The phrase “video narrative” is intimidating.

It conjures up Shakespearean drama, and script meeting anxiety, but the deep dark secret of corporate video production is that a narrative can be as simple as you want. “Jack and Jill went up the hill…” is a 10-part mini-series rife with drama just waiting to happen.

It doesn’t matter what your video sells, markets, or teaches, or if you use animated video, whiteboard, motion graphics, or live-action – the audience is always the same (hint: it’s people).

I like the video embedded below for a lot of reasons – it’s simple, direct, has great music and sound editing, and so on – but the opening line – the simple introduction – is what hooked me.

“My name is Ron Dawson, the senior video producer for Mighty8Media,” the video begins.

This video is about Ron Dawson, and he’s going to tell me a story. And I like storytelling.

One of my favorite examples of short, simple narrative is Hemingway’s six-word short story:

For sale: baby shoes; never worn.

Packed within that one sentence is a rich world of mourning parents, poverty, loss, and all the pathos that goes along with it. The reader fills in years of backstory and character development without Hemingway writing another word. It’s actually kind of a lazy literary device, but content marketing is all about your ability to scale. If I could reach people in six words, I’d do it every day.

The point is, it only takes a few simple elements to create a compelling video narrative.

Nigel Watt’s classic story arc structure defines the eight points of narrative:

  1. Stasis
  2. Trigger
  3. The quest
  4. Surprise
  5. Critical choice
  6. Climax
  7. Reversal
  8. Resolution

These points are great for novels, but not ideal for marketing spots. An animated explainer video just doesn’t have the time to meander. So, I’ve boiled the eight down to four video narrative staples:

  1. The Introduction (Characters)
  2. The Quest
  3. Climax
  4. Resolution

Four Elements of Video Narrative Venn Diagram

1) Characters

video narrative character designEvery tale has a hero. The hero in most animated explainer videos is the product or consumer, and she should be easy to identify. Construct your hero at the start of the production because your hero defines your audience, the nature of the conflict, and the tone of the eventual resolution.

What does your hero look like? How does she dress? How old is she? The viewer will naturally fill in the gaps – like in Hemingway’s story – but try to make it as easy as possible for them.

2) Conflict

Marketing or sales videos refer to conflict as the “pain point” the user faces. It’s an obstacle to their happiness or effectiveness, but a conflict doesn’t always have to be a “problem.” Sometimes the conflict can be an opportunity or teaching moment – especially in educational videos – and simply requires detailed explanation.

Whatever your conflict, define it early (within the first :30) and accurately. The Scandis video is all pain point in the introduction (even the music conjures a little anxiety with its ominous meandering bass line). The conflict is the hook in your sales pitch, and the more pervasive, the better.

3) Quest

The quest is a direct result of the conflict, and shapes the hero – and thus the narrative. In an animated explainer video, the quest is the search for a solution to the problem.

“Ballad of a Wi-Fi Hero” tackles the Quest idea head on (and it’s amazing), but the “quest” doesn’t always have to be so obvious. Usually it’s just a thorough explanation. Without any swords. *sigh*

Users need your product, and they need to know why they need it. Explain the problem and the path to fixing it – your product description – in a compelling, logical way. This is the meat of the video narrative, and needs to be executed well to reach the final stage…

4) Resolution

The video’s hero (and thus the user) has faced the conflict, endured the quest, and now arrives at the resolution. Ideally, this is a solution to the problem, but depending on your objective, the resolution can be a continuation of the conversation, or merely awareness of the problem.

Animated videos are exceptionally effective narrative devices because they use simple visual cues to involve the audience in the story – a ball rolling down a hill, a paper airplane landing in someone’s lap.

The New York Times reported that metaphors rouse your sensory cortex, tricking a reader or viewer into actually experiencing “leathery hands” or “lavender musk,” when they see them onscreen or read the words on the page. Our brains want to inject everyday objects and stories with meaning, and will fill in the sensory gaps – on a neurological level – if the narrative is strong enough.

Construct a compelling narrative and your audience will be more receptive to your story – and your product.

Read more: