The Trailer Line of Rising Action

It's time I dedicated one post to the way I view a trailer's "line of rising action"; it's very different than the one you might be familiar with. 

The traditional line of rising action is a narrative concept where a story's dramatic tension starts low, then rises until it reaches a climax, then falls into the denouement and conclusion. 

This is a typical illustration:

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In my post about the trailer for The Matrix and my post about stand up comedy, I made my first revised line of rising action specific to trailers.

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I made this to reflect a trailer's unique need to hook the audience with an exciting opening. A good opening hook is more now more important than ever. Many movie trailers online start with a mini teaser for the trailer you're about to stop you from scrolling past it in your social media feed or be tempted away by another YouTube video. People frequently complain about this mini teaser (myself included), but apparently it works. In the same vein, YouTube videos often start by quickly introducing the topic or posing a question the video will then answer. This opening is still a vital part of a trailer's line of rising action, but let's talk about the middle.

I realized my first revised line doesn't accurately reflect how I try to structure my trailers. To follow the previous revision means to open big, then immediately start from scratch until the trailer is super exciting again. I'm not saying this approach doesn't work; this is a legitimate style most necessary when a game has unique mechanics that necessitate a trailer that is essentially a mini video tutorial

But if the trailer is for a game with strong visual communication (i.e. action games, platformers etc.) a straight line from the least to most interesting shots risks losing the audience's attention in the early stages. Just imagine if the trailer for a Super Mario game started with his basic jump, then jumping over a pit, then hitting a block, then stomping a goomba... etc. By the 3rd or 4th shot, the audience would know the trailer is going to progress slowly. Strong art and music will help bolster how interesting this progression might be, but only to a certain degree.

So instead, I have a new line of rising action that more accurately reflects modern day trailer editing, especially for movie trailers:

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This line is the same as my previous one, but now there are short peaks of excitement on the way to the top. In my posts I frequently talk about: "punctuation", or "adrenaline shots" like in the "accents" section of this post on watching trailers analytically. Watch any modern day movie trailer and notice how after each line of dialogue there's a quick burst of action whether visual or aural (or both!); these are accents. 

Accents are those peaks on the line; they keep the trailer exciting as it builds to the climax. It's as if the trailer is afraid of losing attention, so it periodically flashes something big and shiny to snap you back in. The keys to making accents work are clarity and context. If the middle of a game trailer flashed an image of a very busy, hard to digest shot, it gets filtered out like when reading a word you don't know in the middle of a sentence. But something quick and comprehensible can perk up the editing.

Accents are most clear when they are related to what was just said or introduced; if the accents are unrelated to what the audience is thinking of at that time, it will seem like a non sequitur. Think of the audience's attention like their visual RAM; they can only remember so much at any given time; make sure they have context for what you're showing them whether via common knowledge or the context of the trailer.

Another thing this line of rising action illustrates are the highs and lows I frequently talk about in a trailer. With this new diagram there are several small lines of rising action within the larger one. Editing is the least interesting when all the clips are low energy or even high energy; a gradual increase in excitement is much better, but even that in execution can be boring. With this new line of rising action, there are mini trailers within the larger whole. 

This trailer has some beats that land in between lines of dialogue, but nothing I would call an "accent" so it ends up feeling lethargic.

It can be advantageous to think of a trailer in terms of its individual sections. Each one serves its purpose and is interesting, but put together they make the trailer even better. A trailer that feels like one long montage is dull and monotone, but one with peaks and valleys has a better chance of keeping the audience engaged because it constantly resets audience attention and expectation. 

At the most basic think of a trailer as:

  1. Cold Open - An exciting hook

  2. Introduction - Explanation of the premise

  3. Escalation - Complications arise

  4. Twist - Something goes wrong or change

  5. Climax - The most exciting part

  6. Button - Final action bit or joke

I discuss these in detail in my post about The Matrix, but while you can draw a line between these sections, each of them needs to be exciting on their own! These sections don't even need to be that long in a trailer that's 90-150 seconds long.

How do you decide what is a high vs low excitement shot? Rating game capture in this way is a step I list in my Game Trailer Editing Checklist. I don't do this on every project, but it can help a lot when I'm really stuck. I'll take my gameplay capture selects and simply use my gut to decide: "Is this shot more or less interesting than this other one?" and then repeat that for the entire selects string of 15 minutes culled from 5 hours of capture. Then I can look at the footage and find the basic line from least to most exciting, and decide where the sequence of clips needs a little kick to it to give that attention spike. 

So when making a trailer, thinking of the basic line of rising action is a good place to start, but consider how along the way you can add a little excitement to keep the audience on their toes. 90 seconds can feel excruciatingly long if the audience feels like they know what's coming next, but by the same token they can stop paying attention entirely if everything feels random and disconnected.