13 Unexpectedly Effective YouTube Storytelling Techniques
Ryan Trahan's Surprise Masterpiece Has No Right To Be This Good
I watched a video this week that got me so energised, I sprang off the couch and started frantically writing pages of notes on it.
It’s a video by Ryan Trahan and it has no right to be any good.
Yet “I Spent 100 Days In Grand Theft Auto” is an absolute masterclass in YouTube storytelling.
This, despite the fact that:
The game is nine years old.
GTA content is oversaturated.
The story is literally just "Ryan plays GTA, makes money, buys a condo".
But this video (and its ending) gave me chills.
So this week I’d like to break down 13 storytelling techniques from Ryan Trahan which left me in awe.
[And, genuinely… SPOILER ALERT. This video is fantastic 😅]
1/ Appeal to NOSTALGIA:
In the hook, Ryan evokes OUR earliest memories of playing GTA.
Like us, he somehow got hold of the game wayyy too young.
And his first actions were to punch a guy, steal his bike, and drive it into a wall for no reason
(Seriously, why did we all do that? And why do I kinda wanna do it now?)
Ryan is us, returning to a childhood pleasure.
2/ Provides instant CONTEXT for the video:
You NEVER want your audience to be confused, or they'll click away.
So Ryan tells us the rules, e.g.
The length of a GTA day (interesting)
How long he’ll be playing (delivers on title)
The goal of the video (gets us hooked)
3/ Initiates CURIOSITY LOOP:
He achieves this by constraining his goals.
His primary aim in this video is to earn enough cash to buy the most expensive condo.
By itself, not interesting.
The constraint? To do it legally.
The video suddenly becomes highly interesting, because the goal seems impossible.
How on earth will he achieve this now?
[Spoiler alert: he won’t]
4/ Creates URGENCY:
He visually represents time elapsing by pinning dollars to the wall.
These continue to appear even while he sleeps.
So when he has only 9.4% of the cash when the video is 60% through…
We keep watching because we want the tension resolved.
5/ Creates CHARACTERS:
By giving NPCs their own personalities, Ryan creates familiarity when we see them later
The best example is “Kevin”.
Kevin becomes Ryan’s best friend (despite just standing there and saying “welcome to my store”), and he appears repeatedly throughout the video.
We gradually become enamoured to Kevin.
Tbh, I still think about Kevin.
Kevin might be the best character in modern cinema.
6/ Alternates PACING:
We know retention hacks usually require constant motion.
But Ryan contrasts speedy editing with calmer moments.
e.g. When he finally buys his first car, he drives around in it doing nothing for a while.
Because we’re rooting for Ryan at this stage, it gives us time to enjoy the achievement with him.
Sometimes it pays to let a moment just hang.
7/ Establishes recurring HABITS:
Ryan repeats certain visual cues.
Familiar = Comforting.
In this case:
Spinning the lucky wheel.
Staring at the condo.
[Ryan created LOADS of recurring habits in his penny series, e.g. McDonalds coffee, brushing teeth, theme tune, etc]
8/ Three Act STRUCTURE:
The video is split into three acts, as we witness his character’s decline.
Act 1 - He aims to get condo, legally.
Act 2 - He becomes increasingly ok with breaking the law.
Act 3 - He gets the condo, but realises he’s lost himself along the way.
Ryan has taken us on a journey.
9/ Character GROWTH:
Ryan also goes on a personal journey:
He’s ecstatic about buying a car...until he wants a faster one.
He wants to get the condo legally...until ‘legally’ stops mattering.
He gets what he wants, but realises he was happier before.
The message resonates with many of us, I’m sure.
10/ Creates a MORAL:
Yes, this video is a bit of fun. But it’s also about greed.
Ryan's money-making becomes increasingly dubious.
Gambling (legal) → Organised races (sketchy) → Gang shootouts (hard illegal)
By the end, we start reflect on the nature of greed and morality in the real world.
11/ Poignant ANTICLIMAX:
Ryan finally gets the condo.
But his glum exclamation of “wow…big house” says it all.
We linger on some lonely shots of his character staring at the walls.
His in-game character is pictured lying down, now in a pit of apathy. This is spliced with real-Ryan doing the same.
He was happier at the start.
And so we start to question our own place on the hedonic treadmill.
12/ Moment of REVELATION:
The video starts to cut more frequently between Ryan and his in-game character.
We realise this video is not about the game, or even about Ryan.
It’s about us.
About the lengths we’ll go to to get what we want.
And what we stand to lose in the process.
13/ Introduce CLIFFHANGER:
The end of this video actually made me shiver.
We THINK Ryan has learned his lesson…
…that the condo was not worth the moral price…
…that we should be grateful for what we have.
Then the video ends on this shot of Ryan, now starting at a REAL condo.
I had fricken GOOSEBUMPS.
Now, as Ryan says, this video is “not that deep”.
But the storytelling is 100% intentional.
And for a video about a decade-old video game, it’s nothing short of masterful.
I hope you enjoyed this and found some useful takeaways for your own videos.
If you want more of these breakdowns, follow me on Twitter @GeorgeBlackman_ where you’ll find the original thread this newsletter was based on :)
That’s all for now! Have a lovely weekend.
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