Writing Your Script

  • Drafting Long
  • Listening To Your Story
  • Finding the Heart of Your Story
  • Finding Your Story’s Beginning
  • Finding Your Story’s Ending
  • Editing Ruthlessly
  • Building Your Own Process

Writing a script for your digital story is easy. Writing a good script is harder. And writing a great script built to work with specific images and audio elements can get downright complicated. If you want to write a great digital story script, my best advice is to accept that your story isn’t going to be very good right away. It doesn’t mean that you’re a lousy writer. Instead, it means that you’re writing.

For me, the anxiety can be crippling. So I break the process up into a set of steps.

That you’ve started. That you’re on your way to something that might end up being great. But making a great digital story is complicated. There are a lot of factors to account for before you get to your finished draft. You’ve got to create a scene. You need to know where your story actually begins. You need to know the closing you’re working towards, even as your first sentence opens your story. You need to know which images your story will include and how you will use each one of them. You’ve got to know exactly which details will build your characters just the way you want them. And the list goes on.

As I said, it can be complicated. Personally, there’s no way I can write even a single sentence trying to keep all those factors in mind at once. For me, the anxiety can be crippling. So I break the process up into a set of steps. Mostly I follow these steps one after another, but sometimes the order shifts as the process dictates. (Link to Process)

Drafting Long

Usually, I start the process with a stream of consciousness narrative trying to describe a particular moment in my story. It might be the opening moment. It might be one of a couple of different moments I’m trying to reconcile in my head. I try to focus on concrete details as much as possible. What was I wearing? Which room was I in? What could I smell in the house? What was the weather like in the park? What was the color or pattern on the picnic blanket? Who was with me? What did their voice sound like? How did the move their hands or body? What was their facial expression?

As I’m working through these details, I also try to write out what I was thinking as this moment was playing out. I try to resist imposing the sense I’ve made of the situation since it happened. That’s important, but I find it only gets in the way as an early part of the drafting process. I try to be disciplined about the distinction between what I was thinking at the time, and how I’ve come to process it since then. If the processing came later, I try to leave it out of this part of the process. But sometimes I end up doing some of the emotional processing of the situation as I’m writing the draft. When that happens—and to be honest, it’s one of the more exciting parts of the process for me—I’ll make some note about it in parentheses or in another document that I’ll I can return to later. It takes a lot of discipline for me to stay focused on the moment itself. So I keep writing until I’ve described the moment as thoroughly as possible.

Most often, the value of the process—for me—is to help make sense of something. Maybe something emotional. But it might also be something I’m just curious about.

Sometimes my stories have two moments. Maybe I’m telling a story about finding myself in one moment where I’m struggling to make sense of another moment. In one of my stories, I describe myself ironing clothes in my current house. But during that moment, I start to remember and try to make sense of another moment from my childhood, and a separate story my mom told me about my dad. The story ends up being about three different moments. While I was drafting that story, I wrote A LOT about each of those three different moments. Pages and pages. At that point, I wasn’t in any way trying to write the actual script for my story. I was merely trying to record and document what I could remember. I was well aware that almost everything I was writing at the time wouldn’t find its way into my script. And that’s not to say I wasn’t deeply invested in what I was writing. In fact, writing down all the details and actions for those moments turned out to be some of the most important writing I’ve ever done. But I knew most of it wasn’t going to be part of my “story.”

At the risk of sounding trite, what I realized during that process was the value of the PROCESS. Sure, I make digital stories because I want them to exist in the world. I want to be able to share them. I want people to see them and maybe be affected by them. But I came to realize that the process of processing my stories was probably even more valuable to me.

I know, I know. You might recoil a bit at the notion of storytelling as therapy or navel-gazing or solipsism. You wouldn’t be the only one. I’m sympathetic to those critiques. That’s not necessarily why all storytellers create stories. It’s not even the only reason I create stories. Most often, the value of the process—for me—is to help make sense of something. Maybe something emotional. But it might also be something I’m just curious about. For instance, I’ve been working for years on a story (or some stories) about how cameras take pictures. Another one of my ongoing projects is about digitally scanning a book. And I’ve helped people with amazing stories with all sorts of purposes: explaining an obsession with conspiracy theories; trying to describe complicated scientific research to non-scientific audiences; trying to recreate the meditative nature of rowing. Stories don’t have to be emotionally fraught. What they do have to be is concrete.

Another potential bonus of drafting long is that you improve your chances of finding ANOTHER story you might want to tell. Creating a long draft is just one stage of the drafting process.

Listening To Your Story

Now that you’ve got yourself a nice, long draft, go back and read it. Really read it. Maybe even aloud. And listen. (At some point I’m going to write a definitive post about why listening is a storyteller’s most crucial skill. Just you wait.) Don’t worry about all the stuff that isn’t working or that you already know is going to get cut. Read it and listen. Read it slowly. One sentence at a time. And after each sentence, ask yourself if there’s anything MORE you can add to it. Are there more details you can remember now that you’ve spent more time with your story. Is there another aspect of the other character(s) in your story that you can add? Can you characterize something else about their background? Can you add context that will help us understand their actions and/or motivations better? Have you been true to the moment itself? That is, have you described or characterized them as you would have in that moment? Have you explained how your descriptions or characterizations might have changed since, and why they might have changed? Have you given us everything we need to know to understand what each of the characters wants in the story? Have you given us enough to understand what’s at stake for the characters (or at least for you) in the story? Have you given us enough information (details, actions, descriptions, etc.) to understand how the conflict/tension has been resolved or reconciled by the end of the story?

Sentence by sentence. Listen to yourself. Try to actually hear your own story.

Try to resist the urge to choose the right description between two possible descriptions. Same for characterizations. The same for conflicts. And details. If you can’t decide between multiple options, that usually indicates that either you don’t yet fully understand your own story (which I would argue is a moment of insight for you within this process) or, if both options seem apt, there’s likely some tension in the story that you might want to explore more fully. If you’re not getting it by now, I’m encouraging you to look for every opportunity to write more.

I like to think of this component of the drafting process as a poorly disguised strategy to get you creating ideas for more stories in the future. And also to keep you writing. To cultivate the habit of putting memory and thought to the screen (or paper, if you’re old school). And to practice the joys of drafting momentum. Writing is draft, at least for me, is already hard enough. The self-doubt. The distractions tempting you away from your screen. Losing focus on the narrative and descriptions in your story. Not knowing when to start, or where you’re headed, or how you’re going to bring this to a close. The wondering whether or not it’s okay to tell this story. Or if you have enough courage and strength. Doubting that you have the right images for this story. Dreading the thought of hearing your own voice narrate this script. There are sooo many things that can make writing insufferable. The only antidote I’ve ever found is to sit down, start writing, continuing to write (even if it’s terrible) until you begin to see another sentence forming as you’re finishing the current one. Your thinking starts to get out ahead of your writing. The periods at the end of sentences start flying by like mile markers on the highway. Or like lines in the sidewalk of a long walk with yourself. And then you sort of trip over a really good line. Or just the right word. Sometimes it’s magic.

Finding the Heart of Your Story

When I’m thinking about trying to locate the heart of my story, I think of it as a “nugget.” I use this term all the time, but now that I’m stopping to think about it, I guess it’s a metaphor about digging for gold–which seems pretty apt. But “prospecting” actually gets closer. And it’s not about digging a hole, but the pile of earth you’re creating beside the hole. Now I’m taking the metaphor too far.

The point is that once you’ve got a nice long draft, you’re going to see that most of it isn’t very good. Some of it will be awful. That’s fine. No one’s going to see those parts. But as you get better at drafting, at least some of it WILL be good. And one of the benefits of working with such a compressed form like digital stories is that you don’t need a lot of amazing material. Just enough. And then you can work on making that part really good.

If you can’t identify the nugget, at least for yourself, it’s going to be almost impossible to tell a compelling story. The nugget is what you build the rest of your story around.

Finding the nugget in your draft might be the most challenging part of the whole process. You have to ask yourself what your story’s about. It doesn’t matter what you thought your story was about when you started your draft. Seriously. That doesn’t matter at all. There are a lot of ways to try to find out what your story’s really about. Part of it depends on the sort of story you want to tell, what your purpose is for creating the story, and who you understand your audience to be.

I think the best way to starting thinking about what’s at the heart of your story is to ask yourself some questions. Maybe start with this one: What am I trying to reconcile by telling this story? I don’t think it’s all that helpful to ask what you learned in the story. Or what the takeaway should be from the story. I think those sorts of questions are more about the last effect of your story. But the extent to which an effect actually lasts with your audience or even with yourself is directly proportional to the precision with which you develop what’s at stake in the story. What is the narrator (you) trying to accomplish within the events of the story? What are you trying to achieve by telling it? Usually, it’s about wanting something. An answer to a question. Or forgiveness. Or peace. Or to make sense of something you NEED to understand.

If you can’t identify the nugget, at least for yourself, it’s going to be almost impossible to tell a compelling story. The nugget is what you build the rest of your story around. The first sentence of your eventual script is going to have to be a running start toward that nugget. The only way you will know how to end your story by knowing when you’ve reconciled what’s been at stake right from the first sentence. The only way to know which details are essential to your characters or the scene is to understand their relationship to the heart of the story. The same goes for which events, actions, and scenes you end up keeping. The nugget becomes the stake in the ground around which all the other elements of your story circulate.

Finding Your Story’s Beginning

Once you’ve started to get a sense for what your story is really about, you can start thinking about how you’re going to structure it. You might opt for a linear narrative that begins somewhere and ends somewhere later. You might find that you need to create one scene and then move to a second. You might find that you need to create a flashback scene within a framing scene. You might discover that your story is going to be fragmented in an entirely unpredictable way. What you need to figure out are the essential elements to understanding the heart of the story.

Then you’re going to have to figure out where your story begins. Because digital stories tend to be so short, I usually try to encourage people to create as much tension as quickly as possible. With their first sentence if possible. Or at least early in the scene, or early in the first scene. Maybe you introduce yourself as a mathematician whose mother always told you girls weren’t smart enough for math. Maybe you start with a description of losing that qualifying match for the state wrestling tournament for which you’d been training your whole life. Maybe your story begins with you leaving your bride at the altar. Just something that at least creates a question or curiosity for the audience. You don’t need to just SAY the question at the beginning of the story, though some stories do end up working well enough that way. And you don’t have to establish ALL of the tension or curiosity right at the beginning. You will have a second sentence that’s going to continue to develop the tension. Your third sentence is going to help, too. And so on.

It’s almost impossible to know where your story begins until you’ve written your long draft, identified what’s at stake, and tried out a variety of options for where it begins.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the images you choose for your story can also go a long way toward establishing a question/curiosity/conflict. Maybe your story opens with a brief description of Christmas morning in your childhood home, while on screen we see the ashes and charred frame of a destroyed house. Or maybe you talk about how you always thought your father was kind of an asshole, while on screen we see a man celebrating one of his children’s birthdays. I think using images is one of the most underrated strategies for creating tension in stories—mostly because we don’t have a lot of experience combining images with the spoken word.

And the last thing I want to say is that there’s a good chance you’re going to start structuring your story with a beginning, middle, and ending. And then at some point, you’re going to realize that the tension/curiosity/conflict takes to long to become evident. And you’ll probably cut more material to get to the good stuff faster, or you’ll rearrange the elements for the same reasons. And there will likely even be times when you realize that the story actually starts in a place you hadn’t expected. Maybe even a scene you haven’t written about yet. It’s almost impossible to know where your story begins until you’ve written your long draft, identified what’s at stake, and tried out a variety of options for where it begins.

For which of your own stories was it most difficult to find an opening? Which of your stories has the most creative beginning?

Finding Your Story’s Ending

I watch a lot of Hollywood and independent films, and what I’ve come to notice is that way too often writers and/or directors don’t offer endings that match the quality of the rest of the film. Don’t get me wrong. There are many different ways to effectively bring a film to a close. Sometimes the narrative is an exploration of uncertainty or unfairness or despair and then offer an open-ended closing. And of course, there are those films where the guy saves his family from the burning hotel. Or the rag-tag team of misfits finally manage to destroy the magic ring. Or the perfect-for-each-other couple manage to overcome the odds and wind up together. You probably get the idea. There are some pretty familiar ways to end a narrative.

But short, personal digital stories don’t tend to work like feature films, so it can be challenging to know how to write an ending. Ira Glass (host of This American Life) would have you believe that terrific stories should have some sort of explanation for what the story means or why it matters. While I love This American Life and a lot of Glass’s other work, I mostly disagree with him on this notion. At the risk of over-simplifying, he suggests that good stories have a moment where the narrator (or interview subject) pauses, takes a step back and says, “Looking back at it now, what I realized is that…”

A lot of digital storytellers don’t have enough confidence in their own skills to trust that the audience will “get it.” And so they come right out and tell their audience what they should be taking away from the story.

I don’t think this sort of rhetorical device is necessarily lazy or that it ruins an otherwise good story. Sometimes, it works. But it’s rare. You’ve probably heard one of the oldest and most common pieces of writing advice: Show. Don’t Tell. Generally pretty good advice. But it’s not always easy advice to follow when you’re working on your digital story. Sometimes it can feel like there’s just not enough room in such a compressed form to introduce the materials necessary to make the heart of the story clear to the reader. Also, I think a lot of digital storytellers don’t have enough confidence in their own skills enough to trust that the audience will “get it.” And so they come right out and tell their audience what they should be taking away from the story. I’m going to write a long post about why this is a bad idea. For now, if you trust me at all, do everything you can to not tell your audience what they’re supposed to think about your story. Instead, create a story engaging enough to draw the viewer smack into the middle of the story right alongside you. The more you’re able to do that, the more likely it is that the audience will experience the same realization that you did, without having to tell them explicitly. This strategy will foster a much stronger bond between you and your audience. It will also make your story more memorable to your audience.

Instead, I think it’s important to go back to the question about what’s at stake in your story? What is the conflict? What are the characters after? What do they want? Any one of those questions manifests in your story as a sort of door opening, and the rest of the story either moves your audience closer to your resolution of the question, or intensifying it. Every part of your story pushes closer and the tension or curiosity grows until you get to the moment of resolution itself. This way of thinking about storytelling is a variation on the classic setting-conflict-intensification-climax-resolution. But instead of the events playing out on a battlefield, or wedding reception, or enchanted cave, the conflict-to-resolution plays out as an internal phenomenon. Once you’ve reached that moment of resolution (or reconciliation, or acceptance) it’s time to end your story.

Editing Ruthlessly

Part of a series about writing your script: Introduction. / Draft Long. / Listen to Your Story. / Find the Heart. / Find the Beginning. / Find the Ending. / Edit Ruthlessly. / Get Feedback. / Build Your Own Process.[/perfectpullquote]As you’ve been working on your draft, you’ve probably noticed several sections that clearly aren’t going to make it into the final version of your script. Those will be the easy pieces to get rid of. As you do so, it’s probably a good idea to have a separate working document open where you can dump those pieces in case they might become the kernel of another story you end up working on later. Even if these castaways don’t spark their own stories down the road, you might find that they end up informing your projects in another way. This cutting can be especially hard when you know the material is rich with evocative detail and emotional connections to your characters. There will probably be a part of you that wants to keep the material because it makes the characters more full and complex, while at the same time adding context to the rest of your story. You’re like right about those suspicions, but you have to remember just how compressed most digital stories need to be.

For instance, maybe you’re working on a story about a fishing trip with your mom and dad. For some reason, you wrote hundreds of words describing each of them, but most of that material isn’t going to fit into the story you’re working on. Maybe this particular story is about how your mother never really liked fishing at all, and you couldn’t understand why she always came along, but now you realize that it was because it was the only time you were willing to spend with her. Okay, it sounds like it has the makings of a pretty good story. But all that description you dedicated to proud look on your father’s face as he pulled away from the dock each time isn’t necessarily useful to this specific story. So you cut it and paste it into that separate document. And later, you find yourself working on a story about your father selling that boat because he realized it was the only thing he could think of to try to save your parents’ marriage.

Most often, the value of the process—for me—is to help make sense of something. Maybe something emotional. But it might also be something I’m just curious about.

Is there a connection between you, your mother, your father, the fishing trip, your parent’s marriage, and the selling of the boat? Yes, probably. But that is a lot to get smash into a single digital story. The more time you spend on your father’s decision to sell the boat, the less room there is to focus on why your mother was willing to suffer through the fishing trip to spend time with you. You’re going to end up having to make some tough choices. You’ll likely find yourself circling back to your own sense of what’s at stake in the story. What the story is really about. Or what you WANT the story to be about. I want to encourage you to cut everything that doesn’t move the story toward that climax or intensify the tension. It’s going to take some work on your part to stay focused on the heart of the story.

This same principle holds for even the small details you include. Maybe you end up describing your father’s fishing hat — the same one he’s been wearing on these trips for years. It’s the one your mother gave him for their first Christmas, even before you were born. He still wears it even though you and your brother bought him a new one for Father’s day last year. When he didn’t wear it on the first fishing trip this summer, you and your brother actually discussed hiding the old hat so that he’d have to wear the one you gave him. … All of this detail and background about the hat are interesting in their own right, but you have to ask yourself how pertinent they are to the heart of the story. It might feel like they make the story more interesting, but I would argue that they might also water it down. At this point in the process, it seems as though your story is about your mother’s willingness to suffer through fishing trips in order to spend time with you, and your not noticing. How was your hiding your father’s old fishing hat relevant to that center of the story? I would argue that it isn’t. But including it in your story will suggest to most readers that it has more significance than you intended. Including peripheral details like these will almost inevitably distract the audience, water down your story’s focus, and sap its intensity.

You should cut it. Even if you’ve cut enough of the rest of your draft that it still seems like you have room for it, cut it. Get your story as lean as possible. And then go back, read it aloud. Listen to yourself. Actually hear your story. Ask yourself again if anything is missing. If it is, add it. Then ask yourself what you might be able to add to intensify or clarify your story even more. It might seem like writing a lot is going to make your story better. It will. But being a ruthless editor of your own work is just as important.

Getting Feedback On Your Story

This post is the penultimate entry in this series, but that doesn’t mean it should only happen at the end of your process. Instead, it’s probably best to think of getting feedback as much as you can along the way. Some storytellers even seek out feedback before they start their drafting process, sometimes talking through their story with one or more people while they’re still trying to figure out what their story is going to be about. StoryCenter’s model incorporates what they call a “story circle” at the very beginning of the process where people within a small group take turns sharing their story while everyone else in the group listens carefully and offers feedback. You might consider reading your script aloud to another person. It might also be useful to send your story to a friend or share it with an online storytelling group. (Note: I’m hoping that enough storytellers start visiting Stories21 so that we can eventually create small-group workshop forums that provide this sort of space online. I don’t know of any others available on the Web right now.)

You have a lot of options concerning how you ask for feedback. You might go the most straightforward route and just ask for whatever thoughts someone has in response to your story. But you can also request more specific feedback. You might ask what they think is the heart of the story. What do you think of the ending? What sort of images might work for this story? If you’re asking a family member or an old friend, you might even ask them if they have any images or videos you might be able to use for your story. You could ask them if you’re leaving anything out that they think belongs in the story. If your feedback person is one of the story’s characters, you might ask them how they feel about how you’re representing them.

Some people will give you bad advice. Some people will give you great advice. Your best strategy might be to experiment with whose advice you seek and how you ask for it.

I also want to encourage you to be careful about where you’re getting your advice. I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad idea to get advice from a certain type of person; you just need to remember that not all the feedback you get is going to make your story better. Some people will give you bad advice. Some people will give you great advice. Your best strategy might be to experiment with whose advice you seek and how you ask for it. The advice you get from an experienced digital storyteller will likely be very different than what a close friend may suggest. It just depends on what you’re asking for feedback about, and why you’re asking in the first place.

And finally, be generous and gracious when asking for feedback. Be sure to make it clear that you’re going to be happy to return the favor when someone asks you for feedback on their story. Always be ready to accept the opportunity to offer feedback when someone does ask you. And once you’ve heard someone’s feedback, remember to thank them for it. And if you want to go even a little bit further, let the person know which part of their feedback was most valuable to you and how it will likely have an effect on your story.

Building Your Own Process

It’s important to keep in mind—when you’re reading the posts in this series—that this is just one way of approaching the drafting process. There are so many others. Casually browse the library’s shelves for advice about the writing process, and you might start to think that there are as many different approaches to writing as there are writers. I wouldn’t disagree. I hope you find some useful bits of advice here and they end up helping you shape your own process into one that works best for you.

Another thing to remember is that the approach I’ve described here privileges a script-driven story, rather than image. That is, I offer a strategy that assumes you’re going to start working on your story by writing the script first and then move on to the images. My own process generally takes this path, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be the most productive way for everyone to start. I know at least a couple of storytellers who much prefer to start with the images they want to write about and then build a story around them. And their stories are outstanding.

Most often, the value of the process—for me—is to help make sense of something. Maybe something emotional. But it might also be something I’m just curious about.

More than anything, I want to encourage you to experiment with your own process. Reflect on what works for you. Take notes about your own habits. Stop those practices that don’t work for you. Keep cultivating and experimenting with the practices that do. Read more about other storytellers’ processes. Try some of their tactics. Keep tinkering. I even started keeping a checklist for myself a few years ago about some of my own bad habits. I have some pretty entrenched habits about how I begin my stories, how I use images. I also have to remind myself to keep from telling the audience what I want them to think. And I tend to forget to rethink my script once I’ve started working with the images. There are parts of almost every script I’ve written that need to be cut because the images make them unnecessary. Obviously, my own process is far from ideal, but it’s the best one I’ve got at the moment. Yours is too, so start making it better.