You Just Won’t Know If You Don’t Ask

drawing of a question mark
Listen to “You Just Won’t Know If You Don’t Ask”

Jennifer Kingsley told me that just because you show up doesn’t mean there’s a story. She was referring to her documentary “Humans of the Arctic” for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

In the doc, Jennifer travels the Arctic with no plan other than to interview people. That’s it. She interviews someone and asks “Who else should I talk to?” Interviews the next person and asks for yet another contact. “I think of it as life in the Arctic, one introduction at a time,” she told me.

But, even if you assemble those interviews in a half-hour vox pop on steroids, much like she did in “Humans of the Arctic,” you still don’t necessarily have a story. So, after I listened to the doc the first time, I re-listened to discover what narrative tools Jennifer and CBC producer Dick Miller used at the start of the piece to turn “Jenny in Iceland . . . Jenny in Greenland . . Jenny in Canada . . .” into a story.

To open the doc, Jennifer speaks directly to the audience. No music. No ambiance. No active tape. Just Jennifer. In the very first line she presages conflict. She says “Getting to know a place is about confronting the unexpected.”

Soon after, she suggests successful travel requires breaking through expectation. So, in short, between “confronting,” “unexpected,” and “breaking through,” Jennifer alludes to a journey with trials and tribulations.

Listen to “Confronting the unexpected”

Next in the doc, Jennifer foreshadows change, that her perspective evolves over the course of the journey. That’s a classic narrative tool – a changing character.

Listen to “Personal change”

Then, Jennifer establishes a sequence of events, a kind of “here we go” moment quickly followed by her first encounter – an accidental encounter, at that. Additionally, that encounter establishes danger as the West Greenland fisherman she meets relates the story of the death of his family.

Listen to “An accidental meeting and danger”

So, in the first few minutes of “Humans of the Arctic,” Jennifer turns a “Jenny in Iceland . . . Jenny in Greenland . . .” international vox pop into something more by framing the story using classic narrative tools like conflict, a sequence of events, surprise, and personal change.

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