Category: Content strategy

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.