Marketing, Drama, and Tension

Ever since reading This is Marketing by Seth Godin, I’ve been thinking a lot about the similarities between marketing and dramatic storytelling.

There’s a flatness to a lot of marketing. It doesn’t move anyone. It looks like marketing (or advertising), but it’s not really marketing. It’s not engaging. It fails to create tension.

(I’m distinguishing here between advertising, which is one form of delivering a marketing message and marketing, which is more akin to persuasion and not necessarily commercial in nature)

Stories can be this way too. Have you ever read a screenplay that just. feels. so. hard. to. get. through? It’s not just “I’m not enjoying this”, it’s “my brain does not want to keep reading and I don’t know why it’s so hard to just keep reading.”

If there’s no tension, then you don’t want to know what happens next. A story without tension, without forward motion, is worse than nothing at all. I’d rather stare up at the sky and watch the clouds pass by than sit through a movie with a story that I don’t care about.

Anyway, it feels like there is something important here, that stories and marketing both rely on the same mechanism to capture attention or to propel action.

Tension moves a story forward. It makes us want to turn the page. It makes us interested in the product or an idea, it makes us want to purchase something or learn more about a political candidate or change our mind about something.

And it feels like discovering a secret, because once I saw it, I could see something that had been hidden all along.

Marketers get caught up in tactics, without thinking about how to move people. Dramatic writers (i.e. screenwriters and playwrights) create series of events that may be connected, but have no propulsion. No reason to care, no reason to want to know what happens next.

So they look like a screenplay but they’re empty in a way. Just because there’s a series of scenes doesn’t mean there’s drama. Just because an ad is displayed on Facebook doesn’t mean it’s marketing.

But we don’t talk about how to create tension. Sometimes we talk about structure or acts, but rarely about “how do you keep someone interested?” (more on this later).

Tension is value-neutral, an essential component of these practices. It can be used to sell harmful products and it can be used to keep you watching an empty TV show.

We’ve all made a purchase we regretted or finished a TV show or movie or book and felt empty at the end, propelled by tension to an unsatisfying or cheap ending.

Drama / melodrama / comedy / farce

I love this definition of the big four genres, by Sidney Lumet in Making Movies:

In drama, the characters should determine the story.

In melodrama, the story determines the characters. Melodrama makes the story line its highest priority, and everything is subservient to story.

For me, farce is the comic equivalent of melodrama and comedy the comic equivalent of drama.

Shark Drunk

I loved Shark Drunk: The Art of Catching a Large Shark from a Tiny Rubber Dinghy in a Big Ocean, a book about two friends hunting a Greenland Shark in northern Norway.

It goes into many interesting places: history, Norwegian culture, the nature of male friendship, and the immense and mysterious world that lies below the sea.

Interesting throughout and I highlighted a couple passages:

On the seaward side of the Vesterålen archipelago, they have a special word for the sound of the ocean when heard through a bedroom window on a mild summer night–the sound of water calmly lapping against the shore. The word is syjbårturn.

And this (related to Futility Closet’s “Pigs on Trial” episode):

One afternoon I describe how animals from the Middle Ages all the way up to the 1800s could be taken to court for breaking human laws. Dogs, rats, cattle, even millipedes were charged with and jailed for crimes ranging from murder to indecent behavior.

Defense attorneys were appointed, witnesses summoned, and every legal procedure of the day was followed. Sparrows were accused of twittering too loudly during a church service. Pigs that had attacked young children were sentenced to death.

In France, a pig was dressed in a suit, led to the gallows, and hanged. In 1750, a donkey was found innocent after an unfortunate incident only because a priest was able to testify that the animal had previously led a virtuous life.

The days of small things

I resolved to see the world with my own eager eyes. So I ran away from home, and in this way made an early acquaintance with the corrugated side of life.

I joined a small circus, and soon learned to conduct the Punch and Judy show, to do a ventriloquial act, and to play town clown on the bars — “gol darn it.” I also doubled in brass — that is, I beat the cymbals. I here gained the experiences that possibly ripened me into the world’s Handcuff King and Prison Breaker — a title which i have justly earned.

But there was a time when I was not recognized as I am now. Those were the days of small things. That was in the middle West.

The Right Way to Do Wrong by Harry Houdini

Houdini wasn’t a great writer, but he writes plainly and occasionally turns a great phrase.

I read this while researching thieves and con men for a project that I still haven’t quite found the right way into.

Travailler, toujours travailler.

Roding then took Rilke outside for a tour of the grounds. As they walked, Roding began to tell Rilke about his life, but not in the way one might speak to a journalist on assignment. He understood that Rilke was a fellow artist, and so he framed his stories as lessons that the young poet might take as examples.

Above all else, he stressed to Rilke, Travailler, toujours travailler. You must work, always work, he said.

“To this I devoted my youth.” But it was not enough to make work, the word he preferred to “art”; one had to live it.

That meant renouncing the trappings of earthly pleasures, like fine wine, sedating sofas, even one’s own children, should they prove distracting form the pursuit.

— from You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin by Rachel Corbett

Exhilaration comes from naming the unnamable and hearing it named

I’m moving again and it’s time to go through books that are good enough for me to mark up but not good enough to haul into storage while I figure out where I’m going to land.

Going through The Last Self-Help Book, I found some passages that I highlighted a few months ago and now I’m wondering if Walker read Bohm because there are a lot of similarities in the way they talk about art and science describing the world as it is:

Exhilaration comes from naming the unnamable and hearing it named.

If Kafka’s Metamorphosis is presently a more accurate account of the self than Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, it is the more exhilarating for being so.

The naming of the predicament of the self by art is its reversal. Hence the salvific effect of art. Through art, the predicament of self becomes not only speakable but laughable. Hellen Keller and any two-year-old and Kafka’s friends laughed when the unnamable was named. Kafka and his friends laughed when the unnameable was named. Kafka and his friends laughed when he read his stories to them.

Less related but darkly comic, in that Kafka lol way:

If poets often commit suicide, it is not because their poems are bad but because they are good. Whoever heard of a bad poetry committing suicide? The reader is only a little better off. The exhilaration of a good poem lasts twenty minutes, an hour at most.

Unlike the scientist, the artist has reentry problems that are frequent and catastrophic.

Kafka’s best joke

No wonder we cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke: that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from the horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home.

— David Foster Wallace from “Some Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness From Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed” (in Consider the Lobster)

Also maybe the subtext of everything I write.

Re-entry problems

More from Lost in the Cosmos:

But what is not generally recognized is that the successful launch of self into the orbit of transcendence is necessarily attended by problems of reentry. What goes up must come down. The best film of the year ends at nine o’clock. What to do at ten? What did Faulkner do after writing the last sentence of Light in August? Get drunk for a week. What did Doestoevsky do after finishing The Idiot? Spend three days and nights at the roulette table. What does the reader do after finishing either book? How long does his exaltation last?

He gives several (slightly tongue-in-cheek) options, including suicide, sex, and alcohol. But also, travel or moving:

The self leaves home because home has been evacuated, not bombed out, but emptied out by the self itself. That is, home, family, neighborhood, and town have been engulfed by the vacuole of self, ingested and rendered excreta. What writer can stay in Oak Park, Illinois? One leaves for another place, but soon it too is ingested and digested.

Yeah, thinking of leaving myself.

Escaping the predicament of the self

The difference between Einstein and Kafka, both sons of middle-class middle-European families, both of whom found life in the ordinary world intolerably dreary:

Einstein escaped the world by science, that is, by transcending not only the world but the Cosmos itself.

Kafka also escaped his predicament–occasionally–not by science but by art, that is, by seeing and naming what had heretofore been unspeakable, the predicament of the self in the modern world.

— Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos

I didn’t love this book, which I found through Austin Kleon, but I did love the chapter on escaping the self and re-entry problems.

Related to Bohm on creativity, order, art, and mediocrity.

Add marketing to the list of things you need to know

Just when you start thinking “I’m really getting a handle on this movie-making thing” there’s another whole field of study and skill to learn.

I’m working on a marketing plan for my (still unnamed) feature film. It’s really hard, despite the fact that I’ve been working in ‘marketing’ as a day job for the past ten years or so. Or so I thought.

I realized, while reading Seth Godin’s new (and fantastic) book This is Marketing, that I haven’t really been marketing. I’ve just been working on tactics. SEO, paid search, advertising, analytics.

In the past couple weeks I’ve been thinking about the story of the film, how to talk about it in a way that resonates with people, that creates tension and makes them want to see it. And about the stories that my target audiences tell themselves, how they view the world, what they care about, why they choose to watch one movie or another, and why they tell their friends to watch a movie (or not).

The irony is that I think about that all the time when writing screenplays, how to create suspense and tension and create the feeling of “what happens next?”. It’s weird how bad we are at applying what we know in one domain to another.





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