In a previous post, I wrote about dating the stories to explain how I work my way inside the words to do a content or text analysis. That was two years ago, and I was only looking at film and TV back then, so methinks it’s about time we get an updated version. In case you’re new here, I’m talking about a way to listen/read/view and review other people’s stories.
Before I start, I want to make it clear that no matter what format it comes in, there is no right or wrong way to consume a story. The way I go about it is what works best for me, but it may not work for you. There’s only one way to find out. I’ve “perfected” my date night model over many years. It helps me gain a deeper understanding of what is going on in the story, and to figure out how I feel about it.
Before I set up the
pandemic panic writers’ room here on me ole ship, I had only ever analysed content and texts for professional purposes, applying an academic lens to the reading. However, As We Write was my way to step away from the beaten path and allow my creative writing side to grow wings. I figured if I wanted to get a deeper understanding of fictional storytelling, it would be neat if I could put my finger on what sells works well and what doesn’t. I wanted to know if it’s possible to say exactly what it is that makes a certain story successful, and what makes me, personally, tick. And to do that, I had to throw most of my old tricks and tools overboard.
This is where the dating analogy comes into the picture. I think the very first encounter with a new story is pretty similar to the very first encounter with a new person:
STAGE 1: YOU CHECK IT OUT
You spot them in the crowd, as there’s something about them that sticks out and attracts your attention. Sounds familiar? So what do we do when we see something we like? Well, I would begin with a tentative hello. As this is our first meeting, I’d try to find out who they are, what they do and where they’re from. And because we’re talking about a story, it’s perfectly acceptable to grab a pen and make some notes about the details we want to remember, like the title, important names (author, publisher/producer, characters/actors etc.), genre and the blurb. I.e. what it’s all about.
By the end of this first meeting, I already have a general idea about the story and whether it’s something I’d like to sink my teeth into. I’ll follow up with the Standard Online Stalking Protocol to make sure the information I have is correct. And to make sure that there are no glaring red flags I need to be aware of before I decide to proceed. Given that a story is not a physical person, Google, Wikipedia, YouTube and Pinterest are examples of sites I’ll use to suss these things out. (For people, I’d use Linked In and social media.)
Between them, these four sites will normally answer my initial questions and give me a better idea of what kind of fandom this particular story has. Which, I suppose, is the same as checking out what kind of crowd a new person is hanging with. Last of all, if I’m still interested in the person, I’ll get their contact details. The story equivalent, I guess, would be to watch the trailer(s) and/or read the blurb/synopsis.
The one thing I really don’t care about this early in the process is what other people have to say about my new object of desire. I prefer to make an informed decision based on my own experience and observations. As far as 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 good feeling about the title that suggests there is some kind of relationship potential there.
In other words, by now I should know the answer to questions like: What genre is it? Where is it set? Who’s the main character? What’s the “unique selling point”? And, maybe even more importantly, what makes me want to learn more about this person/title?
STAGE 2: THE FIRST DATE
If Stage 1 was successful and left me wanting more, this is where I suggest we go on our first date. Now you’ll have my undivided attention, and I’m really curious to find out how you will present yourself to me. What will you tell me? What do you want me to know about you? And what can I infer from all the non-verbal clues you give me, and the things you let slip without thinking about what you’re saying?
Taking as few breaks as possible, I’ll watch or read 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 title 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 things 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?
STAGE 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 pretty 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. 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/page it is so you can find it again.
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 title and chapter or episode as a unique object and study 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/Did 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 pay attention and try to understand the story or person. 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 that you know all of this about them?
STAGE 4: OH, WE’RE ALL IN NOW
If we’ve made it all the way here, it’s either some kind of love or I’m being paid to do it. Unless I’ve got a special reason to want to dig even deeper into the heart of a story. You know, like writing a blog post or trying to work out how something was done, for example.
Text and content analysis was something I fell in love with at uni. To be able to scrutinise a text, any text, and do some serious number crunching to find out things about them my eyes couldn’t see was thrilling. It still is. 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 their dissertations, it turned me into a veritable nightmare as I could always spot the difference between their own words and their 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 a text analysis tool. 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 their target audience.
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…)
NOW, LET'S GET IN THERE
At the end of this whole process, I know all that I could ever want to know about the story or person I’ve invested my time in. I know the surface-level stuff that anyone can find out just googling the title or with some creative social media stalking. But there’s so much more to a story/person than the surface. If I’ve gone into the deep end, I have sifted the wheat from the chaff and figured out how this cookie was made. As a writer, I consider that to be an invaluable lesson.
There is so much more to storytelling than the telling of a story. 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. To get an even better understanding of how great storytelling works and to find the courage to publish some of my own stories over the next 12 months.
And guess what? I’d love to see some of yours too!
Linnea Lucifer is the Captain of The Resilience, a weaver of stories, and a certified pain in the arse. She spends most of her days daydreaming and writing fantasy, smut and painfully crappy poems.
Named after a delicate little flower that grows in mossy, Swedish pine forests, and a fiery fallen angel, she takes great pleasure in everything that tickles the senses and adds a sprinkle of magic and spice to our world.