February 2020

Story Structure - and the reduction of stress


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.

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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.
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The Siren Song of a Good Story - Homer style


Most of us know the story of the Sirens; how, to resist the lure of their song, Odysseus blocked his ears with wax and ordered his sailors to lash him to his ship’s mast. But what was it that had lured so many sailors onto the rocks?

I always imagined it was a magical quality of their voices or the tunes, until I spotted this in the introduction to Katherine Wilson’s fantastic recent translation of the Odyssey. The lure was something grounded in human desire. They offered Odysseus the complete story of his life.

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