Netflix’s “Making a Murderer”: 3 storytelling lessons (or warnings)

Posted on 01-08-2016 by
Tags: writing , Top Stories

I’ve heard storytelling likened to the Trojan Horse; a construction that sneaks information past your defenses. I think that’s what happened when I watched Netflix’s documentary Making a Murderer. I say “think” because it’s hard to believe that I missed a giant wooden horse being wheeled into my head.

That the filmmakers had an agenda was lost on me. But several articles discuss culpable evidence omitted from the film, one of the best (and least bias) being Jessica McBride’s 14 pieces of troubling evidence "Making a Murderer" left out or glossed over.

What’s interesting about McBride’s article are the comments. Of the majority, there’s little middle ground. In judging Steve Avery, most commenters are bright-line “Guilty” or “Not Guilty.” I think this is a function of which story they heard first: the original story told by the Wisconsin media or the second story told by Making a Murderer.

On whichever side you fall, you’re probably being held captive by storytelling. Storytelling is a powerful weapon (powerful enough to put Avery on the President’s radar?), a weapon used to blast through bias and launch agendas.

3 Storytelling Lessons from Netflix’s Making a Murderer

#1. Stories “stick-ify” your message

Sticky “stories” make up the final “S” in the stickiness acronym, S.U.C.C.E.S., which is described in Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath. The Heaths attribute two powers to sticky stories:

  1. The power of simulation (knowledge about how to act); and
  2. The power of inspiration (motivation to act).

Relevant to Making a Murderer is the Heaths’ discussion on springboard stories (i.e., stories that tell people about possibilities). What the Heaths say sounds like a conceivable strategy behind Making a Murderer:

The problem is that when you hit listeners between the eyes they respond by fighting back. The way to deliver a message to them is a cue to how they should react. If you make an argument, you’re implicitly asking them to evaluate your argument …. [With a story] you engage the audience – you are involving people with the idea, asking them to participate with you.

They then go onto mention “engaging the ‘little voice inside the head ….’”

Stories give the little voice – which wants to debate you – something to do.

#2. Stories emotionally evade your defenses

The Trojan Horse analogy … I first heard it in the Fast Company article, Why Storytelling Is The Ultimate Weapon. The article describes storytelling as:

… more effective at changing beliefs than writing that is specifically designed to persuade through argument and evidence.

Why is this? Because good stories are absorbing and emotionally moving, causing listeners to drop their guard and leaving them defenseless. The article goes on to say that:

Master storytellers want us drunk on emotion so we will lose track of rational considerations, relax our skepticism, and yield to their agenda.

Making a Murderer is saturated with “drunk on emotion.” For example, the Brandon Dassey-side of the story emotionally reeks of injustice, from the badgered (portrayed as) confession, to Dassey’s child-like understanding, to his assistance of counsel (which is emotionalized as woefully deficient).

#3. Stories preside over the details

To “detail” is to “give the full particulars of.” By this definition – the full particulars -  “detailing” isn’t the same as “storytelling.” It’s the opposite.

Stephen King, in his memoir On Writing, says that:

… good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else. In most cases, these details will be the first ones that come to mind.

Story is a gatekeeper of details. Making a Murderer, as told, lets certain details in and leaves certain details out. The details “let in” paint Steve Avery as wrongfully convicted; the police as inept and vindictive. As Stephen King notes, they’re the details that first come to mind.

But the details “left out” add to and alter the Avery painting.  For instance, the McBride article highlights omitted details that may (or may not) discredit Avery. A few of these (there’s 14) include:

- Leg irons and handcuffs were found in Avery's residence and in Dassey's

- Pornography was recovered in Avery's residence

- Avery had drawn a torture chamber while in prison and was violent to other women

Oddly enough, as I was writing this, the following article appeared in my inbox: The Real Reporters Behind "Spotlight" On Reliving The Facts And Accepting The Fiction, published by Fast Company. It discusses the film Spotlight, about the investigative team that exposed child molestation by Catholic priests. Spotlight is a "based on" film - which might best describe all storytelling. What “based on” means is that Spotlight’s writers at times:

… rewrote things in order to best serve the cinematic medium.

The article goes on to describe the film as “extremely faithful to its source” and fictionalized “with judicious restraint.” Regardless, it’s still storytelling. Words like “faithful to its source” and “judicious restrain” attempt to grade the truth on a curve.

But isn’t that what the master storyteller wants us to do?

Like Making a Murderer, NPR’s Serial podcast dissected a murder and the story surrounding Adnan Syed’s questionable guilt/conviction. Here’s 4 evidence lessons from the Serial case:


Rachel Poritz
Rachel Poritz
Posted on : 12 Jan 2016 5:19 PM

It's interesting how the internet and streaming content is having an impact on actual cases.  Such as the Adnan Syed case.  I haven't seen Making a Murderer yet, but very interesting points made here.

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