How to Tell a Story

All the advice I have ever received regarding writing has one thing in common: capture the readers’ attention right away.  Whether you start your piece with dialogue to immediately draw the reader in or are writing something more research based, you have to capture the reader’s attention quickly; readers these days don’t always have long attention spans.

Recently I finished watching Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary, The Civil War.  I have learned a bit about the Civil War before, including visiting Gettysburg on a family vacation in middle school.  Burns took educating his viewers about the Civil War to the next level; he told stories that people of modern society could identify with even though our lives are probably nothing like the lives of old.  When I think of history I sometimes can only see all the facts that can seem hard to remember or digest.  There is not quite the same personal aspect to history if you only focus on facts and military strategies.

What really captured my attention was the way Burns overlapped sound effects and bites over still photographs taken during the war.  He didn’t spend time trying to recreate the war, he used actual documentation.  One wouldn’t think that in a world with all this special effect technology that you could be “wowed” by black and white photographs accompanied by cannon fire sound effects, but I was drawn in to these scenes.

The other method that really drove home the emotions of the war was the use of narration of letters and writings from the time period.  Of course the readers of these pieces were recognizable actors, but if Morgan Freeman can’t make you feel something you must have a heart of stone.

Historians like Shelby Foote played an important role in the story-telling process.  I hadn’t personally heard of Foote before the documentary, but he was filled with anecdotes and knowledge as if he had just dropped by from 1863.  He really gave the documentary that personal edge that helped viewers identify with specific individuals in addition to the facts and names of battles.

In the closing episode of the documentary, Foote said something that really made me think:
“If we’d been anything like that superior as we think we are, we would not have fought that war.  But since we did, we have to make it the greatest war of all times and our generals were the greatest generals of all time.  It’s very American to do that.”

Here I was all excited about all this knowledge I had acquired about the Civil War and desiring to learn more about what made this war.  I think the significance of Burns using this quote—along with different perspectives throughout the entire documentary—was to remind us that there isn’t always one right way to think.  Obviously one goal of the war was the abolition of slavery, but when the Union was reinstated, the southern part of the country didn’t necessarily simply adopt the values and beliefs of their defeaters.

It is important to stand up for what you believe in and, as one historian in the documentary put it, this war was a testament to the power of popular majority.  She said that just because the war ended doesn’t mean we aren’t still fighting aspects of it today.  So, not only did I finish this documentary more informed, I also walked away from it thinking.  I think that is a sign of a good story-telling.  Burns created a credible piece that made the viewers walk away unable to easily forget what they had just watched.