How do you structure the thing?

 

As humans, we often stick to the worn out narrative structures that we’ve always been used to. A CV is a narrative structure that tells the story of your career chronology. A menu is a narrative structure for a meal. An Airbnb-style homepage offers a narrative structure for a whole host of homepages everywhere these days, it seems.

When we conform to a familiar context its fine, and it’s often helpful. We’re effectively designing something or writing something that is expected of us. It’s a safe formula. Your story might be amazing, and might be less distracting if it arrives in the form of a predictable structure, with a plot that’s intact and no thought to the creativity of the narrative. But what happens if you play with the formula of the CV? Or storify a food menu? It’s a window of design opportunity.

For example, just a few weeks ago, I had a meal in a hotel in Scotland, and between the starter and the main they presented us with an ‘amuse bouche’. Out of the blue. It wasn’t on the menu. It was small, just a few bites of steak tartare on a spoon and some wild mushrooms of a morsel of toast –it wasn’t too radical but it was the surprise. This is what happens when we adjust the usual narrative, the structure. It’s the memorable thing. It’s just a little exquisite shift in the narrative framework. Nom.

Let’s go back to thinking about narrative structure (which is not the same as plot and story structure…think of plot versus structure in Pulp Fiction). Most people, at some point in their lives struggle with finding a structure for the story they want to tell. From wedding speeches to writing the copy for your own website, narrative structure is one major hurdle that stops people from getting started. How to structure the damn thing?

Get started by making a mess.

  1. Get a pen and a large piece of white, unlined paper.
  2. Go crazy and write. You are creating the raw materials, you need lots of them and you need them messy and fast. The messier and the uglier the better. You need to bash out thoughts, feelings, hunches, topics, anything that may or may not be relevant to the thing you’re writing. There are two main ways you can do this bashing; either as a mind map or as prose. If it’s a mind map, make it big. If it’s prose, about 2 or 3 sides of A4 spontaneously written in pen should do it.
  3. Go out for a walk and think about it.
  4. Come back and do another 5 minutes of extending your mess.
  5.  Get a coloured pen. Circle all the main topics that you care about.
  6.  Get another coloured pen. Circle all the sub-topics that you care about.

Next steps: The Love Points. The BOOM. The Conflict.

  1. Look at your notes and put yourself in your audiences’ shoes. There are two questions you need to answer at this point. “What are they going to love?” and “What’s the BOOM?“. You will know. I shall not expand further for there are many many blog posts and books out there on storytelling, plot and the hero’s journey (Resonate by Nancy Duarte is a great book for storytelling in presentations, Scott McCloud’s book is great on this too).
  2. Write the love points and the BOOM big on a piece of paper where you can see them.
  3. Now you need to make sure you know what The Conflict is that you are trying to resolve. This is your agenda, it’s the thing your piece is fighting for.
  4. Display these three things in words in front of you.

Proceed to the next level: Question the structural integrity of the thing.

Now that you have the raw materials, the conflict, the love points and the BOOM, you can think about the narrative structure, or the structural integrity of the ‘thing’.

By working through the following questions, you can start to get a sense of the structure. You don’t have to answer them all. Just use them as a springboard.

  1. Where do you enter the story, if it’s not at the beginning? Pudding first?
  2. What is the finest, most lovable detail. Where does it appear?
  3. What is the BOOM. When or where should it appear?
  4. Do you have a beginning, middle and end? You don’t have to. If they do exist, what order are they in?
  5. How much detail is too much detail?
  6. How much detail is not enough?
  7. What is redundant? What’s a side-issue?
  8. Can it be spliced into tiny component parts?
  9. What’s the format for delivering each of the component parts?
  10. If it was encapsulated with a frame, what would that frame be? Who or what would deliver it (A narrative voice? A person? A thing?)
  11. How small do you want to make it?
  12. If you had to cut out the majority, what would you be left with?
  13. What’s the amuse-bouche? The feel-good bonus?
  14. Over what time span does it play out? Is there a time span?
  15. Is it fast moving and hard hitting, or is it slow and contemplative? Define the tempo.

Organise your structure. Get creative.

Put your topics and sub-topics on post-it notes, if you haven’t already. Look at the answer to your questions and begin to organise sticky notes to reflect the narrative structure of the piece. Add notes where necessary.

The reason you are using sticky notes, is that your structure is perhaps not linear. It might be fragmented, like a book of short stories rather than a novel. It might be a diagram, rather than a block of text. It might be a video that people watch as well as a wedding speech. It might start and finish with an amuse bouche.

Let me know how you get on. 

I’m excited about how we can make exquisite shifts in the narrative frameworks that we live with in our day to day lives. I’d love to hear more experiential examples, or any other responses that you have to this blog post. Feel free to email me on devellen@gmail.com.

(In progress: Still looking for Brighton artist’s name to credit the image to)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advanced storytelling: Narrative. In space. Over time.

 

Everything is story.

You are a story-making machine. You woke up this morning, and in the short space of time between waking and being fully conscious you may have recollected what day it was, who you are, what you’re supposed to be doing. Your own mini hero-story was set in motion, and here you are now. You are still the hero, and you’re storying everything, all the time, as you go.

But story is not everything.

When you woke up, you knew where you were. You might have assessed the weather. If you’re British, that’s because the weather would be an interesting plot point in your story. Your bedroom door most likely wasn’t a plot point; it didn’t change how much of a hero you are today. You don’t really care about the door now because it was presumed and there it was, just being part of the story of your bedroom.

Perceptively speaking a vast proportion of our lives are invisible to us, it’s all just backdrop and stage set. Everything functional and unbroken around us can remain happily presumed until we have to tackle a conflict with it or use it as a tool to enhance our hero-powers. We live in our own pre-constructed Truman shows of the furniture of our lives, and that’s ok. Some of your story is conscious, and you have agency in it, but most of it is unconscious and presumptous. That way we stay sane.

So everything is story but story is not everything.

Philosophers might shoot me out of town for saying this, but story is our perception and experience of our sleeping and waking life (whether stories are inherently language-driven is another matter), and dreams just have really strange grammar.

The study of perception is the study of selective contextual meaning making, it’s our chosen mode of being. An experience is not experience without perception, and therefore also not without story.

In its simplest form, this is the study of phenomenological perception (which is contextual story-making). Try this experiment to see how much you shift from story to story; try to see the rabbit and the duck at the same time.

IMG_8412

You see the story of what you choose to see, but you cannot see two stories at once. However, there are two possible stories. We need to remember that context and choice is everything, and when we’re working with storytelling for digital design, we need to remember that our story choices need to be specific to our medium. Given that our medium is highly interactive and full of the subjectivity our users bring to it, basic storytelling might not cut the mustard.

The digital design industry has become love-struck by story models.

With good reason. But the word ‘storytelling’ has become inadequate, because we’re now have a rich soup of different methodologies for modelling with stories (I will be linking to a blog post on a whole range of methodologies for storytelling for different outcomes here, when I write it).

We’ve made our big soup because we have so many hankerings at once; a hankering for the pragmatism of engineering a journey from A to B to C, a hankering for scenario-building and speculation, and a hankering for the magic of film-making and books.

Fairy tales had been her first experience of the magical universe, and more than once she had wondered why people ended up distancing themselves from that world, knowing the immense joy that childhood had brought to their lives.
― Paulo Coelho, Brida

Let’s look for new language.

We’re elastically straining for a new language to describe these needs. I believe we’ve chosen to immerse ourselves in the concept of ‘storytelling’ because we’re not yet able to find a language beyond the legacy of film, beyond the legacy of the book with blockish pages, beyond the frames of storyboarded animation. But this is a different medium.

I understand that we want to build in the magic, the anticipation, the pay off and happy endings that books, films, games and animations give us. But let’s be clear there are several possible outcome requirements that we have from the art and science of storytelling in design, and I would ask that we’re careful to think about what we’re doing when we’re working with storytelling.

What kind of outcome are you looking to use a storytelling model for?

  • A pragmatic convergent outcome: engineering journeys from A to B.
  • An inventive divergent outcome: forming scenarios to invent outcomes.
  • A magical outcome: “realising an environment for evocative, consistent illusions” to elicit cultural change or understanding, for example.(Brenda Laurel)

Narrative structure in space over time across media.

So let’s advance to the next level and talk about narrative ‘devices’ and the structural integrity that we’re working with now. I think we’re ready.

If we swap out the word ‘storytelling’ for ‘narrative structure’, then we can be sure we’re not heading in the direction of another straight conflict-resolution story arc and creating the Mills and Boon of digital design (read Wikipedia’s Critical Opinion of Mills and Boon).

Discovering the structural integrity of narratives may open us up to a new set of mental models, and we could get much closer finding new models that we can help us re-think design for our new media. Here’s a short list of design tasks that could benefit from the consideration of narrative and structural integrity, but that the conventional story arc may not go deep enough to solve:

  • Choreographic transitions on screen (between screens, through text, windows, cards and links etc.)
  • Choreographic transition across modes of viewing (between the phone, the app, the site, the software, the device etc.)
  • The tempo and timing of an interactive journey
  • The philosophy of material manipulation and the evocation of tangibility in interaction
  • The cultural landscape in which the user accesses information

Recap: Narrative. In space. Over time.

I’m acknowledging that storytelling is baked into our being, it is immensely powerful for directing our own hero journeys, helping us engineer products, speculating solutions, thinking up scenarios and creating cultural change (Look what Hollywood did to our cultural concept of romance).

Let’s say that we’ve got a lot of useful storytelling models for design now. Achievement unlocked. Let’s move on to discuss narrative structure, in space, over time. That way we can begin to invent a new language that allows us to be curious and navigate the complex structures of our modern media.

10 things I learned from multi-disciplinary collaboration.

Last night I had the great pleasure of being part of a panel discussion in a massive derelict warehouse (wow!) about the benefits and pitfalls of multi-disciplinary collaboration. It was organised by Miniclick Jim, an architectural photographer who has recently collaborated with illustrator Billy Mather, to open their exhibition. I chose to speak about my experiences as a puppeteer working with physical performers and a classically trained musician in Norway last year.

Here are the notes I made for our discussion:

1. Multi-disciplinary collaboration is by its very nature about exiting your comfort zone. You have to be willing to look for the points of collision.

2. It takes someone from outside your own frame of reference to point to the things you did you know that you did not know.

3. Leave home, take your culture with you, but be prepared to have difficult discussions on integration. This is where you find the magic seeds for your new language.

4. Start the phase of ‘doing’ long before you are ready to. Exploring together without using verbal language is the first step towards creating a new language.

5. You’re looking for the point of chemical reaction where stories collide and create something new. Like alchemy, something rich and unexpected will emerge, and you won’t recognise it at first.

6. Work between being bold, with all your engines firing, and hanging back while others fire their engines. Always be ready to pick up any slack.

7. A good friend and fellow puppeteer once warned me “Don’t lose sight of yourself (meaning your discipline), you will be tempted to enter the middle mush, but don’t let it happen” (possibly paraphrased).

8. A collaboration is an exercise in self-awareness. It can test how much you know about your discipline, what you believe in, what you stand for, how strongly you can stand for it, how easily you can let it go, and how you choose to communicate it outside of your community of practitioners. 

9. “Hold things tightly, let go lightly” Anne Bogart says. Bogart is a choreographer who has created a set of principles that can be used in cross-disciplinary collaboration. She talks about the practice of making ‘offers’. Its about putting your hand up when no-one else dares, or pointing something out that no-one else has seen. It takes a brave move to make an offer, of being bold enough to step in. You might be taken up on your offer, or you might not.

10. Say “Yes, and…”.

Thanks Jim, doing the talk gave me a nudge to take a retrospective look at the exceptional multi-disciplinary collaboration I went through with Skeyne Theatre in Norway last year – whom I’d like to credit with these findings too.

It was interesting to find that there were so many parallels in our experience, and I’m still working on the question of who my dream collaborator would be? ‘Scrap heap challenge’ wasn’t really an adequate answer I feel.

I left the evening feeling inspired to embark on a new project, this time with a sound artist, photographer and maker…let’s see what happens.

Visual explanation.

Yesterday I did a drawing workshop with Dave Gray, who wrote Gamestorming. For me, any day with Sharpies and paper is a happy day, but this one was a particularly happy and useful day. It’s only my second week at Clearleft, so it was great to spend the day with the team too.

Despite being known as a content person (which often means ‘writing’ enthusiast) I like to think visually and I often use mind maps for laying out, organising and presenting my thoughts.

But then this handy little 9-box grid came into my life, and I shall be using it as a reference for creating diagrams around complex concepts. Dave encourages us to share the work we do with him, so here it is!

Constant minor failure.

Every day I walk past the skate park on the Level, sometimes I stop and look.

I’m no skater, but the thing I often see is the skaters’ persistence. To learn to skate is basically repetition in the face of constant minor failures.

Learning doesn’t happen without these little failures.

How can we make it feel ok to fail safely and repetitively in other contexts?

I was discussing this with a good friend today. We said that we should have a fail evening, where we can all slip up. Perhaps starting with banana skins.

You don’t have to be one thing.

It’s ok. We’re naturally inclined to pigeon-hole. Job Titles are the most inviting of the pigeon holes.

A job title is a form of archetype that helps us over the threshold. As humans we’re completely dependent these thresholds, these archetypal entrance ways through which we invite ourselves to an initial understanding of a person. We find it hard to connect to anyone when we can’t see the archetype emerging.

But then, when someone has two, or three archetypes, it becomes difficult. For example, we find it hard to see how a person can be both scientific and creative at the same time (a science-artist), than just be a scientist. There’s a cultural pressure to decide on what one identifies as.

But it’s ok.

You don’t have to be one thing.

If you were a grey area, what would you be?

I love this quote from Vladimir Nabokov:

Frankly, I never thought of letters as a career. Writing has always been for me a blend of dejection and high spirits, a torture and a pastime — but I never expected it to be a source of income. On the other hand, I have often dreamt of a long and exciting career as an obscure curator of lepidoptera in a great museum.

Your device is your body.

I like the idea that we have an Information Body.

A. Is your device an extension of your body?
There’s a fascinating philosopher called Alva Noe, a phenomenologist who talks about the way we can’t separate our sense of being from the environment we are in. He talks about the way a blind person might a stick to navigate their world; therefore the stick is a prosthetic extension of their body awareness, perhaps even their body.

Do we use our devices in the same way? We navigate through our world using a mobile phone, or even a laptop. A tool of extension. Is a mobile phone a prosthetic device that connects our sensing body with the world?

B. Is your device a limb?
Slavoj Zizek in his work on Giles Deleuze’s theories in the book Organs Without Bodies:

“Instead of bemoaning how the progressive externalisation of our mental capacities in “objective instruments” (from writing on paper to relying on a computer) deprives us of our human potentials, one should therefore focus on the liberating dimension of this externalisation…”

My information body can’t easily be amputated; the more technology I work with, the more my body is a part of an integrated information system in the world. Zizek says that technology is becoming “A quasi-organic prothesis to our body”. (Zizek 2004:15)

C. Is information a kind of virtual body liquid?

Let’s just say, for fun, that the boundaries of skin and the boundaries of your device are not hard; one soaks into another. Information is a system like the lymphatic system. It goes beyond our skin. As much as we want this integration, I don’t think we really want to release technology from the boundary of its tangible, hard skin.

D. Is information management a medical issue?
I like the idea that management of my Information Body is an act of self-care, almost a medical issue, rather than an act of design or marketing.

E. Where does the skin end and the case begin?
I am curious about the crossover between the design for technology and the design for our body’s comfortable presence in the world. Do we need the hard casing (or functional limitations) around the technology to make us feel comfortable?

F. Can we have a malleable device?
I’d love to play with pixel putty. When I heard that the new Iphone 6 bends, I thought it would be a good feature I’d like it to bend neatly around my body while it’s in my back pocket so that I can sit down comfortably.

(Photo credit: Devising work at Central School of Speech and Drama by Ellen de Vries, Hansoloo Jhun, Chien-han Hung, J.D Stokely)