When we work with people on finding and crafting their best stories, we use story structure to help us A) find the best material and then B) shape that material. Oftentimes when we’re introducing the basic elements of story structure, we get asked, “So what do these key moments in a story look like?” Text and verbal descriptions are compelling. But nothing is quite as compelling as a visual.
So, I’ve been using a dynamic technique for introducing and teaching the core elements of story structure. I call it Storyboarding. At seminars and workshops, I’ll ask the participants to do some prep work beforehand. I ask them to read Christopher Vogler’s famous memo on classical story structure being used in movies, so that they will have at least a basic familiarity with the key beats of a story. And I give them a homework assignment.
Here is the assignment I recently gave to participants in a Story Structure workshop:
• By reading one or two news articles online, familiarize yourself with the story of the pirate seizure of Captain Phillips from the Maersk Alabama. This story is currently being made into a movie.
• Think about how you would tell the story.
• Start to identify some key beats of the story, using story structure. A good introduction to story structure can be found in the famous memo by Christopher Vogler. (I provide a copy of the memo.)
• The task is to pick an important element of the story—whether it’s heeding the call, the point of no return, commitment, danger, returning home, etc.— and Storyboard that scene or moment. (I provide a Storyboard as a visual aid.)
At the workshop, we project the Storyboards one at a time onto a large screen, so that we can start to see which material from the real event people chose as key moments in the story they’d craft. And the key word there is “see.” Because of the Storyboards, we can actually “see” the story take shape, see what people are thinking as they start to organize raw material into compelling narratives. The secret is in having people seek to identify the elements from the real-world events that they believe serve core dramatic functions. It allows them to focus on the craft of “picking the best moments.”
What’s interesting, of course, is that one person’s idea of which part of the Maersk Alabama story should be the “Ordinary World” or “Heeding the Call” is quite different from another’s. This spawns interesting discussion. And we can see where making the right choices can make the difference between a good story and a great one. If you misidentify a moment, and try to shoehorn a lesser beat into a certain part of the story’s structure, try to make it play a role it’s not fit for, you can weaken the ability of your story to connect with audiences.
There is a surprising outcome to this process, when one does it dynamically with a group. In the end, what you end up with is an almost entirely story-boarded project, simply by threading each individual’s storyboard together into a collective storyline. The participants have, unwittingly, collaborated on crafting a story, even though they thought they were just dealing with one small moment.
These video clips, below, are from a recent workshop using the Maersk Alabama story as the basis. In these segments, we were dealing with one part of the story, what Vogler calls the “Ordinary World”:
“THE ORDINARY WORLD. The hero, uneasy, uncomfortable or unaware, is introduced sympathetically so the audience can identify with the situation or dilemma. The hero is shown against a background of environment, heredity, and personal history. Some kind of polarity in the hero’s life is pulling in different directions and causing stress.”