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Story Structure: A Writing Guide for Video Marketing

If there’s one element that can make or break a marketing video, it’s story. Flashy graphics, slick transitions, and flawless voiceover can all add style and flair, but story is the core of a great ad. And a compelling story starts with the right story structure. This story structure writing guide will help you build your script so you can create marketing videos that move viewers.

Why worry about story structure?

Whether you’ve thought deeply about story structure in the past or not, you probably instinctively know when a story works. It engages your emotions in some way. It gets you invested in the characters and their struggles, even if the ad is only a few seconds long. The good news is, compelling stories don’t just happen. Most of them follow a pretty clear formula: the three-act structure.

The three-act structure is not the only story structure out there, but it may be the most popular among video creators. Like all story structures, it conveys some valuable benefits for you, the creator.

Story structure helps you capture and keep the attention of viewers. Even though viewers aren’t consciously thinking about story structure, they’ve seen, heard, and read enough stories to recognize a good one. Story structure creates a mental framework for the viewer so they can more easily follow your story from setup to conclusion.

Story structure evokes emotion. Ads with a clear narrative structure build emotion because people feel empathy for characters. An open question or challenge makes them wonder what happens next. A well-structured story gives them everything they need to create that emotional connection.

Story structure makes writing easier. You don’t have to start from scratch with every ad. Instead, you take what you know and fit it into a tried and tested format. Script writing becomes simpler while resulting in more compelling stories.

Three-Act Structure for video marketers

You might have heard of the three-act structure. Storytellers of all types use it to get their ideas across in an engaging way. It comprises three parts:

Act 1: The setup – In which we meet the characters or see the inciting incident.
Act 2: The buildup – Which builds tension and explores the central problem.
Act 3: The conclusion – Where the problem is resolved.

This story construction has a history, a long one. Aristotle noted in his Poetics that a play must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. This might sound like a statement of the obvious, but it is often credited as the first mention of a three-act structure. Later, filmmakers embraced this tested and proven method of storytelling. Many modern movies, from Finding Nemo to Die Hard, rely on three acts to get their point across.

But does a three-act structure apply to a marketing video less than 2 minutes long? How can you possibly jam three whole acts into a thirty-second YouTube pre-roll ad?

It absolutely does! The key is to stay hyper-focused on the point you’re trying to make. Watch this video from Simplist and see if you can spot the three-act structure at work.

A Simple Example of Three-act Story Structure

In this one-minute video, Act 1 is only about two seconds long. Blink, and you’ll miss it. But because all elements of the video: animation, voiceover, and on-screen text, work together to make a single point. It works. We know what the video is about and that we have three main characters. We know there’s a question at stake, one that doesn’t seem like it has an easy answer. That’s a lot of information for two seconds.

Act 2, the buildup, takes up the next 28 seconds or so. It builds tension by showing us the difficulties of the first two characters, leaving us hoping for a solution.

Act 3, the climax and resolution, shows us the solution and explains why it works.

Three acts easily fit in one minute when you have no distracting details. Notice you don’t get profiles of the characters. All you know is their names and how they go about getting a mortgage. In this case, that’s all you need. Every element speaks to the theme of the commercial: you CAN find a mortgage in a way that’s painless.

Need another example? Take this 45-second spot from TJMaxx. The acts aren’t as clearly delineated in this one, but see if you can spot them.

In the first ten seconds, we meet Becky. We learn that she is not a cook. She uses her rolling pin to crack ice for cocktails, not for baking. That’s act one, where the scene is set.

In act two, we learn that she wants to be a better cook to connect with family and friends. Now we know what’s at stake.

In act three, the last few seconds, we see how cooking fulfills her expectations. We’re left to draw the conclusion that TJ Maxx will help her achieve her goal.

How to get started with story structure

Story structures can be flexible. In marketing videos, act one tends to be the shortest. Viewers won’t stick around for a long setup. Acts two and three can expand and shrink based on how much you have to say.

Three tips can help you construct your story:

Start with a clear idea

Get super clear on what your theme is. In a movie, the theme might be something like: love conquers all or self-worth comes from within. In your video ad, it’s probably something about how the product or service helps customers.

For example, in the Simplis ad, the theme was: you can find a mortgage in a way that’s painless. The TJ Maxx commercial told viewers that TJ Maxx can help you achieve your goals and connect with your family.

Keep the audience in mind

The beats of your story, that is the points of change, discovery, or conflict, should resonate with your specific audience. Think about what story and what pace will most effectively engage your target audience.

Use all of your resources

Remember that no one element has to carry the whole story. Animation, on-screen text, voiceover, character design, and even music and special effects can help you get your point across. They can, and should, all work together within your story structure.

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