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Three Principles on the Perfect Story Length

By Chris Munch on December 20, 2017

We’ve all sat through movies or sermons that were too long, and we’ve read blogs that had too many words or not nearly enough (I hope this isn’t one of them). How do you know when the story length is just right? Is there a magic number for testimony videos? Three minutes? Five minutes? Fifteen minutes? The answer is (drum roll please) IT DEPENDS! Just what you wanted to hear, I’m sure.

Stories I’ve edited usually run anywhere from 3.5 minutes to 10 minutes. Which stories are better, shorter or longer? I’ve seen really good two hour movies and I’ve seen really boring two hour movies. So this question is really more based around how long is it possible to keep someone INTRIGUED with the particular story you are telling. Every story will have a different answer. So let’s talk about what to keep in mind when you approach your story and 3 principles to the perfect length of story!

1. Do not aim to fill a time slot.

We are trying to tell a really great story, not fill up a 10 minute block of time in a service. Approach the story that way. Keep in mind the longer the story is, the harder it is to keep the audience’s attention. Imagine if someone was attempting to make a really good 5 hour movie. It can be done, I’m sure, but that’s a tall order! On the other side of the coin, imagine if The Dark Knight (running time of 152 minutes) was only 30 minutes long, we would have missed out on some really great stuff. The point is let the story determine how long it should be, not a time slot. That’s the first principle on the perfect length of story.

2. Continue to introduce NEW information.

Whenever a story drags or slows down, what is happening is just simply a lack of new information. A lot of times it seems like your interviewee is introducing new and interesting information, but many times they are saying the same things over and over just with different words. It’s your job, of course, as an editor to weed through parts of the story that drag. Make sure you’re continuing to reveal new morsels of information that keep the story moving forward, not the same information repeated two different ways, like what I just did there.

Some stories have more dramatic events or interesting details to work through that can sustain your attention longer. Other stories are more simple and to the point and it would be foolish to try to make it into something longer than it should be. Don’t be afraid to make your story short and sweet!

3. It’s done when there’s nothing left to remove

Continue to cut until you’re confident that every clip in the story is there for a purpose and MUST be there. If cutting a clip/statement creates confusion or removes heart or empathy towards the storyteller then you leave it. If not, you must cut it.

Have a purpose for every clip in your story beyond “it’s a fact that they shared.” This will help eliminate fluff and keep your story “moving”.

In closing, always err on the side of being too short. Ideally I want to leave people feeling satisfied with the story I’m telling but if I’m going to make a mistake with the length I’d rather leave people longing for more, rather than leaving them bored. I want the audience to lean forward in their seats, not start looking for their phone. Getting the length of the story “right”, is about keeping the audience engaged and not filling up a time slot. I hope these principles help you in finding the perfect length of story.

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