The Secret To Great Storytelling

Posted June 13, 2019
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There was a time,not so long ago, when it really did not make much difference what kind of script you created for non-fiction or news.

Most of it was cookie cutter and painfully boring. To this day, that trend continues. Check out any local TV news (or network for that matter) and all the stories and all the pieces are pretty much the same.  NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN - the packages are all more or less interchangeable.  

There's a formula to writing these things and they are death.

I taught at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism for 8 years until I got thrown out. I got thrown out for a lot of reasons, but the primary one was that I used to tell my students that they should ignore 90% of what they were being taught.  

I thought 90% was being kind.  Probalby it was closer to 95%.  The vast majority of the instruction on the broadcast side was done by people who had previously worked at places like CBS News. They used to drone on in their classes about how 'When I worked with Dan" (that would be Dan Rather).... blah blah blah.

Absolutely worthless to anyone trying to break into the digital news world.

The biggest offender, in my mind, was the course called Writing For Broadcast.

This was where they taught impressionable young minds to craft stupid puns for local news or tedious and predictable phrases that no normal person would ever utter in a conversation with anyone.

What makes a compelling story?

What makes a story that resonates with the viewer?

The secret to that is in your DNA. Tap into that basic human instinct, the thing that has driven great storytelling since the time of Homer, and you will grab your viewer and they will never let go.

And what is that secret?

I am going to tell you....

For nearly 2 million years, before there was an Internet, before there was TV, before there were vinyl records, before there was radio.... (yes, such a time existed), before there was agricuture (which is only about 12,000 years old)... for the time that represents about 98% of our time on earth as a species.... we were hunters and gatherers.

That's right.

Before there was McDonald's or supermarkets or even fields of grain, we spent pretty much all of our time wandering around looking for something to eat. Hunting and gathering.

Those who were good at it survived to reproduce. Those who were not so good at it, had their genes eliminated from the gene pool.  

So we are genetically wired to hunt and gather. 

This is who we are.

Good hunters (before the days of the 2nd Amendment) were people who were very good at finding and putting together little clues.  Animal footprints, grass bent a certain way, animal droppings, sounds of birds.  We are wired to seek out clues and use them to put together a picture with a pay off.

That is who we are.

This is why you see so many cop shows and detective shows and murder mysteries. A great murder mystery unravels the crime for the audience slowly, dropping clue after clue. 

The viewer gathers them up like so much animal spoor in the savanah and tries to put the big story together - it was Colonel Mustard in the Library with the candlestick.

There is great satisfaction in this.  

It is not just limited to murders.  Look at House Hunters, HGTV's #1 show. It also works because it is based on gathering clues.  

They want a house that has a double garage... swimming pool, but this one is too close to the road. Which will they pick?

Once you start to see the world in this way, almost every successful TV series or movie fits the model.  The writer or producer drops a trail of breadcrumbs that the viewer picks up, one by one. You don't want to miss any. You pay rapt attention. You try and figure it out - put puzzle together.

There is a great deal of pleasure in this.

So when you are writing your own scripts, tap into the DNA that we all have and that works so well

Don't just ram factoids down the throat of the viewer.

Drop crumbs.

Little clues along the way.

It's a lot better than writing puns. 


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