Did We Get Everything?

In storytelling, I’ve found that there’s often a moment of truth at the end of an interview. For me, it used to be a moment of panic.

I'd go out to film someone’s story without much interview prep beforehand. I'd show up with a few questions handy just in case, but most of my attention went to figuring out gear and filming locations.

We’d arrive, set up, fine-tune our shots, and start rolling. I’d ask the person to share their story. I’d keep the conversation moving forward, making sure everyone was engaged. But my head was somewhere else. "How’s the light? Is that a plane flying overhead? This guy’s a talker. Oh they’ve got dogs, fantastic."

Most of the time, I was half-following a story I was half-familiar with, assuming we'd figure it out in post. Then suddenly, we'd arrive at the end of their story. And I had to make the call. Are we good? Should we go back and cover something again, or can we wrap up and pack down?

The real question was - is this going to work? Do we have a story here or not?

All of us want to do a great job. And when it comes to stories, each of us has a sense of what “great” means. We know when things are working and when they’re not. But it helps to understand how stories are built so that when we hit those moments of truth, we know what to do next.

Stories have an underlying structure - a beginning, a middle, and an end. They start somewhere, go somewhere, and land somewhere.

Imagine that you’re listening to your favorite song. You turn up the volume and you let it take over. You get into it. You know all your favorite parts, that one lyric, that big chorus where the band kicks in. You know that song and you love that song.

Now imagine that your friend just asked you to sing that song at her wedding. You still know and love the song, but now you have to learn it. You have to start studying how the song works. It probably starts with some sort of intro, then maybe a verse or two. Then comes the chorus, a bridge and a final chorus at the end. You have to understand how the song is built before you can share it with anyone else.

Stories work in much the same way as song. They are built. Each story is different, but there's always a structure guiding the narrative. If you’re listening to a great story, you probably won’t notice it. You’ll just be taking it in.

But if you’re attempting to tell a great story, if you want to craft and share stories effectively with an audience, you need to understand how stories are built. Like the verses and choruses of a song, stories are built around a structure of a character, a conflict and a resolution. This tension and release is part of what draws an audience into a great story and holds their interest all the way through.

There are several variants to the terms below, but this is a basic narrative structure of the events or “story turns” in each story we're seting out to tell.

  • EXPOSITION - We’re introduced to our character, who they are, where they’re from, what they want.
  • INCITING INCIDENT - Something goes wrong, it’s unwelcome and unexpected, now there’s a problem.
  • RISING TENSION - Our character tries to control things, it doesn’t work, things fall apart.
  • MOMENT OF TRUTH - Our character hits a wall, they’re out of options, God steps in.
  • FALLING TENSION - God changes a situation, transforms a perspective, our character realizes God is in control.
  • RESOLUTION - Things are different, our character knows things now, life is no longer the same.

This is the structure that virtually every story will follow. This is our beginning, middle and end. Making sure that your story turns are intact will help you know that you've covered what you need in your interview. And it will help you shape the story in your edit.

Next time you tell a story, before your interview, try mapping out your story using narrative structure. Think about how you want to take your audience through each story turn, and develop interview questions that clearly draws these moments out. Understanding narrative structure will help you take some of the guesswork out of your interview, and set you up to share a compelling story with your audience.