How do you get people interested in a new story?
This question perplexes writers (and marketers) of any form of new media, from novels and films to TV pilots and video games — especially when audiences have never heard of the characters or the subject before. (It’s also why we’re deep into a decades-long reboot cycle in Hollywood: it’s cheaper to sell people on a story they already know because familiarity feels safe.)
The filmmakers behind A Life in Waves do a masterful job of solving this problem, and they actually turn its solution into the spine of their documentary’s structure.
If you haven’t yet seen this stellar film about electronic music pioneer Suzanne Ciani, watch the trailer below, and then we’ll review why the techniques the filmmakers use to keep viewers hooked and guided throughout their story work so well.
Find a Point of View Character to Match Your Audience’s Perspective
Although her life’s work has been heard by millions, most people have never actually heard of Suzanne Ciani… but they have heard of David Letterman.
So, rather than introducing us directly to Suzanne, director Brett Whitcomb instead opens the film with Ciani’s appearance on The David Letterman Show. After some banter with Letterman, she wows him by creating indescribable noises with the instruments she’d become famous for. The look on his face, a mix of awe and confusion, provides us with the perfect surrogate window into this story.
Why does this work? Because if someone whose context we understand (Letterman, the bellwether of smart underground culture circa 1980) is amazed by Ciani, his reaction becomes our own contextual shortcut into appreciating the magnitude of her impact on society right from the very first scene.
Give Your Audience an Early Sense of the Scope and the Stakes
Immediately after the Letterman clip, we see iconic commercials from Coca-Cola, Atari, and other seminal ’80s brands… and we’re told that Ciani is the sound designer who brought those campaigns to life. “You don’t know her, you don’t know her name” says one interviewee, “but you’ve heard her music.”
Why does this work? By anchoring Ciani’s pioneering work to brands that audiences know around the world, we immediately understand that she’s an artist who was working at the top of her game… and we then start to ask two questions that will guide us through the film’s narrative: “How did she reach the top?” and “If her work was so impactful, why haven’t I heard of her before?”
Show Why This Story Could Only Have Happened to the Protagonist
In the film’s first act, Ciani recalls her years studying composition at Berkeley. She arrived having trained in classical piano at Wellesley, but in 1968 America was in a cultural upheaval and her peers saw classical music as an outdated symbol of an oppressive past.
Given Berkeley’s culture of creativity and nonconformism, Ciani instead found herself drawn toward an emerging art form: electronic instruments that were only beginning to be explored as serious art, and which she just so happened to possess the classical training to interpret in a way that no one else at the time was equipped to.
The catch? No one at Berkeley understood what she was trying to do.
So, while Ciani was lucky enough to be born into circumstances that enabled her to become a musician, she still had to fight to be appreciated as an artist every step of the way. That motivation drove her to become a perfectionist in music and in business, which led her to a level of success that few others could have achieved.
Why does this work? By grounding Ciani’s biography as the tale of someone who veered off the “safe” path of studying classical music and consciously choosing to reinvent herself in an as-yet-undefined field, Ciani is cast as the underdog in her own story. This gives us a reason to cheer her successes as they’re revealed in the film’s chronology, even though we’ve already been shown that she achieved them during the opening.
Showcase the Singular Choices that Only Your Protagonist Would Have Made
Throughout the film, we’re reminded that Ciani was a woman striving to succeed in one male-dominated field after another, from music to advertising to business. But she’s also contrasted to everyone else around her in terms of her personality, her worldview, her behavior, and her workaholic nature. While Ciani may have found herself in a position to maximize a rare opportunity within musical history, she also had to cultivate the skills she needed to survive and succeed in situations where others would have failed.
In one anecdote, Ciani arrives for an advertising agency meeting where she intends to pitch herself as a creator for hire… only to find that her scheduled interviewer is ignoring her. Instead, he’s sitting in on a commercial problem-solving session.
Undeterred, Ciani barges into that meeting and informs her interviewer that he agreed to meet with her. Her confrontation turns into an opportunity: can she fix the problem they’re trying to solve? She does, and that moment of tenacity mixed with ingenuity literally changes her life.
Why does this work? When it comes to developing an interest in your protagonist, audiences need two things: a reason to care (emotional fulfillment) and a reason to be impressed (intellectual fulfillment). This is why stories where heroes succeed simply by being in the right place at the right time feel hollow, while stories where a character’s outcome is based on the results of her choices feel satisfying: to fulfill both of our expectations, a protagonist’s outcome must feel earned.
(Side Note: This is also one reason why there are so many conflicting expectations around the conclusion of Game of Thrones: each of the core characters has been so well-established through their actions that fans are left wondering how any conclusion can possibly feel emotionally satisfying when every character’s perspective has been given equal weight.)
How Can These Lessons Help Your Storytelling?
Whether you’re writing a screenplay or a case study for your company, keep these 4 tips in mind:
- What is it about this specific story that your audience needs to know in order to appreciate its conclusion? Everything else should underscore that theme… but that can only happen when the theme is clear — both to you and to them.
- The earlier your audience knows how they should feel about your subject, the faster they’ll form an emotional and an intellectual attachment to her… but intuiting those emotional cues from the reactions of others is more effective than simply being told how to feel.
- Audiences are trying to guess what the ending of your story will be from page one, so the earlier they can frame the possible outcomes for themselves, the more interested they’ll be in learning which of their expectations turns out to be true.
- Character is defined by action. What are the actions that define your character, or your company? Why are these actions that only your subject could have taken, and which set them apart from everyone else?
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