Coronavirus - Same Subject, Different stories
The coronavirus is in all our thoughts, and on a practical level, many of us are thinking how to tell its story - whether in a documentary, a news item or even in matters of public policy. At the same time, as programme-makers, we are looking for an original way to tell stories. Originality is important - it means your story stands out but also it demonstrates that you have something different to say; a film with an opinion, an argument, clearly and dramatically told.
What's the best way of creating an original story? Of course, the subject matter can be the thing that makes a work feel unique, and storytelling techniques can also feel original and compelling. But I'm going to focus on two different stories with very similar subject matter, to demonstrate how manipulating the underlying structure is absolutely essential to creating an original piece of work.
To make this clear, I've looked at two of the most re-watched films at the moment - the feature films Outbreak (the Dustin Hoffman star vehicle from the mid-90s) and the more recent Stephen Soderbergh ensemble piece Contagion. Both tackle the same problem of a viral epidemic, and both are great examples of you can approach the argument of a story in different ways. The ideas are relevant whether you are creating and shooting a piece from scratch, or using archive or material in the edit to create a programme.
Firstly, it's crucial to understand how conflict (which is the driving force of all stories) isn't defined by the subject matter. Instead, it comes from the nature of the argument you are making - the attitude to the material.
ARGUMENT and CONFLICT
It might seem slightly odd to talk about the argument of a film, perhaps thinking that it doesn't really apply to you if you are working outside of drama. Maybe the language you like to use is of 'telling a story', or 'laying out a story', or 'exploring a subject'. How can a programme about National Trust properties, or an observational documentary about a football team, or even the story of the early life of Bach be an argument? And some very successful programmes don't seem to have very much conflict at all.
Many programmes are deliberately closer to a tale. Smaller, not expansive but enjoyable and entertaining, while not making any substantial dramatic point. What I want to offer you, which I hope you find useful, are the structural ideas needed to construct a complete story. That is, a story in which you have taken a subject and explored it from every reasonable angle, from every legitimate point of view. The ideas I am outlining will let you have complete control of the kind of story you are telling. Nothing is left to chance. If you have the full set of tools to create a complete story, it's easy to adjust them for the type of programme you are working on.
In the case of Outbreak and Contagion, genre seems to be what the films have in common. But genre is a slippery concept. In the simplest terms, genre lets us know the kind of film we are making, where to find it on the Netflix, Amazon or iPlayer landing page. Type in "medical thriller", and you'd see both of these films (so far I've seen Outbreak on the US Netflix site if you want to take a look). Both films are medical, clearly, and thrillers as they are full of the genre beats, or cliche's you'd expect; the shocks, twists and turns, disorientation, things hidden and revealed, an evil bad guy and so on. (And from the promotional pics above, a sickly yellow-green grade also screams medical thriller).
But the genre isn't really a massive amount of use in helping author an original film. Genre provides the elements that stories have in common, not what makes them unique. While both films have the thriller feel, it does seem that Soderbergh's approach was more nuanced and cooler, with an intellectual doc-realist approach. But that doesn't really define its unique qualities, or the novel argument it's making. They are clearly very different films in more fundamental ways. That deeper feel relates to the argument they are making, and the structure they use to express it.
GENRE vs CONTEXT
Far more useful to the author is the concept of context. Objectively, any problem in our lives only crops up in two contexts - the physical or the mental realm. Think of how these contexts define a story - Situation comedies, Action thrillers, Psychological drama - it's the first half of the pair tells you where the context of the story is - where the argument of the story is going to be explored.
Look at the context, and you'll already begin to have a guide to its feel. Sprinkle the genre beats over your story after you've decided what the context of your film is.
To tell a well-argued story, you also have to have a clear perspective or point of view. I think we all understand how perspective can change meaning - one person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter. But this point is key in structuring a strong story. For clarity, I'm going to analyse just one critical perspective, the Overall Story. This is the storyline that in Western storytelling we'd call the Plot, or what we'd answer when we are asked what our story is about. It’s the most objective argument about what is going on for everybody.
ACTS - one last thing
As a final concept, we have acts. Everyone knows the term - the fundamental organising principle of a story. There are many definitions, but the most useful I've found comes from looking deeper into the context. Context is where the drama or conflict lies. Acts are simply a way of going deeper into a context so that you thoroughly explore your argument, doing so by moving from one Act to the next.
CONTEXT gives you a genre feel, and its the area in which you are making your argument.
PERSPECTIVE is where you are positioning the argument (objectively or subjectively).
You can break down CONTEXT further, and you get ACTS.
Move through the ACTS from a particular PERSPECTIVE, and you are on the way to building a meaningful story.
Back to the films.
CONTAGION - a situation thriller
The Overall Story context of this film is in the physical world, specifically the circumstances or Situation that everyone is caught up in. The Plot is making the argument that if the world finds itself in this Situation, with this particular problem, then this is how we might deal with it, and this is where that approach will lead. It’s making an argument about how the Situation of a growing epidemic affects everyone - the scientists, the policy makes, the father, the son, the journalist and so on. Everyone is coping with the circumstances of the virus.
To get to your Acts, subdivide Situation into four further categories. The story theory of Dramatica divides Situation into four subcategories - The Present, The Past, How Things are Changing, and The Future. Explore each of these, thoroughly and in order, and you have argued how to tackle a problematic situation.
It begins in the Present
We are thrown straight into the story of how things are now. Across the world, we see various people suffering from a mysterious horrific disease. Cases are mounting up, numbers are coming on. People are dying, the WHO, the multiple doctors, are trying to work out what the hell is going on. It is about the present nature of the problem that they are facing.
It then moves into exploring How Things are Changing
All the characters are dealing with how the impact of the virus is changing their world. Decisions have to be made, actions have to be taken based on these Changing Circumstances.
The next Act turns on The Future
The focus of the story is about predictions of deaths, a run on the banks, and so on. How long will it be before a vaccine is ready? How long is this going to go on for?
The final Act concerns The Past, getting things back to how they were as worldwide looting and anarchy begin to wear off. Mitch (the Matt Damon character) looks at pictures of his wife from the business trip that cost her her life. His daughter can finally go to the prom, and to the life she knew before. The context has moved into The Past.
In broad strokes, that is the Overall Story of Contagion, Act by Act. There are obviously a large number of scenes and characters in each of these acts, but the overall structure is one that feels complete. When everything is explored in the Present, the story neatly moves onto How Things Are Changing and so on. Miss one of these steps out and the story feels incomplete; return to a context after you have dealt with it, and the new information feels redundant. Looking at stories this way is a powerful organising principle.
OUTBREAK - an action thriller
This takes a different approach to the same subject. This has an Overall Story of Actions. The Plot argues that if this event takes place, then this is what everyone could do to deal with it and hopefully bring it to a resolution. It's action-packed - Hoffman is rushing around trying to save the world, others are trying to build a biological weapon, the army is busy closing down cities or planning to blow them sky-high. It feels like an action movie because that's the context of the Overall Story. Actions now subdivides into Acts that explore Learning, Understanding, Doing and Obtaining.
This is how they are laid out in Outbreak.
The first Act of the overall story concerns Learning. What are the stages of Learning about the problems caused by the virus? The team arrives in Africa and are continually asking questions, gathering information - when did the virus show itself, is it airborne?. The moment this Act ends is when they begin to understand what they are dealing with. In a sequence in the lab, they run tests and find that their nemesis replicates and kills in five hours. That moment feels like the end of the Act - the reason is that they have thoroughly dealt with Learning and are moving to Understanding.
This act is about Understanding
Everyone is involved in Understanding. The beginning of the Act was that moment when the team understand how the virus works, and it builds from there. The bad guys understand that the virus is the same one they have developing for biological warfare. What's it going to mean to them? The good guys now understand are what needs to be done. The classic phrase comes up "You mean……?". With much nodding, it's clear everyone now understands the extent of the problem.
Doing. Now everyone is working on what they need to do to prevent the disease from spreading. Families having to give themselves up to the military. The rogue general wants to destroy a town. Hoffman and his team are trying to track down the monkey that is the source of the infection, in order to make a vaccine. If they are not taking action, they are talking about taking action.
Obtaining. This is about obtaining a vaccine for the disease and ridding the earth of the disease. It's about saving the world.
CONTAGION vs OUTBREAK
I hope it's clear that the argument each of the films is making is quite different. They have a different argument about the consequences of a virus appearing, and that is fundamental to them feeling very different to each other. Please do try and catch them and see if that movement between acts, and the contexts they are working in, is now evident.
STRUCTURING A CORONAVIRUS DOCUMENTARY
Of course, these ideas apply just as well to factual stories as in drama. Both want to tell a story and have an argument to make. If, as an example, you are structuring your own documentary about the virus, these concepts should help you put together a story with a strong point of view. Look at all your material and think of the Overall Story.
Do you want to tell a story about how everyone is dealing with the circumstances that the virus has created in our world?
Or is it about what everyone has to do (their actions) from scientists to members of the public - to tackle the conflict that the virus has brought into the world?
Or you could move into the world of the mind.
How is the virus challenging how we all have to think about ourselves, our fixed attitudes about how we behave, who we are?
Or could it be about the nature of the relationships with others?
I picked up a copy of The New European newspaper the other day. There was a front-page headline of a Nick Cohen article, called "On The Psychology of Coronavirus". I haven't looked at in detail, but some of the words that jumped to me are "panic", "fear" and "loss of reason".
This language shows how he's contextualising the conflict around the mental state of Fixed Attitude (which is the mental equivalent of a physical Situation). If you were building a complete story, the Dramatica terminology would define the Acts as Memories, Contemplation, Impulsive Responses and Innermost Desires. (This kind of context is rarely analysed, hence the language needed to describe it isn't a normal part of storytelling, but it's completely valid and can result in a strand in a very original and complete story).
The order does affect the meaning, but perhaps you could have:
ACT ONE - Memories
It begins with focussing on the conflict that comes from thoughts of the past. What is different, what one should have done, how one's behaviour used to be. How is everyone focussed on their memories?
ACT TWO - Impulsive Responses
What is the conflict that comes from impulsive behaviour - personally, but perhaps figures in power? What drives these behaviours and what conflict emerges from them?
ACT THREE - Innermost Desires
Are these the driving forces of the characters in the story? How have they risen to the surface, can they be controlled?
ACT FOUR - Contemplation
The final Act with the context of Contemplation works well in this structure, and has a sense of resolution. It feels complete.
I've focused on the Overall Story perspective as it's the most common and links well to the idea of plot. Often, in factual programme-making, if you construct the plot accurately, you then have a stable spine on which to support all the other material you've gathered. We are working with material we extract from real life. In the process, our storytelling instinct means that on location and through research we have gathered other perspectives to support our Overall Story. As a tool to help build a working structure in documentary, a strong Overall Story is often enough.
But to be completely accurate, there are three other perspectives we should be working with, each with their own four acts which combine with the Overall Story to give you a complete story. They are:
The Main Character - experiencing the story through the eyes of the Main Character is the most subjective way of exploring the story.
The Influence Character - this is a character who forces the Main Character to justify their approach to solving the problem. If the Main Character changes they approach, it's due to pressure from the Influence Character.
The Relationship throughline - creating a fully realised storyline for this can be difficult (as it's less instinctive and harder to define), but it's important as the perspective that emphasises the nature of the relationship between the Main and Influence Character. It's the final piece of the jigsaw in creating a complete story.
If you want to be thorough, assign the Overall Story to one of the Contexts, then the other perspectives take one of the other three contexts each. Four Perspectives, Four Contexts - a vibrant and complete story.
Even though the Overall Story of our mocked up Coronavirus doc is has a context in psychology, everything else that you might film, or want, in a documentary about the virus is still there. All those action sequences, news clips, high impact stories of doctors saving lives, character studies and so on are still in the programme. It's just that they are used differently to make a different structural or thematic point, and assigned to a different Perspective. The same sequences will be there, but the overall feeling will be different, and fresh.
It was a technique I deliberately used in the football show 'Sunderland 'Til I Die'. I took the same sequences, the passion of the football matches, training sequences, press conferences and so on and structured the Overall Story around a throughline in a psychological context. The final result felt different in terms of the theme - the meaning of the programme - with the same level of excitement of the other shows. It felt authored, with a strong point of view.
These are just some of the ideas surrounding a structural approach to storytelling. They are complex but very powerful. It's a considerable amount of work to get really comfortable with all this, but even some simple organising principles can be useful.
As I mentioned it earlier, these ideas are taking work done by Chris Huntly and Melanie Anne Philips in their Dramatica literary theory, which I've used in the realm of factual storytelling. They developed these concepts nearly 30 years ago, and they are remarkably insightful and practically useful. Jim Hull at narrative first.com has also done great work in this area.
I hope you've found this useful. Do let me know if there's anything here that could do with elaboration, and I'd be happy to try and explain further, with more relevant practical examples.