How to make anything fascinating
A demonstration of how careful storytelling can make education, journalism and information more compelling.
Storytelling, once all the pretentiousness has been stripped away, is little more than information dispensing.
A story is a vehicle for dispensing units of information from one mind to another, and the storyteller’s job is simply to choose what units are dispensed when.
Which makes it all sound rather mundane, as I think it ought to be.
In journalism, documentary and education, we are not very sophisticated in our dispensing of information. The standard practice is to give all the information to the audience quickly and clearly, ordered from most important to least, or to start at the beginning and work your way forward.
And yet there is enormous potential to make even the most mundane and complex of ideas fascinating and engrossing simply by being more sophisticated in the dispensing of information.
Analysis of a single scene
By way of example, take a look at the first 35 seconds of this film I recently produced with Fusion.
The first 35 seconds make up effectively a single scene with a single idea. If we were to summarise all the information given in the scene at once, we could say:
“On the 6th of August 1945 a Japanese man called Tsutumo Yamaguchi was walking to the Mitsubishi plant in Hiroshima when he was hit by the first atomic bomb. A series of events made him unexpectedly late for work, so he was away from the epicentre.”
Saying these words out loud this way would cut the length of the scene down from 35 seconds to about 15, but blurting out all the information in a single breath is not good storytelling.
I want to show you how it is possible to squeeze emotion, suspense, surprise and audience engagement out of a story, simply by being smart about how you dispense your information.
Let’s start with the obvious but overlooked singularity of the audio-visual medium: it uses both audio and visuals to dispense information. The relationship between words and pictures is a book in itself, but for now, just notice how some information is given by words and some by the pictures, and some by both.
The words do most of the lifting, as this scene requires it. Here’s the first sentence in the script:
“There’s this famous story — you might of heard of it actually — about a Japanese man called Tsutumo Yamaguchi.”
Rather than dispensing all the units of information at once, it dispenses just three pieces: a famous story, a Japanese man, and his name. The ‘you might have heard of it actually’ line might seem superfluous, but actually it is setting up a thematic pay-off in the last 30 seconds of the film.
Next, we reveal two more pieces of information:
“He was working for the Mitsubishi company and on this particular morning he was on business in the city…of Hiroshima.”
We are now 17 seconds in and we have been told very little. Think about all the information the audience has not been told by this point. On top of this, the visuals — of an unknown city seen from the air — do not even seem to match what we are being told.
Towards the more journalistic end of the spectrum, this is considered bad practice, as there is a risk of confusing, and then losing, your audience. You’ll notice how other video makers, from Buzzfeed to the BBC, prefer to use literal images which simply mirror what the narration is saying.
But what do people do when they’re given a few pieces of seemingly unrelated information?
Human brains are connecting machines and can’t help it. Good storytelling exploits this in order to draw the audience into the story. By handing some of the narrative responsibility onto the audience you are asking them to participate in the storytelling.
I can make a safe assumption that when I say the name ‘Hiroshima’ most people will immediately think ‘atom bomb’. I know I only need to dispense this one unit of information for the audience to be able to guess what is going to happen.
As this unit of information is more important than some of the others, it is delivered simultaneously by both words and pictures. This is a technique I call ‘double-punching’ and it’s a useful way to relay a hierarchy of information to the audience.
And with another sentence we have two more pieces of story information.
“It was the 6th of August and he was running late for work.”
Having launched your audience’s guessing machines into action, it is important not to give the rest of it away too quickly. The guessing is the fun part for the audience, so you can really engage them by refusing to confirm nor deny. So I tell you the date, but not the year, which would give too much away. History nerds will know for certain, but others will still wonder if their guess was correct or not.
At this point, the pictures, which have so far remained slightly mysterious begin to pay off. We hear a mechanical noise, and then appear to start to fall to earth.
It is not immediately obvious what is going on. This forces the audience to try and solve a puzzle once again. Our brains look at the clues we’ve been given…Hiroshima…famous story…August…falling….
Working together, the pictures and words relayed the information, not obviously, but through piecemeal clues delivered sparingly.
The final words of the script go like this:
“He’d left something important and had to run home to pick it up. Then the owners of the boarding house he was staying in offered him some tea, and so out of politeness he sat down with them, making him even later. Then he got on a bus and then a streetcar, and he was still walking to the office when..”
Alfred Hitchcock once gave a great definition of the difference between suspense and surprise.
The falling bomb in the Hiroshima sequence exploits Hitchcock’s idea. We have figured out an atomic bomb is about to explode. But instead of letting it happen, I slow down time and begin to talk about the mundane details of Yamaguchi’s day. Does it matter that he got a bus and then a streetcar? Of course not, but delaying the inevitable racks up suspense.
The images and the words work together in harmony to squeeze tension and emotion out of the sequence. Note that this emotion does not exist naturally in the information, you have to work to create it.
This particular arrangement of story information, dispensed carefully like this, raises the inevitable question in the audience’s minds: if Tsutumo Yamaguchi is about to be hit by an atomic bomb, will he survive?
Which is the most important question any storyteller wants their audience to be asking: what is going to happen next?
In 35 seconds of screen time I have delivered a short paragraph of information. But I have injected suspense, surprise, mystery and emotion into the delivery of the information so that it becomes much more than the sum of its parts.
More importantly, the audience themselves have participated intellectually and emotionally in the telling of the story.
Update August 2016: a video version of this breakdown is now available to supporters of my Patreon page.
I am thinking about doing more breakdowns like these, to share the techniques of story design that I have learned over the last few years. Please hit recommend if you want more!
Adam Westbrook is an independent video producer. You can find out more about him on his website.