Beyond the Hero's Journey - What do we mean when we talk about ‘storytelling’?

Cac74c265ddc5ffb60cac54ef9d4c3c5?s=47 Paul Rissen
October 30, 2016

Beyond the Hero's Journey - What do we mean when we talk about ‘storytelling’?

A presentation given at Mozfest 2016, looking at the craft of storytelling and a few techniques to explore.


Paul Rissen

October 30, 2016


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    Hello. • Ten years at the BBC (now @ Springer

    Nature) • Led R&D of prototypes around storytelling & narrative • Worked across iPlayer, Bitesize, History, UX&D and News @r4isstatic Hello, this is me. What I hope to get out of this session: gauge interest in the topic, are explanations clear, is there an audience?
  2. 3. beyondhero @r4isstatic Here’s a link to the notepad, feel

    free to write notes, ask questions, put contact details if you want more info etc. or to be a part of this going forward
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    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? - 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.
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    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. ….and so, a definition….
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    Storytelling = the revelation of connected information over time @r4isstatic

    Here it is. Three important elements - revelation, connections, time. And from this, I conceive of three layers.
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    The Story World the identifiable things in your story the

    people the places the objects the moments the connections things your audience want to share First layer. Story World. Stuff kept alive in the mind, when thinking about a story, regardless of narrative unfolding. The point-at-and-share things. The social objects. URLs The connections are important, but can’t be shown all at once - or at least, not at first. Because…
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    The Story Telling the order in which the things in

    the Story World, and their connections, are revealed @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) I have feelings about what happens with the Web in this area, but that’s for another session - as I say, today I want to concentrate on this telling. But the telling is bound up in who is listening…
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    The Story Knowledge the state of information known at a

    point in time @r4isstatic particularly important when a story is shared Spoilers! Trigger warnings! If only one person was told the story, this would be less of an issue (but still would be one!) This, essentially, is caring about your users, and designing for context. Also - interactive narrative, asking questions, API…
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    Storytelling = the revelation of connected information over time @r4isstatic

    So that’s my definition and a model it sits within. Now let’s move on to the craft.
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    Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling Jason Mittell Sidenote - most of the following is somewhat shamelessly cribbed from Jason Mittell - if you’re interested in what we talk about, buy this book, it’s great. I’ve selected five elements of craft. Each of the following could be a session in itself - once I’ve introduced a few of these, let’s discuss them.
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    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.
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    Narrative statements vs Narrative enigmas @r4isstatic Another technique, centred around

    keeping your audience involved, and helps explain community behaviour. What might you do to capitalise on attention around these? Narrative statement = something happened, no ambiguity about what/how/why/when. They “assert a story element without raising questions about the actual event beyond the ubiquitous ‘what next?’” Such statements prompt “anticipation hypotheses” - speculation over what will happen next? Narrative enigma = “raising uncertainty as to what precisely happened, who was involved, why they did what they did, how this came to be, or even whether it actually happened at all.” Mystery, suspense, looking back to uncover clues. These prompt ‘curiosity hypotheses’ - gaps in the backstory that motivate further discovery and speculation, and are sated by new revelations from the source material. “Both curiosity and anticipation are emotional responses prompted by the desire for more narrative information and the drive towards discovery - when we talk about whether we ‘care’ about a series, we are typically referring to whether we are curious about filling in gaps about what has already happened or eagerly anticipate what is yet to come.”
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    Plot driven vs tonal narrative @r4isstatic This is something to

    consider in the story you’re telling. What response are you looking to evoke? (not a binary choice, of course) Do you want people to be thrilled, entertained, informed? Choose plot driven. Or do you want them to be moved, emotionally engaged? Choose tonal narrative. Think ‘The Wire’. Also interesting in terms of ‘able to be consumed in one-off packages’…very web-consumption-esque. “Creator David Chase has said he was much more interested in creating short films about the characters and their world, but HBO pushed him toward greater serialization; nevertheless, many episodes would still make sense if watched out of order without their serial contexts.”
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    Working memory vs Surprise memory @r4isstatic This is all about

    the knowledge of the one being told the story. And it’s all about recency, and context. Working memory = things the person is aware of - they can be triggered to remember things, setting up for new information (e.g. in dialogue, flashbacks, ‘previously on’, more subtle things like image placement, or even things like noticing a name come up in the opening credits. It can also bring people up to speed if they’re new…a quick exposition/info dump - but can be awkward. “Frustration with a serialized program stems from moments when viewers’ memories are more acute than those of characters or the story world.” (So story knowledge is an issue here) Surprise memory = “the moment of being surprised by story information that you already know but do not have within working memory.” Things you didn’t realise were important. Little moments that build towards something bigger, the sting in the tail. “a storyteller can guide emotional reactions based on what is in working memory — an episode might highlight particular relationships and connections within working memory or prompt surprise or suspense via elements buried in long-term memory. The feeling of being surprised through the act of remembering is quite pleasurable, rewarding a viewer’s knowledge base while provoking the flood of recognition stemming from the activation of such memories.”
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    The ‘operational aesthetic’ and narrative special effects @r4isstatic Stories being

    told are complex. Some invite us to revel in that complexity. Think of Arrested Development, 24’s pleasure in split-screen, River Song. “This set of pleasures evokes an influential concept offered by Neil Harris in his account of P. T. Barnum: Harris suggests that Barnum’s mechanical stunts and hoaxes invited spectators to embrace an ‘operational aesthetic,’ in which the pleasure was less about ‘what will happen?’ and more concerning ‘how did he do that?’” “We watch these series not just to get swept away in a realistic narrative world (although that certainly happens) but also to watch the gears at work, marvelling at the craft required to pull off such narrative pyrotechnics.” “These moments of spectacle push the operational aesthetic to the foreground…asking us to marvel at how the writers pulled it off; often these instances forgo strict realism in exchange for a formally aware baroque quality in which we watch the process of narration as a machine rather than engaging in its diegesis.” “we thrill both at the stories being told and at the way in which their telling breaks television conventions.” (or establishes them - e.g. 24 end of episode multiple split screens) “the goal…is not to solve the mysteries ahead of time; rather, we want to be competent enough to follow their narrative strategies but still relish in the pleasures of being manipulated successfully.” the desire to be both actively engaged in a story and successfully surprised through storytelling manipulations. This is the operational aesthetic at work, enjoying the machine’s results while also marvelling at how it works.
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    Storytelling in Journalism @r4isstatic Sketch by Martin Belam (@martinbelam) Now

    before we finish with a discussion, I just want to touch on the world of journalism. Firstly I’d say there’s three types - there’s ‘fast’ journalism, which is the supposedly ‘factual’ informing of the day’s events around the world. Then there’s ‘slow’ journalism, within which I’d put investigative journalism, but also the more long-form ‘tonal’ pieces. So for ‘fast’ journalism, there’s a pretty established pattern - you establish the five Ws up front, starting with the most recent event. Narrative statements. It’s plot driven. But things aren’t necessarily chronological - there is an element of discourse time being played with here - the most recent thing is first, then there’s the background, then future speculation & anticipation hypotheses. And of course, narration time is a factor here, too. But all of this is a conscious choice - no creation is ever truly unbiased - the form reflects the intent, and perhaps this is where we’re finding journalism failing - 24 hour constant news, no time to digest and appreciate the importance of things. In the old days, with limited capsules of journalism, storytelling was more a part of it, you had to be sat down and told a story. Now, things just happen. But maybe the web can help with that. But for slow journalism, all the techniques come more to the foreground, and we can really play with them. Interactive journalism - asking questions, story knowledge, APIs
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    Discussion Story/Discourse/Narrative Time Narrative engimas & statements Plot vs tonal

    narrative Working vs Surprise memory Operational Aesthetic @r4isstatic Time - when is chronological time useful? When does it hinder? - can ‘not making sense’ be helpful (contradictions, a la DW?) What effect? - how might you take advantage of discourse time? What are the dangers here? (implicit connections between events, Adam Curtis style) - do we make enough of narration time online? What could we do with it? e.g. releasing storyline of a game a bit at a time… Storytelling as ‘the revelation of connected information over time' - how do you choose what to reveal, and in what order? - how important are the connections? Do you play that up? Are they explicit/implicit? What are the advantages/disadvantages of both explicit/implicit? Narrative statements vs narrative enigmas - community management/engagement - when are statements and enigmas helpful? how might they shape your discussions? - journalism in this context? combined with over time…? - what are the differences in engagement between enigmas and statements? what behaviours do we see? how might we harness that, prevent its’ worst excesses? Plot driven vs tonal narrative - what are the advantages/disadvantages of either? - when might one be useful over the other? What is the intent behind their use? Emotional engagement above information finding? - how might self-contained narratives (which are more ‘tonal’) have an aggregate effect? How might they be connected together/combined/remixed?