Over the past few weeks, Bob Dotson has been posting bits of advice in the Storyteller’s Facebook group. Here they are for posterity:
How do you go about finding a good story? Be curious about seemingly ordinary lives. Don’t pass them by. They are folks nobody bothers to talk with in depth, the ones who lead lives with extraordinary passion that inspire the novels that get made into movies, that actors star in, so the media can interview them, about the people they portray. Give ordinary people the same investigative scrutiny as you would the mayor or city council. You’ll be surprised what you uncover
You aren’t ready to tell a story until you can state in one sentence what you want the audience to learn.
Paint-by-numbers storytelling kills communication. It either puts people to sleep or sends them clicking somewhere else. Listeners want something from your writing—understanding and insight. Look for ways to help them feel something about the story and its subjects. If feeling is present, the story will be memorable. It sticks in the mind.
Craft your story in such a way so as not to insult the intelligence of people who know your subject, but—at the same time—try to make what you have to say fascinating for everyone else. Some will watch because they like your pictures; others because they are interested in the subject. Whatever. Highlight the universal elements—love and hate; happiness and sadness—emotions that interest the broadest group of viewers.
Interesting characters help sell stories. Look for articulate people who will intrigue your audience. Viewers relate to ordinary people who can help us understand issues and events. The best characters pull the viewer into the story, like the wrinkles on this woman’s face. Photographer Nikki Krecicki shot this arresting image.
Too many words can stuff a visual story like an overflowing closet. Nothing stands out. Write like a poet, not with flowery words, but with vivid images that help the viewer remember what you have to say. Think of your story as if it were that closet. Would you pack it full of assorted hangers or fill it with three or four beautiful outfits that will stand out?
Writing—good writing—lasts. One of the most powerful lines ever scribbled is as old as the Bible. “Jesus wept.” Subject. Verb. Not, “Jesus, a carpenter from Nazareth, age 30, was executed in the pre-dawn darkness . . .” Just, “Jesus wept.” Tight writing like that is essential for the visual world which needs sentences strong enough to push the story along, but short enough to leave plenty of room for natural sound and pictures. Happy Easter, everyone. Peace.
The best storytelling is filled with details most people don’t see. If you go into a kitchen and notice a bushel of green apples covered with dust, don’t just shoot a wide shot of the room with your Smartphone. Focus on the dusty apples. That image tells the viewers a lot more. Think of it as writing to the corners of the picture. Open your eyes and ears—all your senses. Look for things the audience cannot see or hear for themselves. Don’t waste time pointing out the obvious. Tell viewers what they might have missed even standing next to you.
During my long career, I have worked hard not to become a dinosaur. I learned to shoot and edit video, blog, vlog, tweet, pin and post. All day. Every day. Just another challenge in a job that is endlessly fascinating. What have I done? I’ve been an investigative reporter, covered politics and breaking news. Shot documentaries. Ducked bullets reporting wars. Spent months trying to solve murders. Been to more natural disasters than Mother Nature. I mastered the timeless techniques of telling visual stories. They haven’t changed since the first reporters saw someone take on a dinosaur. Those ancient storytellers scrambled back to their caves, painted pictures on the walls and said, “Wow, you should have seen the size of that sucker!” Everyone had access to the same information. The best storyteller had a packed cave.
I joined NBC News back when the earth was cooling. All those cutting-edge gizmos we had when I started are now in a museum. Typewriters. Film cameras. Hot splicers. Yes, we have to master ever-changing technology. Yes, we have to tell our tales under ever-tightening deadlines. But more importantly, we must master the classic techniques of telling better stories. The basic devices remain: reporting and storytelling . They are two sides of the same coin. Reporting is what you do to get a great story, but stories are remembered only if you tell them well. Reporters learn to gather facts. Storytellers weave those facts into a fabric that covers the subject while enticing us to know more. The best reporters and storytellers do both.
At the first station where I worked, we all carried cameras. Even the anchor people and news director were expected to shoot and edit stories. Like skinny ties, everything comes back into fashion. We learned how to manage our time. Today, when I’m working on a story, I approach the assignment like an artist painting with oils. If I’m covering spot news, I “paint” with watercolors, splashing three or four vibrant scenes that will engage an audience. You will run out of time if you use long-form tools on a quick turnaround story.
Here’s a little mind game to help you write faster and more efficiently. Ask yourself, “If I had to finish right now, what would be my opening line? My closing sentence?” If you keep the end of your story clearly in sight, you can also construct a path that will take your audience there. You won’t waste time.
There’s a big difference between a reporter and a storyteller. I start every story assuming that nobody cares about anything I’m going to tell. That forces me to find the universal themes that will interest the greatest number of people. Everybody likes to laugh, but the best comedians can make a four-year-old giggle and an eighty-year-old, too.
The best stories follow a simple outline:
HEY: (WHACK!) Get their attention. Murder mysteries, for example, begin with a dead body.
YOU: This story may be about a train derailment in India, but this is how it connects to you.
SEE: Here are the details I’ve found no one else has or if you’ve heard them before, I’m going to tell them so engagingly, you’ll want to hear them again.
SO: This is why you should care. When I’m dealing with a complicated story, filled with many choices, I ask myself, “Where’s my HEY? How can I connect my viewers to the YOU? Has SEE covered the important points? SO why is this story important to my viewers’ lives?” “Hey, You, See, So.”