What makes a story great? What makes it memorable? At the NewsLab
conference "Reinventing TV News," we asked those questions
of master storytellers--people who tell stories in different ways
and in different media. What was striking was how much they agreed
on the essential elements of superb storytelling.
A great story, they said, is not predictable although its central
truth is often familiar. A great story surprises. It teaches. It
hooks the audience, sometimes with an image or a metaphor. It connects.
A great television news story can do all this, too, but often TV
news falls short. Consider how you might apply some of these essential
elements in your next story or newscast.
||John Larson, Dateline NBC: At
Dateline we call it a reveal, but on a more elemental level
it's the ability to surprise people, and to surprise them in
a meaningful way. Not just shock them, or stun them, but allow
the energy of surprise to bring along with it elements of truth….One
thing I notice about really good stories is they lead you to
the truth. They don't tell you the truth. They bring you up
to the point where you can appreciate the truth, and then they
release it. And it runs out into the field all by itself and
people listening to it, hear it and sense it and own it. Whereas,
reports do just the opposite. They lead with the truth. And
frequently a reader or a listener isn't in a position to care
much about that truth.
||Doug Marlette, Newsday: The problems that
you have in news is the problem that we have in political cartoons
-- why are so many cartoons boring? Why do they lose you? Why
are you never surprised? [It's because the writer is] telling
not showing, lecturing, didacticism, being "on the nose,"
as we say in theater…"On the nose" is when you
tell what people already know. And it's guaranteed boredom.
This happens a lot in TV news, I've noticed, if you're telling
them what they're seeing….One of the things you have to
do in musicals is if you have somebody in a situation and then
you say it again in a song, they're just, people are zzzzzzz.
What you want to do is engage the imagination. You want to get
people involved, to enter that world.
||Candy Altman, Hearst Argyle Broadcasting:
The shared element here though, what you're saying about musicals
is they are transporting you somewhere, taking you someplace
that you can't go yourself. Letting you in to someone's character.
Letting you into a private moment, to a poignant event, somewhere
that you can't travel on your own. I think when we do it well,
that's what television can do best, is take viewers on a journey.
And that's what a good play does, that's what a great movie
does, that's what a great book does. It just takes you.
||Tom Rosenstiel, Project for Excellence in Journalism:
How many times have you read stories or watched stories on TV
where the reporter is pushing some emotion or some prose and
you're thinking, "There's nothing here." And you start
skimming down to get to a fact because there's no information
there and there's no compelling character. It's reaching for
devices, emotion, a phony character they don't really care about…And
the trick is how do you make these characters real and meaningful.
It's detail and things like that, but when you're dealing with
news it's got to be information that we need to know, that we
want to know.
||John Larson, Dateline NBC: When you get to
the facts, or you get to the real information, one thing I always
look for is, when we get there, how much do I appreciate it?
If it's a story about a bureaucracy or an entanglement or a
bill that's stuck in committee forever, when you finally learn
that, how much does that mean to me? And usually, that's my
own judge of whether a story has been told well or not…You
can't bury your information too far down, but you have to be
sure that whoever is reading it will appreciate it when it arrives.
||David Turecamo, ABC News Nightline: The stories
that I find myself drawn to recently are Wall Street and the
fire arms industry, and the thing that fascinates me about both
of them is just, "Wow, these are the people who are doing
all this sh**." It's like, whoa, how do you talk about
guns? And how do you feel about what you're doing? And let me
see a factory and who are the people that work in these places?
Wow! They have soda machines! They actually drink coffee and
take breaks and… I found myself when I first went to Colt
shooting the lunchroom because it just seemed--here I come from
this world of just reading about the fire arms industry and
what demons these people are and I enter and I realize, "They
eat lunch" you know.
||John Larson, Dateline NBC: You know we really
do take people into these foreign worlds. And we really do think
that all we have to do is bring them to a new world and their
curiosity will draw them into it. What I've found is, that's
not true. Completely foreign worlds people avoid. But it's the
things that they really recognize inside those worlds that draw
them into it. It's the fact that they're reading their newspaper
on their break, drinking Pepsi. Because then you realize…
these are people just like me making these guns, and then all
of a sudden the world becomes accessible… So, it's sort
of like the commonalities. On a cellular level, we like get
it. You know. That's what draws us, makes us curious about things
we don't really know yet. And we learn and participate.
||George Teren, singer/songwriter: I had a
song out about a year ago that was a hit for Billy Ray Cyrus,
a country artist, and it was called "Busy Man," and
it was similar in theme to the Harry Chapin song "The Cat's
in the Cradle" and it was just about the conflict a guy
goes through balancing home and job and all of that. Billy Ray
told me that he never had a song where so many people came up
and talked to him about it and it was just because it was "relate-able."
And it was actually one of his biggest hits. I think that's
what's at the bottom of it all, just coming up with something
that is honest.
||Dan Rosenheim, KPIX-TV: The first word that
came to my mind when I thought about good stories was page-turner.
I think that's the idea that everyone is expressing in wanting
to know what's coming next and not knowing what's coming next;
the element of surprise and uncertainty. But that said, I think
its worth noting that there is also joy in familiarity. We have
instant replays. How many times have people of a certain generation
seen Lee Harvey Oswald get shot, yet we look again and again
and again? And there are books that you go to -- I mean, there
was a period in my life where I read mystery stories, which
is the quintessential book that you wouldn't read if you knew
what the end was, but I'd go back to the same Dorothy L. Sayer
story…you know three or 4 or 5 times because I loved the
stories. They produced emotions in me, whether it was the characters
or the writing or the cadence or whatever, they made me feel
good, even though I knew who did it at the end.
||George Teren, singer/songwriter: There's
two different kinds of hooks. One is a melodic hook…something
that is so catchy, it's that little melodic phrase that drives
you crazy so that you can't get it out of your head. As for
a lyrical hook…it's repetition. It's taking one phrase
and illustrating it in several different ways… Having
some sort of twist. Stating one thing and then somewhere later
twisting the whole thing with the same phrase. It's the identifying
moment in the song.
||Robert Krulwich, ABC News: You don't want
a song that…doesn't have gravity, but you also want a
song that sticks in your head. Well, news reporters more than
anything in the world want something to stick in your head.
The really good ones, reporters, figure out how to distill the
set of images that they have so that one or two of them hit
very very strongly and last…Or if you're not doing a visual
story, I do a lot of abstract stories, you have to find a metaphor
that people will remember. It's like a hook in the sense of
a hook where you hang your coat… I need to have the hook,
I have to find the hook that people will remember, otherwise
it goes right through. I find that thinking musically, thinking
with the strategy of a songwriter.
||Doug Marlette, Newsday: What I was interested
in political cartoons were those kinds of cartoons, the ones
that are up from the depths, that are these powerful metaphors
and images that stay with you, that you can't forget. And then
I started realizing over the years, it's the same thing with
novels. What's the difference with a show that you go to see
and have forgotten by the time you go to hail a cab and one
that gets inside you, in your bloodstream? And it has something
to do with these hooks, the metaphors, these images that are
powerful in meaning and that is way deep and different from
the intellectual constructs… What's the difference between
the million mystery novels that you've read -- and I love mystery
novels, but it's kind of formulaic -- and it's the same thing
with cartoons -- there are formulas. But the things that transcend
that and hit on something more basic, that's the thing you remember.
||Boyd Huppert, KARE-TV: Sometimes the greatest
hooks are in the minor details. I heard about the immigration
officials' interview with Elian's father. The father knew his
shoe size. That just blew me away. I used it in the story I
did last night and when I got home that's the first thing my
wife said. She said "I saw your story and you put a whole
new light on that man because he knew his son's shoe size."
It was interesting because it connected with me and it connected
with my wife and I know it connected with a lot of other people.
||Namu Lwanga, storyteller: I like the idea…that
you really dwell more on not just the facts, the facts, the
facts, but the people -- humanizing the people, because that's
what storytelling is about. Bringing to life something that
was inanimate. For example I've been watching the Elian Gonzalez
case, and I kept sitting there going "Somebody's going
to do something different." And from a storyteller's perspective,
I was just looking at the two faces of the father and the son
being so similar. And the story is right there. It's about the
creases in the old man's face and the creases in the brows of
the little boy's face. The culture shock, just the culture shock
-- I'm from Uganda, so I know -- just the culture shock of these
two people, one very very young face and one really older face
tells everything. It tells the past, the present, the future.
That's where I would begin. Then, with these two faces, right
in the middle is the missing face of the mother. And those three,
I would look at it like a fabric. Now, this fabric is being
torn apart. Now within this tearing fabric you get a sea of
characters who just come in and from a storyteller's perspective
that's where I would begin the story.
||Kimberly Mercado, Oxygen Media: You know,
I'm sitting in the movies and if I can relate to one character
in that movie, then I'm going to totally get into it. But, if
not, I'll just sort of fade away. It'll still be an okay story
but I won't necessarily remember it for a long time. So, I always
[look for] things like the everyday girl or the everyday person,
the everyday elements. Those are the ones that at least in my
project, I find have been very successful. And the thing is,
our stories are coming from our community, so they ARE everyday
experiences, so I've found that that to me is very very important.
||Robert Krulwich, ABC News: Martin Scorsese
said this once, that it's sort of like arranging flowers. You
know the flowers but these flowers in this arrangement seem
to tell you, speak to you what the arrangement is. You have
to listen very very closely until it just seems right. And still,
it's a guess...Which is what a reporter does, you walk into
a situation and you try to find the structure in it that will
reveal itself to you. But…the structure that reveals itself
to you whispers, and not always very clearly. You have to listen
as hard as you can. And the frightening part of doing this for
a living is that sometimes you can't hear it. And you get very
nervous. Oh my god, I've spent all this money, and I've been
in situations where I've had producers and all come to a place
and set up the lights and they've done their jobs and nothing
is happening. And then all eyes turn to you. What the f**k are
you doing?…It puts them in danger. It's an actually palpable
danger, the cameraman, the producer, the associate producer,
the young people who are thrown into a situation which is novel
and the novelness is deeply insecure. I've had camera crews
walk away from me and go back to the building instead of continue
the shoot because of something that I did. And you have to believe
that it will come out all right. And you have to be prepared
for it not to. Hold your ground.