I’m always surprised when people ask me this. I really should be used to it by now.

Their thinking generally goes something like this:

  • I have great content. It’s spectacular / awe-inspiring / shocking / gripping / entertaining / hilarious / terrifying… (Delete as applicable)
  • In short, it’s compelling. I have great stories. Each sequence sets up nicely, and pays off nicely; each sequence really sings.
  • This is stuff people will want to watch (or they ought to want to, because it’s that important and impressive).
  • The material is self-sufficient. Each sequence is its own reward. So why do I need to listen to someone bang on about Story? If people want to watch regardless, then who cares?

It’s a fair enough question, and it has several answers.

There are lots of reasons to care about Story. They are all inter-connected, and none of them have anything to do with how fantastic your content is.

  • Story is what keeps the audience watching your film from the beginning to the end. (In fact, it’s what gives your film a beginning and an end in the first place.) It helps hook them in. It stops them turning off when the pace slackens or the interest fades, which it always will at some point. Story is what makes them hit ‘record’ if someone calls while they’re watching. (And by the way: Even if hitting ‘record’ doesn’t matter much to you, spare a thought for your co-production partners. Perhaps you have the luxury of relatively long parts, or even transmitting a seamless film – but the odds are your co-pro partners don’t have that option. Holding audience attention over breaks is a big deal for them.)
  • Story gives people a reason to care – a sense that they are moving towards an outcome, and that the outcome matters. It makes us feel that, by the end, we have arrived somewhere. Either the world has changed, or our understanding of it has changed. We have grown.
  • Story gives us context. We can watch sequence after sequence and go “Wow”… but if those sequences are part of a story, we will also understand why we went “Wow”. Story gives every sequence meaning as part of a larger whole.
  • Lastly: why not? By making sure your content has a story, you lose precisely nothing. You keep all your lovely content. All that happens is, you add depth and meaning. Why would you not want to do that?

There’s a name for films that have great content but no large-scale story: Magazine Shows. It doesn’t matter whether the film is “101 things to do with a paperclip” or an epic about wildlife in Antarctica. If it’s just lots of great sequences strung together, it’s a Magazine.

And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that – especially for the paperclips! But if your themes are epic, if your content is rich (and expensive), and if you’re hoping to do more than simply entertain – then you should consider telling a Story.

Sure, you can get by without a story.

You’ll end up with the filmic equivalent of a glossy coffee table book…

Why not have all that gloss and a story?

It sounds obvious when it’s put like that. And perhaps it is. But you’d be surprised how many people think they’re telling a story when in fact they’re not.

So… Think you’ve nailed your story? Read on, and find out if you’re right.