Freshman year in a class, the professor asked the question, “why do we go to the movies?”. Many students answered saying that the reason was voyeurism, escapism, or just to be entertained. While these answers were good, the real answer was “to find out what happens”. This question and answer sequence turned out to be one of those loud memories that forever shaped how I thought about film and storytelling in general. Whether we can predict the ending or not, the reason we consume stories is to find out either how things will end up, or how a known end will be achieved.
So now that we have been brought to the movies, what keeps us watching? In other words, what makes an engaging story? My answer has always been catharsis. A story has to provide some way to release or experience emotions in a way that is safe and in the end, fun. Following this idea of a good story tapping into some desired emotional experience, how can mediums besides film create compelling stories?
The Internet as a whole is not seen as a time commitment to use. Especially on a Facebook feed, videos have to grab attention with their title or thumbnail and tell a story quickly.
One particularly viral video was one of a color blind man seeing purple for the first time. Even without knowing the man in the video, viewers can feel immense joy just by watching. The video first introduces a character, foreshadows what will happen, then has an extremely gratifying payoff when the character finally sees purple.
With users deciding where to place their attention within seconds, a story has to be eye-catching and shareable. YouTuber Charles Trippy was one of the first people to use sensational video titles to draw people into his video blogs. Trippy uses titles like “HALF NAKED TENNIS!!” and “ATTACKED ON STAGE!!!” to get viewers interested.
The real challenge for online content creators comes with making sure the video that is clicked tells a good story. While in films the classic exposition, climax, resolution model may be sufficient, the rules for online video have changed. “Day In The Life” video diaries are a perfect example that the classic story arch does not necessarily lead to a good story. Families can record their daily adventures where conflict and drama is absent and still get millions of views.
YouTube vlogging seems like the perfect support for the idea that people are drawn to characters. Viewers perceive vloggers as characters, and due to the fact that there are hundreds of hours of video following these people, there is opportunity for character development that films cannot dream of achieving. Personally, my favorite part of any film is getting to know the characters. So now that there is a way to watch characters (or real people) develop without having to watch a conflict, I am drawn to YouTube.
It seems that what makes a good story is different for everyone. I like character-driven stories while others may prefer intense action and conflict. As for those who like horror films, I can only assume that there must be something fun about experiencing fear without being harmed.