You have been reporting and reporting. Hours of interviews. Gigabytes of video. You’re ready to write. And then you face it, The Monolith of Your Own Making. You have so much that you don’t know where to go with it. The story is actually 13 potential stories, depending on what material you use. There’s a moment of panic, possibly accompanied by compulsive cookie eating. You have too much stuff and don’t know where to go.
I’d like you to meet a concept called “storyboxing,” which is a way to build structure for multimedia stories. It’s a visual concept and it feels a lot like outlining with one big exception: We group multimedia assets — photos, video, graphics — by themes. That allows us to move an entire theme within a story’s structure without wrecking the rest of the structure. This is predicated on a simple idea: Every asset within a theme directly supports the theme. The theme directly supports a statement about what the story is about. Therefore, every asset supports what the story is about.
Step 1: The Story Statement and the Motor
Ideally we want stories that are “narrow-deep,” tightly focused that don’t wander. So we need to start with a simple statement about the story. I’m a big believer that if you can’t summarize your story in a simple sentence, you don’t know what the story is yet. So I push our students to develop a single-sentence story statement. And because I’m not subtle, it starts with This story is about…
In our story here, the story is about the growing phenomenon of ticks biting people and making them allergic to animal proteins. The story statement is the beginning of our contract with the audience —we want them to understand what’s going to be in the story. We want it to be narrow and focused. But we want it to reflect the depth we have in the story. The story statement is going to function like our nut graf. It’s going to provide a roadmap to us as we create the story; it’s also going to control what we do and don’t put into our story. Ideally, it will have the foundational fact of the story (essentially the story’s verb that acts on everything else) and the themes that we’re going to approach within the piece. Then we’ll right a motor, or a conflict statement. That’s what propels the story along — where our conflict statement comes from.
Story statement: A bite from a Lone Star tick can make a person allergic to meat — and Missouri’s Lone Star tick population is increasing.
Motor: This once-rare occurrence is happening a lot more than it used to and anyone who is exposed to ticks is at risk.
Step 2: Broad Thematic Areas
The end of the story statement above continues three topics or themes. That’s going to be our structure. They relate directly to and support the story’s overall idea. I tend to use a three-theme structure, because it mimics the three-act structure that works so well in a 3-minute broadcast enterprise piece. But you can make it longer. Just remember that everything has to go directly back to the story statement.
Here, we’ve introduced three broad thematic areas:
1. A simple tick bite can have serious consequences
2. What happens after the tick bite
3. The tick population in Missouri is getting bigger and there’s no cure.
Step 3: Building Waypoints into the Themes
We’ve spent a lot of time so far on developing the big pieces — what the story is about and how we’re going to get them. It’s time to get into the weeds. And that’s another advantage of storyboxing: I don’t have to think about anything except the theme I’m working on. Because if the details support the theme, everything will work out fit at the end. So let’s look at the theme “What happens after the tick bite.” I want to hit more than just a simple idea in a theme, so I need to create a mini-outline. I call these waypoints, because they’re essentially navigational checkpoints in each theme that keep me from getting lost. The first point I want to make in this theme is introducing my two characters, the Alpha-Gal protein and Mary Jones, my central character. Another point I want to make in this theme is the moment where everything changed in the central character’s life.
What’s the advantage of that? Why can’t we just start throwing assets into the box? Because the best stories have a macro-structure and a micro-structure. There’s a place for everything and everything has its place. The waypoints assure us that will happen.
Step 4: Attaching assets
This is the easy part. Assuming you know what your content is. Let’s say you’ve logged or transcribed your footage or whatever. All you have to do is find the right thing for the waypoint. You as yourself a simple question: “Does this directly support the waypoint?” Because if you’ve done the previous steps right, your waypoints support your themes and your themes support your story statement. This approach means you don’t have to worry about killing a darling that would take your story off wandering. Because it will never pass the “Does this directly support the waypoint?” test.
Step 5: The box
When all the assets are attached, we essentially have “themes in a box.” Everything that lines up under a theme is attached to that theme. Each theme is complete as is. It can stand on its own. We can examine our structure from a 35,000-foot perspective. If something doesn’t fit, we can shift it around. But we’re dealing with structure at a macro level here. So we’re shifting a theme, rather than the minutiae of a single fact; that heavy lifting has already been done in the above steps.
Let’s say that we designed the story with a soft-feature top. But a new case of the disease has been reported and the news director wants it for the top of the newscast, so it needs to have a hard top beyond whatever the anchor’s intro is going to say. We can easily swap out that first theme where we develop the character for the second theme. The character-development theme slides back into the second slot and we’ve saved a bunch of time and heartburn.
That’s pretty much it. Does it work? I’ve had students use storyboxes for six years and I can see a definite difference between stories that use it and don’t. My teaching partner and I have been requiring students in our junior-level multimedia reporting class to storybox every story for the last two years. Stories are coming in more focused and roam less than they used to. And we spend less time in structural revision than we used to.
But I’ll leave the last word to one of my students who still uses it in her work at a major network: “I still go back to this when I have trouble.”
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