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.