Day 3: How to Pursue a Higher Truth in Storytelling

The first two days in this series have been very tactical. They’ve been about the small, but not insignificant things you can do to conduct more meaningful interviews. Today, however, we’re going to tackle one of the most important subjects of them all: using storytelling to pursue a higher truth.

Now, before you run away screaming because this has devolved into some weird philosophical thing, let me assure you that this is going to be just as practical as everything else. It’s about a mindset shift that will fundamentally alter how you approach your stories.

The main idea here is that truth is subjective. It lies somewhere in the gray area between each of our individual stories and beliefs.

My story, and my interpretation of my story, may seem perfectly true to me, just as your story will seem equally true to you. But what I see as the truth and what you see as the truth are probably different.

No two people have the exact same path through the world — learning the same things, having the same experiences — so no two people have the exact same truths.

But take our stories together, and we’ve got something that is fundamentally more true. It may still be missing other perspectives, but the balance between our stories produces something greater than the sum of its parts.

This may seem overly philosophical, but it has some practical applications for storytellers, especially those in the documentary world.

For storytellers, pursuing a higher truth comes from finding multiple perspectives and gathering research

If the truth lies in the balance between multiple perspectives, then it’s our job as storytellers to gather those perspectives. In fact, this is one of the things Stillmotion always tries to do with their process. It’s one of the best techniques around for moving beyond obvious stories and getting to more remarkable ones.

So how can storytellers achieve this?

For starters, talk to more than just the obvious people for a story. This may mean finding people related to (or involved with) your main characters in some way.

If your story is about a business, talk to different types of employees. Talk to customers. Think about people who might be directly or indirectly impacted by what this business does, and talk to them. And be sure to use those newfound interview techniques from the first two days of this series!

Beyond talking to people, research also plays an important role in this process of pursuing more truthful stories. Independently explore the ideas central to your story. Read articles, books, research papers, etc. Track down experts and talk to them.

This doesn’t have to be an exhaustive process, but it’s extremely helpful when it comes to making sense of the many perspectives you’ve gathered. The research provides useful context that will help you understand your story and tell it as well, and as truthfully, as you can.

A Stillmotion case study in the power gathering multiple perspectives

A few years ago, Patrick, Grant, and the Stillmotion team produced an exceptional feature documentary called #standwithme that tackled the complex subject of modern child slavery. Here’s the trailer:

You might be surprised to learn that #standwithme didn’t start as a feature-length project. Nor was it initially supposed to be about slavery, at least not directly.

Instead, it started as most stories do, with an early impetus, or something that inspired the Stillmotion team to take action and start digging. They came across the story of Vivienne, a 9-year-old girl selling lemonade in an effort to combat child slavery, and it piqued their interest. So they all piled into a van to visit with Vivienne and her family.

Most filmmakers in this situation would shoot some footage with Vivienne, interview her parents, maybe dig up some statistics on child slavery, and call it a day. But not Stillmotion.

“Originally we thought this was Vivienne’s story. But the world that she introduced us to hit us with the call to action. It demanded that we explore this on a level that we had never anticipated.”
— Grant Peelle: Co-Director of #standwithme

So the Stillmotion team talked not only with Vivienne’s parents, but with experts on child slavery, with artists, with people who’ve been directly or indirectly impacted by slavery, with advocates of the conscious business movement. They dove into books, articles, research papers on these topics.

They uncovered as many perspectives as they could, and found that Vivienne’s story was just the tip of the iceberg on a much larger and more consequential story.

This is why it’s so important to clear your mind of assumptions and expectations when coming into the process of telling a new story. Had Stillmotion simply gone with their original plan, an important and empowering feature documentary wouldn’t exist. Fewer people would be aware of the persistence of child slavery in the modern world, and fewer people would know how they could do their part to combat it.

Instead, they chose to listen, and they followed where the story took them. They gathered multiple perspectives and researched the hell out the topic. And that’s precisely why #standwithme exists and is such a strong look at a complicated issue.

This might seem like an obvious example — of course there’d be more to the story of child slavery than a 9-year-old girl could tell us — but it illustrates the point perfectly. There’s always going to be more to the story than first meets the eye. And it’s the storyteller’s responsibility to understand the story as best they can before attempting to tell it in a truthful way.

Sometimes your story won’t grow and morph into something completely different as #standwithme did. But through the process of gathering multiple perspectives and being open to where they might lead, the resulting story will always be more truthful.