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September 9, 2019
This blog has been updated from the original on 2/10/22
You might think storytelling is wildly creative, but it is often surprisingly structured. Talk to any author, and they’ll tell you about the benefits of laying out their stories in a clear formula that allows them to build complete arcs, characters, and satisfying endings. Break it down, and Lord of the Rings is a surprisingly straightforward chronological hero’s journey.
The same is true for effective brand storytelling. Especially in a storytelling video, simply listing benefits or building tension without resolving it won’t get your audience’s attention. Here, too, storytelling structures are proving successful in capturing engagement and building toward happy, satisfied viewers.
And yet, it’s tempting to become formulaic. Follow a strict structure, and the seams will start to show. You begin to follow the motions, create obvious patterns, and make the videos predictable or inauthentic.
That’s why effective brand storytellers are like Switzerland; they take a more neutral or blended approach. They follow the below storytelling video formulas but at the same time, aren’t afraid to experiment and divert from the norms when needed. Let’s dive into 5 of the most common formats, and what that type of diversion might look like.
It’s one of the most basic techniques around, used anywhere from social media to feature films. It starts by introducing a problem, then goes into depth on that problem before presenting the solution. It’s how charity: water introduced itself to the world in 2009:
A deeper dive into what happens in that video, though, is revealing. The CEO introduces the need for clean drinking water, then talks about dying children while images of African tribes flash on the screen. By the 1:00 mark, everyone is waiting for the solution.
That solution comes, but it comes with a twist. The solution is not the company’s great work, but the sacrifice any viewer can make in giving up a gift or two.
That slight change keeps the video interesting. It draws the audience in and keeps them engaged throughout. The focus, unexpectedly, turns directly from the suffering victims to the viewer’s ability to change it. Twists like that ensure that most viewers will watch this storytelling video from beginning to end.
A variation of the above technique, the Before-After-Bridge takes a chronological turn. An initial state is contrasted with a future state (how things are versus how things could be) before the script begins to explain how you got from point A to point B. Take the famous #LikeAGirl campaign by Always as an example:
You see these elements in action. The before are teenagers asking to perform “like a girl”. The “after” are the same actions performed by young children. The solution is presented in the form of the “bridge”, where both generations try to explain where that difference might come from.
And yet, that structure is extremely subtle. It’s not, as the basic technique suggests, chronological. In fact, the before and after might well be happening at the exact same time. That realization (and the fact that we’re giving deeper thought to stereotypes “in the moment” right along with the main characters) keeps the video interesting, and has the audience craving the resolution in the form of the bridge.
Any fan of novels or good movies is familiar with the hero’s journey. It’s a character’s development through adversity, overcoming the challenge, and coming back home a changed person. Perhaps the most evident example of it in advertising is Apple’s landmark 1984 spot introducing the new Macintosh computer.
The hero, here representing Apple, is clearly on her hero’s journey. What’s missing, though, is the resolution. After she destroys the screen, representing the Microsoft dominance of the early 1980s, the screen fades to black as the narrative suggests something to come.
This is a classic divergence from formulaic storytelling. The basic structure is there, but missing a single element to make it more intriguing. The video itself drives to a resolution that never comes, suggesting that the release of the product itself will actually bring it.
An inversion of the hero’s journey is a character test, where a well-established hero faces unexpected adversity that brings them to a lower point to overcome. Remember The Man Your Man Could Smell Like? It’s actually an example of this concept:
The twist here: the character test is actually for the audience, not the protagonist. He is represented, in many ways, as the perfect man. The person watching, on the other hand, suddenly feels inadequate. How can they overcome that challenge? With Old Spice, of course.
The formula is still there. That it has been completely turned around is a testament to the creativity that can still exist within structured storytelling. Just because you follow the Character Test formula doesn’t mean you have to be boring or predictable… or leave humor at the door. (Read a previous blog on how brands can/should use humor here.)
You’ve seen them. Authentic videos that go behind the scenes, not showing a compelling triangle arc but simply allowing you a glimpse into someone (or somewhere) else’s life. That’s what happened in our anthem video for Boehringer
Is it really just a day in the life, though? As you pay attention to the video, the speed of the shots and timelapse begins to increase. The tone increases in urgency and even, at points, slightly contradicts the images: “the time between never passes twice the same” is shown over a timelapse that shows little changing between two days.
That slight bit of cognitive dissonance catches intrigue. By the time the focus shifts to the brand itself, the message is clear. And through a slight twist in this classic technique, the audience wants to know more about it.
Formulas are important to organize your videos, but you have to give yourself some room to divert from the norm. Lord of the Rings wouldn’t be the literary classic it is today if the Hero’s Journey weren’t subverted in the end; Frodo succeeded only because of his best friend and, more importantly, his greatest enemy in Gollum.
Yes, formulas can help you build better stories. They can also become a trap. The balance you have to walk between formula and formulaic can be difficult, but is absolutely vital. For help in that area, and to build better stories that engage and convert your audience, contact us. We’d love to tell your story.
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