Short Ideas Blog Post 24 on story formats part 1 of 3

Story Format — Part 1 of 3

Story Format

Apart from the constraints of its particular genre, short videos can follow several different methods of conveying the story. These are:

1. Live–Action Narrative
2. Interview—Based
3. Direct Address
4. Observational
5. Animation
6. Abstraction

To keep these posts a manageable size, we’ll split off Interview–Based and Animation story formats into their own posts in the coming weeks.

Live–Action Narrative

Live–action narrative is what we usually think of as a fictional, scripted video. We see someone doing something and engage with this world for a moment, like a family having a scenic drive to the beach in a car commercial or a parent preparing a surprisingly delicious frozen pizza for dinner. The lessons of storytelling that we can learn from traditional books on scriptwriting are best applied here.

Direct Address

Direct address is where someone speaks directly to camera, which fits very naturally with the review genre. Neither narrative nor interview, these take place in the moment as it is presented and feel like an authentic moment with the speaker. This could be a fictional character talking about a product, as in the amazing The Man Your Man Could Smell Like campaign for Old Spice, or a celebrity cooking segment that highlights just how great brand X crackers go with dip.

For the former variant, you can enjoy the freedom that narrative creativity provides, while with the latter you should research the work of your contributor. Trying to exactly recreate someone else’s idiosyncratic style can ring false with loyal viewers, so if this is called for I would try a loose script that anticipates their participation to rewrite to style.


In contrast to direct address is observational, where the subject does not acknowledge the camera. These two personality–driven styles equally depend on adapting or reacting to an existing talent, with observational usually depending on witnessing the talent’s interaction with someone else, like on an interview show or hidden camera. An interview show depends a great deal on your interviewer’s preparation and natural ability, varying in style from Larry King’s off–the–cuff, preparation–free interviews to meticulously researched and constructed questions that lead the conversation down a particular path.

Writing for hidden camera is very challenging, as there are many factors that affect the production, from physical logistics of where to place the camera operators to legal concerns of obtaining permission from subjects without unduly revealing your presence. Effective writing for this style demands that the scenario works for as many different reactions as possible. It is hard enough to get an entertaining and usable reaction, so if you are depending on people specifically reacting in a particular way, like being scared, confused or laughing, then you have made it infinitely more difficult to produce. It is far better to develop a scenario that accommodates a good variety of reactions and depends as much as possible on your performer, one of the few elements that are in your control and favour.


Abstraction is another important form of short form video, though perhaps most commonly seen on in–store monitors and behind graphic text or logos. This is often the domain of motion graphics artists, but a huge variety of techniques can be employed to create abstract material. Take a look at the re:voir or Anthology Film Archives websites to get a taste of the vast territory explored by experimental and abstract filmmaking.

I would argue that abstraction isn’t a free–for–all of randomness but rather an interpretation of story that rejects traditional narration as its driving force in favour of something else, like the evolution of a formal quality. An engaging abstract film could explore the evolution of line, colour, texture, shape, form, value, light, intensity or space over time, or in a particular place. Or it could examine the occurrence of one quality in a defined area, such as the letter A on signage in New York City. That film would definitely be free of a traditional narrative story and be categorised as abstract or experimental, but would still have a sense of purpose and structure that can leave the viewer satisfied that they are engaging with the artist. Similarly, I believe that any good abstraction will have a definition of the territory it is trying to explore, and a sense of purpose that is employing to drive the film through change, subject to the usual aesthetic and instinctive choices of the filmmaker. From this perspective, you can still write about a concept that explores abstraction in a way that is intelligible to someone else, which is an essential part of writing and pitching.

Genre and Format

Once the genre and format are selected, you have considered the overall purpose of the film, the baggage of visual language and audience expectations, and the means by which the story will be told. With a quick check of the method of distribution and medium to determine if there are any technical factors that should influence your creative direction, you are in a good position to begin concept development.

See you soon for interview–based and animation formats.





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