The Message Matters More

When it comes down to it, the most memorable parts of any narrative will almost always be the characters and the message.  Plots, or the series of events that we see our characters experience, give us a window into their personality, and give the message a reason to arise.  In the end, though, they’re fairly interchangeable.  Let’s flesh this out with a few examples.

Focusing on character for a minute, let’s take a classic moment and see how crucial the plot really was to the development of the hero and villain in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.  I suppose there should be a spoiler warning here, so here it is.  It is a film from 1980, but still.

Everybody who’s not seen the Star Wars movies looking away?  Sure hope so.  So, the revelation that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father has some specific plot elements that, on the surface, might seem important.  Luke doesn’t believe it because he was told his father is dead, and was a good man; Vader tells him the truth to gain his trust, and get him to join not only the Dark Side of the Force, but the authoritarian regime of the Empire.

Okay, that’s a fair amount of ideas.  But pared down, the scene exists to show the turmoil a young man feels when learning that the idealistic portrait of his departed father is entirely wrong, and that the truth couldn’t be further from the lie he’s believed his whole life.

Cut away the plot elements and this could happen in a lot of contexts.  A soldier in the Second World War could learn that his father was an enemy soldier, not the victim of one.  A teenager in a coming-of-age drama could learn that a mean principal was their parent.

I could make up more examples, but the point is the feeling: the truth hurts, especially when it’s about our family and/or origins.  We want to be proud of our parents, and suddenly feeling revulsion is a powerful dramatic turn.

It’s about the feeling, though, not the specifics.  We don’t need the plot elements of the Force and the galactic power struggle to understand Luke’s pain.  We just need his reaction to the news—“That’s not true.  That’s impossible.”  The scene is about a feeling, not an event.

One other example, with one more spoiler.  This time, we’re going with The X-Files.  The antagonist, known only as the Smoking Man, takes very few onscreen actions, throughout the entire show.  Really, he just calmly accepts things; after a full episode full of intrigue, action, scares, or all three, the audience finds themselves confronted by the orchestrator of our heroes’ woes.

What does he do?  Basically nothing.  He might smile or laugh, or destroy a piece of evidence, but he’s basically unaffected—whether or not his evil plans worked out.  He’ll win next time, and he is fully unconcerned.

This, I think, is almost more proof of ‘plot as vehicle to character’ than Star Wars, as the Smoking Man is a character defined by his indifference to the plot.  It says a lot for a man to shrug off millions of dollars in damage, or the release of secret information that could change the world.  We don’t need to know his name, or how he got his job—we understand his mindset, and feel the anger we should feel towards a villain.  How dare you sit, insulated from it all, as our heroes toil?  At least get your hands dirty!

In whiteboard video, the lessons of these media examples are important to scriptwriting and messaging in general.  Remember that your hero should stand in for your audience, and drive the story through what they should feel before and after encountering your message.

It’s great to have a plot in mind to illuminate this—your hero is a knight, and their pain points are a dragon that they can defeat with the sword that is your product—but try not to subordinate audience emotional states to this plot.  They’ll likely be less impressed by your dragon metaphor than a direct discussion that reveals your understanding of their current feelings, and proposes a plausible route to changing those emotions for the better.

Again, there are a lot of ways to send the same message.  Don’t let an interchangeable element take up the majority of your focus.  Focus on the message.  Whiteboard artists are at their best with a script that presents a clear message, as it’s precisely their skillset to design the visuals to support that message.  You’ll never hear “I don’t know what the plot is for this message” from a whiteboard artist—but you may very well hear “I don’t know what the message is for this plot.”

Storytelling is a masterful way to approach messaging.  TruScribe artists utilize characters, story arcs, metaphor, and every tool of the technique on a regular basis to optimally send clients’ messages.  They don’t, however, persist with a plot or metaphor if it contradicts or hinders the clarity of the message.

Luke Skywalker and the Smoking Man, as characters, exist to stir emotion in us, through either our ability to relate to or recoil from them.  Luke has proven himself a good person, so we hurt with him when Vader tells him the truth.  The Smoking Man is cold and unfeeling, and we seethe at him as he calmly floats above the conflict and pain he causes.

Characters in your whiteboard video should drive emotion in the direction you need, too.  The plot should never overtake their ability to evoke your message through these emotions.  Clearly established pain points and the relief provided by your solution should be your goal.  Your artists can handle the storytelling to bring your messaging to life from there.