Story Structure

For the Transom Online Workshop, a collection of quotes about shaping stories, excerpted from articles here at Transom and elsewhere on the web. Barrett G

[Updated: Added slides from Inside Story Magazine; quotes from “Cultivating the Editor in Your Brain” (Julia Barton) and “Send It to the Basement” (Larry Massett).]

Paper Cuts

For my first story and every one after that, I got into the habit of logging tape (with pen on a legal pad), writing script (with pen on a legal pad) and then literally cutting my log apart and taping the parts I wanted to use between my script (on aforementioned legal pad). People made fun of me even then. Others could just remember the actualities they wanted to use from an interview. But I had to listen to my tape. A lot. Eventually, it started talking back to me and suggesting sentences and structure. And thank God since it often took hours to come up with opening lines.
—Gwen Macsai, Transom “Be Careful What You Wish For”

Errol Morris on “Language”:

Errol Morris: I don’t edit from the transcripts, ever. I edit from the film. We transcribe the material, we write in time code, and it’s a way of creating an index for the material. While you’re editing you can quickly find pieces of material from the transcript and in the transcript.

Nubar Alexander: But the form doesn’t come from the transcript then? In other words, you don’t edit down.

EM: Paper cuts? No, never, never. Paper cuts give you a very false idea.

But you see these various representations of the material: there’s the interview initially; there’s the audio, just audio divorced from the image; there’s the transcription of the spoken word on the page; and then there’s the film. The track plus picture.

I’ve been aware since the very first film that I made that there’s an enormous difference between the paper cut — essentially you have the transcript in front of you and you cut and paste together the sections that you like. And it never works in film. It really doesn’t. Somehow you need to hear the person talking, you need to actually see the piece of film and cut it against another piece of film. That something complex happens that is lost on the page. And that all of the editing, all the editing that’s done away from film is a waste of time. Literally a waste of time. It’s going to have to just simply be redone.
—Errol Morris, Transom “The Bedrock of Language”

Errol Morris on the “Thin Line” Between Truth and Fiction:

While most of the process of working with Ira was marked by an almost ruthless efficiency, I was a bit surprised at all the transcribing. After all, Ira had mentioned in our first call that the final piece would likely only have a few bites. But extensive tape transcribing is a big part of the process at This American Life. It helps ensure that the very best tape makes it to air.
—Dan Grech, Transom “This American Life Tic Tock”

I get a call from [NPR’s] Alyne Ellis, who says that Sharon has passed the story to her, and she’s my new editor, and I should send her my script. Feeling fairly confident about my “really good!” piece of journalism, I email it away. And Alyne’s response is, “I think we have a lot of work to do here. You’re almost completely on the wrong track.”

Oh, crap.

Not only that, but if this piece is going to go on Morning Edition, which is the plan, it’s going to have to happen on June 7th, which is the day after the MTV Movie Awards and a live television performance by the White Stripes. Alyne has decided that’s the “peg,” or reason for the piece to be broadcast, and so my deadline is now IN ONE WEEK. I call my mom and cry.
—Whitney Pastorek, Transom “Enter the White Stripes”

Story Shapes

One simple way to test whether your story is worth telling on the radio is to tell it to your friends, and notice how you feel. Do you feel like you’re dragging through one tedious moment after another, always on the verge of losing their interest, and sometimes you’re not even sure what the story’s about or why you’re telling certain parts? Or are your friends laughing and buying you drinks and begging you for more details about the characters? When you’re done, does everyone at the table launch into an excited discussion of similar things that happened to them? Heed these signs. If you can’t tell the story compellingly to a friend, it means either you haven’t figured out what the story is really about, or ­ much more likely ­ it never will be possible to tell this story compellingly over the radio.

(Also notice, incidentally, the way you tell your friends the story: where you begin it, what background facts you feel compelled to throw in and where you throw them in, what parts of the story you tell in what order, what parts of the story you leave out, what parts of the story seem weaker when you tell them. The way you tell the story to your friends is often the best structure for the story on the radio. Sometimes, when someone’s stuck on writing a story for our show, I or one of the other producers will have them put down their notes and logs and just tell us the story, to hear the structure they naturally use in telling it aloud.)

And yes, there are ways to get a story to work. Often this means you have to think about what the heart of the story is about, and figure out how to make that more present. This can involve adding moments and scenes that build up the central conflict (and pruning away the ones that don’t). It can mean making explicit what the story means, stating more directly what the point of the whole thing is. More about that below.
—Ira Glass, Transom “What’s A Story?”

Tell Stories. [From an article on creating short news spots.] So you have your tight focus. And your vigorous writing. You are in the field and you’ve found real people. It’s time to craft a true story.

This is so hard to do in under a minute that you really have to be thinking about the narrative while you are recording in the field. Ask yourself: what is the story I’m in right now? How does it start? How does it end? And to make your life easier, start looking for the shortest little cuts of tape you can use to tell that story.
—Phyllis Fletcher & Robert Smith, Transom “Creativity in a Minute”

Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories:

Structure is a leap of faith. You have to begin by putting the scaffolding in place even if it changes later. And it will. Like a puzzle, it’s helpful to work on the edges first. Once you know the beginning and the ending — what the story is really about — the middle is easier to fill in.

There are really no secret tricks to find your story structure. It’s intuitive. But you can learn a lot from paying attention to how you talk about your story, what details you use, the sequence of action. Tell the story to a friend… and listen.
—Joe Richman, “My So-Called Narrative Life: How to Turn the Messy, Contradictory, and Often Boring Raw Material of Ordinary Life Into a Story”

Pretty soon you’re trying to solve problems in four-dimensional chess. You can’t do it. Your brain doesn’t work that way. So what do you do? Thank goodness, you can… Send It to the Basement

Which is, of course, your unconscious. Lord knows if this is the Freudian id or not. It doesn’t matter. Take your sounds and your questions and your intention to make a piece, and dump everything in the basement. Let the guys down there work on it. All you have to do is stroll around picking daisies. Indeed, this is all you can do.
—Larry Massett, “Send It to the Basement”

The fact that I have done this before (at this point, thousands of times before) gives me no great advantage. Each story has its own, very specific, idiosyncratic logic, its own internal music. If I go wrong, I always go wrong, sometimes a little wrong, sometimes WAY wrong — it is not me who notices first. The tape notices. The voices, the sounds, make it very clear they are uncomfortable. They don’t like each other’s company, not in THIS way, and it is almost like I can hear them complaining, “No… no…” This all but invisible conversation (try explaining it to another human) is so deeply mysterious and so personal and so unerring, as much as I hate (really hate) losing my way, I love the process of finding my way back.

Happily, because I have done this for a long time, I have a hunch (not always, and not when there is a hard deadline and not when I’ve had too little sleep and I am exhausted) that somehow or other, I will figure it out. I will make it make sense.
—Robert Krulwich, Transom “What Makes Me Feel Good About Radio (and TV)”

I would say it hurts when you’re right and it hurts when you’re wrong, but it hurts a lot less when you’re right. You have to be right in your judgments. That’s probably the equivalent of what Hemingway said about having a shock-proof shit detector.
—Hunter S. Thompson, Paris Review “The Art of Journalism No. 1”

Inside the Story Magazine “50 Tips for Non-fiction Storytellers”

A student in one of my classes at Duke was making a piece about a city guy who got a bunch of chickens and let them roam free, thereby breaking the law and irritating some of his neighbors. It turned out that the chicken man, Weston Monroe, was a slow talker. A very … um … slow talker. So the producer, Joseph Decosimo, did lots of trimming to keep Weston moving along. Here’s what Weston looks like in Joseph’s Pro Tools session–notice there’s an edit every couple of seconds on average:

Pro Tools session showing edits

Joseph does preserve the laconic, sometimes halting feel of Weston’s speech. He lets him breathe. He just shortens Weston’s longer pauses, and cuts out some false starts and repetitions, to maintain momentum and save the listener from getting antsy. It’s standard radio editing, all to the good.

Then, at a key moment, Joseph does a very smart thing: nothing. He allows Weston a pause, an “um,” and a longer pause. Notice the 3:36–3:40 section here:

Pro Tools session showing pause

Why did Joseph suddenly choose to keep his paws off Weston’s pause? He’s coming up on a turning point in his story. Up to now, Weston and others have been setting the scene, laying out the chicken-related facts. Now we’re getting to the conflict. The pause signals that the plot is about to thicken. At the same time, Weston’s hesitation adds a nice little comic touch. Here’s what it sounds like, including the transition that follows:

—John Biewen, Transom “Be Quiet: In Praise of the Pause”

An image search for “story structure”:

Film Crafts

Films Are Complicated, Get Used to It. An editor I know says “knowing how to use Final Cut or Avid and saying you can edit is like knowing Word and thinking you’re a novelist.” Harsh, but point taken. Crafting films is an art unto itself. Know that if you are coming from other fields, radio or print, many of your skills will be useful, but many formerly useful habits may just lead you down blind alleys. People spend years learning how to edit well, and even then spend months and months cutting a film. There are rules of thumb and techniques to cutting, but each film is a unique process to find specific solutions.
—Ben Shapiro, Transom “Joining the A/V Club: Storytelling with Image and Sound”

Simple and Complex. One of the deepest impressions on someone who happens to wander into a film mixing studio is that there is no necessary connection between ends and means. Sometimes, to create the natural simplicity of an ordinary scene between two people, dozens and dozens of soundtracks have to be created and seamlessly blended into one. At other times an apparently complex ‘action’ soundtrack can be conveyed with just a few carefully selected elements. In other words, it is not always obvious what it took to get the final result: it can be simple to be complex, and complicated to be simple.
—Walter Murch, Transom “Dense Clarity — Clear Density”

People say is that the documentary is written by the editor. It’s the editor who figures out what the story is and how to tell it. That’s right, but is also an over-simplification. We’re the alchemists of the film. We’re the people who turn the raw materials of the film into the gold that an audience gets.

As a young editor I was very concerned with my technical ability, but that’s not the meat of the job. It’s understanding why you would cut to that. Knowing why you are going to tell a story this way is the thing to practice seeing in an editor.
&mdassh;Lewis Erskine, Sundance Institute “The Visionaries; A Roundtable of Documentary Editors:

One of the most relevant things I’ve read about our craft actually comes from playwright Tom Stoppard. “It’s about controlling the flow of information — arriving at the right length and the right speed and in the right order,” he recently told the New Yorker. “If the audience is made to do not enough work, they resent it without knowing it. Too much and they get lost. There’s a perfect pace to be found. And a perfect place that is different for every line of the play.”

For Stoppard, the long give and take of rehearsals and previews are part of the editing process. We should be so lucky in radio. Many of us get no editing at all, or a cursory deadline once-over for length and basic errors. So we, our own selves, may be the only editors in sight.”
—Julia Barton, “Cultivating the Editor in Your Brain”

Thanks to the Knight Prototype Fund for supporting this Transom Online Workshop resource.