The Secret of Good Videos - Keep It Short

04.06.2013 21:53



Brevity Is the Soul of Wit (or 2 Minutes to Fame)

YouTube Guide - How to become a YouTube Star and Create a YouTube Viral Video


Michael W. Dean


From Chapter Two of YouTube: An Insider's Guide to Climbing the Charts By Alan Lastufka and  Michael W. Dean


Basically, as a filmmaker, you have about 2 minutes to get the attention of your viewers.

Maybe less. Here I’ll tell you why.

Hit ’Em Over the Head and Get Out

YouTube currently allows you only 10 minutes to tell each story anyway. It’s pretty hard to make a fully rendered hero’s journey story in 10 minutes. It can be done, but you’ll be pushing it and skipping over the development of character and plot that requires 90 minutes or more to really do well. I recommend going with two-act format, which works really well on YouTube, especially for videos less than 5 minutes. (And most videos that go viral are less than 5 minutes, because people have really short attention spans these days.) With a short-form two-act format, you’re basically hitting ’em over the head, then getting out quickly.




Alan spends more time on YouTube than anyone I know, so I believe it when he says, “The average length of a viral video is 2 minutes.”

The two-act format is basically a setup and a knockdown. A “Knock knock” and a “Who’s there?” A joke and the punch line. As you see in Figure 2-6, this often works out to 90 seconds of setup and 30 seconds (or less) of punch line.

 Approximate division of time per act in two-act format.


Another way to do it is 90 seconds of setup, 15 seconds of punch line, 10 seconds of denouement, and then another quick punch line after you feel resolved and relaxed.


Even if your video is not humorous, a two-act setup and knockdown works great on YouTube, on the small screen, with tight time limits.

Think about the audience of YouTube. It’s mostly the post-MTV generation—folks who want action, change, fast pacing, and a quick bang for their (free) buck. It is not usually the same people who watch long, slow, black-and-white art films with subtitles.

And even though some people like that (like me) are viewers and even content creators on YouTube, when we’re on YouTube, we don’t really have that mind-set. For many people, the Web in general, Web 2.0 (social networking like YouTube, MySpace, and Facebook) in specific, and YouTube even more specifically are used as brief time killers between other tasks. People know that they can go to YouTube, click a bit, and be made to laugh, cry, and laugh again in less than 5 minutes. From watching three complete videos. That’s more or less the mind-set you’re playing to on YouTube.

Think about TV commercials. YouTube videos, at their best, are written with a pacing similar to that of TV commercials. TV commercials have 30 to 60 seconds to do it all. In this amount of time, a commercial has to grab your attention, introduce a product or service, make you understand the product or service, and make you care enough to part with your hard-earned money. They have to mention the name of the product or service three more times so you’ll remember it and then tell you where to go to get it. That’s a lot to accomplish in half a minute. I hate TV more and more, but more and more, the thing I still find watchable on TV is the commercials. That’s because the most creative minds graduating from film and art schools usually get bought up by ad agencies, because there is so damn much money to be made in advertising.





In general, I hate the idea of ads on TV, in magazines, on social networking sites (particularly MySpace, which is starting to look like TV—or more like four TVs going at once), or anywhere. I don’t buy things based on ads, and I consider ads obtrusive. When I want to buy something, I shop bargains, ask friends, and check user reviews.

Check out these TV ads for milk, featuring an imaginary milk-fueled rocker named White Gold. These are some of the coolest bits of motion art ever created (and they’re ads for milk, a product I enjoy and actually consume a lot of). This is the story of how White Gold came to be

This is the best one, his song “One-Gallon Axe.” It even has a llama and a Viking helmet! The guy is the singer in a real band in L.A. called The Ringers. They’re great.

The style and pacing behind advertising is a great way to get things done, get people’s attention, and make them remember something. Study commercials to learn how they work and then learn to subvert the tricks of advertising to serve your own agenda.

Slower Brevity and Wit

This “rule” of “Get it done fast, make your point, entertain, get out fast” is not hard and fast. Many vlogs work well with a slower, more laid-back pace, and they still captivate your attention. This vlog by Alan called 50 Things is slower yet still very compelling.


Alan vlogging from the heart.





This video manages to work well in a relatively short time frame, because the subjects covered are interesting, seamlessly going between intimate and funny, and Alan has a good, very natural, delivery. He’s confident without being cocky. The mood is interesting, the feeling is from the heart, and it is both uplifting and personal.

A cocky mood for delivery can work also in vlogs and other types of “personal” videos. I don’t personally like this style as much, but a lot of people seem to dig it. Here’s a good example from user DoggBisket:

This is also a good example of an effective collab video, involving several people in addition to DoggBisket, including Alan. It also credits everyone well in the credit roll at the end. This is going above and beyond; most people just credit in the More Info link on the top right of the page. Crediting in the video itself is a nice touch for the people who work so hard for free to help out.

Keep in mind that the basic mood, and the audience, of YouTube is highly influenced by television commercials, rock videos (which are basically commercials for music), and even talk radio, as you can see in the video by DoggBisket. If something takes 8 minutes to say but could be said in 4 minutes, 4 minutes is probably better. Johnny Cash said that if a line of lyrics doesn’t advance the story in a country song, cut that line. An old punk-rock nugget of wisdom from back in the day was “Why have a guitar solo when you can just make the song shorter?” and, with the occasional exception, I tend to agree.

You don’t need to chop your videos down to 60 seconds, but if you keep in mind the short attention span of the average YouTube viewer while writing and editing and go for punch rather than long, sweeping explorations, you’ll have a better chance of achieving the coveted “going viral” goal.

I recommend you start with some 5- or 8-minute projects and then work on shaving future ones down to 2 minutes for your better ideas after you get really good at writing, shooting, directing, editing, and promoting. Remember: 2 minutes to fame.

The Importance of Writing

You will need to write some for your story before you make a video. This can be as elaborate as writing a word-for-word script, writing a short outline, or even just writing it in your head, but the better videos all have some planning behind them.

Treatments and Scripts

Writing is related to, and part of, storytelling (and vice versa), but it’s so different that I decided to give it its own heading, one that’s equal to storytelling.

See what I just did there? I pointed out that I am writing this. That’s called breaking the fourth wall in filmmaking; it’s when an actor stops acting and addresses the camera directly, in a way that “admits” there’s a camera. It can be an effective tool, when used sparingly, and for a planned mood, in drama and comedy, and is pretty much the basis of all vlogging by definition. Breaking the fourth wall is your first lesson on writing for motion art. Enjoy.

Storytelling is the broad strokes. When a Hollywood writer pitches a story to a studio, they often have only the brief outline of a story. There’s even something called an elevator pitch, which is supposed to be the shortest amount of time it takes to convey a complete story, like if you found yourself sharing an elevator with a producer for a ride of only a few floors. This is also called 25 words or less. The plot of most Hollywood films can be completely expressed in 25 words or less. For YouTube, think 15 words or less. This is true of most Hollywood films. Complicated ones that break the hero’s journey mold (and these are usually my favorite films) like Fight Club and Memento, still have some sort of three-act structure, albeit convoluted.

Once a Hollywood movie is sold, based on the pitch, and the writer is hired, they’re often asked to produce a treatment. This is a longer pitch (5 to 20 typed pages), but not quite as long as a full movie script (about 105 to 120 pages, which works out to about a minute per page in the final product). The treatment explains all the main characters, their ages, their names, a little background, their motivations, their dreams, their desires, their strengths, and their flaws. Then it has rough thumbnail breakdowns of the major plot points in the story. The full script is written using the treatment as a guide, after the treatment is approved (and usually meddled with) by the studio. Since YouTube gives you a maximum time length of 10 minutes, your treatments will not be nearly this long, if you even write treatments at all.

Director accounts registered before January 2007 have no time limit, only the 100 MB basic file size limit that everyone has, or up to 1 GB if you use the Multi-Video Upload feature. Currently, all new accounts have a 10-minute limit to deter TV show and movie uploads.

Many YouTube viral videos do not have any kind of scripted, or written, aspects— they’re things like major news events, people hurting themselves in sports accidents, or a kitten doing something incredibly cute. But while these videos may get a million views, they don’t get many subscribers, because they’re so one-off. Here’s a 50-minute video on the history of YouTube that explains how the site grew.  Assuming you bought this book to build a following, you probably want to go for some form of scripted motion art.

How to Write an Outline

Alan does a lot of collab videos. (Collabs are collaborations—videos done with other people, usually over the Internet. More on this in Chapter 8.) One person Alan has done a lot of collabing with is Lisa Nova (username LisaNova). Lisa’s user page is here

Lisa is one of the bigger rock stars of YouTube. Not only is she in the top 10 alltime most subscribed directors on YouTube, her work on YouTube led her to being a regular on MADtv for a season. She’s now getting so much work outside YouTube that she’s actually hired Alan. This is pretty sweet, and it’s one of the side benefits of doing amazing stuff on YouTube and making it great, even when it’s only a little fun parody video. That can grow into more. A lot more. One of the collabs Alan and Lisa did early on was this parody of an iPhone ad

Screenshot of LisaNova from the iPwn video

Alan wrote the concept and the copy and emailed it to Lisa. (Copy here means the words that the actor reads. Ad copy is the words actors in a commercial read.) Danny, Lisa’s producer and partner in art, shot a few takes of Lisa delivering the copy and sent the footage to Alan who had my wife, Debra Jean Dean, do the little “in time for Christmas” voice-over at the end. I engineered it and emailed the audio file to Alan. A script can be as easy as a single email. Alan’s script consisted of one email, which covered everything. In that one communication, Alan asked Lisa and Danny to participate, outlined the concept, showed the copy, and even included a minimal bit of direction and a salutation and mention of a related project (“the Stickam idea”—doing “making-of ” videos of this shoot through the live video site you’re working with talented people, that can be enough. Here’s what Alan sent Lisa, care of Danny.




A collab with Lisa would be awesome; she actually mentioned it in her comments on our videos yesterday. I have one idea, but it would basically be me writing for Lisa, I wouldn’t appear in the video.

It would be a mock commercial, advertising Apple’s latest advancement, an elite wireless phone/gaming system called the iPwn. (Pronounced “eye pown,” I’m sure you’re familiar enough with gamer/chat speak.)

Anyway, it would be her as a gamer girl, standing in front of a plain background (black or white) talking about her new iPwn... “Not only can I email my friends, get GPS directions, and listen to the latest Soulja Boy remix, but I can also frag n00bs effortlessly with its responsive touch pad display.”

Etc. I have a professional voiceover actress to do the end tag line, and I’d create all the graphics, etc.

What do you think?

Here’s a link to the original iPhone commercial:  (You’ve seen the iPhone commercial on TV so you know what I’m going for.)

I’d like to keep the framing, and mood, lighting, etc., similar.

Here’s the script:

“One night, I’m a level 24 Paladin and my alchemy experience is all that matters. The next, I’m known for my double kills and stealth mobility. I need a wireless gaming device as diverse and adaptable as I am.

“That’s why I’ll only use the new iPwn. “Not only can I email my allies, get GPS directions and listen to the latest Soulja Boy remix, but I can also frag n00bs effortlessly with its responsive touch pad display.

“I’m a girl gamer. And if it weren’t for my new iPwn, I’d be lying dead in some enchanted ditch.”

And if I don’t answer, please leave a voice mail, I’ll usually call right back, I don’t answer numbers I don’t know, too many international computer weirdoes making prank Skype calls.

And thanks again, guys, the Stickam idea sounds insanely cool.



Alan did “remote directing” via live video site and used a webcam to actually give Lisa direction as she shot her part, 2,000 miles away. It worked out well.

If you want to see behind-the-scenes, it’s here








YouTube: An Insider's Guide to Climbing the Charts By Alan Lastufka, Michael W. Dean

ISBN: 9780596521141

Copyright © 2008 Alan Lastufka, Michael W. Dean. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

pg. 20-27



For more secrets of YouTube Success from Michael Dean and Alan Lastufka - please see Importance of StoryTelling