Narratives for digital distribution
EDIT: An edited version of this article was published on Nieman Storyboard website becoming the site’s most read article in 2011.
The way we tell stories in the print media has been, mostly, the same for some time now. Space constraints and graphic layout have made the narrative flow a broken one. With the advent of digital devices and rich new ways of shaping content, it is time to rethink how we produce and present our stories.
With this article I want to explain why the broken narrative experience happens and how we can find ways to prevent it on digital publishing. Furthermore, I will propose a way of planning, producing and designing narratives that won’t suffer from this problem. In the end, I’ll take a fictional story and share how I would plan it, from production to presentation, using the ideas proposed on this article.
For this article I will refer to linear narrative – that with a beginning, middle and an end. Think of it has going to the theater to watch a movie. You go into the room and the movie starts. You can be watching Memento, a traditional non-liner screenplay. The movie goes forward and backward in time. But as a part of the audience when you experience the going to the theater to see Memento, you’ll be in a linear narrative: you go, you watch the movie (regardless of it’s timeline narrative), the movie ends, you get out of the theater and your linear experience ends. You went to the theater and watched a story, without interruption, regardless of how the story was told.
Likewise, when describing non-linear narratives, I will not be focusing on their timeline, but on interruptions of the narrative itself. Like going to the movies to watch Memento – and being interrupted in the middle by a documentary about the film itself, and then having the main film start again where it was interrupted. You went to the theater to watch a story, but the experience was interrupted by another story, regardless of the way both stories connected.
Let me start with a simple story. Think about a lecturer who may have inspired you – if you can’t remember one, I advise you to visit TED’s website, where you will find amazing people, with amazing ideas, telling amazing stories.
OK, now that you have a lecture as an example, let’s analyze it. What makes it such a brilliant storytelling experience? Apart from the speaker’s ability to deliver a good story and from the talk’s content, a good lecture is a linear flow of information, with a beginning, middle and an end, or conclusion. That’s the basic of a story; we’ve learned how to do it from an early age.
Let’s look a little deeper. At the beginning of a talk, the speaker will tell you the subject of her story and what she will try to achieve (teach you something, share an experience with you, etc). She will then introduce the subject in small steps. Most talks these days are accompanied by visual aids – the speaker will share either the key points of her talk or some visual information to help explain the knowledge that is being shared.
From the beginning of the story, the speaker takes her audience into the talk’s theme, stopping for visual aid whenever it is needed. The audience experience is like being walked through a garden, the speaker holding each person’s hand while they stroll. At the end of the talk, with the conclusion, the audience has been told a story. Just like the ones we were told as children; just like the ones we are told everywhere, in movies, books, TV shows, by our friends at a bar or by our family, during supper, at the end of a story full day.
Now allow me to tell you yet another story. Imagine yourself in a lecture hall. The room is packed and the upcoming talk is the one you came to hear. The subject is something you are interested in, and the speaker is the best in the field.
The light goes out, the audience is quiet except for a cough here, another there. The speaker takes the stage with an ovation. This is the talk everybody has been waiting for!
The talk starts with an introduction about the subject. The speaker is taking the audience by the hand, strolling around. All of the sudden, in the middle of a sentence – “and so we can conclude that…” – the speaker stops. She then says “you know what? I’ve just remembered that I have this amazing picture, somewhere on my computer that relates to this subject.” She finds the picture and displays it for the audience. It does make sense and the picture has added another layer of information. But then, after the picture is shown, the speaker starts talking again, right where she stopped the sentence before – (“and so we can conclude that…”) “subject A will give us a light about subject B…”
Now imagine that this talk, the one you and the rest of the room were really looking forward to, keeps having such interruptions. The speaker will keep ‘throwing’ stuff that relates to the subject, to the story being told, but with no regard for the interruptions.
The storytelling would be awful. The narrative would not be linear. one. It would be a mess.
Here is a graphic visualization of such a narrative:
This last example shows how we either present, or consume, news on most distribution channels right now. In print, because of physical space constraints that pages impose and the way graphic design copes with it, the presentation and consumption of a story is a non-linear narrative experience. Pictures, text, captions, etc., all relate to the story being told, but the way the bits of the story are laid out reinforces its non-linearity. Let’s look with more detail into this.
Consider the following magazine layout of a story. It has some of the content you would expect from a magazine: flowing text in columns, pictures with captions, graphics, and a ‘box’ with a related story.
Every aspect of this story is related and enhances the information being communicated. But since we are presenting all of this content on 8 pages, some compromising must be done. Graphic designers must find the best way to make this story presentable, readable and compelling. Working within the physical boundaries of pages, the text is set on columns and flows from one spread to another without much control of where it breaks from one column to the next, from one page to the next, or even from one spread to the next.
Furthermore, in order to lay out all of a story’s elements, designers must ensure that a graphical ‘important’ element is presented on each spread. This means that the pictures of the story will be placed on the spreads to favor visual enhancement. The same happens with the secondary story and the graphic of our example.
What does this means for the reader’s linear narrative experience? Since every bit of the story is laid out on the spreads, pictures and other relevant information hardly ever will be presented in the best place for the storytelling experience. Readers will have to stop reading the main text to absorb the picture information, or will have to read further until finding a ‘safe’ place to stop reading the main text and thereafter read the secondary story, etc.
The narrative is a broken one, and representing it in a graphical way would resemble much the previous representation of the bad talk example.
On most websites, sadly, the same non-linear experience obtains. They present stories using a top picture and a scroll-down text column. If the story has secondary pictures and texts, these items are presented alongside the long column of text or, in the case of secondary pictures, by making the top picture a slideshow.
Even on publications on the iPad, the same way of presenting a story remains. Most publishers approach tablet publishing using either a print or a web paradigm.
Let’s go back to the first example, the good linear narrative of the first talk. Here is a graphical visualization of it:
In a good storytelling experience, a linear one, each item that exists to aid the main story is placed in an exact location. For example, imagine a story about a family facing economic stress. Suppose there is a video of a family member talking about how having been fired made things worse. In a linear narrative experience, the video would only be presented to the audience at a certain point of the main narrative. When telling about how the family was facing stressful problems, not only because of their savings losses, but also because of someone having been fire – that would be the place to show the video. Think about it as a lecture: “Let’s see a video on why losing her job only made things get worse.”
With a lecture as an example, you’ll see that the main story is a string of episodes, like a TV series, where every added item is placed either at the beginning or the end of each episode. Every episode is set so that it can be interrupted without breaking the narrative thread. Let’s use the TV series analogy to further discuss a linear narrative approach.
If you plan your story as a TV series, you’ll have to break it in blocks on a weekly basis. With the story broken into episodes, you can then use the ‘intervals’ in between to place your added material. Since you don’t have to observe a 30-minute rule for each episode, you can break the blocks to have the intervals where you want them – where it makes perfect sense to add the story-enhancing bits. There are some clever solutions, in the real TV world, to cope with the temporal ‘amnesia’ that audiences face on consuming a story in blocks, each block one week after the previous one. Some TV series use the ‘previously on XXX’ solution, others broadcast the last seconds of the previous episode, etc. You can use these solutions to create a linear flow, once you’ve used the ‘spaces’ between them for added material.
So far, we’ve seen that most of the stories we consume are presented in a linear form, regardless of the timeline used for presenting the storytelling. In news publishing, because of physical space of the page, the narrative offered is not a linear one. We looked at a successful example of storytelling, the lecture, and learned why it really works for distributing a story. Then, using a TV series season analogy, we were able to see how breaking a narrative in blocks created ‘spaces’ for added material to enhance our storytelling. Let us now see how we can do this on a digital distributing device.
First, allow me to share the reasons why I think that all of this is important. With the iPad, for the first time publishers had a device where they could control the digital side of their business. Also of great importance, the iPad allowed publishers to control the design of their digital editions (in opposition to the Web where graphic designers aren’t as able to ‘free design’ stories). Unfortunately, until now, the approach taken by publishers on the tablet has been mostly based on their print editions. Thus, their stories, when published in digital versions, are still non-linear narratives. Not only this doesn’t make any sense, it goes against what a digital audience is expecting from a digital publication on a digital device. Many readers complain about their need for ‘immersion’ not being fully fulfilled. Taking a linear narrative approach for planning, producing and presenting content on digital editions can correct this.
It is really goes without saying that the most important aspect of a story is the subject of that story, the content. It follows that if we want to change the way we tell our stories, we’ll have to start with that basic concept. Every storyteller must first come up with the content. She then will be able to break the story into blocks, or episodes of content – not only for the main narrative, but also for the added material. For each episode, the storyteller must decide on the best technique to communicate her story. In a digital narrative, storytellers aren’t obligated to choose text over audio, or pictures over video. They must choose the best way to communicate each bit, each episode. The choice should flow from the content itself. Added material for a story must be presented in a way that can either be fully explored by a reader, or moved forward, without loss for the narrative experience.
The final linear narrative will be a flow of content, presented using every digital tool available (such as video, audio, pictures, interactive graphics or text). Using a TV series season approach, the storyteller will present her story, one episode after another, in a way that will not break the flow of the narrative, regardless of the technique used for each episode. Each part will be placed after the previous one, in an exact point of the story in order to maintain the flow. Intervals will be used for added material. Readers will be able to choose the amount of time they take to consume each episode of the narrative.
Let me finish this article with yet another example. Imagine the previous story about the family facing serious economical problems. For this article, as the storyteller, I plan to have the main story based on the family experience: how they got there, how they are coping with it and what are their plans to improve their life. To add to the main story, I plan to have an explanation about the financial crisis, some advice from a family economics expert, and a set of solutions available to families facing the same problems. My family is composed of a working mother, a recently unemployed father and two children, both attending school. I will break my story in episodes and use the intervals for the added material.
In the first episode of the narrative I will be presenting the family and describing how they got into this mess. To do this I will need to interview the family members, recording everything in audio. A photographer will take pictures of them, their house and some of their daily routine. He will also record some of our conversations on video. Since this is a very powerful personal story, I would like to begin presenting it using some strong pictures in a slideshow and one recorded sentence to set the mood. Something like a picture of the whole family and then a close up of the mother with a bit of her audio stating, “I never thought we would be like this”. Then I’ll use a strong picture for my title and lead, as I would in a print magazine. For this strong story about human suffering, I will use text as the main way to present the story, refraining from over-exposing the family members on their suffering. The first episode will end by stating that this family is just an example of thousands like them, victims of the economic crises.
I’ll use this first interval to show an interactive infographics that explains the financial crisis. Readers for whom this is old hat can skip to the next episode. On the other hand, anyone who wants to learn about the crises can explore this tool to fully understand the problem.
My second episode will tell the story of how the family is coping with their reality. It will need pictures of the mother working, of the children going to school and of the unemployed father. Again, I’ll use a mix of audio, some video here and there, but mostly text. The second episode will end with the mother letting us know about some of what the family does to make each day as normal as possible.
This second interval will allow me to present the added material about the solutions available for families facing the same problems. This set of information can vary from tuition solutions for keeping children in school, to information about soup kitchens across the country. I will present it in text, based on a list of topics, with a link to move forward, for readers who do not want e this information.
My third and final episode will be about the plans the family makes to change their fate. Since I want to finish my story on a positive note, I will focus more on audio and video for this episode. I’ll have to break this last episode in two, since I still need a space for my last added material with the expert on family economics. Taking some movies as an example, I’ll use the final section of the third episode to do a follow-up on the family a couple of weeks after my time spent with them. Hopefully I’ll have some good news, like the father finding a new job, but any follow-up will do to end my story.
For the added material with the specialist I’ll use a great solution used on LaInformation website. I’ll record a different video of the specialist for each of her solutions. I’ll present the content with a picture of the specialist and a set of buttons, each for each solution that will fire the video with the recorded material.
On a final note, for each episode I’ll be using the episode technique, since I want to integrate text with pictures and want the narrative to flow. In the end, each episode can be broken into multiple smaller episodes in order to achieve a perfect flow of the linear narrative.
To sum up, we need to radically change the way we tell our stories. With the advent of new solutions to distribute our content, mostly by digital distribution, we must find and use new solutions for our storytelling. It doesn’t make sense to keep using old paradigms on new devices. Our main goal is to learn the best way to tell a story and stop using techniques that worked only for one support (be it text and pictures on print, video on TV or audio on radio). With digital distribution we can mix all these techniques in a way that enables our storytelling. We also need to change, inside newsrooms, the way we plan, produce and present our stories. I hope that this article will help you to find better solutions than the ones presented by me.
Note: I would like to thank Barry Sussman for his kindness and help in editing this article into something readable. I would also like to thank Vasco Ferreira for his ‘lecture’ insight and Joana Maciel for all her help with the planning and writing of this article.