Reed goes on to talk about how challenging it is for people to restore these clocks, because of all the hands that have touched them over the years. Restorers look for what are called "witness marks," indications of what other people have done to the clock over the years that can provide clues about how to restore the clock to its original state. He then concludes the introduction by saying that he learned all of this information about clocks from an antique clock restorer who contacted him and asked for his help in solving a murder.
And we're off and running.
What's so brilliant about this introduction is how layered it is. In a little less than 2 minutes, Reed has managed to...
- Introduce the name of the main character
- Tell us about what the main character does (restore antique clocks), so we immediately know he's a craftsman, a handyman, an artist, etc.
- Tease us with what's to come (details about a murder case).
- Hint at the complexity of the story and the characters within it by using the intricacies and complexities of an antique clock as a metaphor.
- Foreshadow the twists and turns that inevitably result from a complex story like this, by drawing parallels from the role of a clock restorer, as he/she follows the "witness marks" on a clock to determine how everything should fit together.
The story should be as long, or as short, as it needs to be.
I have to admit, I bristle a little when I receive feedback from a short-form documentary and the critique is simply, "Make it four minutes," as if some group sitting somewhere in some board room decided that every video produced henceforth should be exactly four minutes long.
Yes, I realize that data exists showing just how long an audience will sit and watch an online video, but I don't adhere to the idea that every story can, or should, fit into a specific run time. Stories should be as long (within reason) or as short as they need to be to tell a nice, tight, concise story. S-Town decided that seven, one-hour episodes was the right amount of time they needed to tell their story. Serial season one needed 12 episodes; season two, 11 episodes.
Some of my short-form pieces have been around 6 minutes, while others have been as short as 2 minutes. You as the storyteller should realize how much material you have and should structure and edit accordingly. Always be asking yourself, "Is this section REALLY necessary?" Continue to trim and tighten the story. Your audience will thank you for it.
Allow the story to take you where it takes you.
I'm sure Reed had ideas about where the story would/should go as he embarked on his investigation. But life doesn't unfold into a nice, three-act structure. So, when Brian's story suddenly shifted, he went off into a new direction. This happens to documentarians all the time. Watch the film The Queen of Versailles if you want another example.
Embed yourself with the story's subjects.
Access, access, access. This is what you need if you want a story that feels thorough and complete, with characters with whom your audience can identify and sympathize. I'm sure Reed could have conducted a majority of his interviews via email or over the phone (after all, it's a story that takes place in a small Alabama town and he's a New York reporter), but the story would have suffered. It would have felt shallow. The people in the story would have felt more like caricatures, not real human beings. He needed to be there, in the town, meeting with the people, learning about them on a personal level. That's how you build rapport and trust, and if you have that relationship established, the people in your story will feel more comfortable opening up to you.