Storytelling 101: The Backstory Isn’t The Story

BY CHRIS TAYLOR | Senior Director | Ball State Sports Link

Sports Link students during an interview with Ball State Football’s Sean Wiggins.

The great Wright Thompson is one of, if not, my favorite writer.  Why?

“It’s all about the scenes,” Thompson said. “Scenes are what allow you to show instead of tell. They’re the engine of a narrative arc. They make the thing go.”

In Sports Link, we pride ourselves on storytelling.  It honestly is what separates us from every other program out there.

I firmly believe anyone can run a camera, get a soundbite or produce a live event where the audience is simply observing.

However, very few can do those where the audience feels like they are IN the production.

Whether that’s a live game on ESPN, play-by-play on the radio, a meet-the-athlete package or the layered feature story.

It’s the foundation of storytelling regardless of the platform, especially in today’s fast-paced, digital age.   In today’s gone-in-60-seconds media culture and with attention spans even shorter, it’s important for my students to know the story still wins.

There’s a reason why Thompson, Tom Rinaldi, Seth Davis and pick any producer at ESPN’s E:60 are so good.  It’s because they work hard. They hang around, looking for moments, trying to find the tiny pieces of a day that bring something alive.  This involves active scene hunting: being everywhere you can possibly be to see interactions.

All the hard won, hard-to-find, hard work in finding scenes in the world is meaningless if you can’t provide motivation — the “why”.  It’s why some scenes are viewed like great filkmaking and others seem like an obligatory moment tacked on top of a feature.

What I implore to my students, when they are interviewing — and while they are PRODUCING — is to ask a lot of questions after observing to get inside people’s heads. It’s vital. This is where backstory is useful.

When do students make the jump to a professional?  To me, it’s when they realize the backstory isn’t the story.  It’s the stuff that makes the current decisions, dilemmas, etc. make sense. Use it wisely. Use it carefully.

Nothing can kill a story more than misplaced backstory. But it is vital to showing motivation, the stakes, the odds and the risks. Think about how information is given out in movies or novels. That’s what a storyteller is aiming for.  That’s what Sports Link is striving for consistently.

In Sports Link, we like for the student-athletes to have input in their story.
In Sports Link, we like for the student-athletes to have input in their story.

I’ve continued to recall a moment Martin Khodabakhshian shared with my crew recently.  Not every story is an “A” story, but every story deserves an “A” effort.

The story is more important than any individual part.

People who tell you to lead a feature with your best thing are, to me, wrong.  That’s not the way to think about it. Which leads us back to story structure and scenes.

A simple way of thinking about it is the first section of a feature story asks a question and the rest of the story answers it. A scene that does this for you is gold. It is the story in miniature in a way, sets a tone and introduces a character.

The end scene needs some of the same qualities, but also requires something a bit different. The story should be leading to a hammer. I encourage the most powerful revelatory moment be the in the middle or near the end, but remember to “tie the knot”.

One thing I know for sure, my students know this by the time the graduate: the facts are the tools for the job, not the job itself.  A great story isn’t a vehicle for information, it goes deeper than that.  Thinking about what you have cinematically helps a lot.

The idea of a feature isn’t to show viewers  — or tell readers — all the info about someone or something. It is to create a world. Your audience should understand the subject of the feature — just telling them lots of cool facts and formative moments isn’t enough. It’s only halfway there.

And as Thompson says: “If your work speaks for itself, don’t interrupt.”

Author: Chris Taylor

Senior Director of Ball State Sports Link & Digital Sports Production | Lecturer of Telecommunications | 2019 Dean's Faculty Award Winner | 2017 Recipient of SVG College Sports Summit Pioneer Award | Storyteller | Producer | Emmy Award Winner | Sports Media Junkie | Social Media Strategist | Certified Bob Ross® Instructor | Country Music Enthusiast | Goldendoodle Owner | Follow me on Twitter @BallStateCT

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