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Story Creation, Writing, and Video Production Tips

This chapter is from the book

What You'll Learn in This Hour:

  • Getting the story right: story creation tips from NBC-TV correspondent Bob Dotson

  • Writing in the active voice: Mackie Morris' writing tips—"The Good Writer's Dazzlin' Dozen"

  • Storytelling with video: scriptwriting tips from Hollywood screenwriters Stephen Black and Henry Stern

  • Stepping up to film: expert advice from cinematographer Charly Steinberger

  • The business of video production: Sam Prigg's tips on starting a video production company

  • Doing the video production thing: Joe Walsh's event shooting tips

Premiere Pro is a powerful video production tool. By choosing Premiere Pro, you've made a commitment to take your video production quality up several notches. To do that requires more than learning new editing techniques. You also need to hone your story-creation skills, writing style, and even business acumen. By moving to Premiere Pro, you're showing the kind of interest in video production that frequently leads to a profession within that industry.

This hour addresses those issues. I've turned to some colleagues and friends in the TV news, film, and video production industry and asked them to offer expert tips within their specialty.

Getting the Story Right

I worked in the TV news business as a reporter and anchorman as well as shooter and editor. In my 11 years working on-camera and off, I constantly critiqued my work and asked others to do the same. Some offered their advice in writing and I hung on to those words of wisdom:

  • An NBC producer who ran the affiliate feed—a daily collection of stories made available to local network stations for their use—once wrote about a prison counseling piece that I submitted to him. He said that my "story talked about" the subject "but showed nothing" about it. My tape "cried out for some natural sound of a session in progress."

  • A Seattle TV news director wrote that my stories had a sameness—a voice track, a sound bite, more voiceover, another sound bite, and a standup close. "Mix 'em up," he suggested.

  • And a consultant took me aside to tell me to "break up my on-camera pacing with pauses."

I took all those tips to the bank. The NBC producer ended up buying about a story a week from me. The news director helped me get a job in a much larger market. And the consultant's advice helped me land an anchor job at that station.

I'm a believer in heeding expert advice.

In putting together this book, I've had the enjoyable opportunity to contact many of the people who have given me advice or from whom I have gained a lot of practical knowledge. Each agreed to provide expert tips focusing on their specialty. You've already met photographer Karl Petersen in Hour 2, "Camcorder and Shooting Tips." In Hour 7, "Applying Professional Edits and Adding Transitions," you'll hear from editor John Crossman. And in Hour 12, "Acquiring Audio," Chris Lyons, an audio engineer from the world's leading microphone manufacturer, Shure, Inc., offers up his expert advice.

For this hour, I compiled six expert columns. I think they all speak to enhancing your skills beyond the fundamentals of camerawork, editing, and simply learning how to use Premiere Pro's toolset. Further, you might want to take what you do with Premiere Pro and move into a career in video production. These experts speak to that.

Up first, Bob Dotson.

Story-Creation Tips from Bob Dotson

NBC-TV Today Show correspondent Bob Dotson is, I think, the best human-interest feature-story TV reporter. Dotson has received more than 50 awards. The National Press Photographers Association award committee wrote, "Bob Dotson's reports help us understand ourselves a bit better. They show that all our lives are important and really matter. After all, this country was built not by great heroes or great politicians, but by ordinary people—by thousands whose -names we don't know, may never know, but without whose influence America wouldn't exist."

Although you probably aren't a TV newsperson, you'll probably create human-interest stories—Dotson's forte. If there's a storyteller out there you should emulate, I think he's the one. During my TV reporting days I tried to watch all his stories, and when a station I worked for offered me the chance to attend one of his seminars, I jumped at it.

I've reproduced my notes, with his approval, here. I took many things away from his class. Three points stand out:

  • Give viewers a reason to remember the story.

  • When interviewing people, try not to ask questions. Merely make observations. That loosens people up, letting them reveal their emotional, human side to you.

  • Make sure that you get a closing shot. Most video producers look for dramatic opening shots or sequences (and that's still a good thing), but your viewers are more likely to remember the closing shot.

Bob Dotson's Storyteller's Checklist

Dotson's Storyteller's Checklist inspired his book Make It Memorable (Bonus Books) and a companion videotape of all the stories in the book. He prepared his list (and book) with TV news reporters in mind, but his tips apply to professional, corporate, and home video producers as well:

  • Always remember that the reporter is not the story.

  • Make sure the commitment is present. Commitment is your description of the story, stated in one sentence. That is, what you want the audience to take away from the report. You should be able to state the commitment as a complete sentence with subject, verb, and object. "Outside money is altering the city's architecture," "This cow has never taken an order in her life," "You can't murder a pumpkin," and so on. You formulate this commitment to yourself to help guide the story creation. Then you use your images to prove the commitment visually. Very seldom will you state the commitment verbally in any story.

  • Write your pictures first. Give them a strong lead, preferably visual, that instantly telegraphs the story to come.

  • The main body of the story should usually be no more than three to five main points, which you prove visually after you've identified them.

  • Create a strong close that you can't top, something you build toward throughout the story. Ideally, the ending is also visual.

  • Write loose. Be hard on yourself as a writer. Say nothing in the script that your viewers would already know or that the visuals say more eloquently.

  • Throughout the story, build your report around sequences—two or three shots of a guy buying basketball tickets, two or three shots of a husband and wife drinking coffee at a kitchen table, and so on. Sequences demand matched action.

  • Allow for moments of silence. Stop writing occasionally and let two or three seconds or more of compelling action occur without voiceover. For a writer, nothing is more difficult to write than silence. For viewers, sometimes nothing is more eloquent.

  • Use strong natural sound to heighten realism, authenticity, believability, and to heighten the viewer's sense of vicarious participation in the events you're showing. Some reports merely enable you to watch what happened. The best reports make it possible for you to experience what happened.

  • Tell your story through people. People sell your story. Try to find strong central characters engaged in compelling action that is visual or picturesque.

  • Build in surprises to sustain viewer involvement. Surprises help viewers feel something about the story; surprises lure uninterested viewers to the screen. Surprises can be visual, wild sounds, short bites, or poetic script. Always, surprises are little moments of drama.

  • Short sound bites prove the story you are showing. Don't use sound bites as substitutes for more effective storytelling.

  • Address the larger issue. "A trailer home burned down." Such a story fails to meet the "so what?" test. "The trailer home burned down because the walls are full of flammable insulation" describes the larger issue and meets the "so what?" test.

  • Finally, make your story memorable. Can your viewers feel something about the story and its subjects? If feeling is present, the story will be memorable. It will stick in the viewers' minds.

Keep It Simple...and Short

As a coda to Dotson's advice, I'll add that you need to remember, this is only TV. You need some mighty compelling or entertaining material to keep viewers glued to the tube for more than a few minutes. Think about whatever message you're trying to get across in your video project and consider what images, sound, and graphics will convey that message in the briefest, most effective manner. Then shoot with brevity in mind.

That's not to say that you don't grab unplanned video that looks great. Or that you cut interviews short even if you haven't heard some compelling sound bites. Videotape is expendable. Feel free to shoot plenty. Although it's true that you might have to wade through a lot to find the best shots, the advantage of DV is that after these shots have been located, you can simply capture them to your hard drive and they become immediately accessible.

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