The best movies are persuasive. They convince you that they’re worth your time and attention in the opening act. You’ve got a million things you could be doing in the next hour— why should you watch this?
Like great salespeople, great directors capture your attention with a set of tried-and-true methods. We rarely notice their power because we’ve been subjected to them since we were born, but they’re apparent in every story that grips us, and all of them involve characters and structures that inspire curiosity.
Characters are the focal points of a story. People are drawn to characters that have clear motivations, find themselves in relatable situations, or struggle with a fundamentally human issue. A character’s features may be highlighted through its physical appearance, a foil character, or additional context provided early in the story. When characters are reflections of ourselves, we’re more likely to engage with their stories. When a character’s wants are believable to us, we start to care.
Structure comes down to setup and payoff. A powerful setup is like a rock being pulled back in a slingshot— it’s a promise to your audience that there’s more to come, and encourages people to continue watching. A great payoff gives us closure. It could address the questions that arose when the story was introduced or teach us something new. The payoff justifies the setup, even if when it leaves us with more to think about. Whether the setup is established by a scene or by what a character says, the most effective setups define the stakes. When the stakes are high enough to influence a character to take extreme actions, the possibilities expand.
Strong character motivations combined with high stakes fuel curiosity. When we understand a character’s intentions but can’t predict its behavior, we’re struck with anticipation and uncertainty. We think we know what to expect, but we stick around to see how it plays out. Every other technique used in visual storytelling is designed to support the story— color helps us understand the mood, camera angles show us what’s important, and good pacing gives us time to absorb everything in a timely manner. But unless we’re bought into the story, the other techniques don’t matter.
In that way, the job of a director isn’t so different from that of a salesperson. In a matter of minutes, great salespeople have to convince you that their products are worth your money. Great directors have to convince you that their movies are worth your time.
Thanks for reading.
I’m trying something new. Rather than making animated episodes for each issue of the newsletter, I want to make much shorter GIFs that summarize the issue in a few seconds— just like the one above. They’re kind of like animated comic strips.