The Building Blocks of a Multimedia Story

You have pages of notes, hundreds of photos, and hours of audio and video. Now what?

Turning raw material into a cohesive and compelling story is the main challenge for a multimedia journalist. Often we have a sense that there is a story buried in there somewhere if we can just locate the essential elements and fashion them in narrative. As a teacher, I’m always looking for ways to help my students identify the building blocks of a story.

Here is some simple, yet effective, advice on how to structure a story from three  storytellers and educators:

“Anecdote and Moment of Reflection”

Ira Glass, the producer of the radio and television documentary show This American Life, says that every great audio or video story has two elements: an anecdote and a moment of reflection.

An anecdote is the sequence of actions that builds the momentum and raises questions to be answered. Stringing together a series of actions (this happens, and then this happens) makes the audience feel that they are moving toward a destination.

A moment of reflection is the point when someone clearly says, “here is the point of the story.”

Often a reporter will have one of the two elements, Glass says, but both are needed;

Your job to be ruthless and to understand that either you don’t have a sequence of actions that works or you don’t have a moment of reflection. And you are going to need both. In a good story you are going to flip back between the two… and that is the trick of the whole thing is to have the perseverance that if you have an interesting anecdote that you also can end up with an interesting moment of reflection that can support it…and that together it will add up to something that is more than the sum of its parts.

“Find the Arc of the Story”

Like a feature film or a book of fiction, a short piece of multimedia journalism can still have a story arc with a clear beginning, middle and end.

Mindy McAdams, who teaches online journalism at the University of Florida, says that the first question a reporter should ask when creating a multimedia piece like an audio slide show is “what do you intend to communicate?”

McAdams writes:

This might be the most common mistake that journalists make: Often we give little or no thought to this question and its answer. Much of the time, we go out and cover an event, and then our (text) story is simply what happened and who was there. In the time-honored tradition of humans telling stories to one another, this is at the low end of the scale — unless the event was, say, the Battle of Troy (which was rather more exciting than the average charity fund-raiser).

Once the reporter knows what she wants to communicate with the story, McAdams suggests finding the opening and closing of the story. A strong and clear beginning is essential to hook the audience. Then a piece should make a direct track toward the conclusion with the ending clearly in mind.

On endings, McAdams writes:

A solid, satisfying ending has two parts. They can be called the climax and the resolution, and even though that sounds a bit overblown for a two-minute story. I think you’ll tell a better story if you think of the ending in those terms. The climax is the destination, the place you’re taking the audience, in a straight line from the opening. It will come near the end of the story, but afterward, you also need to provide closure. Make it feel complete. That’s the resolution.

“Someone Does Something Because”

The Common Language Project is a nonprofit multimedia journalism organization that focuses on international reporting and journalism education. In one of its tutorials, Sarah Stuteville of CLP urges reporters to frame their stories as “someone does something because.”

For example, she writes;

Think of your story as someone does something because.  You should always be able to sum it up in that skeleton, fleshing it out as your story develops:
• Some guy starts a school in India because it’s a good thing to do.
• Sam Singh starts a school in India because he’s from there and wants to help the community.
• Sam Singh, a retired top executive for Dupont Corporation, founds a revolutionary vocational school for girls in rural India because he sees the need for development in rural communities in a country where the elite and the ‘technological class’ are moving fast and growing rapidly, often leaving the people – and potential – of rural communities behind.

In other words, the story should have character(s), action, and a motivation for those actions.

And the difference between a series of sound bites and a real story is the combination of all these elements.

For more on Sam Singh and the school see NPR’s recent multimedia story in photos, audio, maps, and text.

5 thoughts on “The Building Blocks of a Multimedia Story

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