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.

Great online video: Wait for Me & Goodnight Moon

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

Not one, but two more superb examples of online video storytelling were added to the video.fu library this week, both stories of families coping with loss.

Both demonstrate  a great sense of visual storytelling – as well as a too-often overlooked rule: a familiarity/relationship with the people you’re interviewing. There are more than 20 other great films in the video.fu library at the moment – you can subscribe here.

Wait For Me/Red Light Films

The first I actually saw about two years ago, but it took me a while to track down. Wait For Me is about a mother’s long vigil for her son who disappeared while backpacking in India nearly 30 years ago.

Very intimate and well produced, but also full of little tips and tricks other visual storytellers can apply. It opens with a sequence of shots showing a box being opened. This immediately piques our interest: ‘what’s in the box?’ and it’s a similar device to showing your main character heading somewhere – we know there is something about to be revealed and it engages us.

Next we hear our character read from an old letter, a lovely device, which explains the story without having to literally describe it. The fact she cannot finish the letter shows us too how emotionally raw her loss is.  Well treated archive footage forms the bulk of the visuals, which serve to show us more about who the missing son is; the faded 8mm stock a subconscious hint to fading memories.

Finally, rather than using more full-screen images of the son, the director films a small passport photograph in the mother’s hand. A clever device to place the photograph in the real world.

Goodnight Moon/Margaret Cheatham Williams

And secondly, on a similar theme, is Margaret Cheatham Williams’ intimate portrait of her own family as they lose her grandmother to Parkinson’s disease.

The personal nature of this film must have made it hard to make: the two main subjects are her own family. Margaret deftly mixes video with stills, and in particular brings in some nice ‘actually’ at two points to break up the interviews.

In particular there are nice references to visual symmetry, with shots of her grandparents together in bed, repeated later with their daughter Katie. I also love the tight framing on interviews and a confident use of lighting too, which tells its own story.Again faded 8mm home movie footage takes us back to happier times, with the memory too starting to fade.

The video.fu library is constantly growing, curating some of the most exceptional online video storytelling. There are more than 20 films there right now – make sure you subscribe to see them before they hit the blog!