One of my favorite parts of an adventure is the time spent on the tailgate swapping stories and relieving moments with friends. It’s this act of storytelling that has fueled the marketing initiatives of almost every brand in the industry and has led to some of the most recognizable billion-dollar brands. However, I believe that our industry has forgotten a key ingredient that is required to make a story entertaining.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started to watch a film but 2 minutes in I find myself asking: “Why should I care about this story?” If I can’t answer that question I’ll close out of the video and move on with my day. This question is the crux that every story must answer to capture the attention and curiosity of the audience.
The outdoor industry has no shortage of objective-based films. Summiting a mountain, traversing Antarctica, or sailing around the world are admirable adventures but these types of stories have been told time and time again with little variety amongst them. Many outdoor brands tend to tell stories that prioritize physical accomplishment over the human experience, resulting in narratives that lack relatability and emotional resonance. This oversight can leave audiences feeling detached and unengaged, impacting the effectiveness of the storytelling.
There is one common denominator that every good story holds - it makes the audience care about the subject of the film. The audience feels invested in the outcome of a story because they feel empathy for the characters in the film. Creating empathy is the most critical task every filmmaker must overcome and in the context of the outdoor industry, it means connecting with the audience on a deeper level that resonates with the audience's aspirations, challenges, and desires.
We’ve all experienced the all-consuming movie that has us anticipating every second. Our pulse quickens, we ignore all other distractions, our breathing gets deeper as the tension builds and we’re desperate to find out how the story ends. When an audience is on the edge of their seats it means that they have fully succumbed to the world on screen. They are personally, and emotionally invested in the outcome of the character and are living vicariously through the events unfolding on screen. But how do you capture this level of attentiveness? It requires three steps:
- Establish the Obstacle
Every character in an engaging story has a clear goal at the beginning of the film that they are trying to achieve. A goal must be established at the beginning of the film otherwise the audience feels lost and is unsure of where to invest their emotional energy. Often as the story progresses this obstacle evolves or the character realizes that the thing they want is no longer the thing they need but regardless of what happens in Act 3, the audience needs to be given a bearing so that they align themselves with the goals of the character.
Here are a few obstacles a character might face that could be established early in the story:
- A mountain biker is fed up with land managers closing down trails in his town
- An alpinist seeks to set an FKT for the Seven Summits
- A woman with a chronic illness wants to finish an Ironman
It's crucial to emphasize that the challenge confronting the character doesn't necessarily have to resonate with the audience. While the majority of us may never experience the endeavor of summiting the Seven Summits, the key to engrossing the audience in the obstacle lies in fostering a genuine connection with the character. Our investment in the person's journey, rather than the obstacle itself, evokes our emotions as we follow them on their path. The obstacle may not hold personal significance for us, but our emotional connection with the character makes us wholeheartedly root for their success and share in their struggles. This is why step two is important.
- Build Empathy
With the goal established, it’s now necessary to make the audience care about the character. Building empathy is generally accomplished through the creativity of the filmmaker. Empathy can be created simply by how a character is introduced. Sometimes it’s telling a joke, showing emotion, or highlighting a universally relatable moment that all humans can attest to. A personal goal of mine is to either make a character likable within the first 30 seconds on screen or if the character needs more time to warm up to the audience create intrigue and build a sense of curiosity within the audience so they’re willing to wait a little longer.
Empathy can be a tricky emotion to craft because it’s highly dependent on the character’s personality and how the filmmaker shows this personality. I think this is where many films in the outdoor industry fall apart. A summit attempt means nothing (other than the impressive physical feat) if the audience doesn’t feel empathy for the subject on screen.
- Build Stakes
The final step is to build the stakes for your character. The goal is established, and we like the character, but now what happens if they don’t achieve their goal? Why should we care if they don’t succeed? Often the stakes come from the subject's motivation. What keeps them going?
Here are some examples:
- The mountain biker recently had a daughter and he wants to share his love of the sport with his daughter. But because the future of the trails in his town is uncertain, he’s worried his daughter will grow up in a world without bike trails. This motivation is what drives him to advocate, form a non-profit, and work with the land manager to reach common ground.
- The alpinist made a promise to her dying mom that he would set an FKT for the Seven Summits in her name.
- The woman with chronic illness seeks to prove to herself that she is still capable of doing great things despite having her entire life turned upside down.
While it’s easy to identify and communicate the stakes, it’s significantly harder to make the audience believe in the stakes. To make an audience believe requires the filmmaker to use their imagination, creativity, and tools at their disposal. I’ve often thought that one of the filmmaker's jobs is to turn the audience from an agnostic into a firm believer. Music, pacing, delivery of dialogue, shot choice, etc, are all tools that can be used to build the stakes.
At the end of the day, if your story has a clear goal, with a character that’s likable and consequences if things don’t work out, then we as filmmakers have done our job. Many brands find themselves frustrated that their storytelling projects don’t resonate or find much success with their audience. While much of this has to do with the marketing strategy behind the film, I believe one of the culprits is that the stories being told don’t create empathy. Simply put, the audience doesn’t care.
-Cole Heilborn, Producer and Director