Telling the Story
Elements of a Story
If scenery and action make people watch adventure TV, the story are what they keep watching for. For a story to be effective it needs five things.
Character - You guys. and the people you meet on your adventure. To make your characters compelling you need to tell the audience about them, this means bad points as well as good, after all if your characters are two dimensional you're not telling a story, you're making a comic.
- Setting - This will mostly take care of itself, where you are, where you're going. Though if your setting is nothing but the inside of a car, you're going to need to mix it up a bit or no one will watch until the end. What ways can you take the viewer places they've not been? Being invited into a rural police officers home? Gatecrashing a wedding in the mountains? What places are there along your route that you can take a detour to?
- Plot - Obviously, this is what happens to you, the characters. While most of this will be dictated by the unknown, you can do a lot to turbocharge this. For example if you travel with no maps and almost no money, you know your plot will become more interesting to your viewers. Part of the reason we like difficult forms of transport is to thicken your plot, to make these stories. It's not just because we're sadists.
- Conflict - Basically some shit has to go down. There is no triumph without adversity. The circumstances you'll find yourself in from the setting and plot should provide ample conflict. You just have to make sure you capture it all. Not only does the conflict warm the audience to the characters, it creates the suspense that makes them want to know what happens in the end.
- Resolution - The story needs an ending, the conflict needs to be concluded. That doesn't mean in a good way, or in a way that is immediately obvious, but some sort of line needs to get drawn under it. If the conflict is Dave and Mike having a massive argument, the resolution might be Dave hitching with another team and Mike flying home to be with his girlfriend.
Don't let this stuff daunt you. If you make sure you film every aspect of your adventure a lot of the other stuff can be done in the edit. If you're only going to focus on one thing, make sure you record as much and as many conflicts as you can.
Developing a Character - why do we care about them?
To make the story worth watching, we need convincing protagonists. To make characters convincing we need to invite the audience into their heads, we need to provide clues as to why they behave the way they do. For example if we say Sarah gets angry when she's not eaten enough we know she needs to eat every few hours or she'll punch someone. This shows she has a weakness which makes her more believable. As an added bonus it sets up suspense, the audience wonder if/when she's going to lose her shit.
The easiest way to get your audience to understand your character is to get them to relate to him/her. This is why you want to be as natural as possible when you talk to the camera. And why it helps to film as much interaction between you as possible. The moment in the pre-interview when Dave says he loves animals explains why he crashes his motorbike swerving to avoid a dog in the road.
Another key way to make our characters more understandable is to let the audience know not just what they're doing (and why) but also what they're feeling. If you travel 1000 km of challenging terrain in difficult fashion without any emotions, then you must be some sort of robot.
All the best stories have the main characters develop through the story. Basically they learn something important by the end, or change the way they look at things. It doesn't have to be an epiphany, but it needs to make the whole thing have a point, eg, after 3 blown pistons Jim eventually learns the value of a correct fuel to oil ratio of his two-stroke.
Remember, the audience doesn't need to like you, they just need to understand why you're doing what you're doing - or at least want to find out.
Establishing Character - Pre-adventure Footage
The best way to introduce you is to have some footage of you in their natural environment (home, office, garage, gym, etc). This helps to identify you, and is another step towards helping the audience relate. Having an interview of you before the adventure is the perfect way to give some insight into the type of person you are.
If you imagine you're talking to a family member who's interested in what you're doing and the sort of questions they'll ask. They want to know what sort of person does an adventure like this, they'll be wondering if you're worried about anything. They'll want to know as much as possible so they can picture themselves in your situation.
If you can get your family/ friend to interview for a few moments this is really useful. A question you've probably already been asked is 'What does your mum/ wife/ boss think about this trip', the audience will wonder the same. Because your family and friends know you best, their opinion is likely to be held in high regard by the audience and it can act as a good contrast with your own thoughts.
All of this stuff is great for the audience to get to know you, it's also really good for the editors to build the story. If you say in advance what your mechanical, navigational and negotiation skills are like, it gives us some footage to cut in with the moments it inevitably goes wrong.
Here are some interview questions you can ask yourself before you start the adventure:
- Who are you? Who are your team-mate?
- Why are you teammates good/bad company for this adventure?
- Why are you doing this? What skills do you have that will help you?
- What have you done like this? (adventure, travel, endurance)
- What are you most looking forward to/ worried about?
- What do you predict will happen?
When answering interview questions it's important to include the question in the answer. It makes the editing much easier if you say "I'm doing this to prove to my parents I'm not useless" than if you say "To prove I'm not useless".
Explaining the Action
When making stuff for TV, it's important to make no assumptions about what the audience know. You need to reiterate where you are, what you're doing and why.
Because we don't know how the footage will be cut and it's not always easy for the viewer to understand what's going on anyway, it's really important to explain what's going on. If you're filming yourself broken down, do a piece-to-camera explaining why you've broken down, take a few moments to chat to your team-mate fixing your car, ask him what happened, what the problem is and how easy it will be to fix.
It's especially important to do this when something important has happened you've not filmed, eg. if you've crashed or had a major run in with some border guards. Stop to explain what's just happened, how it might affect you and how you're going to fix it.
Another important way of explaining what's gone on is a daily diary. This is a really good way of explaining a bit of drama after it's happened. The editor might choose to cut this in around the footage of whatever interesting has happened, it doesn't necessarily need to be separate from the rest of the footage.
Questions you should answer here are:
- Where are you?
- What have you done today?
- How do you feel?
- What are you doing tomorrow?
- Is there anything you're worried about? Why?
While interviews are a great way of explaining what's going on, they're no replacement for dialogue. When you're sat around a campfire/ in a bar at the end of the day, set up the camera to record you discussing what has happened over the day and how you felt at the time. The moments of calm at the end of the day make a great
If there is a development that will affect your plans, have a discussion about how it influences what you're doing and what you're going to do about it, eg. you left your wallet in the last town: Will you go back to look for it? Will you cancel your cards and borrow money from your chums, Will you fly home in shame?
The story of an odyssey is usually told as a collection of sub-stories woven together. A bit like the anecdotes you tell your mates down the pub, they're entertaining in their own right but also serve as the pieces of the bigger picture. Just like with the story you tell in the pub, that one little story can act as an allegory of the whole adventure.
To make these work best you need to pretty much treat each situation as its own separate story. They need to have a beginning, middle and end and they need to be tied together with their own narrative, be it by dialogue, interview or piece to camera.