Digital stories as memory aids, instruction manuals and moral compasses. By Aleks Krotoski. Relay from openmythsource.com
The Edinburgh international book festival begins this week, featuring a fortnight of storytelling and literati self-promotion. Looking at the 17 packed days of a program filled with debates, talks, readings and keynotes, I’ve noticed that there is virtually no reflection on the cards for the “dead tree” version of the story that is threatening to shake-up publishing’s centuries-old foundation. More so, it is surprising given the “digital first” bent of its headline sponsor, the Guardian, that there’s no mention of apps, digital extensions or the new, multi-formatted way of telling stories that’s emerging among a new and talented crop of content creators supported by innovative and risk-taking storytelling outlets.
But I admit, picking on the book festival is unfair; linear stories still dominate the page, our TVs, our radios, our games consoles and the theatre. Yet the process of telling a story doesn’t have to be unidirectional.
Stories are memory aids, instruction manuals and moral compasses. When enlisted by charismatic leaders and turned into manifestos, dogmas and social policy, they’ve been the foundations for religions and political systems. When a storyteller has held an audience captive around a campfire, a cinema screen or on the page of a bestseller, they’ve reinforced local and universal norms about where we’ve been and where we’re going. And when they’ve been shared in the corner shop, at the pub or over dinner they’ve helped us define who we are and how we fit in.
Human experience is a series of never-ending, overlapping stories bumping into one another in expected and unexpected ways. Our days are made up of personal narratives of good and evil, joy and conflict, magic potions and angry gnomes. They are naturally co-creations based on a push and pull of projection and interpretation. We interpret, analyze and synthesize the characters and events in our lives to help us make sense of the world, and these have been translated by professionals into folk tales, myths, legends, pantomime, bestsellers, soap operas and Hollywood blockbusters. Storytellers are simply curators of information who finesse the elements of a yarn into a beginning, middle and end.
But the tools they use to tell tales are evolving, becoming more modular and tailored, more participatory and more engaging than just the printed word or the moving image. The new form of storytelling that’s coming from a digitally enabled cabal moves beyond reinterpreting a text for radio or screen. Some creatives have taken their inspirations from Kit Williams’s 1979 picture book Masquerade, which motivated a generation of people to pour over symbols in illustrations to find a treasure buried in the Midlands, starting their stories anywhere – online or off. They weave narratives from seemingly innocuous blogs, magazine ads, TV slots, fashion labels and public phone calls. Clues in the alternate realities designed by authors are littered in the physical and the virtual; consumers simply need to be tuned in to see them, and willing to take part in the unfolding narrative.
Frank Rose, author of The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue and the Way We Tell Stories, believes this is exactly what people want from their story experience. “The kind of multi-way conversation that the web makes possible is what we’ve always wanted to do,” he says. “The technology finally enables it.”
Rose celebrates the way that the new kinds of storytelling brings audiences together to traverse plots, but recognizes that there are challenges for consumers and for creators: “It’s very different when you have a medium that forces you to engage with other people,” he says, reflecting on the arc of a narrative that is necessarily more complex, multifaceted, and demands more flexibility. “You don’t know if you’re going to have to tell a story for one hour, two hours or 10 years.”
Other creatives are using digital media to extend their storytelling palate in a similar way to what Tom Stoppard did for Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. George Lucas, Matrix directors the Wachowski brothers and Lost creator JJ Abrams have each taken their cinematic plotlines across other media, exclusively evolving minor characters and side stories in these different formats to enhance the original narrative for the people who choose to tap in.
Rose believes stories are in an exciting period of flux. “We’re in one of those 50-year windows when an entirely new medium is being created and no one knows what to do with it,” he says. “All you can do is throw stuff out there and experiment.” And some are. When at Penguin publishing, Jeremy Ettinghausen was a leader in this regard, crowdsourcing a story in the wikinovel A Million Penguins in 2006 and commissioning We Tell Stories, a series of pieces situated in the physical context using GPS-enabled devices, in 2008. Increasingly, other innovators realize what connected media can do and have taken steps to reinterpret the hero’s journey in a way that puts the reader/viewer/consumer in the central role. Think Choose Your Own Adventure when there are millions of possible options, not just turning to page 33.
Admittedly, multimedia storytelling isn’t for everyone – consumers or creators – nor is it appropriate all the time. Some people naturally see Twitter as an opportunity to retell Romeo and Juliet, while others feel more comfortable with pen and paper. The Edinburgh book festival has chosen to celebrate the latter. I wonder what will happen when the former gets a festival of its own.
Online Caroline –
This early 2000s experiment in interactive storytelling drew consumers/participants into an immersive drama about Caroline and her boyfriend. Created by the UK-based XPT(Rob Bevan and Tim Wright), it told its story with the reader, sending personalized emails and narrative video clips based on feedback to the site. Split into 24 parts, the whole story took a minimum of 24 days to complete.
The Lost Experience –
The TV drama Lost littered its plot with conundrums but few people knew that there was a much more intricately woven plot in the real world, told through clues in websites, advertorials in US magazines and newspapers, TV commercials and recorded messages.
The Blair Witch Project –
The 1998 horror movie, which showed a group of friends seemingly stalked by a malevolent enemy, was most remarkable for the buzz that it built online before its cinema release. The important elements were leaked online, a forum was set up, new footage was shot and the rumors of the veracity of the so-called “documentary” spread like wildfire. Its storytelling approach has often been replicated, but never with such success.
We Tell Stories –
Penguin Publishing commissioned London company Six to Start to help six writers tell stories using digital media in compelling ways. Over six weeks, notable authors played with Google Maps, infographics, blogs, Twitter, email and reader-driven plotlines. This project came hot on the heels of Penguin’s crowdsourced wikinovel, A Million Penguins (2007).
Conspiracy for Good –
Tim Kring, creator of the TV series Heroes, “wanted to create a narrative that spilled out into the streets”. In 2010, with Nokia and The company P, he produced a social benefit storytelling experience “to take real-life action and create positive change in the world”. Players became heroes and villains, literally running through the streets of five countries, and participating in fundraising drives to further the mission. The project has sent more than 10,000 books to libraries in Africa and supported 50 scholarships.
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