If you were wondering how I go about dissecting the stories that interest me (and just so I don’t forget), I thought I’d make a post about my workflow. This is a system I have “perfected” over many years analysing different types of texts and finding interesting ways of presenting the information.
As I only have stories to watch on my current shortlist, we’ll focus on how I work with film, tv and video today. To me, this is like meeting a new person and getting to know them:
1) THE FIRST MEETING: You see them in the crowd and walk up to say hello and introduce yourself. At this first meet, you gather crucial info about them like who they are, where they are from and what they do. As our date, in this case, is a story, we make notes about things like the title, important people (author, producers etc), characters/actors, genre and what it’s all about.
Through this first glance, I get a general idea about the story I’m about to sink my teeth into. As it’s not actually a physical person, Google, Wikipedia, YouTube and Pinterest are examples of sites I’ll use to suss these things out. Between them, they’ll answer my initial questions and give me an idea of what kind of fandom this particular story has. Which, I suppose, is the same as checking out what kind of crowd this new person is hanging with. Last of all, if I’m still interested in the person, I’ll get their contact details. In this case, the equivalent would be to watch the trailer(s) and read the blurb/synopsis.
The one thing I don’t care about at this early stage of a new acquaintance is what other people have to say about them. I prefer to make an informed decision based on my own experience and observations. As far as it’s possible, I’ll avoid reading or watching any reviews of my new potential love interest. What matters to me is whether I’ve got a first view that tells me enough to know where I want this relationship to go. In other words, by now I should know the answer to questions like: What genre is it? Where is it set? Who is/are the main character(s)? What’s the “unique selling point”? What kind of question marks, or uncertainties, have arisen?
2) THE FIRST DATE: Provided Stage 1 was successful and I left wanting more, this would be where we go on our first real date. Now you have my undivided attention and I am really curious to find out how you will present yourself t me. What will you tell me? What do you want me to know about you? And what can I infer from all the clues you give me without saying something or even thinking about it?
Taking as few breaks as possible, I’ll watch the story from start to finish. (In case it’s a series, I watch one film or season at a time.) I rarely stop to make notes at this stage, unless something is bugging me. The point of this exercise is to enjoy the experience of watching the story unfold. If I’m watching on a streaming site, I will keep watching film after film, or season after season, until I’ve seen all of it. But I’ll make some notes for each film or season, similar to how you might write an entry in your diary or text/call your bestie to let them know about your date(s). Each new film/season in this case is like another date where you learn even more about the person.
What’s important to write down at this stage are thing like: What’s your first impression? How does it make you feel? What do you like/dislike? What kind of questions do you have? This is pretty much exactly the same as when you’re dating someone new. What are you learning and how do you feel about it? And maybe even more to the point: Do you want to see them again?
3) ENTERING INTO A RELATIONSHIP: If dating them has left you wanting more, you may find yourself entering into a relationship of some kind with them. Which, as you may know, is where shit tends to get real. And that is where much the case in content analysis too. So now, we starting all over again.
From the beginning, watch the story unfold as if you were holding it under a looking glass. Now, you’re Sherlock and you’re looking for clues to tell you that you were right about this. Watch and stop every time you come across something worth noting down. Make sure you keep records of both what you’ve found and at which timestamp it is.
This is the make or break point for any relationship. Will they live up to the image they gave us when we were dating? Are things, in fact, as they seemed or have we been deceived? Is there more to this story than what meets the eye? Now, I treat each film, programme and episode as a unique object and watch them carefully, making notes as I go along. Facts, figures, questions, weird shit, cross-references, quotes, and whatever else draws my attention will be meticulously recorded in my observation log. This is where I begin to feel like I’m really getting to know the story. It is a time-consuming process, but it can be immensely satisfying.
When you really dig into something like this, it is possible that you’ll see, and hear, things that will lead to a breakup. In nerd-terms, that’s when we DNF (Do Not Finish) the story and move on to something else. But it is, of course, just as possible that this is the stage where we grow to love them. Warts and all. In my experience, with stories as well as people, it all hangs on our willingness to watch, listen and try to understand where they are coming from. Who are they really? Where did they come from? And how hard did they have to work to get here? What choices did they (have to) make? What price did they pay? Can you relate? Understand? Forgive? How do you feel about them now?
4) WE’RE ALL IN NOW: If we’ve made it all the way here, it’s either true love or (if we’re talking about a story) I’m being paid to do it. Unless I’ve got a special reason (like writing a blog post or trying to work out how something was done) to want to dig even deeper into the heart of a story.
Text and content analysis was something I fell in love with at uni. Being able to take a text, any text, and subject it to some serious number crunching that could tell me a lot about the writer and their intended audience really appealed to me. Since then, I’ve become something of an expert at dissecting texts and figuring out what they can tell me. As a supervisor for students working on dissertations, it turned me into a veritable nightmare as I could always spot the difference between their own words and poorly disguised attempts at plagiarism. But I digress.
The point of this stage, if you decide to take it that far, is dedication. It’s all about the text now. Starting all over for the third time, I’ll get the script down to run it through the text analysis. This tells me a lot about how it was written, but it can also give me an insight into the person who wrote it and the audience they intended it for. It is also possible that I’ll see things with fresh eyes or notice something that passed me by before. Indeed, I often find it surprising how many new things you can discover when you study a story for the third time. (Or, by all means, the fourth, fifth and sixth times. Yep, I have been known to nerd out and go over certain texts again and again over the years…)
At the end of all this, I will know all that I could ever want to know about the story I’ve invested my time in. I’ll know the surface level stuff that anyone can find out just by googling the title. But there’s so much more to it than that. When I’m done, I will have sifted the wheat from the chaff and learned something about how this cookie was made. And as a writer, I consider that to be an invaluable lesson.
There is so much more to storytelling than just the telling of a story. And if you really want to be a better writer, you can learn something from every story you study. Even if, and perhaps even particularly if, you thought the story was bad. Or badly written.
I guess that’s what I’m hoping to achieve here in my pandemic panic room. An even better understanding of how storytelling works and the courage to start sharing some of my own stories.
And guess what? I’d love to see yours too!