Beyond the Hero’s Journey: The Architecture, Structure and Strategy of Narrative

Cac74c265ddc5ffb60cac54ef9d4c3c5?s=47 Paul Rissen
February 18, 2017

Beyond the Hero’s Journey: The Architecture, Structure and Strategy of Narrative

A workshop about narrative architecture and its' application to information architecture and user experience design, delivered at World IA Day, 2017


Paul Rissen

February 18, 2017


  1. Beyond the Hero’s Journey: The Architecture, Structure and Strategy of

    Narrative Paul Rissen @r4isstatic
  2. At the end of this session… • You’ll have a

    language with which to analyse stories • You’ll be able to spot techniques used by storytellers to achieve certain effects • You’ll understand the pros and cons of using those techniques • You'll have a toolbox of storytelling craft to take back to your day job - my hope for this session is that it gives you a chance to consider storytelling craft and technique, and thus it’s things you can take back to your work, to help you become more skilled as a storyteller, especially in the digital world. and that you get to appreciate the skill and craft of deploying these techniques to achieve certain effects.
  3. There will be spoilers. And we’re going to get *very*

    geeky about storytelling.
  4. Hello, I’m Paul • Now: Product Manager at Springer Nature

    • Previously: Ten years at the BBC • Led several R&D projects around storytelling and narrative • Worked across iPlayer, BBC Bitesize, UX&D and News
  5. Introduce yourselves… • Name • Where you work/role • Your

    favourite dramatic moment in a film or TV series @r4isstatic
  6. This afternoon… • A definition of Storytelling • Narrative Events

    • Narrative Statements and Narrative Enigmas • Forms of Narrative • Asymmetry of Knowledge • Putting it all together @r4isstatic
  7. STORY TELLING - So, storytelling, that’s a thing. - the

    recent vogue for ‘storytelling’ is lacking specifics over what that means, and thus makes it hard for us to know, how do we get better?
  8. What I don’t mean… ‘drama = conflict’ ‘the hero’s journey’

    ‘save the cat’ ‘three act structure’ ‘video on the web’ ‘branching narratives’ @r4isstatic Most conversations around storytelling tend to talk about the following. These are important and relevant but not what I’m interested in. I want to talk about poetics, about the craft - about techniques you can use to achieve certain effects when telling a story.
  9. “I decree that history shall be rewritten. This time without

    any punctuation, so that it is all one long sentence, joined together by the phrase ‘and then what happened was..’” The League Against Tedium, aka Simon Munnery @r4isstatic Which obviously isn’t storytelling. So, a vital thing is that..
  10. Storytelling = the revelation of connected information over time @r4isstatic

    Here it is. Three important elements - revelation, connections, time.
  11. the order in which the things in the narrative, and

    their connections, are revealed, is a form of information architecture @r4isstatic Storytelling is revelation. Revelations of connections. The order in which you reveal things fundamentally changes how people experience a story, and the message you are trying to convey. (Adam Curtis does this…, Westworld example) Things and connections are revealed, mainly, through events.
  12. Narrative Events The core of any plot-driven story (which is

    most, but not all, stories). But a story isn’t just ‘and then what happened was’ - there are connections, either explicit or implicit, between the events, and/or the characters/places etc. One of the key skills of any storyteller is knowing when, and in what order, to deploy each event - to elicit certain feelings or responses in the audience also to keep them engaged, keep them guessing, give them satisfaction etc. which brings us on to…
  13. Kernels • Key events that shape the whole plot

    • Turning points @r4isstatic Seymour Chatman coined these terms.
  14. Satellites • Inessential to the plot • Provide texture, tone

    and character richness • Create a deeper connection with audiences @r4isstatic Gilmore Girls, the Wire.
  15. Let’s Play: The Kernel/Satellite Challenge - Split into pairs/threes -

    Each person writes down four or five events from their life (don’t show the other person!) - Choose a mix of important & unimportant events - Tell your partner about your life - They have to guess which events are ‘satellites’ and which are ‘kernels’ - Try to make it tricky for them! @r4isstatic
  16. Kernels/Satellites: Review Remember: what you consider a satellite, might be

    a kernel to someone else.. How did it feel to downplay a kernel and overblown a satellite? Notice the difference between what you reveal & how you reveal the kernels & satellites. Why might storytellers use this? To shape experiences. Of course, the audience can have a say in this too - seemingly satellite events can be deemed to really be kernels in new stories that the audience tell (fan fiction etc). A satellite to the business might be a kernel to the users
  17. Chekov’s Gun: When Satellites become Kernels …is a great example

    of something that is a kernel, disguised as a satellite. Which leads us on to…
  18. the order in which the things in the narrative, and

    their connections, are revealed, is a form of information architecture @r4isstatic So, the order in which you choose to reveal your kernels and satellites is crucial.
  19. Thursday, 16 August 2012 A story is a Web -

    but different parts of this Web can be revealed to the audience at different times. @r4isstatic
  20. V L A D I M I R P R

    O P P • FABULA - “The raw material of a story.” (Chronological order) • SYUZHET - “The way the story is organised.” (Narrative order) @r4isstatic This is where your skill as a storyteller really comes into play. Choosing which events to deploy, which connections to reveal, and in which order, is the hallmark of an interesting story.
  21. @r4isstatic

  22. Narrative Statements vs Narrative Enigmas when we talk about whether

    we ‘care’ about a series, we are typically referring to whether we are curious about filling in gaps
  23. Whether Kernels or Satellites, Narrative Events can be used as

    Statements and Enigmas @r4isstatic
  24. A fact is established There is little or no ambiguity

    Sets the constraints of what’s possible Narrative Statements @r4isstatic
  25. Narrative statements are designed to lead to Anticipation Hypotheses aka,

    ‘What might happen next?’ They engage people in speculation about the future @r4isstatic Cliffhangers! “Serial narratives thrive by creating narrative statements that demand the next bit of information, inspiring our anticipatory hypothesising about what might happen next, to sustain us through the structured gaps between episodes." Why is that interesting? - self sustaining, addiction, plays into real life/twitter etc. - also something to do with the skill and deliberate use of gaps in delivery of information.
  26. @r4isstatic They can also create expectations - think about the

    online shopping experience - and how delighted and/or disappointed you can be with substitutions. It’s all about expectation setting - and playing with setting those expectations.
  27. the time between episodes leads to an explosion of anticipation

  28. Set, and/or subvert expectations Get users thinking about future possibilities

    and implications Encourage sharing of ideas When might you use Narrative Statements? @r4isstatic Pause for a bit of discussion/group work here, if needs be.
  29. Events that are (initially) unexplained Create uncertainty and mystery Used

    deliberately to incite intrigue Narrative Enigmas @r4isstatic They invite speculation about who/what/when/where/why/how - questions about the past they’re useful as beginnings, or as interruptions/changing up the status quo
  30. Designed to lead to Curiosity Hypotheses They encourage forensic examination

    All about trying to make sense of what has been revealed Narrative Enigmas @r4isstatic Typically used in detective stories, murder mysteries All about explaining, making sense of what has been revealed “if A, B and C are true, how do you explain X?”
  31. @r4isstatic When might you use Narrative Enigmas? Events can be

    both Statements & Enigmas An event might make statements, establishing facts/truths, but in turn, pose new questions both about what’s happened before, and what might happen in the future. - they’re interesting because they engage the viewer. - they invite the viewer to keep a tally of facts and questions - and to constantly assess the importance of said facts/questions (will they be kernels or satellites?) - all of which is to guess where the story will go next. - if it goes in a different direction from that which is expected, is that satisfying, or inconsistent/annoying? Which are more popular/prevalent? Statements or Enigmas? “Most programmes predicated on such central narrative enigmas fail to live up to their concepts, as demonstrate by the failure of numerous enigma-driven programmes such as ‘FlashForward’. Instead, the majority of serial plots focus more on questions about future events triggered by narrative statements, rather than focusing on enigmas from the narrative past." (so are enigmas more just triggers, like in a detective plot within a serial narrative, or the focus more for ’special’ event episodes?) What else is interesting about all this?
  32. Break!

  33. Story time Discourse time Narration time @r4isstatic The most fundamental

    technique we can play around with is time - the ordering of the revelation. There are three types of time to be aware of - they exist in parallel, but can be used for effect, too. Story time = chronological time within the story world = history, what you look back on at the end. Whether it ‘makes sense’ or not can be a strength and a weakness.. Discourse time = “temporal structure and duration of the story as told”, reordering of events to tell the best story, flashbacks, flash forwards etc. (utilised often in fiction but also journalism…we’ll come back to this) Narration time = “temporal framework involved in telling and receiving the story” - screen time, reading time - has a great effect on the experience, but also isn’t fully under the author’s control. It can be harnessed, though, in the release of narrative - cliffhangers to maintain suspense, return visits, and so on.
  34. Forms of Narrative

  35. Anthology/ Episodic Serial @r4isstatic - Explain what anthology and serials

    are - Draw this out on the whiteboard/flipchart
  36. @r4isstatic - Black Mirror - Anthology

  37. - Tom and Jerry - Anthology -

  38. - 24 - Serial

  39. - Eastenders - Serial -

  40. - Fargo - Complex (leaning towards Anthology) -

  41. - True Detective - Complex (leaning towards Anthology)

  42. - Buffy - Complex (changed over time, leaning towards Serial)

  43. - Doctor Who - Complex (arguably right in the middle

  44. Serial One-off Experiences Service Design First time users Regular users

    No context Lots of context Complex Narrative Anthology - Uber - Amazon - Facebook - Netflix - Reddit? reddit is a good example of something where the value is only revealed if you’re a regular user and have all the history etc. think about the user’s context when they’re coming to use your product - does it need more on boarding or is it clear from the start
  45. Asymmetry of Knowledge All about disparity of knowledge and communication

    between the players, in order to rectify that disparity (or to maintain it!) draw the diagram and spend a bit of time explaining each and the fact that you can exploit these to achieve certain effects
  46. @r4isstatic Storyteller Character Audience - Viewer to Storyteller = frustration

    (better memories, unacknowledged fan theories) - Viewer to Character = suspense (horror staple, anticipating the moment of revelation) - Viewer to Viewer = spoilers (pride in knowing more than others, pleasure in seeing how it was done, annoyance if ‘spoiled’)
  47. How might you take advantage of, or mitigate the effects

    of, each asymmetry? @r4isstatic Split into groups, and each group discusses one of the aspects
  48. Putting it all together

  49. What we’ve covered • Storytelling is the revelation of connected

    information over time • Information is revealed through events: Kernels and Satellites • The order in which information is revealed is crucial • Narrative Statements provoke Anticipation Hypotheses • Narrative Enigmas provoke Curiosity Hypotheses • The connection, and gaps between Episodes can be exploited • As can the asymmetry of knowledge between Storytellers, Characters and Audiences @r4isstatic
  50. Putting it all together • Tell us a story •

    Pick your key events • Carefully decide when to deploy satellites and kernels • Think about the order in which you’d reveal those events and connections • What hypotheses might someone have during the storytelling? • How might you break up the story into episodes? • What might you do about spoilers? Your turn to be a storyteller. In your groups, tell us a story.
  51. Further Reading • Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television

    Storytelling - Jason Mittell ( • Poetics of Cinema - David Bordwell (http:// • @r4isstatic
  52. Thank you! @r4isstatic @r4isstatic