The Science of Good Storytelling
And I want to talk about the narrative model and I love bringing this slide up because I went to illinois state university with dr jon mchale he was my professor I worked with him for a while and he would always show this slide about the dramatic model he would almost show it every day that I taught a class because it's really important that that you look for drama when you're telling stories so we do this with with a mac yesterday when we go in when you're telling a story that you want to tell you don't just go in go in like, well, I'll just see what's there and talk about it you need to look for these things you need to make sure there's actually a story there and the way dr mchale would talk about it is that there's a character with a willer want there's an inevitable dramatic question a realization that they need to do something to get their complications along the way a climax and a resolution and this is pretty familiar right? I mean you've probably heard of pricey and things lik...
e this and I don't want to say that there's a formula two story telling but it kind of is because we are wired for this as humans like it's in our dna this thing I think the reason is that it's part of our survival like if your cave man and you have never had an experience with a sabre tooth, tiger. When you finally do you have an experience of the sabre toothed tiger, you're gonna die, right? You're only gonna get one chance unless someone tells you about the experience that they had or they witnessed. And so you learned something from that experience. So all stories have to be about a person who faces a challenge and whether or not they overcome those complications and survived or not that's the climax of that film, that story, and we find out how to deal with a sabre tooth tiger, probably run right through those stories. I mean, I think we love stories a certain way because we evolved that way. We needed stories toe learn from and so there is a model that you can you can track and make sure that you're following these familiar this familiar path, I think about a documentary that I saw at south by southwest called maiden trip and it's about lauren decker, this sixteen year old girl who decided to take a sailboat around the world that he was the youngest person to ever do it. So we have laura dekker, who wants to travel around the world, and she realizes she's gonna have to like convincing people to let her go first of all the courts didn't want to let her go because it's like child abuse or something but she she gets out there she shares the realization that she's got to do it on her own and of course it's a challenging journey making it about around the world so she faces complications along the way and the climax of course is that she finally makes it and resolution is that she's she's changed? She discovered something about herself which we'll talk about a little bit more in a minute um I mean I kind of just boil it down to, like kind of four things like when you're looking at a story you you need to have a character right? They need to want something there needs to be a challenge for them to face to get there and then finally there need to be a climax like when does it all come to a head and they uh otherwise it just won't be that fascinating now it gets even more complicated if you look at this according to joseph campbell called he calls it the hero's journey or the monmouth and he would break it down into seventeen parts that your story should have and and this is how he describes it this's from nineteen forty nine he would say ah hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder fabulous forces air there encountered and a decisive victory is one the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man sounds like a story right? Although to me this sounds pretty complicated so I actually really like a much simpler way to do this I'm gonna bring this white board up now um how many of you are familiar with dan harmon? Anyone know who that is? Who's that yeah he's a showrunner of the show community on it was on nbc notes on yahoo he was famously dismissed from the abby show right and then he was brought back he has a model that takes that seventeen part joseph campbell thing that I think it's too complicated to deal with that I really enjoy and this is what I look at what I'm thinking about story this is the dan harmon story circle and if you watch community you will see this in every episode he just says draw a big circle and split it into eight parts one, two, three, four, five and really it's just a single words instead of like ah hero bestowing boons and it's just you need go search find take pardon my terrible uh henry uh return change and he points out it's it's nice that it's cyclical because a character often starts in one place and they often end in a very similar location or mind space but they go on a journey. This is kind of like a dark side down here. This is like the normal part of their life and then they have to go into this journey. So let's, take a look at what all of these mean. Um, when we think about laura dekker who went on a journey around the world that's the u so in that story we have laura dekker. She needs to go around the world in a boat it's pretty simple. She goes on that journey and the search is looking for what she wants this need she's looking to get around the world pretty simple, she's going to face a bunch complications long way. This is where if you were lazy, you'd have a montage like training for the big fight, but you could make this part really interesting. Hopefully that's a really interesting journey. And in the case of laura dekker in the documentary maiden trip, it is she finds what she's looking for the take, I think, is the most interesting part that take is when the character gets what they want, but they pay the price for it. And even in a film, a real story, a documentary about a girl traveling around the world. She kind of finds along the way that as she's headed back home she's making it around the world she doesn't really know if home is where she wants to be. She realized on this journey that she loved being alone and that maybe she's just not a people person. Maybe she needs to be on a boat by herself, and so she kind of comes this realization in the in the take that I I don't really want to go home, and so she returns actually not tow home she goes, I can't remember what island she goes to, which kind of goes does their own thing, and she's changed for that she went on a journey and she's a different person because of it. So I like this model because it breaks down into eight simple words and I think it's a great checklist for your story. Do you have a you do you have a need? You have go search, find, take return change in my one of my favorite films, jurassic park we have dr grant, who needs to have a more intimate relationship with dinosaurs. He gets the amazing opportunity to go to jurassic park, and they're literally searching for dinosaurs and they're not seeing them at first until they find that sick triceratops wonderful, they found dinosaurs? Isn't that so great know if they're going to pay the price for this because the dinosaurs have escaped and they return literally they have to return to home have to get off this island have to escape and they're completely changed for it because they discover that power is something you have to wield carefully or you make deadly dinosaurs so this is a this is a familiar model and I like it because it works in a feature film it works in a five minute short film I mean at the very least if you were completely lost what you could do is you could divide your five minute short film into thirty seven and a half second intervals and say in those first thirty seven seconds I better introduce a character right? I mean that's the first thing that usually happens in a film and in that second forty seconds I'm going to need to establish a need you don't have to stick to that like formula but you could at least start there and just go just to make sure you're not going crazy like do I have this part so I have that part if I don't have it maybe I need to think about that I like to develop questions interview questions around this like when I'm talking to my character I better ask him what he wants I better ask him how he started that journey and what it was like going on the journey I just wanna make sure I hate those things and when I'm going through footage I'm probably putting them in that order like one that quote really applies to the search part of the take part let me put it in that part of the timeline so I love this model it's so simple to describe andi thinkit's a good jumping off point it even applies to thirty second commercials there was ah, a super bowl commercial that I enjoyed where a nine hundred eleven call was received we're hearing the nine one one operator I think he's the protagonist clearly the need is I need to solve this this emergency so let's ask some questions let's go on this cross the threshold and talk to this woman on the phone figure out what she wants but during that search he faces some complications she says I'd like to order a pizza and you're thinking what is this what is this is going a funny commercial right uh any any so he's like this man this is ah nine eleven you need to have an emergency and finally she tells them uh you kind of keeps asking questions and he realized that she does need something and in the take he discovers you're talking about pizza but you do you actually have an emergency, ma'am? She says yes do are you unable to talk about it right now? Yes well, I actually have goose bumps just thinking about that's the take for the first half of this I'm thinking like this is going a funny reveal, like the silly woman she's pranking nine one one and he's trying to get to the bottom of that prank. The take is, oh, no, this is actually a dire emergency, so he helps her and hopefully solves that problem, and he's changed for that because he knows, and us as an audience, we know that now domestic abuse is a serious issue and were aware of it. That was the point of the commercial. It comes full circle, and it tells us a great story in thirty seconds, and you can split your thirty seconds into little three and a half second intervals if you wanted. I think I did that math, right? We'll talk about dan harmon story circle throughout, but now I want to talk about the law of diminishing returns, and this applies to the drama that we're talking about when we look at that search, part of the story circle the journey they're going on, the challenges they face. What you'll notice in films is that if you have a consistent level of drama like the problem, a is fifty percent intensity, and problem b is fifty percent intensity. If every problem is the same, your interest is your audience is going to lose interest overtime, so I better get way more exciting in this president because you'll lose interest if I were to just keep talking about story circle for the next six hours you'd lose interest over time so what you doing a film is you have to have rising drama uh so hopefully your problems are getting bigger if you want to maintain your audience interest law of diminishing returns doesn't just apply to the stories that we tell I also like to bring it up when I talk about cameras uh which we're gonna get to a little bit uh the gear that I use because I tend to believe that your four hundred dollar camera maybe your iphone whatever you have is probably most lee the same as a one thousand one hundred thousand dollar camera I mean there's a shoot video capture audio there's a shoot hd I mean that's probably that probably puts it in line with a lot of these cameras right? If you want better stuff, you have to spend a lot more money to get there. The law of diminishing returns says that like to double the cost of your camera you're going to get just like, a little bit more right? I think a great example of this is that's uh you know, I mean, I think you can honestly say that your camera phone it's seven hundred dollars is not one hundred times worse than a seventy thousand dollar camera like you could create a documentary with both right? So if you can make the products, I mean, sure, the seventy thousand dollar camera looks better but is not hundreds of times better. I think about when I shot some I shots of slow motion sleeping and finally, that is, um what kind of videos I needed to shoot some super slow motion of a a blackberry phone getting destroyed by a blend tech blender. I got to meet tom dixon, the guy who does the willet blend videos and we shot a video together. There's a lot of fun. This is two hundred forty frames per second, so normally were shooting like twenty four frames a second or thirty frames a second. Normal video, this is two hundred forty like ten x slow motion. This is on an f seven it's a eight thousand dollar camera. It probably was like ten or fifteen thousand dollars when you add the hard drive and everything that you need on the lens toe get this shot. I rented it because I'm gonna buy a fifteen thousand dollar camera for, like one day of shooting my camera, the pants I gh four, which is in my bag, which we'll talk about it a minute. It shoots ninety six frames per second, it's sixteen hundred dollars without a lens ninety six and a lot of ways pretty close to two forty like they're both really slow motion they both look really cool, but if I want to get just that little bit extra slow mo I had to like almost like ten x the price like that's what I'm talking about the law of diminishing returns is people are often asking me what gear they need and they want to get the best year to start out you don't need to do that, I'm not there, I don't have the best gear and I don't want the best gear I want the gear that gets me to the end of my documentary and no more no less and I want to spend more money I'd like to be pretty frugal if I can, uh wait until you've hit the ceiling of the gear you have I don't want youto wait to tell your documentary until you get the best camera start with whatever you have now if you have an iphone shoe with it and we'll talk a little bit when I take my gear about how you can use those things. Um sure, with what you have and once you realize that yeah, I'm gonna need that super slow motion camera to get the shot I need then get it but I don't need that ten thousand dollar camera most the time most of time my camera's great for me so you just need to find that balance of yourself. Same goes for resolution. Uh, I think there's there's a diminishing return of having four k or a k. Uh, you may not need it for your project.