The DNA of Storytelling Deepening Engagement
Data-creative storytelling process that optimises audience attention and deepens engagement consistently
Develops compelling and engaging stories for movies, television episodic drama, and strategic communications.
Identifies filmmakers’ narrative blind spots that significantly reduce story comprehension, attention, and engagement
Validates creative storytelling decisions and resolves filmmaker’s narrative blind spots
Reduces risk of re-shooting scenes and increasing movie production costs
A scientific model that measures emotion, suspense, and audience engagement
Discovering the DNA of Storytelling & Audience Engagement
Our research involved developing a scientific model of storytelling and engagement by measuring electrical changes in viewers’ skin when they watched specific micro-narrative structures (1-90 seconds in duration). These specific micro-narrative structures represent different forms of suspense. In other worlds, different ways filmmakers construct suspense in the story world. Drawing from research in film studies and media psychology we know that suspense plays a crucial role in making interesting and engaging stories across genres. This is because suspense is always interwoven with a conflict-crisis in the story world which makes the story more interesting and engaging. We can define suspense as a mediating element of a cause-and-effect paradigm that is associated with a conflict-crisis in a story world or a threatening stimulus that is directed at the viewer that triggers fluctuations of anxiety. The conflict-crisis often challenges the protagonist(s) by turning their life upside down and in some cases, they face life-threatening situations. However, suspense not only creates tension but increases empathy for the fictional character's situation especially the main protagonist. Therefore, suspense is a powerful narrative structure that deepens engagement and audience experience in storytelling. What is most interesting is that suspense also plays an essential role in different types of cinematic storytelling in diverse ways, from movies to televisions episodic drama series and media strategic communications.
Television Episodic Drama
Suspense plays a crucial role in television episodic drama series in three ways, firstly, suspense is constructed during each episode like a story in a movie, secondly, in the form of the cliff-hanger at the end of each episode leaving viewers in a ‘state of suspense’ of what will happen in the following episode. This encourages viewers’ to watch the next episode. Thirdly, the cliff-hanger also acts as a commercial driver to sustain and grow audiences.
Research studies that compared suspenseful with non-suspenseful commercials found that suspenseful commercials are more engaging, maintaining audiences’ attention and more likely to persuade the viewer to purchase a product or service. Linda Alwitt discovered viewers perceive suspenseful commercials as being shorter than their duration because viewers experienced intensified attention and interest. This informs us that a well-framed strategic message using suspense micro-narrative structures can create powerful emotional messages that motivate people to act.
Media Strategic Communications
A mixed-methods approach was used, triangulating three data sets:
We analysed the textual elements of the story and filmmakers’ intentions to construct suspense
We measured suspense as an anxiety response using the psychophysiological recording technique electrodermal activity (EDA), measuring anxiety using two variable duration and intensity.
Viewer Self - Reports
We recorded viewer feedback after each movie clip to contextualise their subjective experience of suspense
A Framework to Measure Suspense and Engagement
To measure the construction of suspense and engagement we combined Brewer & Lichtenstein’s suspense event structure with Susan Smith’s narrative model of suspense: vicarious, shared, direct and composite suspense. We carried out an in-depth analysis of Susan Smith’s suspense micro-narrative structures vicarious, shared, direct and composite suspense and also cinematic techniques (cinematography, sound, production design, and editing) matching their cause and effect relationships with the viewer anxiety responses to millisecond accuracy.
Outcome of Research: EDA Model of Audience Experience
For example, the Rhythm of Engagement™ in the graph below reveals the filmmaker’s narrative blind spots, shown by black plot points at the baseline of the graph. The graph informs us which narrative elements and cinematic techniques decrease, sustain or increase engagement.
The EDA Model of suspense and engagement has been further developed and represents the DNA of storytelling and a data-driven creative storytelling process Story-Fusion™ that resolves filmmakers’ narrative blind spots and deepens engagement and audience experience. Story-Fusion also represents a unique framework that can be adapted in future audience research studies and in the development of storytelling innovations.