Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Shirley Sherrod the NAACP: What Can We Learn About Storytelling?

The developing story about Shirley Sherrod, who is black, and who was (is/will again be) the Agriculture Department's director of rural development in Georgia, provides us with important lessons in dramatic story writing.

In Ms. Sherrod's case the video of her speaking to an NAACP chapter that was released by conservative bloggers, was snipped from a larger story that revealed the context, or truth, of her remarks. In other words, what the clipped video tells us is not the whole story, nor is it true of her perspective on race.  

What made her edited remarks news-dramatic, entertaining, provocative, and "got people to the theater," were four dramatic elements that WILL help every fictional story we create. 

1) JUXTAPOSITION OF SCENE. The story about her (a black lady)

who claimed (to the NAACP group she was talking to) not to have helped a white farmer as much as she could have, (because he was white and cocky) -- was juxtaposed to current stories about how the NAACP was jumping on some conservatives for being racist. The bloggers were attempting to show racism in the NAACP, and their release of the snipped video, by virtue of its juxtaposition, created interest and drama. 

2) SCENE ENTRANCE / EXIT. The editing of her comments was a good example of getting into a scene late, and leaving early, or put another way, getting and and out of the scene at the right time to maximize dramatic effect. If every scene in your story revealed everything about the story, there'd never be the need for a second scene. 

3) SECRETS. All good stories keep secrets. In this case there were secrets on several levels and timelines: (a) The editor (of the video) withheld back story to intrigue the viewer. (b) Only in time was the secret of the context of her remarks (how she learned not to be racist in her job) revealed. (c) The white farmer (and his wife) she was discussing from an event in her career 24 years ago, it is revealed later, staunchly defends her actions back then and even today. And there were probably other secrets that kept the narrative going. Every little bit of the WHOLE story that is held back can add to the drama. 

4) ARC. All good stories have character arcs or show how characters change along moral lines as the story is revealed. In this case a close reading indicates that numerous characters had arcs. (a) Ms. Sherrod changed at some point in her life from practicing racism to avoiding it. (b) The bloggers or editors who first released the video (probably) arced from glee to embarrassment. (c) Ms. Sherrod's boss arced from forcing her to "resign" (let's face it he fired her), to reconsidering his demand and (perhaps) offering her job back. (d) And through all of it the audience arcs in its understanding of the story and the moral premise (whatever is might be). 

So, keep your eyes on intriguing news stories, and see what you can learn from them.  

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