Explain yourself, dangit

baby on planeVery recently: I was sitting near a screaming baby, in the very back row of a small airplane, with no legroom, and seats that would not recline. Things that would otherwise drive me nuts, or at very least annoy me. But I was ok with all of this.



Because my wife and I were finally on our way to be with family. Our departing flight had been delayed 4 hours, and it was looking like we might be stuck overnight in O’Hare airport… on Christmas Eve. And we wouldn’t have reached our destination until halfway through Christmas Day.

You're a perfectly fine airport, ORD... and get me outta here!!
You’re a perfectly fine airport, ORD… just get me outta here!!

Nothing against y’all, Chicago, but I’d much rather spend Christmas Day with family than with hard airport seats and a 6AM flight. Errgh.

But thankfully, when we finally touched down in Chicago, we were told 2 seats had opened up on a flight that was boarding, well, right now. Run run run run to the opposite end of the concourse, we’re the last people boarded, and shut the doors.

Whew. Just in time. But we’re on the flight, and we’ll get to where we’re going.

And that is why not even zero legroom with non-reclining seats behind a screaming baby bothered me at all.

Having just explained it, I have a decent expectation that you now know why. The shifted context changed everything for me.

In your storytelling, have you ever experienced showing something that you find incredibly powerful or significant, but other people just don’t seem to get it? The power and impact that you felt was loaded into your story just flies straight over their heads?

I got news for ya – nine out of ten times the problem is not with Them the audience, it’s with Us, the storytellers. And the bulk of the time, we’re not properly setting the context.

To set context, ask yourself these questions, and make sure your piece answers them too:

What is happening? Why is it happening? These are the very basics of setting context, and it might feel really basic and obvious to say so. But I can’t tell you how many times I watch a piece, and I have no clue what’s happening. Ain’t no way I’m gonna get emotionally attached to a story that I don’t understand from the very beginning.

Then: who or what is changing?

Why does the piece’s plot twist shock the character so much? Does the viewer fully understand why a particular change matters? Don’t assume the viewer automatically understands everything, because often they just don’t.

To clearly show a contextual change, we must first establish the beginning state, show what brings the change about, then the change itself will have the desired impact.

If the change or impact is huge, then we have to clearly understand why, and we have to have seen significant effort getting there – the characters, viewers, or both have to earn the change. It can’t just randomly happen, boom… otherwise it’ll feel cheap or fake.

Knowing what to explain and what to leave out is a tricky balance. For more discussion on that balance and other ideas like this, check out this right here.

And if you like the idea of interacting with a growing group of editors and storytellers who know the importance of these kind of ideas instead of mindlessly pushing buttons on their editing software, then you should join us here.

In the meantime, always tell your stories being aware of what you’re explaining, what you’re leaving out, and what’s changing. And you too can enjoy the reactions of your audiences who know exactly where they stand – laughing, crying, or jaws on the floor in amazement at your artistry.

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