Posts from storytelling


We’ve (finally) cut a showreel. It features Richard Dawkins, Dava Sobel, Steven Pinker, David Attenborough, Jem Stansfield, Bruce Hood, Alok Jha, Matt Parker, Jon Butterworth… and a lobster.

Showreels, it turns out, are hard. In our case, we’re aware that many potential clients come across our work via some of the more straightforward films we’ve made. It can be tricky to convince them that’s an aesthetic or narrative choice rather than an indicator of our range or inclination, so we wanted a showreel that demonstrated:

  • The spread of people with whom we’ve worked.
  • Our eye as photographers.
  • We’re really good at detailed, close-up, practical science.
  • Punchy editing.
  • Some serious content.
  • …and a sense of whimsy and wit.


Voice and Tone

“Voice and Tone: Creating Content for Humans at MailChimp” – Kate Kiefer Lee at Confab:

She described part of her job as being “to guard MailChimp’s voice, and keep it consistent across a huge range of content.” She said that the voice stays the same, but the tone changes all the time. Emotions are key to her belief on how important this. The way we write copy on the web affects the way people feel. And, she said, if you get it right, you can “get people to do stuff” — visit websites, buy products, subscribe to services.

via currybetdotnet — Martin is bravely attempting to live-blog the Confab conference, which I’ll confess I only heard of via his blog (RSS: not dead yet, whatever Google thinks).

This is good stuff. I forget, sometimes, that I learned to write primarily by writing for others. Most of the time when you’re writing for speech it’s important to have a voice in your head; when scriptwriting that has to be your character or performer’s voice, not your own. Scriptwriting is an acting job too.

Less obvious, perhaps, is that every organisation should be concerned about its voice and tone. It sounds like Kiefer Lee did a good job of articulating how that can impact the organisation’s bottom line. Read the rest of Martin’s post for some good practical advice.

Another terrific source on this is an interview with Mars Phoenix twitter writer Veronica McGregor, which still ranks as one of the STEM engagement projects I most admire.

Too much information?

Here’s a summary of Dr. No:

The Western world falls under the shadow of a great and mysterious evil. The source of the threat is traced to a monstrous figure, the mad and deformed scientist Dr. No, who lives half across the world in an underground cavern on a remote island. The hero James Bond goes to the armourer who equips him with special weapons. He sets out on a long, hazardous journey to Dr. No’s distant lair, where he finally comes face to face with the monster. They enjoy a series of taunting exchanges, then embark on a titanic struggle. Against such near-supernatural powers, it seems Bond cannot possibly win. But finally, by a superhuman feat, he manages to kill his monstrous opponent. The shadowy threat has been lifted. The Western world has been saved. Bond can return home triumphant.

I’ve chosen that version from The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker, which uses this particular form to illustrate that Dr No shares the same core story as Gilgamesh, written four or five thousand years earlier. Cute.

My point is slightly different, in that you’ve just read a 135-word summary of a 110-minute film. You can comfortably read 135 words, aloud, in under a minute. I just tried, and not just reading but performing that paragraph I clocked myself at 42 seconds. Whatever, the implication is that the running time of Dr No comprises roughly 1% information. What’s the other 99%?

Aesthetics. Emotion. Character.

My hunch is that most fiction fits the same sort of pattern. Where it doesn’t — Game of Thrones, anyone? — we get easily confused, baffled by the number of ideas and suffocating under the proliferation of cast. So, by way of comparison, how do we go about planning science media?

We pack as much information in as possible. In a demonstration lecture we rely on the ‘demonstration’ to drive attention, and shy away from the ‘lecture.’ We run away from aesthetics, emotion and character, which leaves only exposition — and we’re at least dimly aware exposition is the dull bit. Best throw in another explosion.

So we flit from one set-piece to another, relentlessly seeking pace!, excitement!, fun!, inspiration!

Dr. No contains its share of fun, excitement and pace. They’re not without purpose, and we’re not wrong to include them in our work. But our choice to shy away from aesthetics and emotion and character does not always serve us well. We should be good at those things too, and deploy them when they can be effective.

There’s a terrific example to be had in Brian Cox’s recent series Wonders of Life, which took Brian’s trademark emotion and returned an aesthetic sense we’ve not seen in science documentary for some time (if ever, frankly). I’ll have more to say about Wonders of Life in subsequent posts, it’s a fascinating case study. I wasn’t a complete fan.

5 Tips for Writing Effective Scripts For Clients

5 Tips for Writing Effective Scripts For Clients:
The narration is the voice of your client. The personality in that voice is the key to how well it resonates with a specific audience. Unless you’re video is to be played at a conference of English teachers, perfect grammar is not always required.
— via Masters of Motion, which I think used to be Canon Filmmakers.

Solid, practical advice. If you don’t find scriptwriting challenging you’re doing it wrong.

The trouble with notes

This is why film-makers always cringe when anyone with the word ‘executive’ in their title gets to see a rough-cut:

I once worked on a series which had more BBC executives attached than we had production team making the show. We also had a four-day turn-around from shoot to delivery of edit (and another three days to transmission), every week for six weeks. That was fun.

Narrative or Descriptive?

Last weekend I was a tutor on the FameLab UK finalists’ masterclass, which was a jolly wheeze and wildly intense. They’re a smart and capable bunch, FameLabbers, and we put them through the wringer with storytelling and improvisation exercises, shifting of the performance space to video, then onwards to the weirdly out-of-body experience that was directing others and seeing their own work reinterpreted by their peers. Which was hilarious, apart from anything else.

One of the gang dropped me an email today asking for advice about their piece for the final, which I’ll choose to paraphrase as:

“Should I go for depth and detail, or a simplified overview?”

There’s no correct answer, of course. How well you execute and a modicum of luck play just as large a role as your preparation, deft avoidance of distractions, brisk setting of context, and so on. But for me there are two key thoughts:

The first is that, as a member of the audience, I want satisfying stories. That’s a very personal judgement, but for me those tend to be the ones with smart ideas that point in interesting directions. They might be nuggets of factual information, but they’re just as likely to be about perspective, interpretation, or a general mechanism. I want to be bursting with questions, but I don’t want those questions to be prompted too closely — as my partner Elin puts it:

“It’s not how smart you are, it’s how smart you make your audience feel.”

The second thought — and the core of my reply to the questioner — is: what sort of storyteller are you?

Do you revel in the process and sequence of narrative, driving on a story or spinning a web of information from which a chain of events resolves, suddenly snapping into narrative clarity? Or do you favour description, conjuring a detailed mental image which locates, directs, and focusses attention?

Where you see your strengths as a writer and performer should inform the shape of the work you do. Sometimes you challenge yourself to develop, and other times you play to your strengths.

So: depth and detail or simplified overview? Emphatically not the latter, because if your overview is best described as ‘simplified’ then you’re doing it wrong. Solve that, and either could work — so worry less about your work, and more about who you are.

The best part? The finalists’ email response:


Inspiration where there is none

Jonathan Richards has an interesting post about an unsatisfactory shoot:

We were creatively dead on our feet, with little or no grip to spice things up and with empty rooms to shoot and cleaners to dodge… ‘how can I make this interesting?’.

And the answer is… ‘I’m not sure, quite honestly’.

We’ve all done these jobs. They’re invariably draining and unsatisfying, but the way I look at it is that the problem was set long before you turned up for the shoot. If the script and the plan calls for a bunch of talking-heads shots and cutaways, you’ve already lost.

If you’re lucky your interviewee will be charismatic, their story compelling, and your cutaways motivated. Much more likely: you’re shooting the same bland interview you’ve done a zillion times before, it’ll gnaw away at you all the way through the edit, and throughout you’ll know — just know — that nobody’s going to watch the result anyway.

Personally, I turn most of these jobs down. If a client is convinced that it’s what their audience needs… well, OK, but other film-makers have more patience than I do for shooting this stuff, and I’d hope they’re better at it than I am as a result.

What I’d rather do is work with a client at an earlier stage, explore what it is they’re trying to achieve, and think through some different approaches which might help meet objectives. Sometimes — often? — that does lead to talking heads, but with a really clear idea about why we’re in the room. Which leads to a completely different mood on set.

The challenge, often, lies in getting the client to recognise that every film-maker has a different approach, and hence the film they’re buying reflects their choice of crew.

That is: I try to train my clients to be producers.


“Never mistake motion for action” (Ernest Hemingway)

Spot on.



A client of mine sent a rough-cut through for comment last night. It’s great, so while I sent copious notes in timecode detail, that’s all fiddling around the margins. They’ve got the hard bits right already.

More useful, then, is lessons to draw from this film to guide the next one. What I wrote applies rather generally:

  • How does it open? Start on action, clear statement of intent, etc. Usually, the first page of a script can be thrown away — come to the action late, and all that.

  • Where’s the story? Not just what is it, but when is it? Knowing where the bulk of it comes allows you to introduce terminology and context early, which smooths the whole film.

  • Know how you finish. This applies for each shot as well as for the film overall. What’s the end-point?

As ever: grab attention, sustain it, reward it, and close gracefully.

For short factual films, just about everything else flows from that arc.

Storytelling through Composition

Shane Hurlbut (whose surname is, I believe, ‘ASC’) has a nice post about Storytelling through Composition:

I wanted my framing to be like a teenager: off, unpredictable, not perfect, still finding themselves. It was fun to be unconventional with our coverage.

(Via Hurlbut Visuals)

I’m a big fan of the offbeat framings he shows from Crazy/Beautiful. Desperately hard to pull off, there must have been many leaps of faith taken on set.

Storytelling in the digital age

We’d be remiss not to point to Aleks Krotoski’s Guardian article about storytelling, which draws its chief influence from Frank Rose’s snappily-titled The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue and the Way We Tell Stories: Entertainment in a Connected World.

If I’m honest, though, said book remains on my Amazon wish list. I’m due some serious catch-up…


StoryCog is a communication consultancy and film production company; see more about us here, or explore the links above left. The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors, though they're quite likely to represent the company's position too.


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