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.

Reasons to watch movies

To go on an adventure (without personal risk).

To learn about a new culture or country; to see how other people live.

To have something to talk about with your friends.

To challenge your ideas or worldview, or to confirm it.

To laugh and have a good time.

To be scared.

To cry.

To feel understood.

To argue about something.

To escape the pain of your present life.

To participate in the culture, to be “in the know” or “in the conversation.”

To raise your status.

To develop taste.

To learn about fashion.

To rebel.

To be inspired.

To sit in an air-conditioned dark room for a while.

To distract yourself.

To share an experience with friends.

To have something to recommend to others (raise your status).

To be part of a group (“people like us watch movies like this”).

To connect with other humans.

To have something to talk about.

To have and accomplish a goal (“I’m going to watch all of the films of Ingmar Bergman.”)

To learn how to make your own movies.

To learn how not to make your own movies.

To find a new identity or a new way to live.

To watch an actor that you like watching.

To be completely engaged and lost in a story.

To remind ourselves to be more x or y.

To have something to hate or dislike or define ourselves against.

To critique or learn to be critical.

To give notes or help someone who is making the movie.

To understand someone else (through the movies they like).

To get turned on / in the mood for sex (alone or with partner(s)).

Catharsis.

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.

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

Bohm on creativity, order, art, and mediocrity

Epistemic status: these thoughts are based on a book that I’m still in the middle of. I’m more trying to work out my thinking than I am trying to tell you what to think or how to make movies. Also, I have taken three physics classes in my life and none of them had a lot of math.1

I’m reading On Creativity by David Bohm, which I discovered through Guillaume Wolf’s You Are a Message.

I’m only on page 34. It’s one of those read-a-page-and-then-think-for-10 minutes kind of books.

Bohm starts by talking about how the physical universe is ordered. It’s a structure of many ordered objects or systems within a hierarchy of orders.

(more…)
  1. In college I took an intro to physics class. The one memory I have is of the professor looking up to see a kid leaving in the middle of his lecture. In his thick Russian accent, he asked the student “where are you going?” and the student said “I have something important to go to” and with a bewildered look, the professor said “more important than Newton?” and I thought that was just the funniest thing. 

Sociological vs. Psychological Storytelling

From The Real Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones by Zynep Tufecki:

At its best, GOT was a beast as rare as a friendly dragon in King’s Landing: it was sociological and institutional storytelling in a medium dominated by the psychological and the individual. This structural storytelling era of the show lasted through the seasons when it was based on the novels by George R. R. Martin, who seemed to specialize in having characters evolve in response to the broader institutional settings, incentives and norms that surround them.

What they did is something different, but in many ways more fundamental: Benioff and Weiss steer the narrative lane away from the sociological and shifted to the psychological. That’s the main, and often only, way Hollywood and most television writers tell stories.

This is an important shift to dissect because whether we tell our stories primarily from a sociological or psychological point of view has great consequences for how we deal with our world and the problems we encounter.

Reading this article made me realize why I love about my favorite TV shows, The Wire and Deadwood, and why I find it so hard to find any shows in the modern landscape that I connect with on the same level.

It also made me realize that the stories I tend to write have a tendency towards the sociological instead of the psychological (I don’t think any story is 100% on either side of the spectrum).

It’s hard for me to limit something to just one or two main characters — I usually get bored and want to bring in more characters or throw a couple characters into many different situations where they interact with people from different parts of society or with different POVs. Or I start with a collection of ideas that I want to work through comedically or dramatically, and then map the characters or the situations to those ideas.

And I honestly get kind of bored just thinking about a single character overcoming their demons or whatever, and the typical screenwriting advice of “put your character in a bad place and then make their life hell” kind of bores me as well.

So it’s really refreshing to have someone put a name on a different kind of writing that I knew existed but had never seen put into words.

And come to think of it, my love for sociological storytelling probably also explains my love for The Office, which inspired the amazing series of sociological essays, The Gervais Principle. And it’s probably why I love Buñuel so much.

Film inspired by paintings

Just found these comparison videos by Vugar Efendi:

Temp Music

EFAP is the (free) film school that keeps giving.

I re-watched their video on the Marvel symphonic universe as I was laying in and playing with temp tracks last month as I get closer and closer to picture lock.

And I’m actually using some temp music from Transformers, which is mentioned in the video. Why you ask, would a micro-budget single-location dark satirical comedy want to use tracks from Michael Bay’s Transformers? Well, you’ll just have to wait until it comes out…

BUT, this time I also watched a really great response video about how yes, the big action franchises do use a lot of temp music and steal from each other, but, shocker, everything is a remix and directors have been doing this forever (but also – digital compositions favor certain sounds and arrangements).

I’m doing my best to not fall in love with my temp score and hoping to hand off the project to a composer clean, without any score.

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.

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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