I know a good story when I see one. I bet you do, too and you don’t know why. You just know how you feel, that something in your stirs, and you can’t stop thinking about it.
I’ve spent my life looking for a good story. My mother couldn’t put new books in my hands fast enough as I spent my youth as a voracious reader. I think I was the only one of my schoolmates who actually loved AP History, learning about the stories of our past and made a game of looking for bridges that connected us to our present. I delighted in film school, getting exposed to movies I had never even heard of. And as a professional, hunting for a story, in many forms, that will resonate with audiences.
I get those same feelings as you do when I spot a good story. Right now I am working on a short documentary that I am making because I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It’s about a hip-hop and breakdancing school for at-risk and impoverished youth in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Now, that’s a great thing, but it’s not a story yet. A story has to have three acts:
Act I: Characters/People we’re emotionally invested in.
They don’t necessarily have to be the most likable (hello Don Draper), but we do need to want to know what happens to them.
In my case, I knew I had great characters. Who wouldn’t love kids, underdogs, working for their dreams?
Act II: A hurdle, a journey, a challenge.
This is where the drama comes in. It’s something that they have to overcome, whether physical or internal (it’s why Lord of The Rings and Harry Potter are such massive hits — they nail this).
These kids have to overcome a lot and I don’t want to downplay that. But it was when I heard how the school started that I knew there had been a real journey to get this school up and running. I heard how the school had been started by a guy who had been born in a Thai refugee camp during the Khmer Rouge, emigrated to LA, ended up joining a gang and was incarcerated, and when he got out, was deported back to Cambodia, a country he had never even been to and knew no one. When he arrived in 2004, kids started showing up at his door, asking him to teach them breakdancing & hip-hop. He saw they were like him and he knew he could give them a better shot at life through dance and education and avoid making the mistakes of his own youth. What. A. Journey. Not only that, but the school is constantly struggling to stay open. Conflict.
Act III: A goal, a reward, a payoff.
We have to have resolution, even if it’s not one we imagined (remember the end to Lost? Woof.).
I’ll be honest. I’m not sure what the end of this short documentary is going to look like. I have some ideas, but I want to be open. Maybe we’ll learn more about the future of the school. Or perhaps a particular student gets a shot at going to some sort of higher education. We’ll see…
A great story gets each of these parts and does it well. But even if you crafted a technically good story, there’s still something missing that helps to make it great.
Emotional stories are what get people to share them on social media. They are the ones that stay with us for years (for better or for worse). They are the stories we have to tell. There are seven kinds of emotions in storytelling that stir people.
- Popular connection/theme. The stuff everyone can relate to and makes them say, “me too!” or even #metoo
- Heartstrings. The stuff that makes us tear up (ask any man who’s seen Rudy)
- Laughter. The stuff that makes you laugh out loud whether in a movie theater or at your desk.
- Nostalgia. The stuff that reminds us of days gone.
- Wow-Factor. The stuff that makes us marvel, that leaves us in awe.
- Unexpected. The stuff that takes a twist where we weren’t expecting or gives us crazy moments.
I myself had (and still have) so much “Heartstrings” and “Unexpected” moments when learning about this story, and even some “Popular connection/theme” about being a kid and having big dreams. An incredible story has to have emotion.
And one last thing, too…
Sometimes, you just know a great story when you see one. A great story doesn’t always involve a perfect formula. It’s often messy and complicated, but you just know you have to know more about it. Or in my case, you have to tell it.
Thank you for reading this! Think the story about a hip-hop school in Phnom Penh is a good one? Yeah, so good that it’s being made into a documentary…with your help. You can read more about it here and please consider donating so I can tell it.