Tag Archives: story

How to Ask Questions that Will Unlock Life Stories.

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“A storyteller who provided us with…a profusion of details would rapidly grow maddening. Unfortunately, life itself often subscribes to this mode of storytelling, wearing us out with repetition, misleading emphases and inconsequential plot lines…The anticipatory and artistic imaginations omit and compress; they cut away the periods of boredom and direct our attention to critical moments, and thus, without either lying or embellishing, they lend to life a vividness and a coherence that it may lack in the distracting wooliness of the present.” — Alain de Botton (The Art of Travel)

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Last week I wrote How to Get the Stories in a Life Story Interview.  I spoke about the need to draw on good storytelling techniques (i.e.,  surprising twists and turns, interesting characters, a sense of progression, etc.) when interviewing a client for a life story.

Today I want to focus on the kind of questions that will help unlock the stories.

What you want to think about as you’re interviewing a client is how do my questions help reveal the stories of this person’s life.

Avoid at all costs questions that lead to mind-numbing details that neither illustrate nor contribute to the story being told.

Now don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the minutiae of a life. But it must in some way enhance our appreciation of the overall story. For example, describing in some detail what an individual wore to school could nicely illustrate the story of how poor this person was compared to fellow classmates.

On the other hand, details about where an interviewee bought his shoes, what kind of shoes they were, their color, how well they fit, and how much his friends admired them will cause our eyes to glaze over – unless there’s a payoff.

To elicit stories  use prompts such as Describe, Illustrate, Paint, and Tell.

To illustrate, I’ve grouped together six pairs of life story queries. The first in each pair is  weaker than the second and on its own not likely to lead to much of a story. The second question is stronger and provides more opportunity for story telling.

Weak  “Where did you live?”
Strong  “Paint a picture for me of the place where you grew up.”

Weak “What did you do on summer holidays?”
Strong “What was one of your most memorable summer holidays?”

Weak “What is your grandchild’s name?”
Strong “Tell me a favorite story of you and your grandchild.”

Weak “What was a peak moment in your life?”
Strong “Describe a time when you felt on top of the world.”

Weak  “What regrets do you have in your life?”
Strong “Describe an incident in your past that you still regret.”

Weak “What was the hardest part of being a parent?”
Strong “Tell me a story that illustrates the challenges of being a parent.”

As personal historians we have an opportunity to turn the richness of a person’s life into an engaging and treasured story.

Remember the words of Ken Kesey.

“To hell with facts! We need stories!”

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Photo Credit: DaveBleasdale via Compfight cc

Encore! The #1 Secret to Creating an Engaging Video Life Story.

What makes a video biography memorable?  Is it the person being interviewed? Or is it the inclusion of archival photos and movies? Or could it be the clever use of audio and visual effects? All of these are significant but the most important factor – the #1 secret to a first rate video biography is … Read more.

The #1 Secret to Creating an Engaging Video Life Story.

What makes a video biography memorable?  Is it the person being interviewed? Or is it the inclusion of archival photos and movies? Or could it be the clever use of audio and visual effects? All of these are significant but the most important factor – the #1 secret to a first rate video biography is good story telling.

Basically your video biography needs to have the same narrative structure  that goes into creating a good feature film – pacing, suspense, and character development.  It’s true that your production isn’t for broadcast and will only be seen by your client’s  family and friends. But that’s no excuse to make it boring!

Here are a few ways you can improve your story telling.

Launch your story with A compelling opening.

And I don’t mean flashy effects. That’s window dressing. A good feature film captivates you in the first few minutes of the story. Edit a clip from the main interview that establishes your subject’s character. It might be something that’s funny, heavy with portent, sad, or revealing.  Cut that into your opening. Later decide what visuals (e.g family photos, home movies, etc.) you might want to accompany this opening segment.

Keep the story moving.

It’s not enough to string together the chronology of a life.  You need to use  techniques that will give the narrative energy and create momentum. One  approach is  to shift the emotional tone. For example, after your subject has recounted a sad story fade to black and then come up on an account that’s happy. Or if your subject has been railing at the world, jump to a tender story. Trust me it works.

Another way to keep the story moving is to create a jump in time. This can improve your storytelling immeasurably by eliminating material that’s lackluster. For example, the story of a woman who struggles to get an education during the Depression and eventually goes on to university is riveting. But her university years are less interesting. What’s really intriguing is how she gets her first job after graduating. So find a clip from her interview that can be used to jump directly to her first job. It might be something she says like, “I had great fun at university but it was my first job that really tested me.”

Create suspense.

Suspense is the principal engine that  drives your story. Suspense is created by your audience asking and getting answers to such basic questions as, “What is the subject’s quest?  How does the subject resolve the challenges along the way? Will the subject reach a goal?  What happens when the dream is achieved or not achieved?”

Here’s the bad news. Unless you’ve asked these questions in your interviews you’ll likely have little to help you create suspense.

Keep your editing tight.

As  Sheila Curran Bernard, an an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning writer, said, “In documentary, as in drama, you have to collapse real time into its essence.” Believe me, not everything your subject says is worth including in your video. Eliminate anything that doesn’t  support  your main story. For example, an anecdote about “Aunt Flo” might be interesting but unless it somehow illuminates some facet of your main subject, Aunt Flo should go! To give you some perspective on this, I shoot an average of six to seven hours of interview for a one-hour video biography.

Provide A Good Closing.

Your ending should provide a satisfying resolution to the central journey. It must be short and not introduce any new story lines.  The final scene can be in the form of a simple summary statement from your subject. Or it can be some end cards that bring the story up-to-date. Whatever you choose, don’t make the mistake of creating multiple endings.

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Photo by Steev Hise