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50 things you don't know about non-fiction storytelling (for journalists, educators and communicators of non-fiction)


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"Storytelling is like sex" wrote David Mamet, "everyone can do it, some of us are better at it than others."

After three years of studying non-fiction storytelling, and publishing a book and a magazine on the subject, in October 2013 I tweeted 50 things I've learned about storytelling, with the hashtag #story50.

All fifty tips have been compiled and extended into this presentation.

For more in-depth advice and training:

By Adam Westbrook

Published in: Education, Business

50 things you don't know about non-fiction storytelling (for journalists, educators and communicators of non-fiction)

  1. 1. STORY DESIGN 50 narrative devices for non-fiction storytellers WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  3. 3. BUT WAIT, WHAT’S STORY DESIGN? In a well designed story everything happens for a purpose: to support the point of the story. It is intentionally deciding what to keep in your story, and more importantly what to throw out. It’s about intentionally giving certain narrative elements more volume, and quietening others. It is about taking a disciplined, methodical and objective approach to storytelling.
  4. 4. 1 it’s PRINCIPLES NOT RULES There are no hard and fast rules to good storytelling, but there are principles. Discipline matters. Discipline is hard. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  5. 5. 2 don’t be afraid to spin a yarn Factual storytellers can and should use story design techniques to weave more engaging narratives. Don’t fear fables. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  6. 6. 3 STUDY HOW THE BRAIN REACTS TO STORIES Scientists know our brains react to stories, releasing neurochemicals like Oxytocin, Dopamine, and ACTH. Well made narratives play with these releases to engage our brains emotionally and intellectually. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  7. 7. 4 TO EMPATHISE IS TO BE HUMAN Meanwhile mirror neurones in our brains allow us to empathise with others and their experiences. Empathy is one of the most important powers of story. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  8. 8. 5 TELL TIMELESS STORIES The best stories are timeless and universal. No matter what they’re about, they are told in a way that can speak to someone on the other side of the world, and 500 years from now. In our real-time world, this matters even more. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  9. 9. 6 stories say “LIFE IS LIKE THIS!!” The best stories say something meaningful about the world. Not necessarily in a literal way, but in the meaning hidden inside the narrative. They say “life is like THIS!” Pursue this meaning; don’t tell stories for story’s sake w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  10. 10. 7 WHAT IF YOU HAVE NOTHING TO SAY? Be honest, patient and live a little. We all have something to say, but it often requires a bit of living to figure it out. “How vain is it to sit down to write, when you have not stood up to live?” HENRY DAVID THOREAU w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  11. 11. 8 MEANING IS REVEALED IN THE CLIMAX The meaning, theme or “controlling idea” of your story ought to be revealed, emotionally, in the climax. Even if your story is about the science of quantum fluctuations this should still be the case. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  12. 12. 9 TELL THE UNCOMFORTABLE TRUTH The storyteller has always told the objective truth of the age. This may involve being unpopular or vulnerable: it is rare and therefore very important. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  13. 13. 10 STORY ≠ ESCAPISM There’s a myth that people like stories to escape the real world. In fact, it is the opposite. In a such a confusing, fastchanging world, people actually pursue stories for meaning and connection. This is what the good storyteller provides. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  14. 14. 11 THE AUDIENCE ARE PART OF THE PROCESS Books, cinema, radio then television created a world where the audience silently consumed stories. The days of the silent audience are over. It was just a blip. We’re going back to vaudeville days of noisy interaction. Embrace it. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  15. 15. 12 THE “USER EXPERIENCE OF STORY” MATTERS So our audience want to be involved in our stories now. That means thinking about their journey as they consume your work. Story needs UX design as much as an app. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  16. 16. 13 ALFRED HITCHCOCK: UX DESIGNER The real masters understand the UX of their story. “How will my audience be feeling at this moment?” Hitchcock knew it best. He could play on the audience’s emotions and guessing-machines to take them on a real journey. Non-fiction storytellers must master this too. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  17. 17. 14 HAVE YOU HEARD OF KITSHUTENKETSU? Our way of storytelling is a very western one. The three-act structure emerged from ancient Greek individualism and has stuck around ever since. But there are others. Have you ever heard of KitShuTenKetsu? It’s a Japanese story form. Issue 2 of the magazine reveals more. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  18. 18. 15 GET AUDIENCE FEEDBACK ON YOUR STORIES Good storytellers test their work on colleagues, friends & family. The key question they ask: “where did you lose interest?” w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  19. 19. 16 SUBTLE SYMBOLISM We can use symbols & codes to engage the audience’s subconscious and connect on a deeper level. This is powerful but they must never be explicitly stated. Subtlety is essential. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  20. 20. 17 what’s your story really about? This comes back to meaning and the “controlling idea”. “Up” is not film about a floating house. It’s really about grief. There is no house. What’s your story really about? w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  21. 21. 18 HEROES AND GODS REALLY EXIST Mythical gods and superhumans are not just fictional. They are metaphors for us mere mortals living our fullest lives. This is everyone’s greatest wish (and fear) which is why it’s such a potent theme. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  22. 22. 19 THE BEST IDEAS: SIMPLE BUT PROFOUND No matter the subject, you should always be able to capture your story in a sentence or two, max. It helps you focus. Aim for something simple but rich in meaning. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  23. 23. 20 HIPSTERS NOT WELCOME Meaningful storytelling requires vulnerability. Don’t hide behind hipster irony, humour, or shy away from emotion. We use stories to connect. Don’t put a barrier between you and your audience. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  24. 24. 21 character = WANTS + NEEDS Characters are driven by wants (conscious) and needs (subconscious). These two desires get your character of bed each day and are the cause of forward motion in the story. This is true in non-fiction as much as fiction. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  25. 25. 22 WHAT DOES YOUR CHARACTER need? So when people are telling you “their story”, listen. What are they really telling you? Their subconscious reveals itself through their words and actions. It’s the real-life equivalent of subtext, a core dramatic concept. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  26. 26. 23 THE MASK People in real life wear masks to protect their real feelings and vulnerability. Masks peeling away is a dramatic device, that can be used in non-fiction too. Ask yourself: what’s your character’s mask? w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  27. 27. 24 GOOD GUYS + BAD GUYS Protagonist & Antagonist are dramatic terms, but they can be applied to real world if we think less literally. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  28. 28. 25 darth vadar, metaphor For example, antagonists don’t have to be evil, just obstructive to the main character’s desire to achieve something. Appreciating dramatic devices as metaphors allows non-fiction storytellers to use them as well. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  29. 29. 26 FALLIBLE HEROES ARE THE MOST COMPELLING Indiana Jones was terrified of snakes. Highlight your character’s foibles, flaws and fears to reflect the complex nature of people. True too: the best antagonists are the heroes in their own story. Screenwriters know this well, and journalists should too. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  30. 30. 27 character as animal, vegetable, mineral Characters also don’t have to be human. Animals, objects, weather, disease and technology can all be characters. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  31. 31. 28 THE sEVEN circles oF HELL CONFLICT Conflict exists on many levels, but there is one level more universal than the others. Every character, real or made up, is driven by inner conflict. Reveal it in your story and you touch your audience more deeply. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  32. 32. 29 ENOUGH PSYCHO-BABBLE THANKYOU Many are skeptical about that last idea, but it’s true our greatest enemy is ourself. Ever heard yourself say “I’m not good enough”? That’s your subsconscious Resistance in conflict with your wants and needs. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  33. 33. 30 snakes, spiders and commitment Almost everyone has a deep fear of some kind. And it drives their actions or holds them back from acting. It’s amazing how many conflicts come down to this. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  34. 34. 31 YOUR CHARACTER, THE ONION Peeling back the layers of your character makes for a more authentic and compelling story. Subtlety is important again, you don’t want to make it obvious or do it too quickly. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  35. 35. 32 HUMAN BEINGS: HANDLE WITH CARE Be careful though, you’re dealing with real people, so be sensitive. Above all, it requires an ability to listen. “People do not seem to realize that their opinion of the world is also a confession of character.” RALPH WALDO EMERSON w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  36. 36. 33 UNIVERSAL THEMES Most Controlling Ideas of stories are universal: they speak to everyone. Some universal themes which widen your appeal: hope, hate, jealousy, fear, self doubt, vulnerability, fear of failure, death... w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  37. 37. 34 ONE THEME TO RULE THEM ALL What’s the most popular tag on Cowbird ? Love. People love love stories. It’s the universal language. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  38. 38. 35 THE “ALL IS LOST” MOMENT Here’s another classic story trope people love (in fiction and non fiction): the “we almost lost everything and gave up” moment. Take a look at the popular story of Sugru, the innovative British start-up. It has that moment in spades. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  39. 39. 36 JUST GIVE ME TEN SECONDS Did you know 20% of YouTube viewers click away before 10 seconds. Of 1million views, 200,000 didn’t watch past the first 10 seconds! That’s all the time you have to grab ‘em. Make it count. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  40. 40. 37 WHAT THE HELL JUST HAPPENED?! A simple story tactic: put your best bit first, even if it doesn’t make sense. It’ll hook people in and then you can use the rest of the story to explain what’s going on. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  41. 41. 38 BE THE UNPOPULAR PARTY GUEST Here’s a good way to shorten longer, slower parts of your stories, borrowed from screenwriters. Arrive late, and leave early. A scene that is. Arrive once the conversation’s started and force the audience to piece it together. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  42. 42. 39 BUT THAT’s NOT HOW JOURNALISM WOrKS! I know this strategy risks confusing your audience - but that forces them to ask questions, and keeps them interested. Counterintuitive I know, that’s why it’s smart! w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  43. 43. 40 BUT IT’S HOW GOOD STORYTELLING WORKS And herein lies the real challenge to non-fiction storytellers: dare you withhold information for a bit to weave a good yarn? If it makes you feel better, there’s a science to why it works. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  44. 44. 41 WAIT FOR IT.... Which brings us to the best device in any storyteller’s toolkit. SURPRISE! w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  45. 45. 42 THE MASTER OF SURPRISE Going back to the first tips about neuroscience: we know that surprising people releases addictive Dopamine in their brains. We can use another device, Intermittent Reinforcement to create expectation for more. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  46. 46. 43 WITH A TWIST OF MELON So surprise your audience early on and they’ll be hooked waiting for the next twist. There’s lot of interesting research into this, go seek it out! w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  47. 47. 44 GO on, BURY THE LEDE For 150 years journalists have relied on the Invert- ed Pyramid as their story structure. “Don’t bury the lede!” But a new world demands more engaging stories. So go on, bury the lede, make your audience do the work. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  48. 48. 45 DAYS SINCE THE LAST WORKPLACE ACCIDENT: Oh by the way, want a lesson in good visual storytelling? Watch the first 30 seconds of Super8. Learn how to show and not tell. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  49. 49. 46 AND NOW FOR THE BAD NEWS Here’s the crux: there is no shortcut to good storytelling, just years of practice, failure and study of the discipline. Don’t skimp on that last bit. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  50. 50. 47 EVERYONE’S AN AIRLINE PILOT You might fly three times a year, but you don’t think you’re an airline pilot do you? You’re not a storyteller because you go to the movies. Respect & study the principles to make conscious narrative decisions. That is story design. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  51. 51. 48 AND NOW FOR THE IMPORTANT NEWS The world is getting more complicated every day. The need for objective truth is more important than ever. Stories matter. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  52. 52. 49 NO-oNE CARES ABOUT YOUR DEPTH-of-fIELD Forget hipster docs about vintage printmakers. Tell stories which shine a light on our age and make us uncomfortable. It’s really difficult, but so important. w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  53. 53. 50 WHEN EVERYONE’s A STORYTELLER, BE THE BEST Among the listicles, the real-time updates and the monkeys in trousers there’s a huge opportunity to tell compelling stories that reflect the truths our time. If that excites you even a bit, make it your mission. Now, get busy! w WWW.INSIDETHESTORY.ORG
  55. 55. INSIDE YOU’LL FIND: Four masterclasses on the craft of story, including how to open your story, how to use progression to build to a climax and how to tell stories in pictures. Interviews with award-winning non-fiction storytellers like Soren Wheeler (RadioLab), Everynone, Brent Hoff, Bobette Buster, and Mo Scarpelli. Insightful essays on the craft of narrative building. A primer in interactive storytelling and how to build immersive narratives. The only guide I’ve found to how visual storytelling really works.
  56. 56. Adam Westbrook is the editor of Inside the Story Magazine, a quarterly web publication for non-fiction storytellers. Through HotPursuit Press he is a publisher of web documentaries and ebooks He is fascinated about helping people rediscover learning through video and other innovative publishing projects. Find out more @AdamWestbrook IMAGE © JOHN THOMPSON