The Most Relaxing Seminar in the World

When you look at a spectacular building, what do you see? The exterior design is the most prominent element, but part of me always thinks "How the hell did they get that to stay up?" I don't know Frank Gehry's process. Still, I'm confident that without a structural engineer calculating the strength of the beams, the depth of the foundations and a thousand other things then Ghery's vision would just be a pile of very expensive rubble.

Structure is just as fundamental to a story working - in fact, the deeper you get into it, you will come to the realisation that meaning is defined by structure. But, that said, what are the skills needed to consistently fix a piece of narrative if it's failing? Clearly, you have to be able to see beyond surface issues of storytelling, to know if the structure is where the problems lie.
Ghery

When you look at a spectacular building, what do you see? The exterior design is the most prominent element, but part of me always thinks "How the hell did they get that to stay up?" I don't know Frank Gehry's process. Still, I'm confident that without a structural engineer calculating the strength of the beams, the depth of the foundations and a thousand other things then Ghery's vision would just be a pile of very expensive rubble.

Structure is just as fundamental to a story working - in fact, the deeper you get into it, you will come to the realisation that meaning is defined by structure. But, that said, what are the skills needed to consistently fix a piece of narrative if it's failing? Clearly, you have to be able to see beyond surface issues of storytelling, to know if the structure is where the problems lie.

In my experience, the most deep-rooted issues are rarely due to storytelling techniques. Over time every producer/director builds a set of storytelling tools that they are comfortable with. It's a relatively natural and intuitive process. The people I teach have been making programmes for a long time, very successfully. They have their own favourite storytelling techniques which often define their own style of programme.

But when something isn't working, separating out the storytelling from the structural faults is tough. One of the challenges is that finished work is designed as a blend. All this under the surface stuff is hidden, working simultaneously to produce multiple effects. It's like trying to work out the ingredients of a cake from the finished product. Un-picking all this is a highly analytical process. But it can be learnt. Most of us have the language of structure in our vocabulary - acts, scenes, theme, genre, plot, and so on. But not everyone knows how to use them fluently.

I direct both factual programmes and drama, and I've always been fascinated by the crossover. I always wanted to find a way to take what appeared to be compatible techniques in drama and apply them to factual. At the time, I thought it might stop me repeating myself, and help me find answers to problems in choosing a perfect opening and closing to my films.

I remember attending one of Robert McKee's story seminars many years ago. I was at the BBC and hoped it would help me as a young factual producer and director. I came out inspired. What I learned was that to become a better storyteller I had to care more. Dig deeper, mine the truth, look into my soul, find deep conflict. But, even if that advice is valid on one level, it didn't seem like a good fit for factual programmes.

It's not that factual programmes don't require all those things, it's that we often uncover them in different ways to dramatists. We take life directly and then structure it to create an impact. As factual programme-makers, we look around for stories and characters that exist in the real world, noticing events that we feel need sharing. We dig deeply into events and character, eventually finding a path through the material. From initial research to the end of the edit, we look at what we have and try to balance what is there with what we want to say. Applying techniques from drama without understanding when it's not going to help can get you into more trouble, and more deep-seated frustration.

McKee was popular at the BBC for a while, but towards the end of a three or four-year cycle, you could see producers forcing themselves (or being forced) to make their stories follow the act structure as laid out by McKee, Syd Field and others. It began to come off the rails when these ideas simply popped up in the commentary ("And then there was no turning back" or "then everything changed" at act breaks were popular ones). There was something in these concepts that helped (clearly an attempt at understanding acts was better than nothing at all) but defining what elements appear to be in a story isn't the same as having a fluent ability in using them.

Over twenty years ago, I stumbled on a theory of story developed in the early 80s by Chris Huntley and Melanie Anne Philips, called Dramatica. In the world of fiction, it's used more and more as a fundamental way of understanding story structure. It's complicated, the language is arcane - but, boy is it powerful. There are many elements to it, for one the order of things matter; a slap followed by a scream means something very different to a scream followed by a slap. Point of view too; one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter. Another insight is how content doesn't define conflict. And the chronology of events is very, very different from the plot. These are universal ideas, and understanding them can help everything from Love Island style reality shows to Storyville.

I've spent a long time taking these concepts and applying them to factual programming. With these tools, you can look at a programme that isn't working and, within a few hours, see the fundamental structural issues at the heart of the problem. It's almost magical. Above all, it allows you to relax a little. It saves the endless round of working and reworking a cut. That's not to say there are always instant solutions, but at least you can see what needs to be done. You can have honest conversations about what's missing, what's not necessary, exactly how much extra interview, archive, or shooting is needed to solve the problem.

When that sense of calm descends, you can step back from the story, and be very clear about what it takes to create something meaningful. You can openly state what you want the audience to feel at the end of the programme, what the tone, genre, theme and feel you want to design into a programme. That objectivity is where the power is. It's not about one director working one way, an exec wanting something else. Everyone wants the film to work. They just need a common language to express what "working" actually means in the case of their specific programme or series.

Just one example was in the Netflix series, Sunderland ‘Til I Die. I wanted to do something different with a programme, and make sure that the subject matter didn't define the conflict in the storytelling. By that, I mean just because the subject matter was a football team and a town desperate to win a game, the goal of the programme didn't have to be “winning”. I looked in a different area, the conflict within the way of thinking among all the main characters. The backdrop was still football, the agony of winning and losing and there was still a vast amount of action on the pitch. But the overall tone was very different. The plot was defined by the conflict between all the characters in the film concerning how they thought. Setting this up at the beginning defined the acts breaks, the theme, the genre. It gave me a clue how to start the film, how to end it. It produced a very specific emotional feel. Above all it felt complete, and a little bit different. Everything that was filmed could be used, but to a very specific emotional and narrative purpose. The same concepts have worked equally well for me in Natural History films, history and arts, for every kind of broadcaster or streaming platform. Short form or long.

That's what I teach.

Sometimes films that had execs very nervous went on to be nominated or eventually win awards after a few weeks work. (I understand that awards don't always mean that much, but I think these programmes also benefited from the recency bias of going from disaster to nominatable in such a short period of time. Everyone fell in love with them once again).

Going back to the engineering analogy, engineers don't get into arguments about structure. There is a common goal - get the thing to stand up. When that works, the architects and designers get to have their fun. And subjectively that's where the creative discussion and collaboration takes off. And I love all that intuitive, creative storytelling as well. But when I know I'm working with a solid structure, the freedom to experiment is liberating. In fact, because I give myself the freedom to experiment as a writer and director, some people think that the answers have come from creative storytelling. In fact, the solution was finding the structure that 'allowed' the creativity to be used.

These techniques also work as a way to understand different markets cultural sensitivity too. I’ve done a lot of work in South Korea, Japan and China, and they have a very specific approach to story structure.

If you'd like to learn more about these ideas feel free to come along to a seminar, as an individual or I can work with a company (and then, of course, be more specific about your own programmes in development or in the edit). Of course, I'd be happy to look at your film if you've got issues (and the clock is ticking). But if you want to get in touch and chat over a coffee or on the phone, that would be fine too. Every question I get helps me understand the process better.

These are the thoughts of people I've worked with in the past, and a previous seminar.

http://www.leviathan-films.co.uk/StoryFix/Story%20Doctor/index.html
https://www.screenskillsireland.ie/tutors/nigel-levy-writer-director/

Good luck - Nigel