Recently, I’ve been listening to a lot of This American Life. It’s a radio show that comes on public radio’s WBEZ Chicago. I don’t live in Chicago, or anywhere else where it broadcasts, so I listen to the podcast on my daily commute. You can listen to their podcast either from iTunes or via their Web site here: http://thislife.org (It’s so much better if you can get it on an iPod or mp3 player of some sort. No one listens to radio from a Web site)
The reason why I bring up this show, is because they have an incredibly gifted way of telling stories. They have perfected the narrative of a story unlike anything else I’ve seen. Each of their stories enraptures the mind and single-handedly turns my commute to one of experiencing a riveting feature film.
Just take this one story called Life After Death about people dealing with a death they inadvertently caused. Or for something a little less tragic, try The Break-Up. A story about what it’s like to go through the one event that most people have gone through at one time or another. The second story in that show is even more incredible. Listen to either of these, or some of the other more compelling shows on their site, and any person can see the power of storytelling.
I guess what I’ve learned from This American Life is that the narrative is not dead. We’ve just forgotten about it. With the glitz and glamor of multimedia, we often lose sight of the part that matters most; the content. And this is coming from a Flash Instructor who advocates the need for stronger design and user-interface principles in most news packages. Sure, those things are important too, but we need to think more about the narrative arc, and weaving a person through a linear story.
Now, I know what most people think when I say this — ‘we DO think about the story, it’s ALL we think about.’ But I think we become so infatuated with what the story is, we lose sight of how we tell that story.
Okay, maybe that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but to give an example, some of the best qualities of stories involve words like like “texture” that part of the story that allows me to feel through senses other than my eyes. Or how about “surprise;” giving me a sense of suspense or tension and surprising me with something I could never have expected. Or how about “dimension” or “perspective;” there is nothing better than a story that completely turns my naive perceptions and assumptions completely upside down and opens my eyes to a larger world.
These are the qualities that screen writers or novelists take a person through. Why shouldn’t they apply more to journalism? In fact, we have a distinct advantage because our stories are real. And even more so, we’re dealing with a brand new medium. One that is incredibly flexible and capable to do things storytellers could never do before. Novelists can’t get immediate feedback from their readers, and screenwriters can’t give their viewers choices about how they want to navigate a feature film. Multimedia, I believe, can tell stories unlike anyone has ever experienced. Check out The Oregonian’s Living to the End and tell me that story could have the same effect as only a print piece, a TV piece or even a radio piece. It’s everything that makes it so riveting. Seeing the comments, the photos, the stories… the whole package. And that’s just one example
The possibilities are endless.