The Art of Immersion: how to build powerful story experiences

Adam Westbrook
May 30 · 9 min read

Meet the world builders breaking us free from our screens

Image © Adam Westbrook

For a long time, audiences have been silent partners in the storytelling experience. In darkened cinemas we sat, passively consuming a story just the way someone else wanted. But now we want back in, and storytellers are learning to design experiences that make space for The Artist Formerly Known as The Audience. Here are some of them.


On one cold November night in London, journalist Nick Curtis was on his way to prison.

“We were herded into a hallway by yelling guards,” he writes, “told to strip to our underwear and put our clothes and possessions in numbered sacks that contained our prison uniforms. Then we were marched through showers where a naked man lay crouched, bleeding, on the floor, to cells where we were banged up.”

If this sounds like a horrific experience for Curtis and the 400 others, you might be surprised to know that they paid to go through it, part of a growing demand for London’s most popular underground event, Secret Cinema.

The realistic 1940s inmate experience (complete with riots and a black market), Curtis writes in the London Evening Standard, concluded with a showing of Frank Darabont’s cult prison drama The Shawshank Redemption, creating an “oddly nuanced” immersive experience.

This immersion is the much sought-after effect storytellers want to achieve.

Not only do we want to grab our readers, viewers, listeners right off the bat, we want to keep them with us. In a world where 20% of YouTube viewers click away after less than ten seconds, keeping people engaged is imperative.

The thing about immersion is that it is not some new technical fad. You can follow this principle on paper or in front of a group of friends at a party. Yet the discussion about creating interactive and immersive story experiences, particularly for nonfiction producers, has focused largely on the digital tools which might allow us to do it online.

Is that the point?

Certainly, some of the most interesting developments in immersive storytelling have happened offline, according to the go-to person when it comes to the topic, Frank Rose. In 2011 he published The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories.

“There have been a number of immersive theatrical experiences which don’t rely on technology at all but are kind of informed by technology,” he tells me from New York. He’s referring to London’s Secret Cinema as well as to Sleep No More and Then She Fell, both performed in New York.

“These types of live in-person experiences are really starting to proliferate, and what’s really interesting to me about them is that they don’t rely on any technology at all beyond the most rudimentary, and yet they are incredibly immersive.”

Making room for the audience

The thing that makes these events unique is that phrase dreaded by stand-up and theatre-goers everywhere: Audience Participation.

Nick Curtis says with some surprise that no one broke character in ‘Shawshank Prison’: “The selling of drinks and snacks was conducted as if it were a black market. In a quiet moment I found myself shooting hoops in the yard with two strangers, exchanging nods like weary lifers.”

Now, when considering all the elements that go into making a story — plot, structure, theme, character — storytellers in both fiction and nonfiction are realising the need to make room for the audience too.

After a century in the dark, they are starting to join us on stage again — if we ask them.

But what does this mean for the storyteller? Do we have to surrender control of our stories? “Personally I don’t think it’s a question of surrendering,” says Rose. “It’s no accident that the most popular stories — whether we’re talking about movies or TV shows or anything – are, right now, stories that have really strong authors.”

It’s a point of view supported by one of the most important people in online storytelling right now: Ted Serandos, the Chief Content Officer at Netflix.

“Interactive viewing of a presidential debate is fantastic. Or a sporting event, fantastic,” he said on a 2013 panel. “When I want to watch storytelling, when a professional storyteller is going to tell me a story, why change the ending? Why hire him if I’m going to change the ending? I never really understood that attraction.”

But Rose says there’s opportunity for more. “I think that what authors do have to do these days is to allow room for the audience in ways that they didn’t have to think about before. What happens is with any story, whether it’s a book or a TV show — and this has been true throughout history — if there’s a story that really matters to them, people want to inhabit that story.”

This audience involvement is key to the approach at Portland-based Second Story, an interactive story studio where even the company’s name reflects the story that the audience tell themselves.

“One hundred years of mass media broadcasting has made us lazy in a way because as storytellers we could just take the audience for granted.”

They hired former New York Times Multimedia Editor Andrew DeVigal to lead their content strategy. “We build a framework so that the user can tell their own story, in other words their own second story, based on the backbone narrative of the exhibit or the installation or the museum,” DeVigal tells me. “So there’s a way for people to interpret that particular piece of story, and to interpret it through their own lens, and that’s both the challenge and something we’re taking on.”

The narrative then, only becomes visible in hindsight.

Trying to involve the audience is no easy thing, though, especially for those of us brought up on the previous age of mass communication where the audience was silent and near invisible.

“One hundred years of mass media broadcasting has made us lazy in a way because as storytellers we could just take the audience for granted. We didn’t have to think about them in any sense beyond whether they would tune in or would they show up at the box office,” says Rose, “and now that’s no longer the case.”

He cites The Guardian’s Open Journalism project as an example of nonfiction storytellers inviting the reader into the process.

“The storyteller calls out and the audience responds, and the storyteller responds to that. This is the kind of thing that has to happen now…and if anything that’s even more important in journalism than it is in fiction.”

Changing story?

From a story design perspective, the big question all this interactive potential raises is whether it changes the way we build our narratives. And opinion is divided.

“Yes, it does,” argues Guy Gunaratne, co-founder of Storygami, an interactive video platform. He describes a web series project he produced for Virgin Media, which he says has pushed the storytelling skills of his team. “This content was going to breathe and manifest threads and story arcs far beyond the initial thrust of the narrative. We’d be linking external content and providing tangents that would enrich the viewing experience, and so we had to think along those broad strokes. All this whilst making sure the ‘anchor’ content was still at a high standard.”

But others aren’t so sure.

“I think perhaps we are in danger of over-exaggerating this,” says Ingrid Kopp, digital director at the Tribeca Film Institute. “It’s also important to differentiate between interactive stories, and interactive engagement around linear stories.”

“The traditional three-act structure is key when you’re trying to tell a story in this way.”

“To me this form of interactive storytelling is still looking at a three-part structure that people are familiar with,” argues DeVigal. “The idea of an open-ended narrative is…the main cause of confusion for a lot of people going through experiences that we’re trying to develop.

“The traditional three-act structure is key when you’re trying to tell a story in this way… I think there has to be an opportunity where we can easily identify the beginning and the ending too,” he says.

Rose agrees that interactivity is not changing the narrative’s essential structure. “There are certainly examples where it does, but with something like The New York TimesSnow Fall interactive, for example…the technology really seems to amplify, rather than to change, the nature of the story. It’s still basically writing. I think writing is still incredibly powerful, and the truth is, these tools, the digital graphics and other devices, really amplify that and expand upon it but certainly don’t supersede it at all. It would be a powerful piece of writing even without those.”

Make good decisions

However, one thing that most people agree on is that interactivity for interactivity’s sake is not the way to go.

“The most common mistake is to think ‘oh it’s the web, it’s interactive, now I can let people do a million different things. I can give them 20,000 options to click on’,” says Jesse Shapins, co-founder of interactive storytelling platform Zeega. “That doesn’t work well for storytelling experiences, so the key is setting people up to have a balance of telling a story — there is a narrative thread — allowing people to introduce moments of choice, but to be really thoughtful about those choices.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by DeVigal.

“We jump into ‘how do we make this beautiful, how do we make this interactive?’” he says.

“I’m finding that we’re asking the ‘how’ we would tell these interactive stories, rather than the ‘why’. So you’ll see there are presentations out there that are fancy presentations, but the question that we often skip is ‘why are we doing this in this interactive form?’ There are certain stories that are easier if they’re told in Instapaper. So that’s the first question — when you see one of these beautifully made parallax experiences, honestly ask yourself ‘why is it presented in this way? Was there a value, was there an enlightenment that it created?’”

“If you think about it, everywhere else we see the connected web really enhance our experience. For instance, text isn’t just text when we use hyperlinks — it becomes a discovery tool. Why hasn’t this happened with video?”

Breaking free of the screen

Finally, you can’t talk about interactivity without talking about the technology.

Across the world, the race is on the develop the next platform with interactivity built in. Zeega and Mozilla’s Popcorn projects made early inroads, and others have built on the technology since.

“If you think about it, everywhere else we see the connected web really enhance our experience. For instance, text isn’t just text when we use hyperlinks — it becomes a discovery tool. Why hasn’t this happened with video?” asks Guranatne.

“Interactivity needs to fit into what we already know: we shoot, we edit, we layer interactivity and then we publish. That’s the end goal.

“…What attracts intense engagement and elicits an emotive response is a sense of layered meaning and subtext. Interactivity therefore can be more than just adding arbitrary features but can actually help fire up your imagination if it’s done right.”

There’s no one with their ear closer to the ground in this new frontier than Kopp. She’s spearheading Tribeca Film Institute’s experiments in marrying film-makers with coders to create unique interactive documentaries, or iDocs.

“This is a new form, so I think we need to give it time to settle down and find its way. We are all a little susceptible to bright shiny object syndrome when it comes to technology at the moment, but at the same time my role at the Tribeca Film Institute is to keep an eye on technology and constantly think about what new innovations mean for storytelling.

“There will be projects that don’t quite work, that don’t build on the history of crafting narratives, that forget about things like beautiful sound and powerful story arcs that take us on unexpected journeys. But we need to be able to experiment.”

But there’s always someone with a bigger idea. And it’s no surprise that person right now is Hollywood heavyweight Steven Spielberg. Alongside long-time collaborator George Lucas, he recently predicted the ‘implosion’ of cinema as we know it and the rise of an internet-based distribution in its wake.

His goal too is full immersion — and for him, technology holds the key.

“We’re never going to be totally immersive as long as we’re looking at a square, whether it’s a movie screen or whether it’s a computer screen,” he told the audience. “We’ve got to get rid of that, and we’ve got to put the player inside the experience, where no matter where you look you’re surrounded by a three-dimensional experience. That’s the future.”


This article first appeared in Issue #3 of Inside The Story Magazine.

Adam Westbrook

Written by

Video artist working at The New York Times. I write a weekly newsletter about visual storytelling and creativity. https://adamwestbrook.substack.com/

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