'The nickel was for the movies:' The importance of telling a good story

If "Tell me a story" is the ignition point of every good entertainment, "And then what happened?" is the fuel that keeps it going.

Narrative, the sequencing of plot details one after another, is what storytelling is all about. Everyone from children to the oldest adult enjoys a good tale. A story well-told is one of the most basic forms of entertainment humans have ever devised. The desire to know what happens next seems to be hard-wired into our psyches.

Unfortunately, the ability to tell a good story appears to be a fading art. Contemporary filmmakers have an unprecedented bag of technical tricks available to them, but most fail at the beginning by being unable to formulate a good story. How many movies (and TV shows, books, videos and news stories) have you seen in the last few years that begin well but then fall apart for lack of a decent tale to tell?

The filmmakers from Hollywood's golden age of the '30s to the '50s knew how to tell a good story well. They worked hard to build a plot that would keep audiences leaning forward in their seats and that wasn't overburdened with social significance ("If you want to send a message, call Western Union," Sam Goldwyn once famously said). They made sure that the characters helped drive the story and that events were compelling and believable based on those characters and the situation.

They knew how to use a sense of mystery and suspense and were willing, sometimes, to have an unhappy ending if that was what worked best for the story.

Lesson #1: the clip above from "The Last Tycoon." The movie is based on an unfinished novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald about Hollywood in the golden era. Robert DeNiro plays Monroe Stahr, a studio head modeled on the legendary Irving Thalberg, who ran MGM for Louis B. Mayer in the 1930s.

In the clip, Stahr is meeting with a serious writer, Boxley, played by Donald Pleasance, who Stahr has lured to the studio to write films and add a touch of class. (Boxley is probably based on William Faulkner and other such writers who had Hollywood writing jobs in the '30s and '40s.) Alas, Boxley is blocked and can't produce. To him, the movies are just a bunch of guys in tights fighting duels. He says he doesn't get how it works.

Stahr shows him that he's wrong. Boxley does understand the movies. It's all about "And then what happened?" Stahr's three-minute lesson in storytelling on film is probably the best explanation I've ever seen of how the movies work and how a good story draws us in.

There's a myth that the internet has shortened everyone's attention span and that no one has time for a good story anymore. I think that's wrong. No matter whether you're making a feature film or a two-minute video or writing a blog post, people will respond to a good story. It's in our nature.

Watch the clip and learn. And then go tell a good story.


Heart health awareness video

I completed a major project at work this week: a dance video to promote Heart Health Awareness Month and the Day of Dance in February.

This literally has a cast of hundreds with people from all over Evergreen Hospital taking part. We even had to put on scrubs to go into an operating room to shoot the nurses dancing there.

I shot and edited this. Three other people (thanks Mara, Mary and Kris!), one of whom was our volunteer choreographer, workd on it with me. We photographed for a week and then I edited for four days.

I've never edited anything like this and it's tricky. You have to cut everything to the beat so that people will all synch up with music. By luck and a little skill, there are several points where the dancers, who were singing with the song ("Say Hey" by Michael Franti and Spearhead) actually synch up with the soundtrack. Amazing!

The video was premiered on Thursday at a Day of Dance launch party at the hospital. Everyone who's seen it has loved it, so I'm greatly relieved and thrilled. If you like it, please pass it along to your friends.


Promoting your blog

Jesse of the Belltown People blog asked in a forum tonight: "What self-promotion has worked for your site?" Here's what I answered:
Here are some things I've done:
  • Print business cards and hand them out. LOTS of them. I print them on my inkjet and give them away to people I meet in the neighborhood. Or leave them at events. No one has refused to take one. It has the blog's name, URL, my phone and e-mail and the blog's Twitter ID. Priceless self-promotion that costs almost nothing.
  • Walk the beat. Before July 4, I walked Eastlake Ave., asking businesses if they would be open on the Fourth ... and leaving my business card at every stop. I didn't ask them to buy an ad, just asked if they'd be open and chatted a bit. Did a post about who would be open and, I hope, earned some recognition and street-cred. Wasn't until I'd finished that I realized: Hey! That was a good idea. I just wanted to get the story.
  • Sponsor a community event. I was a sponsor for last Saturday's Eastlake Movie Night. Didn't cost me much. I provided tons of publicity on the blog. The site was listed on the poster for the event, which was nice but not required. Helped set up and take down. Handed out business cards. Do something(s) nice for your neighborhood. People will remember. And, it was great fun and I had a blast, which is what matters.
  • Go out to coffee with people just for the heck of it with no agenda. Talk about the blog if they like. Ask them what they know that's going on.
  • Show up at events. I've started to cover the community council. You get a post out of it and, frequently, tons of tips for other posts. And you meet lots of people. It all helps.
  • Get your site on Twitter. It makes a big difference. Follow people in the neighborhood and they'll follow you. Let them know the site is on Twitter (I put it at the top of the blog). When I Tweet a post, it immediately gets good traffic.
  • I designed a poster early on (11x14) but haven't printed them (inkjet again) because I wasn't sure it was really worth it. I still might print them. Or not. Not sure it's worth it.
  • Walk the beat some more. Showing up in person means a lot to people. They will remember that you came by, asked what was going on, took a photo of an event, wrote a post. They will remember that YOU were there. And you'll get good story ideas out of it.
  • Get your posts linked to by other sites. Cultivate contacts at the Times, P-I, Slog and other neighborhood blogs.
That's what I've done for starters. As you can see, most of this costs nothing or next to nothing. I'm a BIG believer in just getting out and meeting people. Thinking I might have an afternoon at a coffee shop and invite people to come by and chat. Maybe buy a round of lattes.

Some of this stuff I do for the blog, but most of it I'm doing simply because it's my neighborhood and I'm enjoying helping out and getting to meet people. It's fun!

Also: The blog is EastlakeAve.com.


The things one learns from the Internet

I follow Stephen Fry, the wonderful English actor, on Twitter (@stephenfry). His Tweets are fun and witty and make me wish I lead the life he does.

Well, it's not all glamor, apparently. The following Tweet arrived from Mr. Fry this morning (late afternoon in London):
Fabulous lunch. Now in cab home so desperate for a widdle that I may explode like a burst waterbomb.
Goodness! Not exactly the image I expected at 8 a.m., but reassuring that Mr. Fry's life is, at times, no different than yours or mine. And I've never heard the word "widdle" before, or seen it used in that manner.
A few minutes later, and the cab ride is going no better:
Speed bumps are evil: they stab your bladder and say "Nah"...
Who can't identify? Shortly after that, he's still not home, but is able to Tweet from his iPhone (love the British, always bravely soldiering on):
Still in cab. Clenched thighs so hard my testicles have shot up my neck. Dear me.
OK, that one made me laugh. Loudly. At 8 in the morning. The mental picture leaves a bit to be desired but still, it's pretty funny.

Just as I'm about to go to work comes word that Mr. Fry's mission is accomplished:
As for all you wicked people who tWEEted "sssssssss" and "tinkle"and "fountain". Shame on you. Home now. Made it.
As my brother said, "I am so relieved. And, apparently, so is he."

Has anyone else given a better Twitter performance or managed to put the edge of suspense into their Tweets like this? You have to laugh.

Stephen Fry is also on AudioBoo. His short audio clips are marvelous.

(My secret goal is to get Mr. Fry to follow me on Twitter.)


Journalism Basics: An important tool

There it is: My business card. Well, one of my business cards. I have several, but this is the one I use for my neighborhood blog, Eastlake Ave.

Not terribly exciting. The design isn't much. Just black type on a white card. Only one line to break up the type.

I know, I know: boring.

But, it's a key part of my equipment as a beat blogger. This is how I introduce myself and the site. It's what I leave with people so they know how to get ahold of me and, more important, how to find Eastlake Ave. And, at this time when self marketing is everything, this card is one of my main promotional tools.

A business card is no secret. I've received them from several bloggers around town. But I wanted to emphasize how simple this is and how effective. I print these at home on my inkjet. The stock is Avery #8871. The cards are prescored so they break apart nicely and look great.

Design? Newer versions of Word have templates for business cards. I did this one in Illustrator but you can do something similar in Word. Tinker with their templates. Go wild and add some art. But get the essentials in there: your name, your site's URL, your e-mail address, a phone number, your Twitter ID. Make sure it's legible.

It's not fancy. It isn't sent digitally. But for promoting yourself and your site, there's not much that can beat it. People love getting a card. They refer back to it. You can leave them at meetings or coffee shops. You can hand them out to businesses (I was doing that the last two days). No one has refused to take one of mine yet.

If you're a beat blogger, you shouldn't be without them.


Journalism Basics: soon, soon

I've been absent from the Journalism Basics pieces. Promise I will resume this series soon. This week, even. I know you're all waiting!


'It is what it is, pal'

Kevin Spacey, left, and Denis Leary in "Recount."

Whenever I hear journalism types start into the discussions and arguments about what newspapers did wrong in the face of the internet, I'm reminded of a bit of dialogue from HBO's brilliant film, "Recount."

The movie tells the sad (and funny) story of the contested 2000 presidential election. Near the end, after the Supreme Court has stopped the Florida recount and made Bush the winner, two of the Democratic operatives who were in charge of Gore's efforts to win Florida, Ron Klain (played by Kevin Spacey) and Michael Whouley (played by Denis Leary), are walking to their airplane, preparing to fly home. Klain knows they came soooo close and he just can't let go of the "what might have beens:"

Ron Klain: "We should have asked for a statewide [recount] from the get-go -- that was our biggest mistake."

Michael Whouley: "Mm-hmm, and Ralph Nader should've pulled his head out of his ass. And Elian Gonzalez should've never left Miami. And Gore should've campaigned with Clinton. And Clinton should've got caught getting a blowjob from Sharon Stone instead of Monica Lewinsky 'cause then his approval ratings would have shot through the roof. And Katherine Harris should've thought twice about purging 20,000 voters from the rolls. And George Bush Jr. should have never quit drinking ... but he did. It is what it is, pal. Four years from now we'll come back, gather our information and go right back at 'em."

That's the line: "It is what it is, pal." That's what I think about when I ponder what's happened to the newspaper business. You can debate the mistakes all you want but you're just wasting time and energy. Better to gather your information and go right back at 'em.