How Alfred Hitchcock can make you a better storyteller

Alfred Hitchcock, director of classic films like Psycho, North by Northwest, Vertigo, and Rear Window, used innovative storytelling and filmmaking techniques to craft some of the most unique and captivating movies in the history of cinema. You don’t have to be a filmmaker to steal some of Hitchcock’s techniques, though. His unique approach to storytelling transcends media and can be applied to online and multimedia storytelling as well.

Let the characters tell the story

Some of the most interesting scenes in Hitchcock movies aren’t the action sequences, but rather the dialogue between characters. The playful banter between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest, for example, is as intriguing, if not more so, than some of the action sequences. The conversations between Hitchcock characters can be long, but are never dull or boring. If you have a quote, an interview clip or an interesting exchange that makes your story compelling, include it to give the story more life and bring more intensity to the narrative. Think about the parts of your footage or interviews that are the most interesting and try to edit your story so they stand out. This technique applies to text and audio as well as video.

Don’t lay all your cards on the table

In online storytelling and web design, it is a commonly held philosophy that the most important information should be placed high on the page or at the beginning of an audio or video piece and that the visitor should be aware of exactly what they are about to experience. In most circumstances, this notion holds true, but it can also create an unintended effect: if the online audience knows exactly what to expect from the story, video or interactive project at the start, they may have no incentive to continue reading. In Psycho, for example, the audience knows they will be watching a Hitchcock thriller. However, what begins as a heist movie quickly turns into a murder mystery. The twist keeps the audience glued to their seats in anticipation. Your story should also be upfront about the content, but have a few twists and turns to keep the reader or viewer wanting to know more.

Stories should be a glimpse into people’s lives

In Rear Window, the audience feels as much of a Peeping Tom as Jimmy Stewart does looking outside his window because the story is told from the main character’s perspective. The audience knows what he knows and learns what he learns. Take your readers or viewers along for a ride by putting them in your subject’s shoes and make them feel like they are learning something new by reading, watching or interacting with your story.

Create something unique that others will imitate

Many websites and blogs, including the one you’re reading now, are full of examples of innovators who are advancing the web with new storytelling or visualization techniques that others in turn look to for inspiration. It is up to you to step outside of the proverbial box and create the next innovative technique that others will copy. Hitchcock is now famous for his simple, yet unique, “dolly out, zoom in” technique that has since been copied in films like Jaws, Goodfellas and Poltergeist. What storytelling technique will you be remembered for?

Audio and video should be equally captivating

In The Birds, one of the most dramatic and intense parts of the movie is the sound of the birds chirping and squawking before or during the attacks. In some scenes, the sound of the menacing birds are the only audio element heard during the scene. To make your audio and video stories more compelling, record and include ambient or natural sounds that illustrate the scene more than visuals alone can convey. Hearing the sounds of children laughing is much more interesting than someone describing children’s laughter. The sound of gun shots will grab the audience’s attention more than words ever can.

On the other hand, Hitchcock once said that a good piece of film is one that can be watched without sound and the audience can still understand the story. Don’t let the audio component of your video be a crutch. Make the imagery compelling on its own which can also draw the viewer further into your story.

Special effects shouldn’t be too special

Special effects play a role in many of Hitchcock’s films such as the rotoscoped avian attackers in The Birds, or the looming Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest (actually matte paintings blended into the real-life sets). As impressive as they were for the time, these special effects never distracted from the story or the action. Along the same line, your online presentations may include dazzling features such as Flash elements or fancy web design, but they should not distract from the story or content.

Also, Hitchcock directed more than 30 black and white films — including Rebecca and The 39 Steps — before directing his first color film in 1948. Don’t let newfangled tools and technology distract you from the core elements of storytelling.

Everything won’t be immediately popular

Several of Hitchcock’s films were instant hits at the box office when they were first released. Vertigo, which is now one of Hitchcock’s most famous films, didn’t become a real success until it was re-released in theaters in 1983, 25 years after it was first released. It is now considered a classic film and is a favorite among both audiences and critics. In the same vein, your online story, website or multimedia project may not be a success or garner high traffic numbers at its initial release, but if it’s good then the audience will find it and it can become popular long after it is first published.

Keep the story simple

Web visitors have notoriously short attention spans, so don’t give them any reason to click away from your story. Great stories, like many of Hitchcock films, are intriguing from beginning to end. Eliminate boring or useless information because as the famed director said “What is drama, after all, but life with the dull bits cut out.”

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