Storymaking Methods For Project Videos

For close to 20 years I have studied, experimented with, taught, and presented on digital storytelling — and I still have much to learn. For the purposes of the Project Community video projects, I wanted to assemble something to share to help you with the modality of making a video. Mostly, I hope to encourage you to think of the typical report / essay approach of presenting information.

Initially I was planning to produce a video about making video, but I have many examples to share, and decided on a blogged approach so you can go through to skip at your own pace. What follows below is distilled from a collection of talks and workshops from the last few years (found among the pile at

Mostly, I like to ask students to consider the narrative format of media they watch for interest or pleasure- film, television, internet meme videos, even commercials. Rarely do you see bullet points, outlines, or telling you of the conclusion from the start. For effective video campaigns, you really ought to consider what works well for effective storymaking, and then be prepared to say, none of the rules are etched into truth.

So make a big batch of popcorn, and sit back for a long blog post.

Tell Them What You Are Going to Say…

The classic advice for effective presenting is attributed to Aristotle:

“Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.”

You’ve likely heard it before and might nod along in agreement.

What does this say to a listener, that they have to be told something three times to understand it? I pondered if someone considered as the premiere creator of suspense films, if this as the approach Alfred Hitchcock might have taken towards his movie Psycho?


Suspense is such a key element to Hitchcock’s films, listen to him describe the difference between mystery and suspense

What holds our interest is not being told what we are being told ahead of time and again. It employs what JJ Abrams describes as the Mystery Box

The Shape of Stories

Nothing describes better (in my humble opinion) what makes stories work than how novelist Kurt Vonnegut explains the shape of stories.

Or equivalently, what scientist Paul Zak describes as key elements in Empathy, Neurochemistry, and Dramatic Arc

For even more insight, listen the man behind popular movies Toy Story and Wall-E, Andrew Stanton, outlining the clues to a great story

If you want something more of a structure for creating stories with shape, see the method credited as the narrative structure of popular Pixar films, described as the Story Spine.

Show, Do Not Tell

Sometimes we try to think we have to explain everything, but in great films much is communicated without explicitly stating. Consider this scene from the movie Jaws, where Chief Brody is dealing with a day in which everything he did went wrong.

There is very little dialogue here.

Or consider this example, of how perhaps a science experiment is told more through a cinemtatic approach rather than a typical science report

The Opening, The Hook

So much depends on a powerful, curiosity generating opening to your project video, as a story. Can you grab people’s attention with the first sentence? Think of the opening of Kafka’s Metamorphosis (what fancy smart people call a “anacoluthon“):

‘When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.’

How can you not want to know what happens next?

Here is another example, what does this opening to the story Knock by Frederick Brown conjure up for you?

The last man on Earth sat alone in a room.

Where is this? When is it? Why is he alone? What happened?

The brilliance of this story is that it can be finished in one more sentence!

There was a knock on the door…

Not only in the way a story arc can happen in two sentences in enough characters to fit easily into a single tweet, is that it also introduces a second key element- the unexpected twist. This opens all kinds of questions an possibilities- if he is alone, who is it? Human or not? The clver reader might say “He never said anything about women”.

This story leaves much to the viewer to imagine and fill in. So in your project videos, you do not have to explain everything- consider how you can leave more for your viewer to fill in themselves.

Here is another example of an effective opening hook- pause after the first 5 seconds.

“We found this flash drive beside the road”. Does this spark your curiosity? Who’s flash drive? What might be on it? If it were not interesting, would it even be a story?

Or listen to this opening of This American Life episode 206: Somewhere in the Arabian Sea where within 45 seconds of the opening we are taking for maybe not what we expected in a story about war.

For NGO projects, your opening might be a big question that the organization you are working with deals with. Make it a HUGE question.


Great stories center a person who you grow to care about. They are going to go on a journey, over come obstacles. Consider a story in the form of something as short as a TV commercial. These two videos are for similar technology projects. Compare them and ask your self about how much you knoe about, identify with, or root for the character.

What are the differences you see in these commercials? Do they follow a shape?

Now your video projects may not need a character; but one possible approach is to write a drama that somehow is set in the place or situations your NGOs work. Maybe it is someone trying to figure out how to build a home when they lack the resources. Or someone in the world who lives where clean water is not something that comes out of the wall.

Just because you are describing something that is in the world, does not mean you cannot show a situation through a fictionalized character.

Overcoming Tension

A key part of a stories shape as described by Vonnegut and others, is that, you experience a person or a situation with an obstacle to overcome. This is the tension that makes a viewer want to follow the shape of the story to its ending.

Compare a comparison in an edited version of a popular Superbowl commercial about puppy love, the first where something has been edited out:

Sure, you can see that it has a cute puppy and tells something about friendship, but see the full story to find out what is missing.

Overcoming tension is one of the key elements of a story. This tension can be the problem your NGO faces, and you do not resolve that tension until you have presented it. We hear from Vonnegut again on maybe an exaggeration about this method, but hopefully you get the idea.

“Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

Suspension of Disbelief

Suspension of disbelief or willing suspension of disbelief is

a term coined in 1817 by the poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who suggested that if a writer could infuse a “human interest and a semblance of truth” into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgement concerning the implausibility of the narrative. Suspension of disbelief often applies to fictional works of the action, comedy, fantasy, and horror genres. Cognitive estrangement in fiction involves using a person’s ignorance or lack of knowledge to promote suspension of disbelief.

This of course may make more sense when thinking about stories for entertainment. But consider this real world story, where a group of people wishing to save their local library, came up with a strategy that called for some stepping out of reality:

When you watch this video, pay attention as well to the graphic style, and how the use of background music changes the mood of different parts of the story.

Or create something that speculates perhaps an unlikely future scenario

Humor / Satire

Using a comic approach depends much on your project, but the idea of part of your video as a mock documentary may work as a technique to at least introduce your idea

Or you can do an approach that situates your video in a familiar genre form- e.g. a commercial, a movie trailer, a news show.

The Resonate Shape

In her book Resonate (accessible online in web format) Design and communications expert Nancy Duarte analyzes classic speeches such as John F Kennedy’s call for a mission to the moon or Martin Luther King’s I have a Dream. Her “sparkline” analysis is one that can be very effective for the kinds of project videos Project Community students will create.


These speeches rhythmically alternate between what is (the status quo) with what could be, eventually conveying to the audience the idea of “the new bliss.”

Some More Tips for the Road

Have you made it to the bottom of this post? Take a bow. A few more things I pulled from the link pile:

Top / Featured Image credit: flickr photo by giulia.forsythe shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license based on Alan Levine’s 2014 Skidmore College talk on Making / Telling Stories That Matter

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Barking about and playing around with web technology at On twitter @cogdog and flickr

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