Only a true cynic believes that the best ideas have been plucked to death. To an insufferable optimist (like me), originality is constant and ongoing because human society is in a constant state of regeneration.
There are dozens of quotes that observe how history repeats itself. Most take the cynical view that humanity cannot or will not change course to change an inevitable outcome (usually something gloomy). But a few (Carlos Castaneda for one), suggest that if you open up to the idea that we learn from history, you can find a way to change its course. Therefore, while originality may appear wanting, it is in the execution of an idea or concept that matters most.
The same goes for writing a story. I suppose that most writers are fairly optimistic because we constantly talk about different ways to tell an old story. For instance, there’s nothing interesting about “dog bites man,” but the whole world wants to know when there’s something new about the dog we didn’t know before – it has only three legs, it was a big dog, a small dog, a dog that jumped from a 2nd story window to attack the man – or that the man bit the dog. You may recognize this as “spinning” a story, but I believe that “angling” is a much better descriptive. It’s also an older term that recalls the ancient art of “plank-making.”
A master plank cutter studies a log of prime lumber carefully before he cuts it into planks. He studies the grain and other features to predict how it will produce certain characteristics in final product. He may cut into knots or grain to achieve interesting patterns. He may include rot or burns for a splash of color. He may cut into straight grain to produce strong and rigid planks.
Writers can do about the same thing with any story – adding a feature, a benefit, a concept, a human interest – both for effect (artistic or structural) and also for affect (how it makes the viewer feel). Angling a story allows you to tailor your every communication to your target audience. You can set a new theme or reset opinions. Seemingly negative situations are transformed into positive ones because a new angle emphasizes a positive result. Normal and average situations evaporate because a new angle produces a previously ignored value.
Here’s a story about literal angles, as told to me by a retired PR practitioner:
At the close of World War II, RCA Records announced that it was releasing an “unbreakable” phonograph record. Until that time, records had been made of clay and were very fragile. The new RCA record was made of vinyl, which was far more durable. To demonstrate the invulnerability of the new record, a publicity executive conjured up a stunt to drop both types of platters from the top of the RCA building in downtown New York. The date was set and the press and public showed up in droves to see the platter splatter.
At the designated time, the president of RCA dropped the old clay record by its edge and it zipped straight down to the street and disintegrated on contact. Then came the new super-platter. He dropped it in the same manner as its predecessor and, to everybody’s surprise, it too shattered like an old dinner plate. Facing public impalement or worse, the panicked publicity executive asked the stunned president to drop another vinyl record, “…but as you would if you were going to set it on a record player.” The change in aerodynamics caused the record to drift down to the waiting crowd, where it bounced off the pavement intact.
As you work for your angles, carefully survey where they may lead – look for the angles within angles. Dig up possible conflicts and beware of side-effects like unintentional contrasts that may cause problems later.
Remember to calibrate your words carefully. In the case of our intrepid publicity executive, a 90-degree change in his angle was sufficient to change the perspective of his story. He saved his neck and ended up with a great public demonstration. Things are not so easy for the rest of us, but his last-minute realization is worth remembering.
Here’s another way to look at angling. A good guerrilla never forgets the essential facts related to a product, service or event. So what do you do? Put them in bullet points in the middle of the paragraph? No. You fold them into personal, situational, and demonstrative angles. With a personal angle, the facts have a human touch (think ‘testimonial’ or ‘human interest’); a situational angle can involve an anecdote or two. Demonstrative angles are, for the most part, the weakest tool because they often fall on a list of features and benefits – which is okay, as long as you recognize the value of angling for the best reader interest.
That’s all for now.