When you’re looking for inspiration on how to structure a story, look no farther than your own television set.
According to a great article in today’s New York Times Magazine by Steven Johnson ("Watching TV Makes You Smarter"), television writers are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their narrative approach these days. And unbeknownst to us, as their writing becomes more sophisticated, our own expectations of visual stories become more sophisticated too.
Steven explains that a hit show like "24" weaves nine primary narrative threads through the show each week, and somehow we are able to weave a sense of coherence through it all. To judge how much our own media expectations have changed so quickly, he recommends watching a TV show from the 1970s, like Starsky and Hutch, to compare the experience and see how primitive those older shows seem today.
As the gap grows even wider between the sophisticated media expectations of audiences, and our own presentations and communications, our need to start learning how to communicate with media grows more urgent. Although our first instinct is to jump in and pick up a camera or start rendering 3-D, what we’re really talking about here is a writing issue, not a visual issue. It is only once we have a written story structure in place that we can begin to build visual surfaces that help us see what the story is really all about.
Tip: How’s your screenwriting coming along these days? If you want to advance your skills at writing narrative beyond the story template described in Beyond Bullet Points, check out the classics in screenwriting including Story by Robert McKee, Screenplay by Syd Field, or Stealing Fire from the Gods by Jim Bonnet. They’re all excellent resources for developing the basic media skills we all need to know to keep the narrative threads in our own lives in an understandable pattern.