Fri
Jul 25 2008 5:09pm

A Different Way to Tell A Story

We've talked briefly about alternate means to present text to the reader. And a few people in the comments even talked a little bit about different ways to deliver the story to the reader.

I'm going to focus a little bit on the "delivering the story" concept. Only because I want to step outside text as the medium to impart a story to the public. I'm going to talk about delivering a story via a visual medium.

One way in which all of us view short stories every day is through commercials or ads. A well-done piece of advertising will tell a story either through a still image, or a very short piece of video/animation.

Many people dislike or hate advertising. I genuinely enjoy advertising. It's a tough gig: telling a story to people in an instant. Often, it doesn't work. Often, it's annoying (think about your local ads, particularly for car dealerships). But when it's done well...

If you can entertain me briefly, I'm going to talk about one particular company's advertising, and give two examples of a current campaign; one that I think works, one that I think doesn't.

The Orbit Gum company (part of Wrigley) has an ad campaign featuring British actrss Vanessa Branch. The ads feature Branch in sparkly bright mod apparel. The whole look has a very mod, cheeky feel to it.

The set up is that someone in the commercial gets absolutely filthy, Branch asks, "Dirty Mouth?" the person starts chewing a piece of Orbit Gum, flashes an ultra-white smile, and Branch says "Fabulous!" We interpret that no matter what the situation, a piece of Orbit Gum will make your mouth feel clean and lift you above whatever state you're in.

Recently, there's been more of an effort to portray people getting just a dirty mouth, whereas earlier in the campaign people would fall in the mud, etc. and get their entire body dirty. Now we're on to the examples. In one ad, a model is doing a swimsuit photo shoot. Her assistant is giving her water, which apparently tastes awful. We cut to the assistant filling the water bottle from a hot tub filled with overweight, hairy sweaty guys. Dirty mouth indeed.

A newer ad has a young man preparing a package of Ramen. He snips open the seasoning packet and gives the noodles a quick stir with the scissors. He licks the scissors off and get an odd look on his face. We cut to an earlier moment with his roommate in the shower trimming his armpit and nose hair with the same pair of scissors.

I posit that the first example works and the second doesn't. The first example has the woman drinking water. We all drink water. We expect water, particularly from a bottle, to taste like...well...water. We don't expect it to taste like sweaty hairy guys. In the second example, I don't feel a lot of sympathy for the young man who places scissors in his mouth. Scissors are not meant to go in the mouth. Yes, I understand his plight. I feel disgusted as well at the path the scissors has traveled to get to the young man's mouth.

Maybe I've seen too many horror movies where scissors + mouth = bad idea. Maybe the thought of sticking a cutting implement into my mouth just doesn't seem right to me. Whereas I would drink water from a bottle. Regardless, I don't want this young to be rewarded for his stupidity of sticking a pair of scissors in his mouth with yummy Orbit Gum (yes, I had this conversation with my wife; she has to suffer through conversations like this multiple times a night; yes, she is a saint).

The same ad campaign, two different stories, both told in under 30 seconds. And as far as conveying the advertising idea to us and making us want to pick up a pack of gum, in my opinion, one was successful, one was not. In both cases, however, a story was told. Whether the advertising worked is irrelevant to getting a story told. Unfortunately, Orbit wants to do more than tell us a story. They want us to buy gum.

Outside of advertising, there are a bunch of recent examples where stories are told through visual media. Are these places where short story writers of the future could find homes for their work?

Many of you have heard/seen Dr. Horrible, a 40-some minute online musical revue written by Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy, Firefly, co-writer of the screenplay for Toy Story), featuring the talents of Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion, and Felicia Day. The project was conceived and created during the Writers' Guild of America strike as a potential way to circumvent issues surrounding DVD royalties.

Mike Mignola, the creator of Hellboy, created a pilot for his comic The Amazing Screw-On Head for the Sci Fi channel in 2006. The pilot was shown on scifi.com where people could vote whether it became and actual series for the channel or not. The show did not receive enough votes to be a series, but you can still view the pilot episode here. It featured the voice talents of Paul Giamatti, David Hyde Pierce, Patton Oswalt, and Molly Shannon.

This morning I got an e-mail about a new project: N Is Here, from Stephen King. From his website: "Scribner, Simon & Schuster Digital, Marvel Entertainment and CBS Mobile have collaborated in a unique partnership to bring an episodic graphic adaptation of the previously unpublished Stephen King short story 'N.' " Starting Monday July 28, there will be a series of 25 installments that you can watch online or via your mobile device. You might even see a post from our fellow Tor.com people as the debut episode is premiering at Comic Con today.

Each of these three projects has big name people behind them. Each has a pool of fans within which to draw to build an audience. But, it can take a big name person doing something to make it possible for smaller name places to do the same thing. These three projects could be made at a minimal expense to the content creator (minimal expense being relative; I'm sure most of couldn't afford the low six figures that Whedon is quoting as having spent on Dr. Horrible) just to see how they would work. They didn't need to worry about an audience, as one already existed.

In a moment of synchronicity, Fantasy Magazine announced today that they "will add audio dramas to our suite of podcasts." They want pieces that are 30 to 60 minutes in length, and can even be adaptations of existing work (provided you receive permission). I, for one, am interested to see how this works for them. It's a different media to convey a story to the public, and could be very cool.

[Image by Flickr user gadl; used via a Creative Commons license, details here.]

1 comment
Mark Glamack "Littluns"
1. Littluns
John, whenever I watch commercials in contrast like the examples you gave above with Orbit Gum and others, the first thing that comes to mind is the age of the person who created the concept and their inexperience. What's good for the goose is not necessarily good for the gander. What's funny for a limited and immature person only narrows its appeal within a broader demographic. At least the ad agencies should know better even if their clients don't.

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