Elements of Digital Storytelling


cartoon depiction of arm giving a thumbs up from a quicksand pit.

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Trying to discuss the nature of “story” is like confidently wandering into quicksand. You think you know what to do. You may even have a degree in debating the purpose and interpretation of quicksand. But alas, by the time you have consulted your guidebook (just for a quick refresher), you are chest deep. As you start to contemplate the limits of such a treacherous pit, the sand fills your ears, and swallows you whole.

For anyone who has taken a theory class in the humanities, peeling apart words such as “art,” “literature,” and “text” will cause similar anxiety. Regardless of the boundaries you put on the word, you will never truly pin it down; there will always be an exception to the rule. As we now look to dissect “story” please know that my sweeping generalizations were made with the best of intentions.

statue of Aristotle

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One really should not start a conversation about storytelling without giving Aristotle his due. So, consider this my “Aristotle elevator pitch.” Over two thousand years ago, Aristotle put forward his Poetics as a sort of playwriting guide, of which we now only have the section concerning tragedy. While he listed six essential elements of tragedy, the first two were the most important: plot and character (Aristotle, n.d./1998). And boy, did he have a mouthful to say about them. He must have been on to something though, because those two elements still seem to loom large in contemporary conversations about the makings of a story (Alexander, 2011). But do our stories really use plot and character the way Aristotle envisioned? Well, kind of. I would say that people still like a logical plot, though they may not all be shaped like Oedipus Rex, and while we like our heroes, I certainly would not describe all our main characters as noble (looking at you, House of Cards). If we are not quite living up to Aristotle’s standards, just imagine how upset Thomas Aquinas would be with our lack of moral instruction…

As we travel down the Literary Theory syllabus the more auxiliary elements of a story change with each new era of storytellers as they experiment with form and content. Aristotle’s Poetics did not delineate what should or should not be considered a story. He just highlighted the elements that he felt made a tragic story effective (in his case, inducing catharsis). I think the most important thing that we can glean from Aristotle’s Poetics, Freytag’s pyramid, Kurt Vonnegut’s “The Shape of Stories,” and Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey,” is that humans like patterns in their stories. Plots with beginnings, middles, and ends; conflicts with resolutions; characters who change in recognizable ways during the course of the action, are all popular elements in Western storytelling. At its most basic level, a story is the intentional communication of actions to an audience. The rest of these elements make it good. But good is relative, and cultural trends will change as storytellers push the boundaries of expression and creativity.

Freytag's pyramid

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Man in Hole Plot Lines

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Campbell's The Hero's Journey diagram

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Digital Storytelling

“[W]e find that the edges of new digital stories are often unclear” (Alexander, 2011, p. 85).

Because storytelling is so intrinsic to our human experience, it is necessary for it to evolve with us. We are racing through a technological revolution, and telling stories on online platforms is finally breaking into the mainstream. In his book The New Digital Storytelling, Bryan Alexander (2011) describes this variety of online storytelling platforms as “multiple proscenia” (p. 42). Although this term borrows from an older form of storytelling, I find that it cleverly expresses one of the unique aspects of digital storytelling. The word “proscenium” is both the frame of the stage as it is seen from the audience, and in Ancient Greece the name for the stage itself (“Proscenium” n.d.). Choosing a platform, or proscenium, from which to tell a story not only affects how you share content, but how it is received.

drawn image of a theatre from side of house

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While some digital storytelling takes place in a singular proscenium, many take advantage of spreading a story between multiple proscenia. The audience may watch or engage with a story on one platform, and then respond to their experience on another. A story may travel between blogs, social media, and wikis, maybe even change medium, as it adapts to a new stage.

In 2015, author Margaret Atwood collaborated with animator Drew Christie to create an animation of her musings on digital storytelling entitled “A State of Wonder: How Technology Shapes Story.” Throughout the video, Atwood meditates on the role of platforms in how stories are told, “The way you can move content from here to there does influence what gets written and how it gets written” (Future of StoryTelling, 2015, 2:25). She also mentions that when there is sudden accessibility to a new storytelling platform, whether it is the printing press or Wattpad, that “mountains of crap” get shared as we explore how to transmit and receive stories with new technology (Future of StoryTelling, 2015, 0:22). We must go through this period of narrative trial and error. Digital storytelling should be allowed to be experimental, and it’s important that we treat the process as such.

One concept from this animation that I find particularly compelling is that storytelling has gone through many transitional moments. We are not unique in our feelings of excitement and fear as storytelling works to keep pace with technology. This also reassures me that despite detractors, digital storytelling will find its place. As someone who is most at home in an English department, I understand the hesitancy of adopting new technology and digital texts in fear of losing the classic narratives we hold in such esteem. In one of her recent courses, Helen Meyers (2016) encouraged her English students to become digital humanist who understand how “digital skills can coexist with other forms of literacy” (para. 14). We can no longer exist in an “us vs. them” mentality when it comes to technology, and it does a disservice to our discipline to ignore stories beyond those written on a page. The future of storytelling is not going to wait for us. And really, there’s no time to waste because as Naomi Alderman (2015) smartly puts it, the great works of digital storytelling are already here, “it’s the noise you’re trying to get your children to turn down while you pen your thoughts about the future of location-based storytelling” (para. 4).

promotional shot for "never alone" Nuna and Fox

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Alderman, N. (2015, October 13). The first great works of digital literature are already being written. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/oct/13/video-games-digital-storytelling-naomi-alderman

Alexander, B. (2011). The new digital storytelling: Creating narratives with new media. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Aristotle. (1998). Poetics (S. H. Butcher, Trans.). New York, NY: Hill and Wang. (Original work published n.d.)

The Future of StoryTelling. (2015, September 10). Margaret Atwood – A state of wonder: How technology shapes story [Video file]. Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/138888472

Meyers, H. (2016, January 25). Feeding English majors in the 21st century. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Feeding-English-Majors-in-the/235042

Proscenium. (n.d.). In Merriam-Webster Online, Retrieved February 6, 2016, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/proscenium