Storytelling – Words or Pictures?

I have always been a visual communicator.  For over 35 years I have been making a living taking photographs for magazines all over the world.  I have always “seen” the world and captured its stories through visuals.  Somehow, it was far easier for me to communicate with images than with words.  Sidewalk performer King Biscuit Festival Helena, ArkansasBut it was also a bit frustrating for me because many times when I was photographing a person, I felt like I was leaving a portion of their story untold.

When I photograph people, invariably I spend a good deal of time talking and listening to them.  It’s this rapport that usually enables me to capture a more intimate photograph. For me, this has always been my favorite part of the “process”, yet I never had an outlet for my subjects’ words, other than through the captions of my photographs.

When I started producing documentaries, my conversations with my subjects finally had an outlet through their recorded interviews that became the backbone of the “script”.  Even though the script was not something that I wrote using my own words, I was instrumental in the process because I was selecting the words and giving them an order.  I was involved in the process and structure of screenwriting.

In recent years, I have become fascinated with story structure and screenwriting.  I have read numerous books on the topic of screenwriting and this past weekend I decided to immerse myself in an intensive 3-day workshop with John Truby.  John has taught some of the best screenwriters around.  I knew going into this, it was going to be a great and informative workshop, but I had no idea how rewarding it would be.  Essentially, John gave me knowledge of the “process” and the structure of storytelling to enable me to take an idea and turn it into a really good story.

I have come away from this workshop with a deeper understanding and respect for a well-written story.   We can all spot poor writing in a film.  It stands out.  Even the layman who knows nothing about “the process” or story structure can identify really bad writing.  The audience may not know why the story or the film doesn’t work – they just know it doesn’t and they’re not buying it.  Like any other craft, screenwriting has gone through stylistic changes over the years, but the fundamentals remain.  After all, telling stories is as old as time and there has always been a constant – and that is “the audience”.  Ultimately the audience will decide if a writer has done their job well.

I think those of us who are “content creators” in this era of multi-media communications need to broaden our understanding of all kinds of mediums in order to effectively communicate.  Many times, I see creatives become too narrowly focused on their one set of tools and in the process lose sight of their end goal  – and that is to deliver the message or story to the audience.  Ultimately, the audience will always let you know if you’ve hit the mark or not because they are looking at the “whole” and not the “parts” of the story.


Telling the Story with the DSLR

The sub-title should read…”or with any camera for that matter”.  For those of you not new to this blog, you know that my mantra is “it’s not about the tool”.  And my other mantra is “embrace collaboration”.

But back to the thought behind this blog entry and that is “telling the story”.  I recently read a great book that a dear friend had given me about screenwriting called “Save the Cat” by Blake Snyder. Snyder’s book is geared more toward writing a fictional screenplay, as opposed to writing a narrative for a documentary, but I thought it would be helpful for me as far as learning more about the dynamics of story telling – and indeed it was.

Snyder talks about the different genres that most movies fall into.  The category that my documentary came closest to if I was writing a fictional piece was what he referred to as The Golden Fleece. Blake writes:

“The name comes from the myth of Jason and the Argonauts and yet it’s always about the same thing: A hero goes “on the road” in search of one thing and winds up discovering something else – himself.”

“Like the twists of any story, the milestones of The Golden Fleece are the people and incidents that our hero or heroes encounter along the way.  The theme of every Golden Fleece movie is internal growth, how the incidents affect the hero is, in fact, the plot.

“It’s not the mileage we’re racking up that makes a good Golden Fleece, it’s the way the hero changes as he goes”.

Wow, I thought as Snyder’s words resonated with me and how I “saw” the documentary that I was in the midst of editing.  In my case, I had many heroes who in setting out to make a positive difference in the world had also experienced intense and rewarding personal growth.  I too had changed and grown, along with my daughter who journeyed with me to tell our subjects’ stories.

As I read more of Snyder’s book, my vision of our film became much clearer in my head.  This week, I had a meeting with the editor who will be collaborating with me on this film.  I’m thankful that I was able to have a face to face meeting with him where we could both get a better feel for each other and more importantly  – the story.  We had a wonderful conversation about the story that I wanted to tell – the heroes – the conflicts – all those things that are part of a good story.  I knew we were on the same page when he said: “It’s not about the trip – it’s about the journey”.

Or as Snyder writes:
“It’s not the incidents encountered.  It’s what the hero(es) learn about himself from the incidents that make the story work.”

We’ll see if I can do my heroes justice in telling their stories, but I’m not alone in this task.  I’ll be collaborating with an editor who not only has an understanding of “the story” but the skills and ability to make it come to life. What joy.

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