Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Lesson For Writers and Other Storytellers

For those few who may have missed it, there's a video going around the internet by a group called Invisible Children.  It seeks to expose a warlord named Joseph Kony and his habit of abducting children and using them as sex slaves or child soldiers.  If you haven't seen it, go watch it.  It's interesting, and not just for the content.

Now, I'm not going to talk about Kony or how horrible what he's doing is.  Lot of people are talking about it, many of them way more qualified than I.  Besides, I think the video makes those points all on it's own.

What I found really fascinating was the response to it from the mainstream media, as shown here by Jon Stewart.  What I found fascinating is the complaints, not about the factual errors in the video but about how popular it is.  Kony has been doing this for 26 years.  Some of these media personalities said they'd been reporting on him for 8 years or more.  People had asked President Obama last year to address the issue with Kony.  And no one cared.

Now, some nobody makes an internet video and everyone cares.  This leaves the mainstream media scratching their heads.  But why? 

To me, it shows first what Jon Stewart points out, that most people stopped watching the mainstream media a long time ago.  I'll admit I watch The Daily Show and The Colbert Report more faithfully than any real news source.  Mostly I watch the news for the weather reports, when I don't feel like looking it up online. 

Mainly, I hate that the news is usually just about murders and other spectacular deaths, with a bit of scandal and corruption thrown in for good measure.  I'd have to watch hours of news to find any topics I'm actually interested in, and I can find that information faster online. 

However, the second point is what I really want to talk about --the way the video tells it's story.  It does an amazing job, which I think is the big lesson the media, and writers like myself, should learn from. 

The video doesn't jump straight into non-stop images of death and atrocities.  In fact, it starts off addressing the viewer, with images they should all be familiar with, things that make them feel comfortable.  Then it moves to introducing the narrator and making him someone you want to trust and listen to. 

When it does move to the real point, it does so on a personal level.  The narrator introduces one person, one child, named Jacob.  And he introduces Jacob, not as the destitute refugee child, but as the happy man he has become.  We see Jacob smiling, petting a dolphin for the first time, and other short clips.  We like this guy. 

Then we meet him as the refugee child, we get to see his pain, his hopelessness.  So when he talks about wanting to die, just to end the horrible life he's going through, the viewer wants to say "No!" because we've already seen that, for him, it really does get better.

These are the lessons I think the media needs to learn, and anyone trying to tell a good story can learn.  To really bring your viewer or reader into a story, we need to trust our narrator and we need to care about the hero.  That way, when you introduce the villain, we really hate them.

True, some writers break these rules very successfully.  There are unreliable narrators, and main characters you hate, who you read or watch just to see them fall (though at least you do still care, you just care to see them get what's coming to them).   But these are more the exceptions.  And when done successfully, it's because the people doing it are very good at what they do. 

So that's my contribution to all this furor, it doesn't matter what your topic is, how shocking or moving you feel it should be.  If you can't tell it in a way that others can relate to and care about, it's all for nothing.  No matter how long the media reported on and complained about Joseph Kony, people outside of Africa just didn't relate.  Those ideas are so foreign to our daily lives, we just don't connect.  It feels unreal. 

But when it's told in a way they can relate to, people get it, they care.  So if you have something you want people to care about, make sure you earn their trust and draw them in.  Make it personal.  Give it a face, a name.  Let them see themselves in the Other.  That is what we as storytellers really need to excel at. 

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