Why Your Storytime Video Sucks: Show, Don’t Tell

Storytelling is something that YouTube creators tend to fall back on when more complicated, difficult-to-film videos aren’t feasible for whatever reason, and they’re deceptive in their apparent ease of creation. To make a “storytime” video, all you have to do is sit down in front of the camera and tell the audience something about your life, right?

Often, “storytime” videos feature lurid thumbnail images and clickbait titles that include phrases like, “I almost died!” to reach out to viewers who are interested in real-life adventures that go beyond the day-to-day tedium of living. However, it’s also well-known that story time on YouTube often can be as boring and tedious as everyday life. Why is that?

I believe most YouTube storytellers, like many amateur writers, tend to rely on adjectives rather than on story. In other words, they “tell,” when they should be “showing.”

Joan Juliet Buck, the only American to ever serve as editor-in-chief of Paris Vogue, said that she improved every article that came across her desk by “removing all the adjectives.” Since Vogue is a fashion magazine, this could not have been any small feat. And yet, almost every writer’s guide tells writers of all stripes to do the same. Adjectives are often crutches, propping up stories that are relying on verbal detail to make up for the lack of action, participation, or consequence.

Stories that rely on adjectives are easy to tell. Action, momentum and consequences are difficult to articulate in a coherent way, whereas feelings and surface detail are much simpler devices. Saying, “I was in a very dangerous situation and I was SO SCARED!” is an easier story to tell than describing your physical state, the effect that your mental state had on the actions you took (if you took any) and how that resulted in a change in the situation or in yourself.

“Show, don’t tell” is a reliable piece of advice when it comes to storytelling. While that may seem counter intuitive to a video featuring someone facing the camera and telling a story, the principle is the same. Consider the following:

  • “I was terrified for my life!”
  • “He was so handsome.”
  • “The concert was crazy! Totally nuts!”

Compare that to:

  • “I sat in my chair, not moving a muscle, sure that any movement would call attention to me.”
  • “As he entered the room, a roar of 10,000 screaming fans drowned out all other sound, and phones shot up in the air to catch a picture of his face.”
  • “Jugglers on stilts walked through the crowd as five stages of music all played at the same time, people sweating to the beats of whatever reached their ears first.”

None of my counter-examples are especially great examples of writing, but they give a clearer picture of what’s going on than the bland adjectives that could be used to describe the same scene.

Remember that the story often doesn’t matter as much as how you tell it. If you are able to immerse your audience in the full experience you’re telling a story about, they’ll come back for more and recommend your stories to others.

First, remove all the adjectives.

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