Skills for journalists in print and digital media

Storytelling 1: Touching shared emotions

with 3 comments

Red West and Souleymane Sy Savane in Goodbye Solo

Going into 2010, I think one thing that will differentiate news sites in an increasingly competitive environment will be the ability to tell good stories. And good stories, no matter the subject or tone, share the ability to show people something about themselves. Stories that resonate with readers work on a two levels.

The tale: A well-crafted account of something happening to a main character. Most work along the classic three-act narrative line of introducing a main character and complication, the main character’s struggle with the complication, and then a resolution.

The touch: Great stories tap into universal feelings, experiences, or patterns that readers identify with on a deeper, emotional level. The struggle of the main character reflects or becomes the struggle of the reader. Great stories touch something deep inside that is witness to our inner selves.

Catching up with movies this holiday season, I was reminded of this after watching two very different movies back to back. The first was Avatar,  James Cameron’s 3D extravaganza with uses impressive technology and special effects to tell the story of a man trying to bridge the conflicts between humans and the Na’vi of the planet Pandora. The second was Goodbye Solo, the story of a poor Senegalese cab driver in North Carolina who begins to worry one of his regular customers wants to kill himself.

Both movies, on the level of the tale, are about an outsider drawn into close proximity with strangers in an attempt to save lives. On the level of the touch, they do not compare. Avatar channels numerous collisions of culture movies, from Dances With Wolves to Alien Nation, for the familiar mix of mistakes, tension, newbie-flops humor, and predictable acceptance such stories usually provide. Goodbye Solo goes much deeper, past the cultural differences  to visceral sensations of loneliness, hope, joy, and uncertainty that comes with being human.

Stories like Avatar are told on a well-plotted surface, with obvious themes, dull blocks of exposition, and heavy-handed emotional billboards to cinch the deal. Stories like Goodbye Solo are told in strings of moments, glimpses, an accumulation of telling details, the “chronology with meaning” Jon Franklin refers to when talking about great narrative.

Telling those kinds of stories requires skills of observation and the ability to report for story as much as for information. This involves capturing action, dialogue, and telling details, and then the ability to recreate the experience (not just the event) for readers to illicit the same emotional response.

Watch for most posts on how to do that in early 2010 in a series on storytelling skills for print and digital journalists.

Storytelling 1: Touching shared emotions

Storytelling 2: Chronology is your best friend

Storytelling3: Pick a main character

Storytelling 4: Microcosm, telling details, and meaning

Storytelling 5: Subtext and universal experiences

Storytelling 6: Outline the story, frame a chronology

Storytelling 7: Writing that shows, lets readers feel


Written by mroberts8

12/28/2009 at 9:29 pm

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  1. […] Story Telling 1: Touching Shared Emotions […]

  2. […] Storytelling 1: Touching Shared Emotions […]

  3. […] magazine pieces, the same tactics apply to most any piece of newspaper enterprise writing, good storytelling at any length, and fall into the tasks and skills embodied in the Five Stages of a Story […]

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