Finding the shape of your story

In December 2012 I attended the 28th International Papillomavirus Conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The second day of the pre-conference public health workshop was devoted to “The power of story: Learning storytelling techniques from Hollywood’s master storytellers.” I’ve already written two news item about this workshop; one about effective storytelling and a second about ‘fabulous white hot writing’. This one is about outlining, for finding the shape of a story, as presented by Sarah Watson, 
Co-Executive Producer, Parenthood (NBC). It was the second writing exercise of the workshop.

Let’s look at the rewrite of my first speed writing exercise, based on the highlighted salient words.

My childhood earache initially went away after my father gave me pills, but then it came back. My mother questioned me, “Are you sure it’s sore?”. I worried when it eased off again as doctor visits were expensive. However when the doctor syringed green goo out of my ear I felt enormous relief; I was really sick. My mother felt slightly guilty about not taking me to the doctor sooner.

Sarah talked about where we might start our story and what the backstory to this start might be. My story could begin with the car trip to the doctor’s, with the creation of a pre-visit backstory about whether I was really sick, and the medicine that had worked for a bit then worn off. This could include the seven-year-old me not wanting to make a fuss.

The story would then be about the doctor’s visit and include the extraction of green goo from my ear with the resulting relief on my part, and guilt on my mother’s part. The resolution to the story would be the doctor’s diagnosis and prescribed medicine.

These writing exercises, along with the tips about key story elements, can help writers and storytellers focus on what it is they’re trying to tell people. For example, when we tell a story of whānau transformation through their involvement with Whānau Ora what is the story we want to tell? Where should we start the story? What backstory should there be? What’s our underlying message and plot? Is there some point of resolution that helps us end our story?

The key element of vividness is about making our story interesting for people so they go on a journey with whanau and understand what their engagement with Whānau Ora has meant for them and their lives. At the same time we need to ensure we’re re-presenting whānau well in the stories we tell. This means that our storytelling should also be undertaken collaboratively with whānau.