AIGA recently updated its Pivot website and made available a few of the “main stage" presentations as videos from their convention in Phoenix. I’d recommend watching a few of them, including Jonathan Hoefler & Valerie Casey. Accompany this with a recent interactive story we produced at The New York Times (more on this later), and I’m inspired to write this overdue post on my contributions to the conversation at AIGA-Pivot. It’s an opportunity to share some of my thoughts on what excites me today about interactive storytelling and the projects we are producing on the multimedia desk. This past summer, Julie Beeler from Portland’s Second Story interactive studio graciously invited me to be on the Storytelling is Design and Design is Storytelling affinity session in Phoenix. I was honored to be a part of an impressive lineup, and it was apropos to be invited by Julie, as it was the work of her and partner Brad Johnson that inspired me to tell, explain and innovate in the space of Interactive Narratives. Before we go down this interactive path, let me start with the importance of linear storytelling. An excellent story is often compelling because of its layers. Each layer reveals a new concept or an arc that compels the reader or viewer to continue their narrative journey. A cross-section of a sequoia tree, for example, is a visual way to show the layered life-cycle of a tree … in a linear fashion. I can appreciate a well-told, impeccably paced linear story with complex layers. Books, movies and documentary films have been doing amazing and beautiful storytelling for decades, if not centuries. A number of sites and organizations, including i-Docs and DocLab, have helped in collecting some of the new work in the interactive documentary space. And there are well-executed and well-told linear stories today in the multimedia space. I’m extremely proud of the recent work we’ve done at The Times, including the beautifully shot and edited Vanishing Minds, Lives Restored & A Year at War series. Even before joining The Times in 2006, I launched Interactive Narratives to capture the best of online visual storytelling as practiced by journalists and storytellers from around the world. I included “narrative” in the site’s title because I wanted the site to reflect the sentiment and thought of storytelling but not necessarily confine the collection to journalism. The term “interactive” helps define the viewer’s experience. But over the years, I’ve grown to appreciate that the interaction is not just about the users’ experiences but it’s equally about the interplay of story elements to enhance the package in non-linear layers. I’m also inspired by how video games push the interactive narrative form. Beyond Pong, video games use storytelling to keep players engaged, peeling new layers in the arc as one “levels up” in the game. Today, players are more accustomed to exploring a world outside the structured narrative. Take Super Mario Bros. A player could essentially zoom through the structured narrative on ground level. But what makes the game more compelling is the ability to take Mario through tunnels, underground caverns or even in the clouds to explore tangent story lines. In the Grand Theft Auto series, the narrative structure widens even more as players have the ability to roam through the entire city landscape. Pivot to Interactive Narratives in the journalism and documentary space. Are there opportunities to engage readers/viewers with multi-layered, non-linear stories? During my presentation, I quote an Indian saying about education that goes:
Tell me, and I will forget.
Show me, and I may remember.
Involve me, and I will understand.
The second line has resonated with me and our work in visual storytelling for years. The third line helps in redefining Interactive Narratives.
At The Times, we’ve applied a number of innovative story forms to our journalism. This interactive treatment isn’t for every story. Some narratives should remain linear and simple. While others can be enhanced by layers presented in interactive forms.
The NYTimes examples below have a common structure: a main backbone narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end. The narrative becomes the organizing structure that allows a reader/viewer to explore additional elements of the story. When I talk about non-linear narrative storytelling, as I did at Pivot, I use this diagram as a starting point:
This diagram evolved from an earlier one from 2009.
This diagram changes based on the elements of the story and forms available. The length of the narrative or the size of the circles may change. The circles of “sidebars,” if you will, are tangent to the main narrative and have obvious in-and-out points to the main storyline. The fine line between discovery and confusion can be resolved by thoughtful visual design.
Here are a few examples of how The Times’ multimedia desk applied this type of story form to a number of stories and interactives; the media that carried the main narrative is noted in parentheses:
I’m extremely proud of the projects that helped innovate on this story form. But I’ll be the first to admit that we’re not quite there. I’m looking forward to the day when both the main narrative and these interactive “sidebars” work explicitly together and each are edited and designed as integrated and interactive components to the narrative.
These sidebars are less about the story form and presentation/design and more about the experience and narrative flow.
Imagine a written story or a video script written specifically to engage the reader/viewer in an interactive sidebar, or a sidebar that encourages a user to take a quiz, engage with an interactive graphic or offer their thoughts on Twitter or Facebook … or giving a reader/viewer a chance to go to a physical space and to share in the experience of the story augmented by their personal mobile device.
Now things can get interesting.