Story Telling vs Story Structure

In factual programming there are a plethora of story telling techniques you can use, and I think it’s part of the fun of factual. You’ve a pallet of techniques that are more varied than you’ll find in drama - flashbacks, flash forwards, suspense, comedy, layering of music, non-diegetic sound, expressionistic use of effects, projections, CGI, wonderful character work and revelation. They are common in factual TV.

Story telling, the way you present the story elements, is something that most people have been exposed to their whole viewing lives, and it can be very intuitive. Story telling is inherent in all of us, in that we can recognise a story that works, like we can recognise a good tune or melody even if we think we are not musical. But as musical ability doesn’t come from listening to songs - otherwise we’d all be musical geniuses - so creating a great story doesn’t come from how we react to a story. It’s about having the talent to compose.

Unfortunately the reactive technique is very commonly used in TV. We watch a cut, or read a story, see how we respond to the change and then make more changes. It’s how many films are made. And everyone has probably had the experience of a commissioning editor having to see the fine cut before there are meaningful comments. It’s because they are waiting to have something to react to.

But story structure is a whole other thing. It means pre-mediated design, being able to find a function for every element of the story, and building a solid structure. You have to be able to step back from the film and become completely objective about how the various components work together, and not be caught up in the subjective experience.

It’s hard because the language of structure is not the same as the language of story. It is cold, analytical, and very precise. The analogy is how engineers talk of Newtons and mm in designing the foundations of a building, rather than the effect of colour and space. Storytelling can create an amazing experience when watching a story, but deeper meaning comes from structure. And then with that structure in place you are free to let your imagination run wild.