As filmmakers, we love story. And there’s nothing quite like the story in a feature film. The lows of Act 2, the highs of Act 3, and all the twists in between. But when it comes to promo, do these principles still apply? Can we still move an audience emotionally? We’ve all watched a great commercial and wondered, “how did they make me cry in thirty seconds?” This week we are looking at a question from a student regarding story structure for short films and promos.

STUDENT QUESTION: How simple can the hero’s journey be when trying to get as much information out in as little time as possible? How does the three-act story structure and turning points apply to promo videos?

JOHN-CLAY: The shorter the project, the more you start pulling things out of the three-act story structure. I still think you need the basic three acts – you need the problem set-up, and then you kind of have your middle – explaining solutions, and then the benefits / call to action at the end.

Whether things happen on midpoints or turning points or at the end of Act 2, that’s not always necessary. I still think it’s helpful to run your idea through the three-act story structure because the more intentional you are about it, the better it turns out.

For example, I directed two promos last year. One was for a Christian college in Georgia. You are not going to have the nuanced turning points exactly, they are just talking about why you should go to college there and who they are. But I still have an opening setup saying who they are and what they stand for. Then we went into the middle part – the nitty gritty on faculty, the day-to-day, and the courses that they offer. The ending is overall vision, overall goal, who is this designed for, and I want viewers to be like, “Wow, I want to go sign up.” So, I do have three acts.

I also did a promo for a ministry that counsels people having marital problems. It was more like a two-act story. The first half is people with problems, then they discover the conference and share how the conference helped them.

Nobody cares about the solution until they understand the problem. So, make sure you set up the problem. Set up who they are, who you are representing, what the video is going to be about. I still think that those percentages that I talked about in the three-act story structure (25% – Act 1, 50% – Act 2, and 25% – Act 3), can still work.

It just gets difficult when you have a 30-second promo you are doing, all of a sudden you have 4 seconds between a turning point and a midpoint and its just not enough time to get people from here to there emotionally. Then it is okay to lose some of those things. You can make a hero’s journey quite simple. It just needs to be a problem, a solution, and then results/call-to-action.

I was talking to Andrew about this, and a commercial came to mind. It’s of a kid dressed in the Darth Vader outfit and he is trying to use “the Force” on stuffed animals. Nothing is happening because he’s just dressed in a Halloween outfit. Then his dad comes home and and the boy tries it on the car and the car starts. It is one minute long. It cuts inside and his dad has a remote turn-on for the vehicle and then they kick back to the kid and he’s just like “Wow, this is really cool.” And it comes up – Volkswagen. There’s nothing real complex, you just see flawed, yet sympathetic – he can’t do it, he can’t make it happen, but we think it’s cute that the kid is dressing up and trying to dream. Flawed yet sympathetic, trying to overcome seemingly insurmountable, to achieve a compelling desire, and then it’s for a car.

You can pull out a lot of the pieces but the framework still exists, especially when it comes to characters and who you are talking about. I think you can pull a lot of it out, especially the shorter it is. Just don’t assume that it can go. Think through it and be that intentional.

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