Screen Play: The art of storytelling and why it sells

Screen Play: The art of storytelling and why it sells

The word storytelling evokes a variety of different images. Some think of childhood—milk, cookies and a favourite aunt or grandfather reciting the Brothers Grimm with glasses perched at the end of their nose. Others think of a tormented novelist stooped over a laptop amidst a sea of take-out and coffee cups. But, what we don’t think of are the bustling studios and offices of advertising agencies across the world.

From the staccato typing of copywriters and account execs working on brand personalities and identities to the calculated clicks of a designer putting the finishing touches on a logo, we are all storytellers. Our job is to paint our audience a picture of what a brand means—their values, benefits and position in the world. And, to do so, we rely on many of the same concepts employed by Hollywood studios and campfire yarn-spinners alike. The best part is most of us don’t even realize we’re doing it.

Many of the most powerful and memorable tv spots I’ve seen in the last couple years have a definite narrative arc. I’d even go so far as to say, they can be broken down into the classic 3 act structure that can be found everywhere from the pages of a favourite book to the stage and the cinema. Take this spot for Monster, for example.

Act 1 sets up the situation. The classic stork delivering a newborn baby. The bird accepts the dangers of his charge marking the transition into Act 2. Over the course of the next 20 seconds, the stork a set of obstacles—deserts, mountains, storms, wolves—that are definitive of this act to deliver the baby to the doorstep of its loving parents. Now for the reversal—the point that marks the transition from Act 2 to Act 3 where the hero’s hopes are seemingly dashed. The newborn baby is now an adult working late at a dull job he obviously doesn’t care about. The two exchange a look; the stork is heartbroken. The resolution comes with the logo and super, “You’re calling is calling”.

The spot leaves us with hope, and like any good drama has a cathartic effect. It cleanses any feelings of workplace angst and exchanges them with the bright possibilities of the future, which in this case are conveniently provided by And there it is, a complete 3 act dramatic structure condensed into one brilliant minute.

This occurs in too many ads to count. For some more current examples, take a look at this spot for Centraal Beheer or this one for Nissan. Each has a clear-cut 3 act structure.

This structure isn’t limited to tv either. Take this print ad for the Worldwide Short Film Festival.

Just like the tv spots, our experience reading this ad is broken down into 3 acts. The first is the title line, “If your short attention span won’t allow you to read this entire ad, have we got a film festival for you.” This line is Act 1—it sets up the situation and as a reader we choose whether we are going to accept the challenge and proceed to Act 2, the long, boring body copy.

In this case the body copy presents the Act 2 obstacles we as readers must overcome. The writer made it even more difficult for us by calling attention to all the ways we are distracted, even going so far as too reference it and taunt us in the first couple paragraphs—that’s as far as my hummingbird attention span got me, and probably 99.9% of people who see this. If you made it through the whole thing, you sir/madame are a unique and special snowflake. Stop reading this and go do something more important like end world hunger or calculate how many individual strands of fur reside on your cat, Fifi.

Back to the task at hand. Just when we think we’re never going to understand this ad, we get the resolution in Act 3. The delivery of the product, the Worldwide Short Film Festival, provides the satisfying ending by tying it all together. We weren’t supposed to make it through the whole thing. This ad is, after all, for us, and we laugh to ourselves as we walk like good little automatons to the nearest festival ticket booth. This whole 3 act process happens in about 5 seconds—unless you’re the MENSA member who read the entire thing.

You’re probably wondering, when Act 3 of this blog is going to happen? Right…now. Why do ads with narrative structure connect with us? Well, there’s a line of literary theorists forming outside of our office right now who would love to bore you to death with all the details from discourse to pathos, but the simple answer is: It’s genetics.

We all come from oral traditions. Each and every one of our ancestors way back whenever sat around a campfire and passed on information through stories—whether for education or entertainment. Through eons of repetition, we’ve simply become hardwired to understand the world this way. Naturally, as communications professionals we can use narratives to vividly describe the brand attributes and benefits of our clients. And, as it’s our natural inclination to tell stories, designers, art directors and copywriters the world over are doing just that. All you have to do is look for it.

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