Story-Creation Tips

NBC-TV Today Show correspondent Bob Dotson is, I think, the best human-interest feature-story TV reporter. Dotson has received more than 50 awards. The National Press Photographers Association award committee wrote, "Bob Dotson's reports help us understand ourselves a bit better. They show that all our lives are important and really matter. After all, this country was built not by great heroes or great politicians, but by ordinary people?by thousands whose names we don't know, may never know, but without whose influence America wouldn't exist."

Bob Dotson, NBC-TV reporter.


Although you probably are not a TV newsperson, you probably will create human-interest stories. Dotson's forte. If there's a storyteller out there you should emulate, I think he's the one. During my TV reporting days I tried to watch all his stories, and when a station I worked for offered me the chance to attend one of his seminars, I jumped at it.

I've reproduced my notes, with his approval, here. I took many things away from his class. Three points stand out:

  • Give viewers a reason to remember the story.

  • When interviewing people, try not to ask questions. Merely make observations. That loosens people up, letting them reveal their emotional, human side to you.

  • Make sure you get a closing shot. Most video producers look for dramatic opening shots or sequences (and that's still a good thing), but your viewers are more likely to remember the closing shot.

Bob Dotson's Story Checklist

Dotson's "Storyteller's Checklist" inspired his book Make It Memorable (Bonus Books) and a companion videotape of all the stories in the book. He prepared his list (and book) with TV news reporters in mind, but his tips apply to professional, corporate, and home video producers as well:

  • Always remember that the reporter is not the story.

  • Make sure the commitment is present. Commitment is the story stated in one sentence?what you want the audience to take away from the report. The commitment should be stated as a complete sentence with subject, verb, and object. "Outside money is altering the city's architecture," "This cow has never taken an order in her life," "You can't murder a pumpkin," and so on. You formulate the commitment to yourself to help guide the story creation. Then you use your images to prove the commitment visually. Very seldom will you state the commitment verbally in any story.

  • Write your pictures first. Give them a strong lead, preferably visual, that instantly telegraphs the story to come.

  • The main body of the story should usually be no more than three to five main points, which you prove visually once you have identified them.

  • Create a strong close that you can't top, something you build toward throughout the story. Ideally, the ending is also visual.

  • Write loose. Be hard on yourself as a writer. Say nothing in the script your viewers would already know or that the visuals say more eloquently.

  • Throughout the story, build your report around sequences?two or three shots of a guy buying basketball tickets; two or three shots of a husband and wife drinking coffee at a kitchen table, and so on. Sequences demand matched action.

  • Allow for moments of silence. Stop writing occasionally and let two or three seconds or more of compelling action occur without voiceover. For a writer, nothing is more difficult to write than silence. For viewers, sometimes nothing is more eloquent.

  • Use strong natural sound to heighten realism, authenticity, believability and to heighten the viewer's sense of vicarious participation in the events you're showing. Some reports merely let you watch what happened. The best reports let you experience what happened.

  • Tell your story through people. People sell your story. Try to find strong central characters engaged in compelling action that is visual or picturesque.

  • Build in surprises to sustain viewer involvement. Surprises help viewers feel something about the story; surprises lure uninterested viewers to the screen. Surprises can be visual, wild sounds, short bites, or poetic script. Always, surprises are little moments of drama.

  • Short sound bites prove the story you are showing. Don't use sound bites as substitutes for more effective storytelling.

  • Address the larger issue. "A trailer home burned down." Such a story fails to meet the "so what?" test. "The trailer home burned down because the walls are full of flammable insulation" describes the larger issue and meets the "so what?" test.

  • Finally, make your story memorable. Can your viewers feel something about the story and its subjects? If feeling is present, the story will be memorable. It will stick in the viewer's minds.

Keep It Simple…and Short

As a coda to Dotson's advice, I'll add that you need to remember, this is only TV. You need some mighty compelling or entertaining material to keep viewers glued to the tube for more than a few minutes. Think about whatever message you're trying to get across in your video project and consider what images, sound, and graphics will convey that message in the briefest, most effective manner. Then shoot with brevity in mind.

That's not to say that you don't grab unplanned video that looks great. Or that you cut interviews short even if you haven't heard some compelling sound bites. Videotape is expendable. Feel free to shoot plenty. Although it's true that you may have to wade through a lot to find the best shots, the advantage of DV is that once these shots are located, you can simply capture them to your hard drive and they become immediately accessible.

    Part II: Enhancing Your Video