Story - The Long Build Up
Updated: May 24
Recently, I had a walk with a good friend, and she told me she's been avoiding all those modern series because they are so addictive. This brought us to the question why Netflix, HBO, Amazon, Hulu or Disney series are so incredibly good (and addictive!) these days. The answer, at least for the most part, is the slow character build up. So today we'll look at slow story and character building, and how it translates to other forms of storytelling and even branding.
Remember the number one hit series 24 from the early 2000's? It was high octane, high pressure, with the fate of the world hanging by a thread and leaning on the shoulders of just one or two people and give or take a couple of minutes here or there. Explosions, shootings, espionage... an adrenaline rush from the first to the last second.
And now? What is now the hit series? At the time of writing that's The Queen's Gambit. And it's about chess.
What went wrong here? Or maybe, what went right? And what can we learn from this for our own storytelling? Answering those questions starts with the realization that compared to the decades before, most popular TV-series have slowed down significantly in their storytelling and character build ups. Here goes: Game of Thrones, The Handmaid's Tale, Stranger Things, The Queen's Gambit, The Umbrella Academy, all Marvel Netflix series... need I go on?
Don't get me wrong. Most of these series eventually show their action cards. Heck, The Umbrella Academy even revolves around the destruction of the entire world! But compared to how films and TV-series were set up throughout the nineties, early Zero's and even the Tens, the tempo in which the action is introduced has significantly changed and slowed. As all art comes in cycles, we are witnessing a cycle back towards more slow story build ups. And that's actually very exciting.
Slow build up in script writing
In script writing theory, a scene that is often used to demonstrate slow buildups is the car ride seen in the opening credits of The Shining from Stanley Kubrik. We follow a roof-packed Volvo family car in an aerial shot for a very, very long time as it drives through a snow covered mountain range. In film terms, the scene really takes ages and is starkly different from many action packed openings we've grown used to.
That slowness is intentional. It paints the feeling of remoteness and isolation first, even before telling any story whatsoever. It's what we call a 'setup'. In this case the setup is showing a place with no other people around. Cue the best horror film of all time... after a equally slow character buildup, something eventually goes wrong. And the feeling of isolation invoked in that aerial car shot, is amplified a hundred times over. In Hollywood terms, that last bit is called the 'pay-off'.
Slow setups are used to build up to large pay-offs in storytelling. Slow in this case does definitely not equal boring. Slow equals mood. And this mood comes before story is fleshed out. In all forms of art, storytelling and branding, we can choose to first 'paint' a mood with our choices of coloring, music, camera angles, brushes, sharp or soft edges... you name it. Anything that evokes an emotion. When we then add so called 'story beats' - the content parts where our story progresses, or some sort of action happens in our story - we amplify the mood we have set up.
This process of course starts with the question: what moods and emotions do I want to evoke? And what feelings fit my identity or my story best? Let's use a second example.
Slow build up in advertising
Probably the best advertising setup ever made is in the Sony Bravia commercial 'Bouncy Balls'. Its best remembered for featuring the song Heartbeats covered by José Gonzalez. And of course, the crew unleashing over a million bouncy balls. But there is a lot more going on beneath the surface that makes it both an artistic triumph and a commercial mega success. Let's break it down.
The function of the Bravia television was the introduction of a new way to use color in LCD televisions. But instead of showing the television itself, they choose to show the colors from bouncy balls, that were bouncing on the hills of San Francisco streets, evoking emotion. They added the Heartbeats song that made the whole spectacle so beautiful that when I showed the commercial in my workshops, people cried every time. That's quite remarkable. Something that is meant to sell stuff, moved people to tears. It's basically two and a half minutes of sheer beauty, most of it filmed in slow motion, before the pay-off appears on screen stating: 'color like no other'.
The commercial success equaled its artistic success. It led to so many orders that Sony could not keep up with demand for months. All because of a slow setup.
The cardinal rule of setups
A few more examples to drive home the point. Many of the greatest works of literature also have slow build ups. Pride and Prejudice anyone? 1984? The Fountainhead? Or what about the first 100 pages of The Lord of the Rings describing the cute little lives of small forest dwelling creatures called Hobbits? See the pattern?
Of course, this is not an ironclad rule. The first pages of Dune describe someone putting their hand in a device that could cut it off. Nothing slow about that. And within the first 15 minutes of the king of romcoms Jerry Maguire, we see someone desperately screaming 'Show me the money!!!' after his entire life broke down and he leaves the office with his goldfish and his future girlfriend, although he doesn't know that yet. And in another iconic commercial, the 1985 Levi's Laundrette one, it takes about thirty seconds before the hot guy takes his pants off. Again, nothing slow there.
So, the length or speed of a setup isn't the key. The cardinal rule is that the setup needs to be long enough, for a great pay off. Yet although it isn't set in stone, most of the time a slower setup will lead to a bigger pay off. The key is to make that slower setup interesting enough to keep people engaged for a longer time. It needs to be attractive, setting the mood with music and visuals and such. It requires a good deal of focus on form over content in the setup. With the pay off focusing on content over form.
Setups in the Twenties
In the art cycle, we seemed to have moved away from quick setups these days, and the greatest storytellers on the planet are - on average - at the moment using much slower buildups than they were ten or twenty years ago. This allows for more engagement with characters, story and messaging, cue a bigger emotional impact on the whole. And while it isn't a rule you should follow blindly, this idea of slower setups does seem to fit the sign of the times better at the moment.
Whether you are making a film, documentary, commercial, corporate story, TV-series or whatnot, we are living in times that have much less focus on hedonistic and fast pleasures. We've come from a crazy, social media fueled frenzy with short attention spans, while just being thrown into a forced slowdown due to a world event. All signs are pointing to people wanting to deepen their thoughts, and slow the hell down anyway. This looks like the right time to take it slow in storytelling.
Love, as always. And plant those trees people. Plant those trees.