Writing to a Human Audience
Bo Burnham’s screenwriting and directorial debut film “Eighth Grade” has received rave reviews from critics and fans alike. Burnham is known for his YouTube channel and stand-up comedy, so this film is quite the departure. Whether it’s the acting, the writing, the soundtrack, or the cinematography, Eighth Grade manages to be mesmerizing at all points. It’s both hilarious and heartbreaking, leaving the audience choking up either way. What makes this story so interesting is that it doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t follow a typical plot structure. It simply focuses on our protagonist, Kayla, as she navigates her last week of middle school. Quite on the nose for a movie about middle school, the story starts in the middle and ends in the middle.
What strikes me about Eighth Grade was Burnham’s commitment to depicting real people with his characters. This movie is not about spectacle, but rather allows the audience to get wrapped up in the characters and their emotions. Most of the time, life isn’t dramatic or funny because of some literal ticking time-bomb or some other completely unbelievable snowballing of plot. Similarly, people aren’t tropes. While many movies romanticize the impossible, Burnham worked hard to make sure his characters were real people.
All too often, writers forget they are speaking to people. To give some examples in comedy, films like Game Night, The Hangover, and Pineapple Express favor plot and spectacle over telling a story that makes sense whatsoever. These writers create dialogue that favors situation or squeezing in a funny line over building a believable character. All three of them lead to extreme amounts of choreographed violence that make them more like action heroes—something most of us movie goers can’t relate to.
Burnham strove to build the opposite. For starters, his method of casting was thorough and refreshing. He allowed for the actors’ performances to capture the forefront of our attention, because, in reality, not that much was going on. The biggest plot points were centered around insecurity, the challenge for Kayla being to get over the very real obstacles that existed only in her head. The cast came to life portraying the simplest things we all once did (e.g., truth or dare, talking to a crush, going to parties) as the extremely nerve-racking, psychologically annihilating events they can be. That was honest and true.
Similar to his writing style, Burnham has taken a very human approach to marketing his movie. Alongside more typical banner ads (of which there were few to begin with likely because of the low budget), Burnham has been on social media reposting his fans’ reactions to the movie. He went out of his way to provide screenings for middle schoolers despite the R-rating (after some thought, I believe this was so middle schoolers could endure the movie without the lame awkwardness of their parents’ presence).
Engaging an audience requires a depth of understanding of people. When writers get too caught up in the context, they forget the most important part is the character’s reaction. When communicating in any context, be it comedy/drama or marketing/sales/PR, the most crucial element to winning over your audience is being relatable. Stories work when we can see an aspect of ourselves in the story. The audience doesn’t have to agree with you. They can even hate what is being shown. They just have to believe it is real, and they will see themselves in it, they can imagine themselves in the moment, experiencing the context and the emotions that it would provoke.
As a business owner, you must accept that people are turning to companies for similar relatability. Customers want to see a piece of themselves in the brands they embrace. When companies successfully make jokes, they show humility and allow us to celebrate that we’re only human. On the flip side, companies today are more frequently taking strong positions on social and political issues, making it known that they are an entity made up of caring, real people. Not some faceless corporation, not some laugh-track playing as a piano falls on a caricature. Real people.
Ineffective storytelling takes shortcuts, rushes, shortchanges the audience by creating distance, through distraction, absurdity, and shallowness. By contrast, connection and deep engagement are achieved using techniques and elements employed by the best screenwriters, where fully understanding and presenting the human condition is the ultimate goal.