Hyeonseo Lee's 2013 TED Talk describing her escape from North Korea is one of the most compelling and inspiring talks I've seen on the TED stage in quite a while. I'm not saying it's technically the best TED talk ever, but it's certainly one of my personal favorites. I showed the talk a few times here to my students in Japan and they were amazed and inspired by this young woman's experience and her remarkable story.
There are storytelling lessons to be learned by examining these kind of true-life personal narratives. In the book Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction, author Jack Hart reminds us of what story is: "at its most basic, a story begins with a character who wants something, struggles to overcome barriers that stand in the way of achieving it, and moves through a series of actions—the actual story structure—to overcome them." And Hyeonseo Lee has overcome a lot. Watch Hyeonseo's talk below or here on the TED website.
Plotting the flow of story
A 14-minute live presentation on stage is different than a 2-hour movie, but many of the same elements and basic structure can be seen. One of the best books on storytelling structure in the context of screen writing is Jeffrey Alan Schechter's My Story Can Beat Up Your Story: Ten Ways to Toughen Up Your Screenplay from Opening Hook to Knockout Punch. I was cautious about the book (there are a ton of books on screen writing—and I have 'em all), but it's one of the most concrete and helpful storytelling books on the market. No surprise that Schechter's framework was used to design the contents for the Contour story app (which is a very good learning tool).
In a cafe in Nara the other day I watched the TED video again while sketching out the flow of her narrative. My first sketches were very detailed and moved from a state of perfection (SOP) to a state of imperfection (SOIP) and then back to the beginning (see Kal Bashir's site for detail on the monostory model). The rough sketch below, however, is much simpler than my original and is an adapted version of the classic three act structure for a protagonist-complication-resolution model for story. This, of course, is too basic and lacks detail but it provides a simple way to look at the flow of Hyeonseo's story. If we define plot point, for example, as an event that sends the story spinning off in a new direction, then certainly we can see the decisions to escape to China, and then to South Korea, and then back to rescue her family to bring them on the long complication-filled journey back to South Korea as plot points.
In My Story can Beat up Your Story, Schechter suggests that the plot points in Act II (confrontation/complication) "alternate between answering the central question first yes and then no." These are what he calls yes/no reversals. "Any situation that brings the hero closer to his or her goal is a 'yes.' Anything that takes the hero further away is a 'no.'" In the simple sketch above, the squiggly up/down line that follows the arc of the story is how I visualized the many yes/no reversals in Hyeonseo's story. Her short story is filled with yes/no reversals that propel the story forward. For example:
• (YES) "We made it all the way to the border of Laos..."
• (NO) "...but even after we got past the border, my family was arrested and jailed..."
• (YES) "After I paid the fine and bribe, my family was released in one month,"
• (NO) "but soon after, my family was arrested and jailed again...."
It is unavoidable to cut many important details out of a story like this in order to collapse time, but I think this story could be even more compelling and informative if another 1-2 minutes were added in order to make room for just a few more descriptive details about both her physical journey and her inner journey. For example, in this Wall Street Journal article, Hyeonseo said this about starting out in South Korea:
"Four months later, after I had been through my orientation for life in
South Korea, I entered the house where I would be living. I found
nothing; no TV set, no furniture, not even a spoon, I felt empty. I
started out with mixed feelings of fear and excitement, but settling
down turned out to be far more challenging than I had expected."
Many of the best stories are about incredible transformations, and Hyeonseo's journey is certainly that. But there is another transformation here as well—her transformation as a public speaker. Hyeonseo Lee was discovered at last year's TED global talent search held May 23 at the Samsung theater in Seoul. According to TED curator Chris Anderson, they saw something special in her. "She was nervous, but it was clear there was a fierce spirit there," Anderson wrote on the TED website. "We're so impressed and proud at the preparation she put into this talk, and her willingness to share it with such grace and vulnerability. It's thrilling now to be able to share her story with the world." Watch the YouTube video of Hyeonseo's first go at the same talk which she would refine and deliver to a standing ovation some 8-9 months later in Long Beach. What a difference.