Spoiler alert: how storytelling techniques hook us

Written on 04/25/2023
Jaclyn Whitt

When finding out how the movie ends isn’t worth it

Written by Jaclyn Whitt

The most memorable movies are the ones where we experience a week’s worth of emotions in just two hours. We laugh, cry, ache, cringe, fear, hope, and hold our breath over characters we were introduced to just minutes earlier.

How is it that we can bond with a character within the first ten minutes of meeting them, and then wholeheartedly give them two hours of our undivided attention and empathy?

What hooks us? Is it the story? The characters? The premise? While all of these are important, it all boils down to how well screenwriters can manipulate your emotions. That’s right, I said “manipulate.” The psychology of storytelling is an ancient art and great storytellers are trained to skillfully lead an audience through a journey of emotions.

As a screenwriter myself, I appreciate the power of these storytelling techniques. I’m also wary of how they can be exploited to tempt us to waste our time, or worse, spend it watching movies that justify wrongdoing.

Screenwriters play with our emotions by the way they craft characters and story arcs. First, they make a character sympathetic. Even the most vile character can garner sympathy from an audience through a noble gesture.

Screenwriters craft these scenes and plant them, often within the first ten minutes, to hook the audience. This prompts viewers to bond with, side with, or at least soften toward a particular character.

This subtle trick of playing with our emotions is why even Christians can enjoy movies that glorify sin. Have you seen Fun With Dick and Jane or Ocean’s Eleven? Were you laughing along, on the edge of your seat, rooting for thieves to succeed in their heist? We’d never be in support of stealing in real life. But we can be set-up to sympathize with characters who just so happened to be thieves.

Second, the writer gives this now sympathetic character a call to adventure. The character is offered an opportunity to do something out of his/her norm. This adventure comes with risk, but it also comes with a desirable payoff. It’s easy to admire the bravery of someone who’s taken on a lofty goal. Suddenly, we’re curious, hoping they’ll have the nerve to go for it.

Third, the writer has the character dive in with no chance to back out. The stakes are high, the goal is clear, and if you’ve made it this far into the story, you’re committed to see it through. This is what we call the “Break into Act Two.” This usually happens somewhere between 20-35 minutes. Everything you just watched in the first act was all set-up. You were taught the rules of this fictional world, shown the stakes, and manipulated to care about the character’s wellbeing and success.

From here until the end, the writer can do just about anything without losing the audience. Foul language, compromising situations, and even flashes of nudity won’t stop even thoughtful Christians from watching further. If the set-up was done well enough, the audience will be determined to see how it ends.

There have been times after finishing a movie where I wanted to wash my brain. But I’d felt too emotionally invested not to see them through.

But when you stop to think about it, “just seeing how it ends” isn’t a compelling reason to keep watching something if the content leading up to that big payoff includes exposure to things you’re better off without.

You risk exposing yourself along the way to things that you can’t unsee or unhear. You might think that vulgarity is something you’re exposed to in the world anyway, but the difference is that you can’t control the world; you can, and are responsible to, control what you choose to expose yourself to.

If you find yourself a half hour into a movie and something happens that you didn’t intentionally sign up for, ask yourself if it’s worth it. If Jesus was sitting beside you at that moment, would he continue watching? Many times, I’ve told myself, “Maybe it was just one time,” or “Maybe it’ll get better.” Unfortunately, that’s highly unlikely. Sorry.

The question to ask before you launch into a new movie or show is, “Does the premise honor God?” If repentance is glorified, then it’s a good start. I used unrepentant thieves as an example earlier because it’s an obvious one. Storylines that glorify sin are often more subtle and require discernment.

Next, read the rating. Many films will state why their rating is what it is. Is it for language, violence, sexuality? If you take a few extra minutes to consider these things, you’ll be in a better position to watch something you won’t regret afterward.

But most of all, keep your sense of discernment with you. If you encounter something along the way, be ready and willing to turn it off and walk away. Your soul is worth more than seeing how it ends.