I want you to think about the TV shows that you enjoy. Have you ever wondered why you love them? Why do you connect with some shows and others fail to engage you? I will argue that it is the quality of the storytelling that is responsible for your loyal devotion to any particular TV show. I have been asking myself these questions and more about storytelling on TV. I am trying to figure out what I can learn from the TV shows which I enjoy to see what I can appropriate for my own storytelling repertoire.
Suspense is the sauce that makes good storytelling work. Cliff-hangers in TV shows leave you with questions that you are dying to find the answers to. What happens next? Prison Break season 1 was so good because every episode had Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller) in a cliffhanging situation. The viewer is left wondering how Michael Scofield escapes the dangerous situation he finds himself in. This nagging curiosity keeps you coming back the following week to watch the show for a resolution.
Good stories are usually about people – characters that the audience can relate to. We know that Michael will escape but we keep coming back to find out how he escapes because we are rooting for him to succeed. We are naturally programmed to want to know what happens next especially when we are emotionally invested in the characters of any story. According to Lee Child (author of the ‘Jack Reacher’ books), “the basic narrative fuel is always the slow unveiling of the final answer.”
The skill of any good storyteller is to leave strategically placed questions like breadcrumbs for the listener or reader or viewer to follow. The storyteller is like Pied Piper who plays the hypnotising tune. The melody is so persuasive that you have no choice but to follow.
The secret of good storytelling is in the design. A joke is a miniscule story. The comedian designs his jokes by revealing the punch line only when he is ready to reveal it to the audience after he has introduced the joke’s setup. The audience knows that the punch line is coming but don’t know when; until it hits them, and then they want more because the comedian has succeeded in making them laugh.