Have you ever watched a film or a show with an unsatisfying ending?
If you’re a real person with emotions and access to a streaming service, you probably have. What was it about the ending that left you feeling robbed? It probably wasn’t just that the ending was sad. A sad ending can be incredibly powerful, and a poorly executed happy ending can easily ruin a good story. Maybe the ending was everything you would have wanted to happen for the hero: they got the girl, they saved the day, everyone lived happily ever after…but for some reason, it doesn’t do it for you. So, a satisfying ending isn’t one that just fulfills our desires and expectations, it’s something more. Maybe it wasn’t the results of the ending that was the problem, but how it came about. Maybe, for example, the ending wasn’t satisfying because it just sort of fell into the hero’s lap. It wasn’t earned.
One of the things that story teaches us is that life doesn’t come without death and rebirth.
Meaningful endings don’t come without sacrifice. A price has to be paid, a journey has to be completed. Nothing is free. A satisfying ending, a moment of joy, a feeling of loss, all of these can only happen in a meaningful way after they feel like they’ve been earned.
The same concept applies to sad endings as well as happy ones. A story that’s all gloom and doom without any meaningful sliver of hope usually leaves us feeling like it wasn’t much of a story at all. If we don’t think there’s any way out of the dark pit, why should we be invested? And we can’t be sad for a character if we don’t care about them, if we didn’t grow attached to them throughout the course of their journey. Sad endings, and tears have to be earned too.
The same also goes for laughs! A joke’s punchline won’t make you slap your knee unless it has a good setup. There has to be something that can be flipped on its head, some order that can be disrupted by absurdity.
Any emotion, response, reaction, or connection that we as storytellers want to elicit from our audience has to be earned.
In the process of telling the hero’s journey, we as storytellers have to embark on that same journey ourselves. Sacrifices must be made, a price must be paid. Ideas will have to be written and then scrapped, and written and scrapped again. There will be a long process of searching for those right words, that compelling event, that beautiful image. Storytelling isn’t an easy process.
Now, think about an unsatisfying commercial you’ve seen recently. That’s probably less difficult, almost every ad you see on TV, youtube, facebook, or Hulu is an annoying piece of garbage we can’t wait to skip over. But other than the cheesy messaging, the poor production quality, or the clickbaity language, what is so unsatisfying about it? Maybe it’s because the commercial is trying to force a moment on you that it didn’t earn. It tries to jump off the screen at you.
“ISN’T THIS A FUNNY JOKE? BUY OUR PRODUCT!
DOESN’T THIS STATISTIC MAKE YOU SAD? SUPPORT OUR CAUSE!
ISN’T THIS PERSON COOL? BUY OUR PRODUCT!”
These ad agencies and marketing campaigns are trying to get to the results of what they want the fastest way possible. They’re trying to get the happy ending without the sacrifice. They’re trying to get us to cry for the hero without taking us on their journey. What they’re doing isn’t storytelling, it’s a glorified vending machine.
At Votary, we believe in earning our audience’s screen time. We know that every laugh, every donation, every sale, every moment of inspiration has to be earned by the storyteller’s blood, sweat, and tears.
This is what often leads us to longer form documentary work that isn’t the norm in some of the industries we work with. If you really want to tell a company’s story well, sometimes it takes more than a 20 second montage and a narrator. Sometimes it takes a deeper look into the human stories of their founders, their workers, or their clients. Whatever it is, we know that it can’t be forced, because nothing that is forced will stick with your audience.
If you want to be a storyteller, you have to take your audience’s emotions seriously, you can’t take for granted any kind of interaction they have with your work. If you want to create a moment, you have to earn it. But how do you know if you’ve earned it? You can start off by putting yourself in the shoes of your audience. Ask yourself: do I care about this character when I read their story? Did this make me laugh? Does this video make me stop scrolling?
If our stories don’t elicit the responses we want in ourselves, how can we expect them to do so in our audience? If we haven’t poured our thought, creativity, and craftsmanship into every second of every film, why should anyone watch it?
In 2019, Youtube claimed that over 500 hours of video was uploaded to their platform every minute. That’s over 720,000 hours per day. And that’s just Youtube. The world is becoming so full of video content that there isn’t enough time to watch a fraction of it in a lifetime. So as storytellers, filmmakers, companies, content creators, and artists, before we add anything else to that ocean of content, before we ask anyone to stop and listen to the story we’re telling, we better ask ourselves: did I earn it?