Narrative structure: How to compose the best story for your footage

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You’ve heard it before: every story needs a beginning, middle and end. What those are in your video or podcast, though, is up to you — as are the characters, the setting, the plot, the conflict, the resolution, and which friend gets to see the finished product first. It’s enough to be overwhelming.

Luckily, people have been writing stories for centuries, and they’ve hit upon some winning formulas that you can use to guide your own. 

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Who’s driving?

Stories need characters, obviously. And if you want to craft a brilliant, character-driven story, your characters need purpose. Think Taxi Driver or Nomadland — it’s Robert DeNiro’s and Frances McDormand’s complex main characters that drive those stories forward.

A great place to start when building out a character-driven story is to have your characters describe or exhibit a personal change over the course of the narrative — a character arc. It’s okay if the story doesn’t end with a clear resolution, as long as your audience gains something from their journey.

If your story isn’t character-driven, it’s plot-driven. Think Lord of the Rings or Star Wars — these are classic plot-driven stories. Yes, there are strong characters, but the story is being driven primarily by the complexity of the plot. 

The building blocks of a story

Whether your story is character-driven or plot-driven, you’ll need to include the following building blocks: 

  • Scenes
  • Context
  • Meaning/insight

Scenes are your opportunity to yank the audience into the story. Something that humanizes or exemplifies your idea. For example, if your story is about how climate change is affecting van-dwellers in North America, the opening sequence might be a van-dweller hanging their clothes to dry in the hot and smoke polluted environment outside their van. 

Once you’ve set the scene, you can give your audience some context by placing the moment where it belongs in the broader world as you want your audience to understand it. For example, some interview footage of your van dweller talking about how in recent years, it feels like they’ve been driving from one extreme weather event to another. 

Just as character-driven stories need purpose, plot-driven stories need insight. You need to be able to draw some kind of conclusion from your first scene. This will give your story its narrative structure, taking it from its starting moment to its conclusion.

In the early stages of building a narrative structure, you’ll want to ask yourself these questions: 

  • Who are your characters?
  • What are their actions?
  • What insights do you want your audience to gain from your story? 

Once you’ve got a solid answer to these three questions, you’ll likely be able to identify which narrative structure you should work with. 

Narrative structures

There are no hard rules with narrative structure, but there are definitely some tried and tested arcs, which is always a great place to start. Here are three of the most popular: 

The “e” story

Also known as “in medias res” — a Latin phrase meaning “in the middle of things” — this type of structure is a favorite of novelists, filmmakers, and podcasters alike. The story begins at the height of the action, and questions like “how did we get here?” drive a large part of the narrative tension. For this reason, “e” shaped stories rely on a strong hook or opening moment. If you’re going to drop a listener into your story without any preamble, they had better be arriving at an exciting point in time! Once they’re invested, you can go back and fill in the gaps before continuing on from the original moment into the climax or resolution.

The complete “e” story narrative arc should look like this:

  1. Hook
  2. Rising Action
  3. Explanation (backstory)
  4. Climax
  5. Falling Action
  6. Resolution

That might sound like a lot of storytelling, but not every “e” story needs to be lengthy. Listen to this short episode from The Daily by Michael Barbaro on "The Agony of Pandemic Parenting." 

Pay attention to where the story starts. When does Barbaro back up to give us more backstory? When does his story reach its climax? What, and when, is the resolution?

The question story

If your story is complex and technical, dropping a listener into an exciting moment could be confusing. One of the best ways to open a story like this is with an explicit question. The question story is more about the journey than one particular climatic moment. Imagine holding your audience’s hand as you walk them through an exploration of your topic. It’s a favorite among news podcasts. For example, most episodes from the New York Times’ The Daily and Canada’s The Big Story adopts a question story structure, as do most “How To…” videos on YouTube!

The mystery story

Similar to the question story structure, mystery stories also begin with a query. Mystery stories have a central character — either an interviewee or the reporter — who plays a detective uncovering clues. What sets them apart is that the reveal comes toward the end, rather than in a signpost at the beginning of the piece. Listen to any Serial podcast, or browse “social and cultural documentaries” on Netflix and you'll have a good sense of the effectiveness of a mystery story. But true crime and societal investigations aside, mystery stories can also be deployed on a smaller scale to great effect, especially when it comes to science stories

There is one catch to mystery stories. You have to be able to deliver on that “reveal” to make it worthwhile for your listener. Sure, programs like Serial have deployed creative techniques to address the unanswerable mystery in the past, but generally, if you promise your audience to answer a question and then fail to do so, you risk leaving them disappointed. So make sure you know where your story is going to wind up, and what takeaways you’re going to give your audience so that they feel satisfied. 

Whichever narrative structure you choose for your story, it’s a good idea to adopt one early, ideally before you begin gathering footage. It’ll place you in the right frame of mind to be thinking about what the opening to your “e story” could be, who to interview for your mystery story, or how to humanize your question story, for example. Just remember to identify those characters, their actions, and what insights you want your audience to learn. If you do this first, the rest will be a walk in the park.

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