“Good stories have the power to transform our perceptions of the world.”
Andrew Stanton, a filmmaker at Pixar, is a master storyteller. His creations, which include the Toy Story series and Wall-E, are brought to life on the big screen by ground-breaking technology, but have at their heart the three vital elements of any story: character, setting and movement, as discussed in this previous blog.
Christopher Booker studied storytelling and identified ‘the Seven Basic Plots’ around which, he says, every story is structured: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage & Return, Comedy, Tragedy, Rebirth.
How each story is structured, though, can differ enormously, and journalists need to both be aware of and vary their narrative techniques to reach readers.
The most typical narrative structure, as identified by Martin Cortazzi, is based on responding to a series of questions: What’s it about? Who, when, what, where? Then what? So what? What finally happened? And ending with a ‘That’s it’ moment.
News journalists will typically seek to follow this structure and respond to these questions: a perusal of my local regional news site Worcester News throws up these two examples:
Both stories begin with a description of what happened, where and when — the abstract — before going on to give additional details to orientate readers. More context follows, including an element of evaluation, before the coda, or end, relates what happens next.
This style can also include temporal switches as the story moves back and forth in time and tense.
In longer form narratives, journalists have an opportunity to experiment and develop storylines and sub-plots, using a range of media and styles.
The unfolding story of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual appetite, harrassment and assaults of female actors has all the elements of one of his well crafted movies.
Primarily it is a story of ‘Overcoming the Monster’ — women finding the courage to stand up to and speak out about a powerful movie mogul.
Harvey Weinstein. Image by David Shankbone, Creative Commons licence
The New Yorker, which has tried and failed to pin down Weinstein stories in the past, has created a long form narrative bringing together the outcome of a 10-month investigation.
In this exceptional story, the reader is taken on a journey across time and tense as actors relate their experiences.
We are introduced first to Weinstein, a powerful, successful moviemaker and the driving force behind a swathe of well-loved films.
At Oscar ceremonies he has been
“thanked more than almost anyone else in movie history, just after Steven Spielberg and right before God.”
But then comes the turn and twist — he has also been the subject of innuendo and rumour about his sexual activity for more than 20 years.
From here on in, the focus of the New Yorker story is to explain the underlying narrative that led to Weinstein finally being exposed last week.
Audio recordings of Weinstein talking to and seemingly confessing to his activity appear, adding to the unfolding drama.
Throughout, the storyteller focusses on what writer T.P. Jagger calls ‘show, don’t tell’ or mimesis — the art of relating a person’s story by reproducing their words to demonstrate their character.
Through a series of interviews with women portraying Weinstein’s actions and demeanor, a picture is painted of a sleazy, power-hungry man who used his position to dominate and intimidate women.
It is clear we are learning about a situation that is “in flux”, with new revelations and developments daily, so there is as yet no resolution. We know Weinstein has said he is ‘getting help’ and is rumoured to be in Europe receiving support and therapy.
But as a reader it is clear there is more to come yet. We are gripped by what appears to be a soap-style drama, with new hooks yet to be revealed.
This is a story that lends itself perfectly to a longform narrative of the type created by the New Yorker. It is a format that has been used elsewhere, to less and more powerful effect.
The Guardian and many other media have told the story in a series of vignettes, producing new content for each development.
In this article, the actor Lea Seydoux is given the opportunity to relate her experience in the first person, using past tense to tell in graphic detail about the night Weinstein attempted to assault her. This is a very powerful device in these circumstances and reads almost like a court testimony:
The BBC, less effectively, also uses a ‘longform’ style in pulling together the range of accusers’ stories into a single narrative in a piece headed “The accusers’ stories”.
This lacks the resonance and power of the New Yorker version, reading like a ‘cut and paste’ article rather than a genuine attempt to shape a distinct narrative. We are not learning new information or hearing information direct from a source, so it lacks immediacy and any sense of intrigue – this is a ‘tell, don’t show’.
What all of the national and international media covering this story are being careful to do, however, is to ensure they are linking up the extensive range of material they are producing — what Andrew Blaine refers to as “connecting information.” Online publishers have made it easy to delve into previous and related articles by including links within and at the foot of each separate story.
There are, though, many more chapters of this story still to play out. The focus of investigation has in part switched away from Weinstein to the organisations and people around him, including famous actors and directors who may or may not have turned a blind eye to his activity. The blame game has begun, and there are likely to be more ‘monsters’ uncovered before it ends.
Additional references and reading:
Cortazzi, M: Narrative Analysis (1993) Falmer Press
Blaine, A: The Digital Reporter’s Notebook (2014)