Story Structure, Simplicity, & Hacking Away at the Nonessential
June 13, 2014
For a lot of us, the reality is not that we have too few ideas, it's that we have too many. This may not sound like a problem, but it becomes problematic when we get bogged down in analysis paralysis and feel unable to choose, and harder still to simplify. Reducing and simplifying in an honest way—a way that makes a message clear and memorable—is one of the hardest things for professionals to do. I am reminded of the old Bruce Lee saying: "It's not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential." This is one of the secrets to mastery in general, and hacking away is indeed what we must do to identify the essence of our message and to build strong stories. As a follow up to the last piece of Billy Wider, allow me to share again some Wilder wisdom and apply the lesson to speech making or presenting.
In an interview recorded in Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood's Golden Age at the American Film Institute, Wilder is asked how he came up with the idea for the script Sunset Boulevard. Wilder answered that it was an idea they thought up and held in their heads five years before beginning to write the script. Then Wilder elaborates (emphasis mine):
“There is no such thing as somebody sitting down and saying, ‘Now, all right, I’m going to make a new picture.’ Not at all. You have ideas stashed away, dozens of them–good, bad, or indifferent. Then you pull them out of your memory, out of your drawer, you combine them… People think when it comes to a screenplay you start with absolutely nothing. But the trouble is that you have a million ideas and you have to condense them into a thousand ideas, and you have to condense those into three hundred ideas to get it under one hat, as it were. In other words, you start with too much, not with nothing, and it can go in every kind of direction. Every possible avenue is open. Then you have to dramatize it—it is as simple as that—by omitting, by simplifying, by finding a clean theme that leads someplace.”
The need for solid structure
The last line above—omitting, simplifying, finding a clean theme (message) that leads someplace—is at the heart of designing a compelling narrative. Having a clear structure makes it easier to simplify your content in a way that moves the material forward. The audience need not be aware of your structure, but without it you could not have crafted a compelling narrative that goes someplace. While describing the plot points in the hit film "Some Like it Hot" Billy Wilder stresses the importance of structure.
"[Story] needs...architectural structure, which is completely forgotten once you see the movie. We have to put those pillars in or that beautiful ceiling is going to come crashing down."
It's the message, not techniques or effects
Special effects, including remarkable camera angles, call too much attention to themselves in many films today. Wilder felt the same in his time. Once you start thinking "I wonder how they did that?" or "What awesome camera work!" and so on, then you are pulled out of the story and are thinking about effects and techniques rather than the story. "Nobody will say, ‘This is a great screenwriter because he always has the camera angles.’ Just have good characters and good scenes and something that plays,” Wilder says.
In a similar way, nobody will say this is a great presenter because he is a master at using PowerPoint or Keynote, or Prezi, etc. I have said it 'till I am blue in the face, but I will say it again: It is not the tools and digital techniques and effects that make you a better storyteller. This is true whether we are talking about writing or speaking. Tools can help, especially tools that amplify our ability to tell visual stories, but the greatest tools in the world will not make a bad idea great or turn an inauthentic presenter into an authentic one.
Multimedia—if you use it—comes last
Multimedia is wonderful. I love it. But my approach to preparation is pretty old school. This week, for example, students are making presentations where they share their ideas—their proposed solutions—to real world problems of their choosing. They are using slideware and video, etc., but before they ever began to organize slides, and other multimedia, they first organized their ideas and their approach around a very basic structure. And they did so without using any tech.
It's a very simple framework where they contrast the "ideal" with the way things really are today. Then they state the problems which contribute to this reality and offer up solutions or their "big idea" worth sharing. In the end they offer up a "next step" or an action for the audience to take. Through a process of brainstorming and discussion they end up with sketches or storyboards so that they can run through the basics of their argument or storyline in front of everyone. The sketches are very crude and basic, but that is fine. These sketches serve as storyboards that help the audience understand, and they help the presenter take the audience on a little journey. After the storyboard pitch, other students offer suggestions to improve the structure. When we feel like the basic structure makes sense then the student can go off on his own and dig deeper for evidence, examples, data, and so on and put together a compelling, engaging talk—using multimedia for visual support—based on the fundamental structure worked out in their storyboard pitch. Here are a few pics of students pitching their rough storyboard ideas last week, and one pic from a student who is presenting the final product today.
Students pitch their solutions to specific real-world economic and social problems in Japan and get feedback from the audience before they start designing the details of their actual presentations.
Here the student is making the actual presentation, having pitched her storyboard ideas last week. Her talk followed a basic structure of Ideal world, Reality, Problem (cause of the reality), Solutions (her ideas with evidence and support), and finally a Next Step or action for the audience, something to do or to ponder, etc. A different audience would not be aware of the structure underneath, but the structure was very helpful for the student presenter in crafting ideas, designing visuals, and building the narrative flow of the talk.
Great write-up. We are used to verbosity while we need to strive for brevity.
Posted by: Saad Shaikh | June 14, 2014 at 03:03 PM