Story Tactics: Structure & Play

Sarah Dzida
Jun 6 · 3 min read

In these posts, I talk about how to utilize storytelling tactics in your career, with your clients, in your life, etc. Because, well, I’m doing some ideation on how to integrate it better into my design practices, too!

“Storytelling” is such a buzzword nowadays that it’s hard to remember, especially on the timeline of the digital-scape, how no one was paying attention to it in Silicon Valley 7 years ago. I know because I was in the publishing industry when print began to die, and a lot of story people were suddenly very uncertain about their futures.

So I’m glad that’s no longer the case. But in the present, I think “storytelling” often gets silo-ed into content marketing and micro-copy. Case in point: I was just on the phone with a potential client looking for content strategy. They’re in an industry that deals with a LOT of text—users need to digest a lot of industry jargon in order to to the key experience which is buy the industry’s product. They had copywriters, writing beautiful and interesting copy. But they couldn’t figure out how to get it into the user experience. I told them it wasn’t so much about the words but the design of those words and how the words were used across the experience. And that’s where I came in: as a UX person, I’m in charge of the overall blueprint of the page. And as a storyteller, I can use content to shape a story and then layout to help structure it in interesting ways.

I love playing with structure as a storyteller. That’s actually where I feel so much potential innovation happens. It’s what I like to do most of all in my personal creative work. When you mix genres, you play with expectations. And it’s inside of those combinations that magic happens!

To learn how to play with structure as a storyteller, you can learn a lot from the masters. So I thought I’d share some of my favorite structural storytellers and stories. It’s HOW the story is designed that makes it so very interesting. (Also it’s Bloomsday in just a week or so.)

  1. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner — It’s about a family transporting their matriarch for burial. But Faulkner tells this story by using a different perspective for each chapter. Each character’s voice comes across completely differently, and each character is very enmeshed in their own worldview and concerns. This book is famous for the one line chapter—My mother is a fish. Check out also The Sound and the Fury.
  2. Anything by Vladimir Nabokov but if I must choose then Invitation to a Beheading or Lolita. Every Nabokov book I’ve read is different. He changes structure, tone and style based on each narrator. In the first book, the protagonist is waiting for his execution, but they won’t tell him when. So the structure is very jagged and uneven. Our protagonist goes through stretches of narrative frenzy and ennui. Whereas in Lolita, the infamous Humbert is trying to woo his audience through a seductive confession. The beautiful language is a diversionary tactic to make you not notice all the horrible things he is doing.
  3. The movies of Wes Anderson but in particular The Grand Budapest Hotel or Moonrise Kingdom or The Royal Tenenbaums. (I love Wes Anderson.) All three actually tell the same story—there is life, there is love, there is chaos, there is death, and the world moves onward—but each is distinguished by their style and structure. Yeah, sure it’s a Wes Anderson film. But there’s no way you’d mistake the sound or visuals or characters from one for the other. And it’s fun to see his evolution as a filmmaker.
  4. The TV show Legion. I haven’t seen season 2 yet—so no spoilers! But the first season impressed me a lot with its storytelling. I didn’t even know it was a Marvel/superhero show until I did some research online. The cast and crew is creating something wholly unique and unlike any other super-powered narrative that’s existed before.

Of course, there are a lot more: Anne Carson, Maggie Nelson, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, Fiona Apple, The Books, Jane the Virgin, etc. We could have many hours of conversations over a cup of tea. So who are yours?

Sarah Dzida

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UX Strategist + Creative Storyteller