Thursday, March 20, 2014

Visual Storytellers: The elements they use to tell a story

To help with the conflict portion of the plot for my story on coffee growers in Mexico, I had to talk about the immigration issue. Why did coffee farmers risk illegally crossing the border before the coffee cooperative was formed? I think this photo with the border patrol is one way to help establish the conflict.
Elements of the Story

Storytelling has five main elements of a story: setting, plot, characters, conflict and theme. Whether you’re studying a short story, a novel, an epic poem, a play or a film, if you don’t find these five elements, you’re not looking hard enough.

This is a group of illegal immigrants being led by a coyote on the Mexican side of the border hiding from the border patrol before they make their break across the border. I ran into them when I was trying to find images to talk about the border. This is one way to show the characters of a story.

Setting is the place for the story.

Plot is the action, the quest for satisfaction, what's going down, what's going to happen. It is a series of events. Every story is made up of sequence, or series, of events. The way you order these to create a story is called the plot.

The characters are the people in the story who carry out the action. All the characters in a story have a history, details about their pasts that are important to understanding their personality and their present lives. It is important that the audience knows some of these details in order to understand the story. This is called the exposition. It is the background information on the characters and setting explained at the beginning of the story. Often this is the first part of the plot.

Conflict is that something has gone wrong! Conflict happens when characters are against each other, like teams in a game or two groups fighting on the playground. 

The climax of the story is when the conflict of the plot is resolved.

Of the five main elements of a story, theme is the hardest to get. That's because the main idea or message of a story is usually something abstract. And authors rarely come out and state the main message. Instead they imply the theme through the other elements of the story. Themes usually explore timeless and universal ideas.

This could be a scene setter for the story on the coffee cooperative. This is arabica coffee being grown in Salvador Urbina, Chiapas, Mexico.
Fill in the blanks

Take each of those elements and identify what those are in your story, before you start to shoot. Even in breaking news you need to understand these elements. Many great photojournalist do this so instinctively, because great storytellers are quick to find the storyline.

Create an outline

After telling stories for a while you may no longer need to formally create an outline that you reference, but starting out this is the best way to be sure when you get ready to put the package together you are not missing an element that is crucial to the story.

Luis "Pelayo" Diaz is a coffee grower and one of the founders of Just Coffee. Today his son is studying to be a Dentist and this was made possible through the coffee cooperative.
Here is a list of some of the shots that you will use to help tell your story.
  1. Opener: Sets the scene for the story 
  2. Decisive moment: The one moment that can by itself tell the story
  3. Details: Besides being like visual candy to the story, help often with transitions--especially in multimedia packages
  4. Sequences: give a little variety to a situation
  5. High overall shot: Gives a good perspective to how the elements all fit together
  6. Closer: Besides the classic shot of the cowboy riding off into the sunset there are other visual ways to help bring the story to a close
  7. Portraits: These photos are great for introducing the characters of the story
It is easier to start with knowing the different elements and having an outline before you start shooting your story. It is also going to change from what you started—because things change.

All these people are waiting to see one doctor in Ghana. My story was to help tell the story of the need of doctors and hopefully through the telling of the story some doctor would feel the call to go and work at this hospital.

When I was telling the story on the coffee cooperative I was keeping the audience broad. I could have easily just targeted the Presbyterian Church who gave money to support the missionary who was instrumental in funding the cooperative. I could have also targeted the Catholic Church because they too had a role in starting the cooperative.

I chose to keep it broad enough, but yet I had those audiences in mind. I told the story with those people who are concerned about immigration and looking for a solution. The story was to establish the conflict of illegal immigration with the resolution being the cooperative. 

So many patients that they are on the floor of the patient wing of the hospital. If you look closely some of those beds have two patients on one bed. The photo was used to help show the "conflict" of the story.
I have worked on stories for mission organizations many times through the years. The goal of those stories was to get the audience to: Give; Go; or Pray for missions. 

Even in sports there is a story. Here in one photo you see the conflict. You have offense and defense battling and the climax of the story where the hero slams the basket past the defender.

Can you look at your photos and find storytelling elements? Are you thinking about the story elements when you are shooting?

If you do not understand what makes up a story—how can you tell a story? Hopefully this will point you in the right direction on your next project.