How to design stories that keep people hooked

The simple principle of progression

Image © Adam Westbrook

What gives a good story its pace and tempo? How do storytellers make sure their work builds to a memorable climax? Let’s break down the concept of story progression.

You’ve probably heard people talk about the ‘narrative arc’ or the ‘character arc’ before, but they’re two poorly defined terms that conjure up misleading definitions.

What we mean by arc is ‘change’ — something has to change in your story or, to be frank, it is not a story.

Progression, then, is how you structure the change in your story. It’s extremely simple to use and is one of the best ways to make your narrative as intentionally powerful as possible.

First, let’s define progression. In The Visual Story, cinematographer Bruce Block breaks it down into its most simple definition. “A progression begins as one thing and changes to something else,” he says.

“Progressions are fundamental to story or musical structure and they’re fundamental to visual structure.”

Progression can be applied to all the elements at your command as a storyteller: the story events themselves, the images, the sounds, the lighting, the tempo, and so on.

Choosing which elements to apply progression to is a fundamental part of good story design. You don’t need to apply progression to every element in a story — in fact, leaving some parts unchanged helps to heighten the progression of the elements you do change.

Mapping Intensity

In order to control progression, we need to be able to see it. Block offers a simple and easy to replicate model for structuring progression: mapping intensity.

Why intensity? It’s well understood that all stories peak at a climax of some sort and it’s generally agreed that the climax is the most intense moment of a story. No event ought to be more exciting, engrossing, surprising or revealing than the climax.

How you define the intensity of your story is up to you, but your climax should be where it peaks. Block suggests visualising the intensity of your story on a simple graph.

In its most simple form, a story starts with very little intensity, and then increases steadily to the climax. There are, of course, infinite variations.

The intensity of the story increases over time. This intensity could be expressed through story events, pacing or even the lighting and color choices.

This intensity structure opens the story with some intensity, a device intended to reel an audience in, and then builds to a climax, leaving room for a calming denouement at the end.

A more complex intensity graph which includes rises and peaks in the story.

What’s the point in designing a graph like this? Well, it helps you and your collaborators map the varying intensity of your narrative. What’s the most intense scene? Where are the lulls in the story? Is it a rapid progression or a gentle one? Are there any places where the intensity recedes?

Each story will be different, but viewing your story like this allows you and your team to apply the principle of progression to anything you please.

Applying narrative progression

Storytellers are composers of events. We arrange and order events in the same way a musician arranges and orders notes and chords.

There are several ways we can build progression into our story structure according to Robert McKee in his book Story.

One is situational: “progressively building pressures that put the characters into more difficult dilemmas…demanding ever increasing will power.” You will see this applied very clearly in movies, where the situation seems to get worse and worse for the hero.

“In Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) there are visual progressions as the birds gather and attack,” explains Block. “Watch the visual progression in the cornfield sequence in North by Northwest (1959).”

Meanwhile, McKee argues this progression can be expressed across a whole story by the spheres in which character decisions and actions can have an effect. On the lowest level, a decision might affect just the character alone, but growing progressively intense, a hero’s decisions might affect those close to them, society at large, or even the survival of a whole planet.

That’s all very well for sci-fi flicks. But can the same be applied to non-fiction work? Although we’re restricted to accurate rendering of real-life events, an awareness of progression can guide us to make more intentional story decisions.

It’s informative when choosing a story in the first place — documentaries with an inherent climax are usually more likely to get commissioned — as well as deciding what events to include. If, while editing, feedback suggests there’s a deadly slump in the middle of your story which is causing viewers to switch off, chances are it’s because the narrative intensity recedes, rather than progresses. In projects where you have some control over the orchestration of events, putting your characters through progressively intense situations can have the same impact.

At the very least, it guides you in increasing the tempo and pace of your story in the editing stage. Not paying attention to narrative progression also leads to the inclusion of story-killing chapters and sequences.

Applying visual progression

Whether or not you have control over the narrative structure and events within your non-fiction story, all audio-visual storytellers can use the elements of their medium to express progression subconsciously.

We’ll focus on visual progression here, but of course, audio or interactive storytellers have their own cues. Visual storytelling, whether images, movies, video or even animated GIFs, follow basic visual principles, and these can be controlled by the storyteller. These include space, line, shape, colour, tone and movement. There’s not room to explore them all here, but Block’s The Visual Story offers an excellent primer.

And how do we apply visual progression with these elements? Simple: by making each element (or a combination of them) progressively more complex as the story advances.

You can do this inside a shot (for example, making shots visually more complex throughout the story), or across a series of shots (by increasing the contrast between shots throughout the story).

Take something simple, like color. As the visual storyteller, you decide you want the colours to reflect the increasing intensity and complexity of your story. There are no hard-and-fast rules about how color works, so let’s say you decide that you want the saturation of the color to act as a subconscious guide for the audience. Using Block’s simple intensity graph, you can plot the rate at which your story gets progressively more intense and then map your colour palette to that. For example, the less intense scenes and sequences will be less saturated or dominated by cooler colours, and the climax of your story awash with intensely rich, warm colours.

Some of these things can be done in post-production and can be applied to any story fiction or non-fiction.

Progression has been built into video games since day one. You always start on level 1, the easiest and quickest level to complete. Usually at the end of each level there’s a boss who’s harder to defeat than the other bad guys. The bosses get harder to defeat as you go through the game, until you’re at the hardest level of them all. Meanwhile you’ll probably see the visuals and sounds of the gameplay increase in intensity too.

Ideally the complexity of your visual storytelling will mirror the intensity of the narrative itself. Or perhaps, unable to dictate the narrative structure of a factual story, you can give the audience subconscious cues by creating progression using the images themselves.

Either way, understanding progression and building it in can be the difference between a story that resonates and one that gets lost in the ocean of attention.

This article first appeared in Issue #3 of Inside The Story Magazine.

Video artist working at The New York Times. I write a weekly newsletter about visual storytelling and creativity.

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