The “big reveal” and why it makes your stories better
Watch these two videos I have picked out of the video .fu library of awesome video storytelling:
They’re both quite memorable vignettes, one about loss, the other about finding someone. But they both have something in common: what you could call the big reveal – and it’s a potent storytelling tool.
The big reveal is about setting up a moment in your film where you surprise your audience by revealing a crucial part of your story: the answer to the mystery, the ‘will they live happily ever after?’ type question – or sometimes just something as simple as ‘what’s in the box?’.
To do this, however, requires going against an important rule in journalism: it requires you to hold something back from your audience.
Traditionally journalists structure stories in the classic inverted pyramid: most important stuff at the top, then adding less vital information as the story goes down. In broadcast, journalists often use a ‘figure-of-eight’ pattern to achieve the same effect. Both of these formulas are about giving the audience the big facts right at the top.
But the two films above do the opposite. They hold back information for as long as possible.
In Wait For Me, there are two reveals: firstly a short one at the beginning: revealing what’s inside the box; and then right at the end, revealing the details of her son’s disappearance.
In the Guardian’s Soulmates story, the fact this is an online dating story isn’t revealed until a minute in; then there is a lovely visual reveal, when we discover the person she is painting is her partner.
The big reveal is a good storytelling tool because by setting up a mystery, by holding information back – even for just a minute – you pique your audiences’ attention: they want to know what’s in the box, and will hang on to find out – in other words, they’re more likely to watch your story all the way through.
The narrative arc of the “Heros Quest” guide to storytelling is so successful because it begins by setting up a big question: will Luke Skywalker kill Darth Vader? Will the Man on the Wire make it across the Twin Towers? And it gives the audience an opportunity to figure things out for themselves, and feel the reward that comes with it.
The US screenwriter Billy Wilder said it best (the quote, at least, is often attributed to him):
“If you give the audience two plus two, and you let them add it up to it equals four, they’ll love you forever.”
It comes at the expense of direct, clear information – what news is supposed to be about. So it’s not something for the 6 o’clock news to adopt.
But of course, we’re not the 6 o’clock news – we’re the new generation of online video storytellers. Let’s experiment with the formula a little bit.