Elements of Digital Storytelling

Storytelling

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

Image Credit: cartoonink.com

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

Image Credit: wikipedia.org

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

Image Credit: eckleburgworkshops.com

 

 

 

Man in Hole Plot Lines

Image Credit: laphamsquarterly.org

Campbell's The Hero's Journey diagram

Image Credit: wikipedia.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Image Credit: studyblue.com

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

Image Credit: store.xbox.com

References

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

6 thoughts on “Elements of Digital Storytelling

  1. Clarity of message
    I love how you discussed the history of traditional and digital storytelling.
    Message and topic discussed clearly; very well written!

    Depth of message
    What a wonderful statement you made: digital storytelling is still a story – but different platform/presentation.

    Writing Standards
    Couldn’t’ find any problems with writing or citations.

    Quality and appropriateness of media
    Media was very helpful – images and videos tied into subject matter nicely.

  2. My response to your exceptionally thoughtful and compelling narrative might sound similar to part of my response to Dave’s post, so I’ll refer you to that with regard to the idea of distribution and consumption of stories through digital media, particularly when thinking about your comments on proscenia and the effect of platform on message. In that regard, I thought your inclusion of Margaret Atwood’s comments was particularly strong and appropriate to our discussion of digital storytelling. As I mentioned in my response to Dave, we live in a swirling cusp between the analog world and the digital world, and Atwood’s “mountains of crap” are, I think, exactly what we would expect to find littering the lower regions of that cusp.

    What I think is so powerful in your discussion is the idea of how technology shapes storytelling–or has the potential to shape it, anyway. Again, referring to Atwood’s comments, there are times when the medium in some way limits or constrains the message. (Shades of Marshall McLuhan: “We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”) This is particularly true of early experiences with new forms of media. We have to test them out in some fashion. But I think that there are possibilities inherent in new media forms that may just as effectively liberate and enhance our ability to tell stories in ways that we may not have been able to imagine. You make this point convincingly in your closing paragraph regarding the inclusion of digital media literacy as a component of literacy in general. Understanding and appreciating digital stories does not diminish my own enjoyment of traditional media in any sense–in fact, I think it enhances my ability to appreciate storytelling on a much grander scale.

    In that regard, this is so very compelling:

    “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.”

    Amen, and enough said. Thank you.

  3. Clarity of message: You write very well. As Lacey mentioned, I enjoyed your discussion of storytelling history with the tie in to digital storytelling. Recently, I was having a discussion with my students about Aristotle. I just wonder what he could accomplish if he was here today. Or would he?

    Depth of Message: You write very well! For me, your last paragraph had the most impact. Although I love technology and toys, I still prefer a paper back book. I guess I am old fashioned.

    Writing Standards: As I have mentioned before, I am still becoming familiar with APA style and am not comfortable commenting on it yet.

    Media: I enjoyed your use of media. It was very visually appealing as well. Are the borders around your images a part of your blog template?

    Good job.

    • Thanks for the feedback, Dave! I think the borders show up around the images when I put in a caption. I haven’t been able to adjust the size of the borders though, which is a little frustrating.

  4. I love, love your quicksand story/comparison that you start with. Clever and an excellent visual for us (not to mention, spot on). I am equally enamored with your section on Aristotle. Your writing style and voice kept me reading on excitedly. Not having a background in literary theory, I appreciated your discussion of it — and the way to kept that discussion entirely approachable. I love how you used the word proscenium to frame your discussion of format/platform. I love how you point out that these storytelling forms can coexist (and how you say it). Can you tell I enjoyed reading it? Great work. Clarity and depth is excellent.

    Stylistic notes:
    Page number needed and date in wrong place in this sentence (I have corrected it here with a made up page number): In his book The New Digital Storytelling, Bryan Alexander (2011) describes this variety of online storytelling platforms as “multiple proscenia” (p. 78).

    Consider adding time stamps to your in-text citation when you direct quote from the video.

    Need page number here (or paragraph number or something to help the reader find the original quote, if there aren’t page numbers): Helen Meyers (2016) encouraged her English students to become digital humanist who understand how “digital skills can coexist with other forms of literacy” (p. whatever). Same problem in your Alderman quote.

    • A huge thank you for the APA help! I hadn’t even heard of doing paragraph numbers before you mentioned it, and have since done some reading up. Why does OWL put all the really relevant citation information at the bottom of the webpage? Good grief 🙂

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