Your story matters. But does the audience know that? - Jessica Abel

Your story matters. But does the audience know that?

framing-header

This is part 5 of the Story Building series, based on Out on the Wire.

Part 1: Story ideas.

Part 2: The Focus Sentence.

Part 3: The XY Story Formula.

Part 4: Chronology and suspense.

Part 5: Framing and the Story Madlib.


Last time, I talked about the power of chronology to create suspense. Ira Glass explained how this works on a Current TV interview.

Ira Glass:

A story in its purest form is somebody saying this happened, and that led to this next thing, and that led to this next thing, and that led to this next thing…one thing following another.

The power of the anecdote is so great that no matter how boring the material is, if it’s in story form where there’s an anecdote happening, it has a momentum in and of itself.

Try and think of the most boring possible story…

There’s a guy, and he wakes up, and he’s lying in bed, and the house is very very quiet, just unearthly quiet.

And so he sits up, and he puts his feet on the floor, and he walks to the door of his bedroom, and again just very very quiet.

Walks down the stairs…looks around, just unusually quiet…

Now, what I’m telling you is the most boring possible fact pattern, and yet there’s suspense in it. It feels like something is going to happen, and the reason why is that because literally it’s a sequence of events, this guy is doing this thing, he’s moving from space to space, you have one thing leading to the next leading to the next, you can feel inherently that you’re on a train that has a destination.

That’s all good, and it’s all true. But think about it for a minute…this series of events tells us we’re on a train to a destination, and you’re the conductor. You had better be taking us someplace worthwhile.

Why is this a story that the whole world, or at least a VERY large slice of it, should care to read, or listen to, or watch?

As I dug around for the “secrets” of making great stories for my book, Out on the Wire, every producer I asked about the focus sentence and the XY story formula said, yeah, sure, sounds good.

But that’s not REALLY what we do to make great stories. Those are just a basic organizational rules.

Like, sure you want to find a narrative arc for a piece.

Sure you want a character experiencing conflict (if you can find one).

Of course you want something surprising to hook the listener.

But what results from all that can still be the most workaday story imaginable.

Super. Back to square one.

Jay Allison (the Moth Radio Hour) was one of the first people I talked to for Out on the Wire, that week I was out visiting the Transom Story Workshop in Woods Hole. We sat down in his backyard studio, a cabin looking out on the woods behind his house.

Jessica:
Do you have an explicit set of rules? Or do you just know what you’re looking for in terms of the structure of a story, the pieces that need to go into it?

Jay Allison:
It’s utterly dynamic, which is why it’s not boring. Because if it were the same each time, if there was only one set of rules, all stories would sound the same.

I just went to this NGO, and they called it “Maria makes tortillas.”

maria1

You know, Maria is making tortillas by herself, but she has trouble getting the corn, and she can’t find a market to sell them, so her family suffers hardship, but, you know, the NGO comes through and it figures out how to get the corn to Maria and how to connect Maria with…

Then the camera pulls back…and now Maria needs to hire others, which is making the village more… and we see how the aid is operating to better their life and that is resonating outward to the village and then making whole nation more prosperous and a better trading partner, and not a breeding ground for terrorism.

maria

This story is told over and over and over again. But the real trick is to tell the story in a fresh way each time, being informed, not by the rules of storytelling, but only by the material at hand.

And then you can apply the rules of storytelling.

The phrase we use is, “the moment you know you have a story is the moment you realize it’s not the story you thought it was.”

That discussion framed my understanding, right at the beginning. After that, I was cautious not to assume anything.

As much as I liked the idea of the focus sentence and Alex Blumberg’s XY Story Formula, I could see how they might feel reductive.

One of the last interviews I did for the book was with Soren Wheeler, the senior producer of Radiolab. I mentioned “the Soren” in my last article, about chronology. But this time we’re going to look at a different part of his formulation. The Soren does set up chronology and escalation. But it also does one other thing: it sets up the framing of the story.

Soren Wheeler:
Clearly, I’m looking to be surprised. And, are you telling me a really compelling narrative set of events?

“This happened, then this, then this, and then WEIRDLY, this.

And then after that, I want to have some reason for that story to exist. It needs to say something back to the entire universe, or say something back to me in my life in some kind of way.

Yeah, so maybe my sentence would be:
This happened ____, then this _____, then this____, and then you wouldn’t f—ing believe it but _______ . And the reason that is interesting to every single person walking on the face of the earth is _________.

Ha ha…but that is little too demanding.

soren

“This is that THING we all do.” Connecting to the universal.

The word framing can be a bit vague or confusing. I’m not talking about framing a picture, and I’m not talking about a literary “framing device.”

Framing is about connecting the very specific ideas and events in a story to something larger.

It’s how you tell the world WHY your work is worth listening to.

I mean, basically, we all want to make stories that feel non-optional. You can’t turn off the radio. You can’t close the book. I want you to lose sleep over me.

Framing is what connects the heart of the story to something deeper and more compelling, something approaching the universal.

It wasn’t until the very end of my writing process for the book that I had this insight: more than any other concept, the key to creating gripping stories is framing.

I wrote to myself: “maybe most important idea in book—this is what really sets these shows apart. Looking for better/stronger stories, with real stakes. And then they frame it so we understand what’s really at stake.”

In a meeting with Benjamin Frisch about the Out on the Wire podcast, we took it a bit further.

Jessica: Chronology, one thing, then another thing, then another…that creates suspense, that raises questions: what’s going to happen next?

But framing will tell you why you’re listening to this.

The guy who goes downstairs and it’s weirdly quiet…if he then he just sits down and eats breakfast? You better have a frame, something that tells you why you’re listening to this, or people will feel ripped off. At the end, they’ll be like f— you.

How many times has that happened to you? Where you’re listening to a story with this, and then this, and then this, and you’re like: oh my my god, I have to know! And then…that’s it? Why did I just totally waste 30 seconds of my time?

Ben: That’s a question of poor framing?

Jessica: Yes, absolutely. What are the stakes? What’s important about the thing? If the storyteller doesn’t help you understand the stakes, if they don’t give you a frame for the story, they’ve failed.

If you don’t set it up properly—if you don’t know the frame, and you don’t build into story—even very interesting sets of events will leave you feeling flat. You’ll be like, Why did I just pay attention to that?

Ben: So you can’t expect people to assume that your story is going to be interesting?

Jessica: Yeah, why should they? there are a zillion things out there to watch and pay attention to. Yeah, of course.

The Story Madlib

I’ve been reaching for a way to incorporate framing into all the best parts of the various focusing-XY-formula-thingies. And the ideal might be a mashup of all three, plus a little dash of Jessica:

Let’s call it a Story Madlib.

First, a bit of focus sentence:

Someone is motivated to do this thing he’s doing because of this…

but then this happens, and so he has to do this…

Then, some chronology and key turning points.

And therefore, this…which leads to this…and finally, you won’t believe it, but THIS…

And then a frame. Tell us why this is all so bloody important.

And the reason this matters to everyone walking the face of the earth is THIS.

Chana Joffee-Walt (This American Life) thought the Soren was a bit too over the top. But in fact she works in a very similar way.

Chana Joffee-Walt:
I think there is a slight tweak to that sometimes, which is, “and that is that thing that we all do.” It’s a smaller way of saying that this can be universal, not because you can’t f—ing believe it and it’s huge and you never thought about it before, but it’s interesting to you because it’s something that has happened in your life.

You look for the frame up front, before you start working. That’s the “this is why it matters to every person walking the face of the earth” in your Soren, that’s the “that is the thing we all do” in Chana’s approach.

But the frame doesn’t always come clear when you start your work, or it may change. And that’s OK. You build your idea for framing in your structure, and then you often forget it when you’re writing, and need to be reminded in the edit of what’s important. You lose it and have to find it again.

Chana:

And so I often have a moment like a third of the way into writing where I’m like, where am I gonna step back?

And the thoughts that I’m usually having are, oh this is like that thing that everybody experiences. This is interesting because X… and sometimes it’s really explicit.

I don’t love writing, “you’re interested in this because of X.”

I’m sure that if you broke down each of my stories, there is a section of third or two thirds of the way through, a paragraph, saying, here’s why this is interesting.

Framing is also at the core of choosing the right stories to work on.

Sean Cole (This American Life) learned this the hard way.

Sean Cole:

I feel, I hope that I am better at identifying what is actually a story now than I used to be. Like, sometimes I would be like, here’s this shiny thing, I wanna do something about it.

…even if he knew it wasn’t really a great story. Where he had no frame for it.

But, I would just f… do, do it.

Then one day, he stumbled, almost literally, on a fence in lower Manhattan that had the poetry of Walt Whitman and Frank O’Hara built into it. And Sean is a poet, as well as an audio producer. And Whitman and O’Hara are his personal heroes.

Now that I think of it, when I first went down there with Malissa, that first time, we were so floored. I went around talking about fence for like a month. To everybody, including my mom. And I was so excited, I was like, “you would not believe what Malissa and I found down by the wharves!”

She goes, you should do story about that. I said, For who? That’s ridiculous! Not everything is a story, Mom. Like, nobody’s gonna want to…It’s a fence! I mean, it’s great, I think it’s great…

This is is Sean failing to pay attention to his attention. Anything you go around talking about for a month? There is a story in that.

With the fence, the fence could have just been a fence, and had nothing… what if there was nobody to talk to? What if people who made it weren’t around anymore? Who would I have talked to, what would I have said? I might have talked to a couple poets and a couple architects. But it would have been just kind of a bunch of ideas. And there wouldn’t have really been a story.

Right, there’s luck required: many of the main players were alive and findable. But at a more basic level, what is this story about?

That changes if you put this story into the frame of a show that’s about the built world, and what it says about us as humans…

And he knew a guy with a show like that.

Roman Mars.

For 99% Invisible, you have to present the idea in terms of a story, even if it’s a big idea. The secret is that the idea is sort of a mundane fact, but it’s the thing that somebody will remember when it’s all over with. And that takeaway fact is the thing that I look for, it’s the thing that sparks my imagination.

I don’t want things that are beautiful and amazing. That’s arts reporting, me talking to you about something that’s already cool. I want to make something boring, cool.

And if I can find that, that’s the takeaway fact.

Sean’s story for 99% Invisible is episode #59: “Some other sign that people do not totally regret life.”

A fence is a barrier…so you almost have like a contradiction here. It breaks the barrier. Poetry breaks the barrier. The idea that it doesn’t stop you, it begins something. I’m making that up as I go.

… And that frame is something I want to know more about.

Much of this article draws on Out on the Wire episode 4: Bare Bones. Take a listen!


Your challenge

This is a flight check. It’s getting all your duckies in a row. Write a Story Madlib.

Someone is motivated to do this thing he’s doing because of this…

but then this happens, and so he has to do this….

And therefore, this…which leads to this…and finally, you won’t believe it, but THIS…

And the reason this matters to everyone walking the face of the earth is THIS.

Remember, as you lay out the chronology, to focus on conflicts, turning points, moments where there is a dilemma. If you’re missing chunks in the middle, that’s OK. Get as far as you can. And that last bit of the Madlib is for everybody. You want to check yourself now. Are you making a story that’s just weird or exotic, or does it have something larger to say back to the world?

If that’s what you’re aiming for, you need a frame. Your understanding of the frame will evolve as you work, but stepping back and thinking about it explicitly is incredibly valuable in making choices about how to move forward.

One more important note, with a nod to Jay Allison.

There are stories that don’t have a strong question, that don’t have a powerful narrative arc. There are great stories like this.

If you don’t have a narrative arc, or you don’t want one, you should probably start by being clear about your goals with yourself (and your audience). If you want to float into a reverie, or paint a vivid scene, or simply get to know a character, try to know that up front.

Because if you think you’re doing tight narrative storytelling, and what you’re actually pulling towards is something like, for example, a non-narrative poem (in written or visual or audio form), you’re setting yourself up for a lot of confusion and frustration. 

Sign up here and get the Story Formula Cheat Sheet, with the Focus sentence, the XY Story Formula, the Soren, and the Story Madlib!


This is part 5 of the Story Building series, based on Out on the Wire.

Part 1: Story ideas.

Part 2: The Focus Sentence.

Part 3: The XY Story Formula.

Part 4: Chronology and suspense.

Part 5: Framing and the Story Madlib.

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  • Ruks

    May 15, 2016 at 11:33 am

    I am still confused by what exactly this “frame” is. Give me an example. Just saying “THIS is why the whole world wants to read my story” is way too vague.

    Reply
    • Jessica Abel
      Jessica Abel

      May 20, 2016 at 2:10 pm

      Good question. Here’s an example I just stumbled across: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/18/dining/how-to-make-bacon.html

      Lead: “Curing meat is why humans could stay put when there was nothing to grow, kill or steal. It is how conquerors and discoverers lasted while they traveled the world.” This is an article about how to make bacon and lox at home, but it’s telling us why cured meat is something we should care about. There are more examples in Out on the Wire, the book, as well.

      Reply

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