This woman has deep narrative intuition and a pretty funny story to tell. It’s not a perfect story, but she does a great and hilarious job with what she has. Let’s listen to it then break it down for structure.
I DON’T DO WELL WITH “EXTRA”. Jessica LaShawn needs her own show.
DELIVERING THE LITTLE PURPLE MAN IN SECRECY
I love this story so much. One of my best friends and favorite people in the world is the singer/actor/dancer Carol Hatchett who was one of The Harlettes (Bette Midler’s backup singers) for many years and a frequent backup singer for Prince. I got to know her twenty years ago when she starred in my USC musical comedy film, “You Ruined My Career,” which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in 1996. I’ve heard lots of stories from her about Prince over the years just like this one. She and everyone she worked with loved him, just as this woman does, but he did have his particular ways.
So it’s a hilarious story, not just because it’s really funny, and not just because she’s really funny, but most importantly, because this woman is a great storyteller with deep “narrative intuition” — the key element we work to establish with Story Circles Narrative Training.
To analytically show you how good she is, I break down her story into individual elements and explain their dynamics. I’m using a mixture of templates here — ABT, the Logline Maker, and The Story Cycle.
STORY ANALYSIS USING THE ABT AND OTHER TEMPLATES
This little exercise is a chance to see how excellent storytelling is equal parts science and art. The science part is the template structure that we can spot. The art half is her ability to know which specific details to include.
One of the key things to note is how little superfluous information is delivered, yet at the same time everything in her story is clear. This is the sort of optimization process a person with great narrative intuition is able to achieve. Great storytelling is about knowing which key details to keep in, and which can be cut out. The set of criteria for the selection of material is too great and complex to do it analytically — you just have to have the intuition for it.
Central to everything is the ABT dynamic at multiple levels. Sometimes she used the actual And, But, Therefore words. Other times you can feel their presence and I’ve added them in parentheses. Keep in mind that “so” is the word that is usually used in speaking instead of the clunky “therefore.”
Also, keep in mind how crucial and essential the “end of the first act” is to effective storytelling. There is no more important element to narrative structure. If you delay it too long, you bore everyone. If it happens too early, people get lost. Knowing where the first act should end may be the single most important element in making a story work. She pulls it off flawlessly.
LINE BY LINE STRUCTURAL ANALYSIS
OPENING ABT – She automatically catches your attention with her first sentence. The reason for this is that it is narratively structured with the ABT.
She begins by saying, “Hey, y’all, I’m so sad, I just heard about Prince and I love Prince, lord knows I do … (BUT) uh, not as much most of y’all, I haven’t even seen “Purple Rain” all the way through, so (THEREFORE) I just wanted to get on here real quick and tell y’all a story about the time Prince fired me …”
JUSTIFICATION – As she continues, she explains why she’s telling this story, “ … because some of y’all need to laugh and you need to hear something great to know what kind of man Prince was.”
ESTABLISHING SETTING – The next sentence begins the story by establishing the setting through place and time, “I was blessed to actually work with Prince when I was out in L.A.” This is similar to the “Once upon a time” cue that signals we’re headed into story mode.
EXPOSITION – She’s laying down the details with next bit, “I was working the Grammy Awards — I worked the Grammy Awards like three or four years.” This starts to give us the context in which the story occurs.
FORESHADOWING (with an ABT) – “And I got assigned to Prince — (AND) now, how they even assigned me to Prince, I don’t know, BUT y’all know Prince is a little difficult, and (THEREFORE) he was a little difficult.” By warning us he’s a little difficult we can already begin to feel a little bit of anticipation of things to come — we start thinking, “uh oh, she’s working with a prima donna”.
DESCRIPTION OF CHARACTER (an ABT) – She describes the main character, “I got to work with him AND he’s so tiny and cute — I’m about five seven, like two hundred pounds, so I’m not like a super-little lady, BUT Prince is like right here to me and (THEREFORE) he was so cute.”
END OF THE FIRST ACT – “So nobody knew that Prince was performing at the Grammy Awards and so it was my job to keep it a secret about Prince, so I go in there and see Prince and he cool as heck, and he’s laid back, and he’s like I gotta find a way to get to the stage, and I was like, oh, I don’t really know how to get you to the stage, we could like walk through here and get to the stage, and (BUT) he’s like “No one is supposed to know I’m here!” And I’m like … okay — y’all know I don’t do well with “extra” — I don’t do well with extra.”
WHY THIS IS THE END OF THE FIRST ACT – You can feel she was in her “Ordinary World,” just doing her normal job, escorting the celebrity to the stage. But her Ordinary World gets overturned and she enters the “Special World” (in a big way) when Prince tells her something she’s never heard before — that the celebrity needs to keep his presence a secret, even back stage.
ACCENTUATION OF THE END OF THE FIRST ACT – To add a little drama to this important point of structure she says, “So that’s when I knew that this was a set up and this was a chance for me to really get closer to God.”
COMIC PREDICAMENT – We now have a classic comic predicament established. We have two characters who have conflicting goals. One just wants to do her (hopefully routine) job as simply as possible, the other wants do extraordinary things (to maintain secrecy about his presence). That’s a recipe for an entire comedy movie — like the 1981 version of “Arthur” with Dudley Moore (not the remake which flopped) where his butler is basically Jessica and he is Prince — same situation.
THE SECOND ACT BEGINS – She now starts her journey of addressing the problem she has posed (trying to get Prince to the stage in secrecy). She says, “Again, Prince is difficult — most of y’all know that — so I figure out a way to navigate Prince and try to sneak him through, BUT he sees this little roller car, and he’s like “Hey, get me on this roller cart.” Okay, you know those little rollable hanger-like closets, but on wheels — its like a closet on wheels. He gets his little tiny butt on this little roller cart, and he hides behind a sheet on the roller cart, and he wants me to push him.”
THE STAKES GET RAISED – She has set up her journey which seems reasonably simple, but now she’s going to make it more dramatic as she says, “Now I cannot see where I’m going on this little roller cart in front of it, and we are trying to navigate through traffic and we are on set for the Grammy Awards. And I don’t really know where I’m going. It’s just little old me pushing this big old heavy metal roller cart with Prince on it.
FURTHER RAISING THE STAKES – Here she makes it clear how difficult the job is. “You cannot drop Prince. You cannot hit Prince. And you can’t say “Hey, help me,” because Prince is on here. It’s up to me to keep it a secret because Prince is on this little ugly cart. So Prince has got an attitude because I’m bumping into stuff. Then I get an attitude because you get an attitude with me. You can’t come for me — I don’t care if you are Prince — I love you Prince — I already done got cussed out by Stevie Wonder cause I kept saying I’m sorry — and you come over and you got an attitude with me because I can’t push you on this little roller cart, sir.
FIRST CULMINATION – The story has been built way up to the point now where something has to give. And it does as everything unravels and plunges her into her “darkest hour.”
DARKEST HOUR – This is where our hero, Jessica, plunges into disaster. She says, “So Prince gets mad and he tells me that I’m FIRED! He told me to get the hell out, and away. And I was like, you little old man — you — I swear … And let me tell you what he did — he flung his hat — you know how Prince flung his hat — and he got on the little roller cart and he stuck his little six and a half shoe out, and he starts scooting, through the sheet on the little roller cart, and he just left me there, looking stupid and dumb, and I couldn’t get back in the dressing room.
PLANT AND PAYOFF – She gets a final accentuation here by doing what is called “plant and payoff.” This refers to when something in a story is “planted” early on as it is mentioned and may be lightly funny but doesn’t seem that necessary to the story, yet it will have impact later if it is “paid off.” A while back she had planted her past experience with Stevie Wonder. Now she pays it off by saying, “And I was hungry and I ain’t have nowhere to go, and they were like okay we gotta re-assign you to somebody else, and then Stevie Wonder was like, “She probably sorry.”
END OF STORY AT TWO THIRDS POINT – That ends up being the last bit of narrative and the end of her story. We’re only about about two thirds of the way through the video, but the storytelling now pretty much ends. Her next line is, “So, that’s what happened to me and that’s what happened when I worked with Prince.” “So” is the same word of consequence as “therefore” which means she’s at the “T” in her over-arching ABT and this is all we’re going to get for storytelling.
From here she conveys the general idea that he did make it to the stage, but her comments are no longer tightly feeding the narrative (problem/solution dynamic) as she hits on summary notes about “I learned a lesson” and her friends texting her and “So that’s what happened to Prince,” and some silliness about how he was “the founder of kick push.”
In fact, you can feel how she has exited from the narrative world. The narrative part of her brain is no longer active. She’s now just tossing out statements of summary and random thoughts. It feels totally different.
It’s too bad — we were ready for the story to get crazier at this point, but she sticks to the truth, which wasn’t quite as wild as earlier.
WHY THIS VIDEO DIDN’T GO VIRAL: NO THIRD ACT
Nobody knows exactly why some utterly stupid videos go viral and others don’t. Length is a fairly important variable but not absolute. Most viral videos are about two minutes or less, yet the KONY 2012 viral video has over 100 million views and is nearly a half hour long.
Demographics are essential with viral videos because of the teen demographic — they are the driving force behind almost all viral videos — if you’re not playing to the teens, you’re probably not going viral. That’s what drove the KONY 2012 video and made brainless entertainers like Pewdie Pie into Youtube mega-stars.
There’s nothing teen-appealing with this video, and at over 5 minutes it’s relatively long, but also it has a major structural problem in that it doesn’t have a third act. If you view Matthew Winkler’s amazing animated video about The Hero’s Journey you see that Jessica’s story ends with Stage 6 — The Darkest Hour. She got fired, was banished, and that was it — story over.
GIVING JESSICA’S STORY A REWRITE
What the story needed in narrative terms was for her to quickly regroup after he fires her, decide to get even with Prince for being humiliated by him, concoct some scheme to humiliate him, have it succeed in a wild and hilarious way, then in the final scene have him offer his apology to her so we can see he’s changed and become a better person. So what’s missing is actually the whole second half of the second act in addition to a third act.
The key point is the story abandoned us in the middle of the journey, which meant that no matter how tremendous her story skills might be — and lord knows she is brilliant and hilarious — unless she made stuff up, she just didn’t have the material she needed to bring the story home.
To put it in simple terms, imagine a sports highlight reel scene of a player shooting the winning basket where we see him pull off a wild move stealing the ball from his opponent, spinning to his left, jumping up, shooting the ball, following the ball in mid-air, then cutting to a commercial. That’s kind of what she does with the abrupt ending.
And this, once again, is why scientists have good reason to fear storytelling dynamics. There is often an irrepressible desire to fill in all that missing stuff in order to have a story that will go viral. When a scientist gathers all the data to tell half the story, there can be a temptation to over-reach for the last parts to make the story arc complete. It’s only human. Which is what makes it dangerous.
But at the same time, when it comes to scientists and storytelling, the most important thing is not to blindly shun the whole of “story,” but rather to confront your fears and gain an understanding of what causes the problems.
THE POWER OF STORYTELLING RESTS IN THE SPECIFICS
One final tidbit. She does a great job of demonstrating this absolutely fundamental rule of how the power of storytelling rests in the specifics. I repeat this endlessly in Story Circles. It’s the little details that are so powerful — namely her referring to his “little tiny butt” and his “little six and a half shoe.” So classic. She’s awesome.
It wasn’t the greatest story ever told, but it was a perfect front end of what could have been one for the ages. And now you see why Hollywood is such a fickle place. They want perfect stories, and they get them — either through the shaping of fact or the manufacturing of fiction.