The universality of before & after

Posted on by Laura Hamlyn

I'm fascinated by what our society collectively gravitates toward. Many of my friends (me included) live in more of an indie film bubble. Sometimes, I step out and and watch more mainstream TV/movies as a way to understand what the majority likes. Beyond the predictable plot lines are commonalities that click with lots of people. If you can get past the schlock, you can probably unearth a few pointers on how to attract a crowd. Those truths can help my work as a writer just as much as an artsy film with exquisite title design.

Apparently, we all love a good weight loss story. The TV show The Biggest Loser's big finale was watched by 7.2M viewers in May of this year. We like seeing someone shed weight because they also change their lives in the process. And every time a recovering addict announce how many days they've been clean, everyone applauds. We like transformation. We like the sideshow of the overweight girl baring her fat rolls for all to see, but we also enjoy seeing her fight her way into a new set of abs. One of the most universally accepted symbols of transformation is the butterfly. There's a pattern here somewhere.


The lowly caterpillar, before.

All of these stories are dramatic because we knew what came before. You were obese. Drunk. Or crawling on the ground on all 16 legs. Things were really bad. And now that they're better, the story is that much more endearing. Before creates drama (what's going to happen?). After captures the imagination by inviting people to fill in the blank. Simply by revealing the "before" part of your story, you're creating context and bringing the viewer/reader/audience along for the ride.

Say your product/service/design/presentation is in a cocoon now. What will it become when it emerges?

The phrases "once upon a time" and "the end" put us in the mood for a story. These are classic before and after techniques.

Quick thoughts on telling before and after stories:

  • I think more creative work should be shown in the context of before and after. (Here's the packaging before I redesigned this soap container, and after.)
  • Give people context for a presentation or a speech. (I did this to prepare before, and my goal is to achieve ____ once I'm through.)
  • Use this as a device for a short story. Mix it up. Tell the "after" first, then reveal the "before."
  • Use it to sell your idea to a venture capitalist or future client. Set up the world as it is, and the world after your idea/service/product arrives.

Of course, most of our time is spent in between before and after in the "during" space. So don't forget to enjoy your trip--and look out the window once in a while.