Facts – numbers, names, dates, places, data – will play an important part in building your story. It can be very satisfying to collect bunches of them. Because they feel specific and definite, bundling them together feels like they will protect you against being wrong. And they’re great at filling up blank pages.
But facts are sneaky. They seduce you into thinking they are telling your story. They don’t. They can’t. The good news is that every story is made up. Even the real ones. Facts don’t tell the story. You do.
Facts are the events or the plotline arc of your story. A plotline is like a road trip from St. John’s to Salt Spring Island in BC. Point A to point B. Every event or scene in that arc is an incident that interrupted a straight journey from A to B. The story is a mixture of all the people and the obstacles and the events that link together on the road from A to B. It’s what makes those events meaningful and exciting to follow as they unfold. So gather lots of them! But you must show us why they matter, and you do that by showing us how they were a result of certain actions or inactions, and how they affected the lives of the people in your story. A journey from St. John’s to Salt Spring Island is the arc, and the crazy stuff that happens between those points is the story.
All stories are essentially recycled bits and pieces of information that you collect from your research. You choose the clearest and significant ideas and then assemble them into new patterns and meanings. Sometimes this means you have to collect a large number of them before you recognize the valuable ones and spot the which ones are only taking up space.
You have to respect these facts, and not try to force them into saying what you want them to say. Keep going over them, almost listening to them, and let them point you in the direction your story wants to take. It’s a bit of magic when you see this start to happen.
W5 + H
“A good researcher doesn’t know what they are looking for until they find it.”
When you start searching for information to help you tell your story, you’re wise to start by looking for the basics first. ‘W5 + H’ stands for: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. Like building a house, you have to find facts that work in collaboration with one another, and collectively contribute to your story project.
Start as specific as you possibly can, and work outwards from there, not the other way around. Begin small, then broaden your search. The facts you discover and collect are building blocks for your project. They will support the structure, but they are not the heart of what your story will be about.
So, what is your story going to be about? Where will it take you and your audience? Discovering what that is can be a very exhilarating journey, especially when you venture off the beaten path and allow yourself to be surprised.
Gather your research without too critical an eye at first. You can evaluate what you’ve found later. And cast your search net as wide as seems reasonable. If you search from slightly different angles every day, you’ll start discovering things that you missed the first few times around.
Using the tricks and techniques in Fact Finding will give you dozens and dozens of ways of varying the way you search. In that section, you’ll discover find how to make your research an even more exciting process.
Create two sets of file folders – one set on your computer, as well as a physical one – and label them Ideas, Story, Digital Assets, and Chapters. You will use these to save all current working copies of your research and story development.
If you establish solid organizational skills now and make them habitual, you’ll be amazed by how much easier it will be to assemble your final draft when the time comes. Not to mention how pleased and delighted everyone who works with you on your project will be – because you will have made their part of the process that much easier.
Caring for Ideas
As you accumulate new pages of notes, pictures, charts, lists, sketches, and whatever else, save them in your Ideas folders. They are going to help you tell your story.
Then give them time to breathe. Get some perspective on them. What seemed brilliant yesterday might seem trite and insipid three weeks from now. Whereas the ordinary thing you came across and tossed into your Ideas folder last week as an afterthought might suddenly sound a lot more important next month.
This means it’s better to start collecting ideas sooner than later. They will age nicely in their folders. You often need time to be able to appreciate the things you didn’t notice the first time around. When you return to them, you’ll be able to see them with some objectivity, and you’ll be surprised by some of what you find. The more ideas you have, the easier it is to spot the ones that are worth working with.
Everything you find has to be identified and catalogued. Accept that in advance and devise a routine that you will follow without exception. Once you begin your research, you’ll come across all kinds of things that you hadn’t expected, and new ideas will start to pop into your head. This is the exciting part of building a story. One thing leads to another, and it all gets filed in your Ideas folders until you’re ready to revisit that research.
In the excitement of discovering new ideas, it’s easy to forget where you found some of them. That’s why you must track everything by its name, any identifying reference number or URL, how to acknowledge and cite the research, as well as your own notes about it – and do this when you first find it. Download the Research Sources PDF form for an example of how to keep track of your work. If you have hard copies of material you’ve found, use your folders to keep them at hand.
To stay organized, take the time to complete an Image Tracking PDF form for every photo, video, and audio asset that you save a copy of.
Be sure to read Technical Considerations for details on what specifications will be required for various uses. In my experience, 95% of photo, video, and audio assets collected by new storytellers are virtually unusable.
Establish a backup routine. Save copies of all your files on a hard drive, and in the cloud as well if possible. Run your backup routine on a regular basis. At some point, you will have computer or hard drive problems, and things will disappear. Back everything up. Do it now.
What’s It All About?
The most challenging part of storytelling is deciding what story it is that you want to tell, and why. Sooner or later you will have to face up to that question and answer it.
But surprisingly, the best way to do that is not to sit down and think about it. It’s far better if you let the story show you what it should be about. During your research you’ll collect as many ideas and details and facts and impressions as possible; then slowly digest that research and listen to what that information wants to tell you.
What gets you thinking? What do you want to know more about? If you collect enough research, it will lead you to the story that you want to tell if you let your intuition gently guide you. You’ll find clues hiding among the ideas that you’ve collected when the time is right.
Isn’t It Ironic
One of the surest ways to get on the wrong track is to make a conscious choice at the outset what you want to say in your story. That will result in you only seeing what you want to see when you do your research. You have to leave yourself open to whatever unexpected discoveries you come across will show you.
As you begin your research, challenge yourself to move beyond your comfort zone and look in places you haven’t previously considered. Don’t try to control the results. If you’re not surprised at some of the directions your story leads you, then you’re not looking or listening closely enough. Research means looking for ideas, not for conclusions. Expect the unexpected.
You find inspiration in doing the work, not thinking about it. Here are some tips for getting inspired and discovering what it is you want to tell a story about. See Fact Finding for tips on how to research online and in person.
- Start your search by creating a list of questions that you’d like to find answers for. For an excellent guide on how to write good research questions, go here.
- Using your questions as a guide, gather as much basic information about your subject as possible. This will help you create an outline of your subject. If you’re not sure how to go about this, use the techniques you’ll find in Fact Finding.
- Collect as many notes, facts, pictures, references, and related ideas as you can and save them in your Ideas. Make clear notes as to where you found each one (URLs, books, and so on).
- When you find images that you want to use, it is essential to remember that they have to be of sufficient quality. Read through Technical Considerations to make certain your images are appropriate for reproduction.
- After a few weeks have passed, sort through your Ideas folders and write out a list of everything in point form, summarizing the main ideas. Do this with pen and paper. Writing a list by hand stimulates new ideas: it engages a different and deeper part of the brain than typing. Date your list to keep track of the most recent version.
- Take time to sort ideas that have something in common into groups. See if anything new or different strikes you about them when you do. As you turn your research into point form, edit and add to them. Pay attention to new ideas that come to mind. Write those down, too. There are good ideas buried there waiting for you to discover them. The trick is not to look too hard; the good ones will grab your attention.
- Repeat this process as often as you can, leaving a day or more between each sort and sift. Keep searching, collecting, and reviewing. Date your lists. Read or skim through articles and books about your subject. Keep making notes about what you’ve found and where you found it. Typically, about 1 in 10 ideas are worth pursuing. That means the more ideas you collect, the better chance you’ll have of finding gold.
- Save everything. Keep summarizing everything in point form. Doing so makes you process the raw information into words that mean something to you. It’s remarkable how much the physical act of writing can bring ideas out of nowhere. And reviewing and revising your ideas is a great way to keep track of what you’ve found.
Do not fall in love with your first good idea. This relationship almost never works out. It’s very tempting to become captivated by your first love. When this happens, you feel inspired! The end is in sight, and your work is over!
But finding that first good idea means you’re on the road to creating something special. Let that move you forward. Keep hunting. There is better stuff down the road.
Sometimes you’ll hit a dead end and won’t know what to do. Where do you turn next?
Think different. Changes of perspective help the creative process
Look in other places that you haven’t tried yet. Think of new search questions. Enrich your search vocabulary and mix things up.
To clear your mind and before you get down to the serious business of writing your story, scan through Tips + Tactics for ways of seeing things from different perspectives. Keep exploring new ideas while your subconscious is warming up for the serious business of writing.