By Trent Rentsch
My father-in-law is one of the most challenging people I have ever known... which he would emphatically deny. Now, if I said he WASN’T, well, then he would insist... get the picture?
A man of academia, the quest for knowledge never ends for him, and he seems to revel in debating any subject, with any one, at any time, simply for the intellectual satisfaction of it. If it’s day, he’ll insist it is night, and manufacture compelling arguments to support his claim.
It only took me 2 or 176 times of falling into his argumentative clutches to realize that I was bringing a pea-brain to a genius-level debating tournament. Which is why I should’ve known better last weekend...
We were having brunch with Dad and his wife, discussing the celebration my wife had planned for my coming birthday. She was surprising me with a long weekend in Orlando. “So,” Dad said, “What are your plans in Orlando?”
“Well, Lori got us tickets to Universal, so we’re going to see the new Harry Potter-land,” I said, expecting his reply...
“Ahh, Harry Potter. All the kids like that, don’t they?”
I smiled. “Yep, I do.”
“What is it that you like about it?”
As I said, I should’ve seen it coming, but darn it he had me talking about my birthday and all... “Well, I think J.K. tells a good story, even if she’s not the best writer in the world.”
He didn’t even pause. “You’re saying there’s a difference between a good writer and a good story-teller?”
He had me, sprung the trap and I didn’t even see him setting it! Fine. If I was already in the middle of a debate I was going to lose, I might as well state my case. So I did. And when I was finished, he did pause a moment, then said, “You’re quite passionate about this, aren’t you?” And that was the end of it. I’d like to believe it was his way of saying, “You have a point,” but whatever he meant, I felt I had finally won. Trent, 1 – Dad, 3,972.
I suppose I am passionate about words... and stories. A good writer can be a good story-teller, but it isn’t always the case. Technical perfection can be sterile, dull and lifeless. A strong story, and the chops to tell it, can completely absorb a reader, listener or viewer, grammar be damned. I would never say that good grammar isn’t important (out loud), but I will firmly insist that they mean nothing without a compelling story woven within those “correctly assembled” words.
I bring this up because once again, radio Creative seems to be slipping into the laundry-list mode of script-writing... forsaking Creative in order to cram as much information into :30 or :60 seconds as possible. I’m hearing far too many commercials and imaging pieces that shout information without any concern for whether the listener will be able to absorb it, or find any interest in it at all. On top of it, the grammar is horrible... two strikes, you’re out; lousy story-teller, lousy writer.
We need to get back to the basics of good story-telling, to make our Creative compelling to the listener and effective for the client. Shouting the phone book is not working, and in fact is damaging to the industry. Radio is better than that, I still believe it.
So, where to start? Well, every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. While they are all important, when I’ve been able to be Creative, I’ve trusted on a provocative beginning as the solid foundation for the script. Since I sold plasma to fill my tank earlier today, let’s use gas as an example... say a car dealership is giving away 1000 dollar gas cards. I might start the script, “Beep Beep Motors has GAS... and they want to share it with you!” Tain’t genius, but it is a little silly, a little ear-catching, and sets up the rest of the story. Another direction might go right to the heart of story-telling, “Once upon a time, Beep Beep Motors had gas... and they were determined to share it with the world...” you see where I’m going here.
The middle needs to continue pushing the message, while getting the old “who, what, when, where, and why” out. The middle is always in danger of becoming an accursed laundry list, and while it’s sometimes unavoidable, use language that speaks TO the listener... don’t tell them the deal, talk to them about it.
The end... ah, endings are tough, especially in story-telling spots and imaging. A good ending should tie-up all the loose ends of the story into a nice big bow, with the client (or station) coming off as the hero. Sadly, the client generally expects a bucket of contact information slapped onto the end. Often I feel like I’ve done the story justice if I can quickly call back to the offer in some goofy way that hopefully leaves the listener with a lasting impression. With Beep Beep Motors, before I would go into endless numbers and addresses, I might say, “Let Beep Beep Motors pass you their gas... you’ll feel better!” Again, not Shakespeare, but something that resembles “the end” of the story before the WWW dot....
This is just one flake in the Antarctica that is the art of story-telling, but if it strikes a chord, I encourage you to think about how you’re presenting your information the next time you write a script, and perhaps seek out the wisdom of some of the real story-tellers of the world (Stephen King’s masterwork, “On Writing” is a good place to start). The power of words, backed by a great Creative story, cannot be denied... except, possibly, by my Father-in-law.