Kurt Vonnegut famously diagrammed the “shapes” of the what he identified as the mere handful of plots that underlie all stories. But the plot of a story — boy-meets-girl, man-gets-out-of-hole, whatever — is not what holds your attention. What keeps you going is the narrative, the tense, interesting moments come at you one-by-one. So, how do you shape narrative in a video story?
A-B-T = And-But-Therefore
Randy Olson makes a good case for the three-point formula he calls “A-B-T (And-But-Therefore). Olson, a marine biologist, developed his ideas to help scientists explain their research to a broader audience. Olson maintains that every story can be boiled down to this A-B-T structure. The story begins with a situation — “it’s this that, and the other.” Then there’s tension — “but there’s a problem.” “Therefore, the solution must be ____,” and that’s our story.”
The key to the whole thing is the tension that drives the narrative, which is signaled by the word but. The scientifically inclined Olson posits a narrative index — the number of times but occurs in the story, divided by the occurrences of and. The higher the but/and ratio, the more tension, the stronger the narrative.
Olson has calculated the narrative index of numerous texts, including in political debates going back Lincoln-Douglas. Among the surprising findings: Donald Trump has used the word “but” more than any politician in history in debates — “narrative index” of his “story” is very high, though, as a storyteller, he’s no Reagan. “Reagan . . . knew how to present stories with all their warmth, humor and emotion. His stories were always about problems. Trump doesn’t give much of a crap about the warmth, humor or emotion. He’s mostly just about problem-solution, over and over again, all day long.” Seems to work.
Implications for a technology solution video story
Technology solution videos typically try to tell viewers why the solution might matter to them. The typical video begins by describing a few typical problems at the start, then goes on to present features that address these problems. Olson’s A-B-T method suggests that the video could be made more engaging by iterating over problem-solution loops, instead. “X is inexpensive and it can be effective, but it risks Y, therefore our solution does Z.” It’s a simple, but endlessly flexible, formula. We plan to give it a try.