how it might discredit it. This requires humility and patience. If you audience doesn't understand it, invariably it's not because they’re thick. The story may require added attention.
- Proceed to produce the film. Go to number three and two. Proceed to 14 when you're satisfied and your audience is. This won’t necessary be unanimous.
- Leave the story for a while to entertain reflective thinking. More often than not you'll find a better way of expressing an idea when you've had some distance from it and have been able to reflect.
- Postproduction. This involves styling to achieve both technical and creative manifestations of the end product. That's not to say you haven't been doing this all along. These are the touches that are the finishing details.
- Enjoy your film.
*Critique involves several parameters. It’s a process that looks for patterns across the canvas of the film, from the look and feel, to the duration of cuts ( see cinemetrics) to aesthetics, and so on. In a future post I’ll map out some of the more common features in film critiquing.