Teaching "The Seven Elements"

Joe Lambert has compiled The Seven Elements of Digital Stories to create a framework and vocabulary for the art. Point, Dramatic Question, Emotional Content, Pacing, Gift of your Voice, Economy and Soundtrack are explained at the Center for Digital Storytelling.

When teaching the elements to students, I find that making references to film can have the best payoff. Try these:

Point: The Wizard of Oz

Every story should have a point. How often have we been regaled with high drama and intricate detail, only to have no payoff? Most students have seen The Wizard of Oz and can sing out in unison Dorothy's final words in the story, "There's no place like home." Without that, and without her realization of what she values, her adventures are all for naught. Make sure students have a payoff in their own stories.

Dramatic Question: Raiders of the Lost Ark

"Will Indiana find the Ark before the Nazis get it?" is the lynch pin, the conflict of the entire story. Once that question is answered, The story ends. But wait: there's more. A great answer to a dramatic question should have an ironic twist. The answer usually is not merely, "Yes." Instead it's , "Well, yes...but..." In Raiders The answer is "Yes, but the Ark contains inconceivable power...more than we care to handle." The final shot reveals the The Ark stored inconspicuously in a massive warehouse. The irony is complete. Encourage students to develop stories with ironic twists if possible.

Emotional Content: Apollo 13

The first time I saw Apollo 13 I was on the edge of my seat asking the Dramatic Question: "Will they make it back?" On pins and needles, I watched as the characters struggled, toiled, prayed to get the astronauts home. Then I took a step back...:"Wait. I was there when this really happened. They make it back!" So what compels me to watch the remainder of this film every time it comes on? Ron Howard has the uncanny ability to make the audience care about what happens to the characters. Whether it be through riveting soundtrack, poignant conversations between husband and wife, or struggles between colleagues, we care. Creating stories that cause us to feel, to empathize, to understand, is critical. Emotion is created in every facet of the process: words, images, voice and music.

Pacing: Lord of the Rings

Notice any emotional scene between Frodo and Sam, or characters that have romantic connections: shots are long in duration, movement is subtle, and the soundtrack is smooth and peaceful. Contrast that with the epic battle scenes: shots are quick with no transitions, quick zooms and sweeping panoramas of the battle field dominate the scene, and the music: as powerful and relentless as the battle itself. All of the elements come together to develop a consistent rhythm of the scene. At times, however, an intentional contrast can achieve a great effect. Why would a director deliberately use slow motion and cut out the soundtrack at a particular point in a battle scene?

Gift of your Voice: Stand By Me

Often times, students become reluctant about recording their voice for others to hear. I had one shy girl who wanted me to record her story because she was ashamed of her accent. Gently, I told her that NO ONE can tell her story better than she can. Voice-over personalizes a story to an intimate level. The narration of Richard Dreyfus as the adult Gordy LeChance, adds a nostalgic tone of reminiscence to a bygone era. Clearly, Voice impacts Emotional Content as well.

Economy: Master Card "Badger" Commercials (Or, most commercials, for that matter)

This is where the mantra, "Less is More" comes out. No one needs to be a more economical storyteller than commercial writers. The entire process must me completed in no more than 30 seconds. The old Mastercard commercials about the hard-luck dog badger attempting to get home are masterpieces of economy. Having students use fewer images and words to convey meaning is an on-going process that pays mig dividends.

Soundtrack: Jaws

Need I say more about the impact of the trademark "Da-dum. da-dum da-dum." Have students choose soundtrack wisely. Encourage students to use instrumental music in lieu of lyrical. In this clip from The Holiday , Jack Black comments on the power of soundtrack in motion pictures.