Alongside Andre Bussanich, our Creative Director, I recently completed an online course from Adam Westbrook and Marc Thomas called Story Design for Non Fiction. In our content-saturated, fast-paced, and (let’s face it) attention-deficient online world, crafting quality non-fiction stories that engage and move audiences is a skill that is becoming increasingly valuable. Among the many tools and strategies that were discussed during the course, there were 3 that stood out to me as being particularly helpful:
1. Knowledge Gaps
As Westbrook describes, a knowledge gap is “when information is intentionally withheld in a story to pique the audience’s curiosity.” Our brains are hardwired to want to fill that gap. They can’t help it. THEY NEED TO KNOW HOW IT ENDS. This nifty little feature in our heads can then be used by storytellers to set up a knowledge gap that the audience will stick around to find out how it gets filled. For example, the title of this blog post sets up a knowledge gap by not revealing everything up front. Would you be just as inclined to click on this title if it were: “Knowledge Gaps, Conflict and Meaning: 3 Things Your Non-Fiction Story Needs”? Probably not. There’s no point – I just told you what’s in the article. Creating mystery (and creating it early) is important for getting and keeping an audience’s attention.
2. Conflict (that rises)
This is what Westbrook calls the driving force of a story, pointedly stating that “a story without conflict has little reason to exist.” And he’s right. Whether you’re crafting an intense drama about political corruption or a natural history piece on Woolly Bear Caterpillars, your story needs some kind of conflict to keep it interesting. Conflict can take the form of: Man v. Man, Man v. Society, Man v. Nature, or Man v. Himself. It’s recommended that the last one be used whenever possible because it’s the most universal of them all – we can all identify with internal conflict. And it’s not enough to just have conflict; it has to increase in intensity as the story progresses, otherwise your audience will get bored and start watching cat videos.
This is also known as the Controlling Idea – what your story is saying about life, love and the universe. Pretty heavy stuff, right? Not necessarily. Your story doesn’t need to make a game-changing existential statement to have meaning; it just needs to say something that will resonate with audiences in some way. It could be as simple as “we’re all connected to nature”, or “life is complex”. In order for stories to stick (especially in today’s competitive arena), they need to have meaning. Westbrook sums it up nicely by saying, “you cannot afford to dodge profundity in your stories. They’ll be drowned out in the ocean of digital mediocrity.”
So when you’re designing your non-fiction story, be sure to keep these 3 things in mind. Including them in your narrative could mean the difference between a great story and one that gets lost in the mix. For those who missed the course or are just curious to learn more, check out Inside the Story from Adam and Marc – a great 4-issue magazine on the craft of digital storytelling.
– Jason Clarke, Content Strategist