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.


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.