Nine Narrative Threads

When you’re looking for inspiration on how to structure a story, look no farther than your own television set. 

Ninenarratives 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.

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4 Responses to “Nine Narrative Threads”

  1. No matter how clever the script some of the techniques used can become, well, over-used.

    I enjoyed watching West Wing much more before my wife casually glancing it for a few minutes said “why are they always walking and talking at the same time”.

    Now all I see is the characters walking and talking at the same time and the intelligent dialog somehow now comes second to that.

  2. cliff says:

    Good point Mike! It highlights the need for us to continually keep things fresh, interesting and innovative.

  3. Jim says:

    I attended a networking event and listened to Jeff Baggott ( talking about the making of a film for the publc understanding of Nanotechnology. He talked of the challenge of creating alternative illustrations of Nano that were correct representations of reality and of the challenges of
    1) creating a storyboard
    2) finding those key images to anchor the story at key points
    3) animating, shooting and editing
    The key was iteration … create enough to test, solicit feedback.. improve existing, add a piece more… solicit….etc.
    The story is very powerful and seems to reinforce the view we need to stretch at every episode.

  4. cliff says:

    Sounds like an interesting talk, Jim. And probably a good opportunity to try out nano-storyboarding, where the storyboard is projected on the wall and a group can collaborate together on story ideas…

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