Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

The “big reveal” and why it makes your stories better

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on December 5, 2011

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.


6 Responses

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  1. Maria said, on December 5, 2011 at 10:35 am

    Great videos beautifully lit and shot!

  2. Louis Lee Ray said, on December 20, 2011 at 6:20 pm

    Adam, do you think the truly great TV journalists can create packages that hold back information from the viewer, which helps them tell an incredible story, and fit it to a TV News formula? Isn’t that what we should aim for?

    Neely manages to do it pretty well in this (which I’m sure you’ve seen before) and Matt Frei is a master too!

    • Adam Westbrook said, on December 22, 2011 at 9:16 am

      If anyone can do it, it’s Matt Frei – but then he has longer to play with on Channel 4 News. The thing with TV news is the formula exists for a reason – to allow them to turn around stories quickly and cheaply, and that’s fine. It’s fine for the audience too, most of the time.

      So I wouldn’t say TV news should go down this road necessarily, but it’s a creative path at online video journalism can and should explore.

  3. […] To raise a question in the mind of your viewer, setting up “the big reveal“ […]

  4. […] Adam’s post to see two great examples for that storytelling tool. It shows you how powerful it […]

  5. […] soundbite To surprise your audience To raise a question in the mind of your viewer setting up the big reveal To get straight into the […]

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