Storytelling Across the Board

Narrative techniques across three different platforms (Draft)

Joe Jackson interviewed by Louis Theroux in “Louis, Martin and Michael”.

Introduction

Narrative and storytelling are integral in retaining audience interest while communicating information. The current media landscape has a wide array of different platforms with their own conventions for storytelling. Each platform has its own affordances and constraints (Jones and Hafner, 2012) with regards to the passing of information and in this sense dictates the message being conveyed and which stories are told. This essay will cover three different platforms and how they use various techniques to document stories for their audiences.

Podcast

The first format to be discussed is a podcast presented by Jon Ronson, titled “The Butterfly Effect”. As a seven part series of half-hour episodes, the documentary follows a series of events triggered by the creation of the world’s largest free porn distribution network from market domination to ruined lives and even death. The plot‘s structure can be compared with Freytag’s pyramid (Landsborough, 2017) which depicts a movement from exposition, interviewing PornHub creator Fabian Thylmann to set the scene in a digital world of adult content. The rising action follows Ronson’s interaction with industry workers and fans which leads to the discovery of an anonymous client who has commissioned a custom video of stars destroying his prized stamp collection. It later transpires that this man might be contemplating suicide and it is up to Ronson’s interviewees to do their best to prevent it. The falling action sees Ronson return to Fabian to discuss his findings and see what he thinks of being accused of causing the negative effects of pornography producers and users. The denouement is Ronson’s conclusion of his findings. This structure serves the documentary well in keeping a sense of story present. Without this structure, it could have simply been a series of interviews without explaining context.

In some episodes, the experiences of the production crew are explained to establish a further presence of character. As a character in the story, Ronson gives off a quirky persona in his tone of voice which fits in with the taboo nature of the subject without crossing the line and sounding insincere when tragic events unfold.

Podcasting as a medium lends itself to good quality narration as a way of captivating its audience. Ronson, as presenter, uses diegesis as a way of describing character, setting and movement which establishes a scene for context before exploring it further through mimesis where events are unfolding in realtime. For the podcast this enhances the listener’s experience by creating a sense of immersion by showing rather than telling (Fulton et al, 2005). Another affordance for podcasting is its ability for user curation. An example of this is the iTunes Top Charts where podcasts are rated by popularity in series, episodes and genres. This is advantageous for audiences to discover well performing shows, which are likely to retain the listener’s attention more successfully. A constraint of this is that some shows reign supreme for long periods of time while other potentially gripping programmes remain at the bottom of the list. “Updating” is an important principal of content curation pointed out by McAdams. Content is changed from time to time but longstanding products might benefit from updating on occasion (McAdams, 2008). “This American Life” for example is high in the podcast charts but received new episodes for a long period of time in order to remain relevant.

Television

The second product of analysis is the television documentary, “Louis, Martin and Michael”. Christopher Booker states that “The Quest” plot is as follows:

“Far away, we learn, there is some priceless goal, worth any effort to achieve: a treasure; a promised land; something of infinite value. From the moment the hero learns of this price, the need to set out on the long hazardous journey to reach it becomes the most important thing to him in the world.” (Booker, 2004)

In this sense, “Louis, Martin and Michael” follows the quest narrative as BBC’s Louis Theroux follows Michael Jackson’s movements from London to Las Vegas to Europe in search of an interview. Meanwhile, ITV’s Martin Bashir has exclusive access to Michael Jackson’s home, hotel rooms and the man himself. The programme shows Louis risking his budget with characters who claim to have a relationship with the Jackson’s in any effort to meet somebody more closely related to if not Michael. In some respects the journey is hazardous, especially when Louis questions Michael’s father about his plastic surgery sexuality. Theroux consistently risks the BBC’s reputation with the Jackson family and consequently future industry involvement for the chance to expose anything negative about the pop star. It is unlikely that Theroux intended to use the quest plot as the driving force in the story, rather it was employed as a contingency in the event of not receiving the permission to film Mr Jackson in a traditional interview scenario. Ultimately it would have originally been to follow the same “Voyage and Return” plot that the ITV documentary crew were able to capture whereby they venture into Jackson’s private world and encounter his questionable behaviour, confront it at the risk of being escorted from the privileged view and return home with a sense of experience. Following the quest plot provoked the crew into organising interviews with people who many of the audience may never have heard of, including “Majestic”, one of Michael Jackson’s personal magicians who ultimately has a conflict with the production crew over their lack of willingness to offer large financial contributions to the family in return for interviews. This is a part of the story that isn’t often shown in documentaries as it is more of a behind-the-scenes dilemma but in this case it reveals a lot about the mentality of those surrounding the Jackson family.

Despite never getting the chance to speak to Jackson, Theroux meets those who know him and have been left behind in his trail. It becomes clear that they are often safeguarding his image out of loyalty or perhaps legalities, however the manor in which they conduct themselves is telling of a story with deeper routes. Mark Blaine states that,

“Gay Talese’s ‘Frank Sinatra Has A Cold’ is a great example of a story that seemed to rely on getting the long-shot interview with Frank Sinatra, but when Talese couldn’t get it, he relentlessly interviewed everyone around Sinatra and came away with a deeper story about the men and his changing times”. (Blaine, 2014)

This example is comparable with Theroux’s film in which the attempt and subsequent failure to speak to the person of interest resulted in an understanding that was perhaps deeper than one obtainable from a willing subject. The journey to find Michael was also as interesting, if not more so, than an hour long interview with the man. This quest allowed for moments of suspense, achievement and disappointment which were less prominent in the ITV version of the same story. Bashir’s coverage was visually interesting with moments of editorial magnificence but in comparison to Theroux’s effort felt overly gratifying; as though the audience is given everything at once. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, however it becomes less re-watchable due to it’s lack of nuance.

Longform News

Aljazeera’s story, Britain’s Modern Slave Trade, is an example of longform documentary text. The piece employs the multimedia format effectively using videos, GIF animations and responsive graphics to aid the storytelling. The structure of the story is outlined into five different sections, each bookmarked by a relevant GIF animation of a looped video clip appropriate for the topic of discussion. Video clips can be played or ignored which can help to retain some readers’ interest in the piece while giving those who only want to view the text the option to do so. In this sense there is an ergodic nature to the piece. Interactivity within the story is minimal but present. A slideshow of data is included near the top of the page which through its playback controls is an example of “output”, one of four ways a user can have control over content. The others being input, space and time (Bradshaw, 2017). The level of interactivity can be defined by the degree to which multiple communication parties act on each other, the communication method, their messages and to what degree such influences are synchronized (Liu and Shrum, 2002). By these standards, the interactivity of the article is on the lower end o the scale as the user’s interactions generally inform the order of which information is consumed and which forms are interacted with, much like an on/off system.

The Inverted Pyramid is an accurate representation of how the piece is formed. This structure is typically true of non-interactive journalism (Man, 2011) and although the page includes some degree of interactivity, it is still generally linear.

The most important information in the story can be deduced from the first section which introduces characters, setting and movement. Similarly, like many medium form news articles, readers who wish to read the story in more depth can do so while those that only want to know the general outline of events can see the summary at the start of the article (Emde, Klimmt and Schluetz, 2015).

The piece compliments a forty-seven minute documentary which is a good example of mimesis. The production is showing rather then just telling. Ira Glass, known for his work in documentary podcasting, states that

“It’s fun to hear somebody tell you a story.” (Glass, 2016).

Although he is referring to audio, this statement is true of video. The prospect of being told information rather than reading it is more entertaining. Mimesis in itself can often be an artful arrangement of events in a coherent whole (Alber, Caracciolo and Marchesini 2018) which means it can lend itself to creative treatment. This can be entertaining for the audience but in some pieces detrimental to the facts.

References

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Ronson, J (2017) The Butterfly Effect. [Online] AUDIBLE. Available from: https://www.audible.co.uk/pd/The-Butterfly-Effect-Audiobook/B079T8D8JC?qid=1541954303&sr=sr_1_1&ref=a_search_c3_lProduct_1_1&pf_rd_p=c6e316b8-14da-418d-8f91-b3cad83c5183&pf_rd_r=Z3AY94SRPAXWMBAZWFY8& [Accessed: 2/11/18].