Tag Archives: tv

Learning storytelling from a Sitcom writer

What is a story? How can you tell better stories?

There is a wealth of knowledge and research into story telling, story structure and techniques for enhancing narrative. The classic text is The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, but this tome has been is criticised for being dense and academic. Syd Field‘s book Screenplay has influenced the writing of many recent movies, but Field has been criticised for never producing a successful script himself.

If only a successful writer would set out clearly and accessably the theory behind writing a good story.

Enter Dan Harmon the creator of the superb TV series Community. He learned his craft developing short episodes for the internet TV station Channel101. Channel101 runs a monthly screening of low budget (or zero budget), five minute episodes. They’re often over the top, vulgar, and hilarious. Check out (not at work!) the ridiculous Laser Fart, the viral sensation Chad Vader, and the teen drama pastiche The ‘Bu.

Despite the silliness of the episodes they exhibit a compelling writing style that Harmon attributes to his understanding of storytelling. Harmon wrote a series of articles to teach perspective submitters to Channel101 how to write a well structured story. The basis of these articles is a series of eight elements that should be included in every story. The eight points are:

  1. You – Who are we? A squirrel? The sun? A red blood cell? America? By the end of the first 37 seconds, we’d really like to know.
  2. Need - something is wrong, the world is out of balance. This is the reason why a story is going to take place. The “you” from (1) is an alcoholic. There’s a dead body on the floor. A motorcycle gang rolls into town. Campbell phrases: Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Supernatural Aid.
  3. Go – For (1) and (2), the “you” was in a certain situation, and now that situation changes. A hiker heads into the woods. Pearl Harbor’s been bombed. A mafia boss enters therapy. Campbell phrase: Crossing of the Threshold. Syd Field phrase: Plot Point 1.
  4. Search – adapting, experimenting, getting shit together, being broken down. A detective questions suspects. A cowboy gathers his posse. A cheerleader takes a nerd shopping. Campbell phrases: Belly of the Whale, Road of Trials. Christopher Vogler phrase: Friends, Enemies and Allies.
  5. Find – whether it was the direct, conscious goal or not, the “need” from (2) is fulfilled. We found the princess. The suspect gives the location of the meth lab. A nerd achieves popularity. Campbell phrase: Meeting with the Goddess. Syd Field phrase: mid-point. Vogler phrase: Approach to the Innermost Cave.
  6. Take – The hardest part (both for the characters and for anyone trying to describe it). On one hand, the price of the journey. The shark eats the boat. Jesus is crucified. The nice old man has a stroke. On the other hand, a goal achieved that we never even knew we had. The shark now has an oxygen tank in his mouth. Jesus is dead- oh, I get it, flesh doesn’t matter. The nice old man had a stroke, but before he died, he wanted you to take this belt buckle. Now go win that rodeo. Campbell phrases: Atonement with the Father, Death and Resurrection, Apotheosis. Syd Field phrase: plot point 2
  7. Return – It’s not a journey if you never come back. The car chase. The big rescue. Coming home to your girlfriend with a rose. Leaping off the roof as the skyscraper explodes. Campbell phrases: Magic Flight, Rescue from Without, Crossing of the Return Threshold.
  8. Change – The “you” from (1) is in charge of their situation again, but has now become a situation-changer. Life will never be the same. The Death Star is blown up. The couple is in love. Dr. Bloom’s Time Belt is completed. Lorraine Bracco heads into the jungle with Sean Connery to “find some of those ants.” Campbell phrases: Master of Both Worlds, Freedom to Live.

They sound simplistic. But in the article Harmon dissects well known movies and Channel101 episodes explaining how they conform to this structure.

Story Structure Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.

As a member of a public speaking organisation I frequently tell stories in front of an audience. Reading these articles has changed my approach to story telling. Rather than beginning with a blank page I plan the progression of my story using Harmon’s eight points as subheadings, and attempt to give the correct emphasis to every point.

For more insights from Dan Harmon you can check out his website or twitter. And I highly recommend his appearance on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast (bad language a plenty).

Child Development: Content, Not Medium, Matters (Why Sesame Street Beats Teletubbies)

Debates have raged over the last couple of years on the effects (detrimental or not) of television, computer games (violent or not) and the Internet on a child’s cognitive development. Taking excerpts from a review article that provides an excellent summary of the topic, Jonah Lehrer makes it clear: for a child’s cognitive development, the medium doesn’t matter but the content is crucial.

First, an explanation of why this is:

In the same way that there is no single effect of “eating food,” there is also no single effect of “watching television” or “playing video games.” Different foods contain different chemical components and thus lead to different physiological effects; different kinds of media have different content, task requirements,and attentional demands and thus lead to different behavioral effects.

And some findings on how development is affected by various children’s shows:

  • Sesame Street is associated with “a wide assortment of positive outcomes, including improved performance on measures of school readiness, expressive language capabilities, numeracy skills and vocabulary size”.
  • Similar effects have been found for Blue’s Clues, Dora the Explorer and Clifford the Big Red Dog.
  • Teletubbies is associated with the slowing down of early education.
  • Material targeted to infants, such as Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby are awful: “each hour of daily viewing between the ages of 8 and 16 months led to a significant decrease in the pace of language development” and a 17 point decrease in language skills (in comparison, “daily reading with a parent was associated with a 7 point increase in the language skills of 2 year olds”).

As for video games, action games have been associated with “a number of enhancements in vision, attention, cognition, and motor control”.

The article goes on to describe the required format for children’s television shows that wish to promote early literacy: “the use of child-directed speech, elicitation of responses, object labeling, and/or a coherent storybook-like framework throughout”. In other words, they need to “engage the young viewer, […] elicit direct participation from the child, provide a strong language model, avoid overloading the child with distracting stimulation, and include a well-articulated narrative structure”.

via @TimHarford

Motivation and the Cognitive Surplus

This short discussion between Clay Shirky and Daniel Pink on cognitive surplus and motivation is full of little insights and allusions to interesting pieces of research.

This, from Dan Pink, is a wonderful overview of the research into motivation, presented in typical Pink clarity:

We have a biological drive. We eat when we’re hungry, drink when we’re thirsty, have sex to satisfy our carnal urges. We also have a second drive—we respond to rewards and punishments in our environment. But what we’ve forgotten—and what the science shows—is that we also have a third drive. We do things because they’re interesting, because they’re engaging, because they’re the right things to do, because they contribute to the world. The problem is that, especially in our organizations, we stop at that second drive. We think the only reason people do productive things is to snag a carrot or avoid a stick. But that’s just not true. Our third drive—our intrinsic motivation—can be even more powerful. […]

Both of us cite research from University of Rochester psychologist Edward Deci showing that if you give people a contingent reward—as in “if you do this, then you’ll get that”—for something they find interesting, they can become less interested in the task. When Deci took people who enjoyed solving complicated puzzles for fun and began paying them if they did the puzzles, they no longer wanted to play with those puzzles during their free time. And the science is overwhelming that for creative, conceptual tasks, those if-then rewards rarely work and often do harm.

via Link Banana

Technological Affluence and Happiness (Everything Except TV is Good)

In a study probing the association between ‘technological affluence’ and general well-being it was found that computers, mobile phones and music players increased self-reported levels of happiness, while television ownership decreased it.

That is: the ownership of most modern technological goods makes us happy, except for televisions, which make us sad.

Using self-reported life satisfaction as a measure of subjective well-being we find that a fixed phone, a mobile phone, a compact disk player, a computer and an Internet connection are all associated with higher levels of well-being, whereas television sets are associated with lower levels. We further provide evidence suggesting that the level of mobile and broadband penetration matters for life satisfaction as well. Our estimates indicate that, at a minimum, an individual requires a 10% increase in GDP per capita as compensation to [cease] holding these products. Further implications suggest that increasing mobile penetration by 10% has limited effects on implied GDP per capita, contrary to a similar increase in broadband penetration.

via Tim Harford

The Rise of Cooking Shows, the Fall of Cooking (and Happiness)

I almost ignored this bit-too-long piece on the rise of the TV cooking show and the simultaneous fall of the home cooked meal (via @borrodell).

That decline has several causes: women working outside the home; food companies persuading Americans to let them do the cooking; and advances in technology that made it easier for them to do so. Cooking is no longer obligatory, and for many people, women especially, that has been a blessing. But perhaps a mixed blessing, to judge by the culture’s continuing, if not deepening, fascination with the subject. It has been easier for us to give up cooking than it has been to give up talking about it — and watching it.

But combined with this short article discussing the joys a cooking show brought to one family, and the myriad benefits it brought to their children, I felt they were perfect complements.

A funny thing happened on the way through the cooking show obsession. What we were seeing on the screen began trickling into our kitchen. The kids suddenly perked up during our weekly visits to the local farmers’ market, insisting on checking out exotic fruits and vegetables and, even better, buying, preparing, and eating them. […]

What are they learning? How do I count the ways? Fine motor skills from chopping garlic. Multi-tasking from sautéing vegetables in olive oil. (Case in point is their startling realization that you can’t just leave a saucepan unattended; this skill requires the need to overcome any tendencies for ADD.) They’ve honed their organization and math skills, practiced quick thinking, and stretched to develop some original ideas. […] And, best of all, my kids are actually eating and enjoying copious vegetables and a variety of other healthful and exotic foods.

The latter article also notes that a strong negative correlation has been found between the amount of television watched and happiness. This does not surprise me.