How to Guide Your Audience: A Masterclass in Storytelling Through Editing

Jordan and HollynTechnology is an important part of filmmaking, as well as something we like to talk about here at No Film School, but when it comes down to it, one, if not the, most integral part of our craft is storytelling. Editors and instructors Larry Jordan and Norman Hollyn forgo the "tech talk", as they say, to delve into a conversation about the great influence film/video editing has in terms of telling stories, including ways certain edits can "guide" the viewer's eye, attention, and emotional response to a scene.

When you first start out editing, typically you spend your time, energy, and focus building your skills -- simply trying to piece together a story that makes sense. As time goes on, however, you realize that a simple edit can change the way your audience responds to a sequence, whether the edit be trimming the tail of a shot by 10/15/2 frames, or rearranging shots altogether.

Jordan and Hollyn begin their talk by demonstrating this, as well as explaining a few basics tenets of aesthetic theory. To quickly explain, elements inside the frame catch the viewer's attention using several different kinds of aesthetic energy:  light, color, space, motion, brightness, focus, etc. Essentially, something that is big, bright, red, moving, and in focus is going to grab more attention (have more aesthetic energy) than something that is small, dull, grey, still, and out of focus. This is important to know as an editor, because it will allow you to keenly choose your edits, as well as guide your audience through the story.

As you'll see in the video, understanding how people react emotionally to certain situations on-screen, like the introduction of music or a change from a wide shot to a close up, is crucial for an editor to know. After all, they are the artists that take the raw materials of the screenwriter, director -- the written story, performances, and shots, and craft them into the stories we (hopefully) have a strong emotional reaction to.

The two talk about so much more, and it's all extremely helpful and interesting stuff. Check it out below:

What did you think about Jordan and Hollyn's talk? As an editor, what do you find most challenging about telling stories and inspiring emotions through editing? Let us know in the comments below.

[via Filmmaker IQ]

Your Comment


I like the concept of lean-forward moment which is well explained at around 22-27min. I ll try to write with my words what I understood from what is said there :

He then say we can't avoid telling a story, even if we madly try, because the mind is always gonna make sense of random footage. I agree with it, and that's why all that concepts like "3acts-story rule" or "why questions, everything has to be justified" are not the only way to do, they are just one way, we should not reject these concept of storytelling, but they are useless if we don't understand the art of cutting right in regards of the meaning of the story.
Main things to look at in any scene from an editor point of view (30min50) :
1. Who (or what) gets the close up and when?
2. What happens with music change? (even no music IS a music change)
3. What happens after that lean-forward moment? --> Do the pace and balance feel right between what happened before and after that moment ? Are we into the story at that moment? --> Cut what is not useful to drive the story to the next point.

Something very important is that you have to think everything you use in the film regarding to the context where it fits in (which means "what is the role at this moment ?" "What is the connexion between moment and what comes before and what comes after ?"). But their concept of lean-forward moment goes beyond that point because it forces you not only to do that, but it also helps you to coordinate pace and balance - and that makes THE difference!

December 29, 2013 at 8:55AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


Somehow, the text below was cutted from my comment above : @

December 29, 2013 at 8:57AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


I agreement here with the retiring of the 3 act structure. I've literally started counting that shit in movies

December 29, 2013 at 8:23PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM

thadon calico

Between the <> :
The Lean-forward moment : he looks at the cow, the music changes, medium shots change to close-ups - the attention is driven to the foot of the cow, and then even the atmosphere changes (thunder) which means that something goes on in the character's mind. It involves audience at that moment. "Things have changed in the story because of the script, and not because we have pressed the right button".
"How do we now when to cut in that close up? How do I know where to fit that lean-forward moment ? - I know it because I know what the scene wants to do, I know what the scene has to tell us?
How do I know what the scene has to tell us? - Because we know what is its purpose into the film".

December 29, 2013 at 8:58AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


For some one like me just starting out. This was a very good post.

December 29, 2013 at 10:20AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM

Michael Bishop

I find the most challenging aspect of narrative structure is working with musicians. The collaboration is usually great, but some genres tend to lean towards the more flashy and careless side of filmmaking where cuts don't make sense and effects are relied on to propel the video forward. It's hard to convince those individuals that we should do something narratively driven, but again the collaboration is great!

December 29, 2013 at 10:47AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


Most filmmakers are wrong when it comes to music videos. They all think a good music video should have narrative regardless of what kind of music it is, the audience/following the musician has, the sub-culture within the genre .
Most filmmakerz think of music videos as mini cinema pieces. Most impact videos are performance piecez with no story lines which is more effective as it shows the fans the true nuances of their fav artist as well as a possible glimpse as to what they will get if they go to a live show or see the artist in person.
However filmmakers r selfish. They must of the time pitch narrative as their transitioning element from music videod. A music video is like an exhibit or commercial shown to the fans / potential fans and should serve that purpose

December 29, 2013 at 8:20PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM

thadon calico

Who needs film school?

December 29, 2013 at 1:25PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


For everyone involved in bringing this video to us, THANK YOU! It was great. I also loved learning that Norman Hollyn has an instructional video on Excellent!

December 29, 2013 at 1:28PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


wonderful stuff. obvious to those who have studied film formally, I guess, but great for those like myself without any formal film studies.

December 29, 2013 at 6:45PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


the heart attack of the father is week , even though it is a small turning poiny

December 30, 2013 at 6:32AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM

Hani Baayoun

Man - I'd love a poiny right now... Mmm... Poinies...

December 30, 2013 at 8:54PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


Some observations:

1) Good music doesn't need videos.
2) The book "Sculpting In Time" by Andrei Tarkovsky should be made mandatory.

January 1, 2014 at 8:21AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


Fantastic to see more hands on film theory rather than endless tech talk about the latest and greatest bit of kit...Norman Hollyn is brilliant I could listen to him endlessly. Loved the example of the fine cut on the first scene (making it work better).

Couldn't be a more accurate time in history to say it all about story - now that everyone and their dog can edit anything anywhere.

Would love to see more clips like this.

January 3, 2014 at 1:11PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


nice video with some good thoughts - being skilled at telling stories as the one thing which sets you above competitors is true I think. I've shot material which has been edited by other people and I've hated what they did with it - totally missing the story and what the point of the shots was. They knew how to use the editing software and that's all...

(On the negative side, for a video about editing, this video itself needed some heavy cutting! - the awkward banter between the two guys could have been pared down to make this a neat 20 minute lesson, not a 40min ramble.)

January 4, 2014 at 3:51AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


Excellent article, very well presented and thank you for sharing.

January 4, 2014 at 5:56AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM

John Husband

Great discussion, especially when Larry Jordon stops talking. Norman Hollyn made some great points, and I learned some new concepts. Thanks for sharing this!

January 6, 2014 at 9:32PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM