.11 Five days
Designing a story from start to finish
A new project for The New York Times got the green light at the end of last week. It’s a collaboration with a big figure in the tech world who has some profound and very well thought out ideas about data, privacy and society. They’ll be fronting the videos but it’s going to be my job to write, design and produce them.
If I try to describe the rather idiosyncratic skillset that I’ve carved out for myself over the last five years, it would be that I take complex ideas and try to make them fascinating in video.
I used to say I was making complex ideas simple, but the world is a complicated place and simplifying things at the expense of nuance isn’t really what we need. Instead I think that if I can make the idea understandable and fascinating, through the film medium, then at least I might spark some curiosity.
But this line of work is not easy. In essence I am trying to take an abstract, intellectual idea and transcode it into a visual, kinetic and emotional medium. It feels a bit like trying to force an angry cat into a small bag - or perhaps more accurately, trying to force a small bag into an angry cat.
Anyway, that is my job this week.
Yesterday I spent time re-familiarising myself with the material. Thankfully the central idea I want people to understand is clear; often, just to get to this stage takes many weeks of walking, writing, reading and pondering.
My task now is to figure out how to unpack that idea. It cannot be delivered all at once: I need to break it down into smaller pieces and then those pieces need to be sequenced in the right way.
This begins with the super structure - the big macro story arc. We’ve decided that this idea will be told over three episodes which conveniently layers with the three-act structure. I say the three-act structure; the three acts don’t describe structure at all, they describe conflict. I want to shape this idea into a problem, a problem which is expanded and then solved.
Which tells me that Episode #1 should create the problem, Episode #2 should lay out information essential to solving it; and Episode #3 should apply the solution. You can watch any of my videos from the past three or so years and you’ll probably see this simple mechanism at the root.
But this structure looks like it might put too much information in Episode #1 and leave Episode #3 feeling thin. I sketch out a few variations on the theme but none of them work and now my head hurts. Going to leave it for the day.
My collaborator wants to talk on Friday night, which means I have to have this cracked in the next 48-hours.
In the light of the new day the original super-structure looks better, good enough, for now.
My work today is to apply the same process to each episode: in other words to structure each episode like its own story.
This is the meat of story design and I go through all sorts of different tools to get it done. Paper and pencil are my favourite, especially if the two feel great together. I try drawing a mind map with all the different story events flying off. Later I try putting them all in square boxes, like index cards, and imagine moving them around.
Episode #1 is proving difficult. It is taking too long to get to the heart of the matter (long-winded introductions are a weakness of mine). I try moving the key visual idea right to the top - a cold open. I sense it will grab people’s attention and that’s good. Now I try and make the rest of the story events fall in behind. The energy from that open feels like it will propel the rest of the episode forward.
But I am feeling lost, so I switch tools and open iA Writer, my favourite writing app. I love to make it full screen, play music and start free-writing the problem out. Free-writing is a form of talking to yourself when you have no-one to talk to.
I manage to focus until about six, when the slow motion car crash that is Brexit breaks my concentration. I end up watching the events in parliament, my episode designs lie unfinished.
A couple more hours this morning with pen and paper and I end up with three lists, each with five bullet points.
This is the start of something called a Step Outline. It’s basically the story as a list: “first this will happen, then this will happen, after that we’ll say this…”. It’s useful because video is a sequential medium and so ultimately it is about deciding what order things are going to happen. The sequence defines everything.
What I see, finally, as I scan down these smudged pencilled lists is the outline of the argument at the macro and micro level. Each episode will have five scenes, which I’m going to have to plan out. That’s a problem for another day.
I return to the research: a couple of hours re-reading chapters and articles from my collaborator’s books. Because my Step Outline is there I can now place ideas, examples, sub-arguments in the right place.
I suddenly realise the my collaborator’s going to want to read all this before we talk tomorrow so I need to get all this typed up tout suite!
The Step Outline is the hard part. Once I’ve made that, the piece has a skeleton and I can see its form.
It’s important that the argument is assembled in the right order, but an argument on its own is not enough. This argument is abstract and theoretical. It will mean nothing unless I find a way to visualise it for the screen. Unlike explosions, fights and car chases, you can’t point at a camera at an idea.
This is the second half of my self-made job description: making the invisible visible.
It is the part I find hardest, naturally, because it requires being able to think visually. Most of us are not taught to think visually in our education. We are taught the grammar and criticism of words but never pictures. The director Alexander Mackendrick called this “pre-verbal thinking” and his advice was to un-learn our verbal forms of communication to get to this stage.
I am not yet able to think utterly pre-verbally about these kinds of complex abstract ideas. It might not even be possible. But I have developed a toolbox of techniques over the years which I will dive into. Maybe I’ll find some kind of overarching visual metaphor for the idea but it’s going to take some pondering.
Like I say, it might not even be possible. Once you’ve stuffed a small bag into an angry cat, it a bit much to ask it to tap dance.
Finally had my call with the voice of this series. The good news: he loves the outline and is excited about the project. The bad news: our conversation uncovered an even bigger idea at the heart that he really wants this to be about.
So on Monday it’s back to the drawing board. The angry cat plots his revenge.
Until next Sunday,