I started this blog to talk about storytelling. To dissect the process we TV folk use to spin newsy silk purses out of County Commission meetings.
One story I shot last week was supposed to be easy. That’s what the Adult in the Room told me. It was an assignment I usually love because I get to make our anchors cry on the set.
Lonnie Noble shipped out for Afghanistan on Jan. 2; he was supposed to be back home next week. At least that’s what his 13-year-old daughter thought. Unbeknownst to her, pop had a trick up his camouflaged sleeve.
My mission, whether I chose to accept it or not, was to capture said homecoming surprise without blowing it.
But how to interview a girl about her father being away at war without her knowing about it? I had a 17-minute ride to figure that out. By the time I had boots on the ground, I had my lie. I was shooting a story about Math scores. And I was asking kids about who helped them with their homework. Seemed legit.
I showed up early to shoot the entire “fake story” reunion. That’s when the principal sprung the first twist on me. I’d only have about 15 minutes in the classroom. Hurricane Isaac had already put the kids behind in their classwork. They couldn’t sacrifice a few extra minutes for this story, heartwarming or not.
The daughter, a precocious middle-schooler, clammed up with stage fright when my lens swung her way. And did I mention the teacher turned off the lights about seven minutes into the lesson?
I returned to the edit bay with exactly 15 seconds of usable sound, and about 20 video clips. Half of them in the dark. I warned the News Desk. This was not going to be the pretty story everyone was counting on. The elements just were not there. Oh, the reunion was perfect. But there was no set-up. No context. No conflict. No way to draw the viewer in and then surprise them.
The stackers didn’t want to hear it. They had a newscast to fill, and my lack of pictures and sound was not their problem. While brooding over that tiny bin of clips and sparse timeline, something told me to go back to my original lie.
To be honest, it was the only option I had. If I could be judicious with my words, and figure out a way to transition from the lit classroom to the dark classroom, I just might salvage 70 seconds storytelling out of the mess my morning had become.
The two lessons for me, and for other storytellers stuck like this, is an old one. It doesn’t matter what story you’re trying to tell, the answer to your problems is in the video. Write to your video, and you’ve won half the battle.
Second, I, along with the Adult in the Room, the News Desk, the stackers, and everyone else in the newsroom knew what this story would be before I walked out of the door.
When the story didn’t live up to our expectations, we all thought it would die a slow, torturous death and leave the newscast flat. It wasn’t until I forgot about my expectations and accepted what I had — video of a math class — that I could tell Lonnie and his daughter’s story.