Writing Craft: So you want to be a digital story-teller, eh?
Remember: It’s the story, not the container that matters.
Thaddeus Howze: Author, essayist, and digital media creator
Why write speculative fiction? The answers are varied, numerous and wonderful; speculative fiction is designed to…medium.com
Part I — Digital Storytelling
Of storytelling and what it entails
If you just experienced a moment of nostalgia (or horror) it’s okay. This is one of the earliest forms of digital storytelling as we might recognize it today. This was one of the most complete tools which gave a user the ability to write, structure, organize, interact and create links between different collections of data. This program was created in 1987 and was called Hypercard. Okay, it’s isn’t the earliest tool for this kind of thing, but its somewhere between:
Why does it matter?
Because Hypercard predates almost every kind of serious graphic and text creation tool being used today for Digital storytelling and many of the ideas used back then would eventually become core elements of implementation, database/information management, visual/graphic representation and design used today. Hypercard was visionary. While no longer in use, there were many of its spiritual descendant still in operation, teaching a new generation about interface design and in some cases digital storytelling.
What is digital storytelling?
Digital storytelling is a short form of digital media production that allows everyday people to share aspects of their life story. The media used may include the digital equivalent of film techniques such as:
- Full-motion video with sound
- Animation or still images
- Audio only
- Or any of the other forms of non-physical media
This means any material that exists only as electronic files as opposed to actual paintings or photographs on paper, sounds stored on tape or disc, movies stored on film which individuals can use to tell a story or present an idea.
“Digital storytelling” is a relatively new term which describes the new practice of ordinary people who use digital tools to tell their ‘story’. Digital stories often present in compelling and emotionally engaging formats, and can be interactive.
The term “digital storytelling” can also cover a range of digital narratives (web-based stories, interactive stories, hyper-texts, and narrative computer games); It is sometimes used to refer to film-making in general, and as of late, it has been used to describe advertising and promotion efforts by commercial and non-profit enterprises.
The most important characteristics of a digital story are that it no longer conforms to the traditional conventions of storytelling because it is capable of combining still imagery, moving imagery, sound, and text, as well as being nonlinear and contain interactive features. The expressive capabilities of technology offers a broad base from which to integrate. It enhances the experience for both the author and audience and allows for greater interactivity.
With the arrival of new media devices like computers, digital cameras, recorders, and software, individuals may share their digital stories via the Internet, on discs, podcasts, or other electronic media. Digital storytelling combines the art of storytelling with multimedia features such as photography, animation, text, audio, voice-over, hypertext and video. Digital tools and software make it easy and convenient to create a digital story.
While Wikipedia mentions a particular person’s life story, I like to think you can use digital storytelling techniques to tell any kind of story, as long as all of the elements are digital and the technology used to distribute them can be as well.
Part II: Does Digital Storytelling Matter?
Yes, it matters.
It matters because with the profusion of technologies in the hands of regular people today, we have the capacity to tell our stories in a way never before told in the history of the world. Once upon a time the only way we told stories was sitting around in the dark with only the moon and the stars to light our nights. But the night was dark and filled with terrors, so we probably sat quietly until morning came. It was simply safer that way.
Animated GIF, fireplace: http://giphy.com/search/fireplace
Then one day, lightning struck a tree and fire was borne. We eventually learned to harness fire, keeping a coal alive for years at a time because fire offered warmth; it let us cook our food, and most importantly it kept away the dark. It offered us, for the first time, the ability to learn and share stories, tales of imagination which would get us through the rough times, remind us of cautionary tales, inspire us to greatness. Storytelling was born.
And for ten thousand years it pretty much remained thus. A rare and talented member of society would learn the stories of a group, and pass them to those with the best memories and gift for repeating the stories again and again. But stories were linked to lives. When an elder died, history died with them.
Irreplaceable information, how the animals moved, how the seasons changed, when the waters rose. This was before writing. Writing changed everything.
Writing made it possible for us to share thought, information, beyond the span of a person’s life. Writing was the first mind to mind transfer, it was the first time travel, it was the first time a soul could reach across time and share wisdom with someone a thousand years dead, and find unexpected commonality with this ancestor.
But writing was limited to the elite. The government, the church, those who needed information to be saved, stored and remembered. Writing was a unique skill, requiring time and training and resources. It was always expensive and thus for most of history, the only references we have are those of a commercial nature, shopping and shipping lists.
The creation of paper, its long and illustrious history did nothing to change this. Reading was still the advent of the rich and powerful, with only the Church or religions offering information to be stored. Until the year 1440.
Then the printing press was created. The ability to mass produce books would change the world. Literacy would come creeping to the masses and to where the true changes we needed to address allowing everyone for the first time the opportunity to learn to read.
Part III: No, it doesn’t.
It doesn’t matter because in the end, how we tell stories hasn’t changed. The most important part of any story is the basic element, the word. No matter how many bells, whistles, photos, animate gifs, videos, sound files you add to your document, the core of the story is still THE STORY. Write a good tale and it will transcend the page it is placed upon. Write a bad one and no amount of artistic sophistry will help it carry the day.
See: Not-A-Review: Jupiter Ascending Barely Takes Flight as a fine example of amazing CGI, beautiful music and excellent cinematography unable to buoy its story toward anything but tolerable.
We are hardwired to enjoy good storytelling, so much so we have entire philosophies around storytelling such as Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces. His concepts of the heroic meta-myth have been found to be a part of our stories for thousands of years; no matter the culture, often the underlying premise has shared overtones of this journey.
The most important part of any story is the mastery of the gift of writing. Choosing the right words, the right pacing, thematic elements, characters, plot, the right story’s molecular structure, as it were is what defines good storytelling and that doesn’t matter what technology you use to tell that story.
Tools such as the Periodic Table of Storytelling help writers, with the help of the extensive story analysis and database of TVtropes.org, to understand the numerous tropes and story elements found in modern media and showing examples from all types of stories. Like the periodic table it emulates, each element of the table defines a well-established trope in stories told. When placed in conjunction with other elements, a story molecule can be seen to exist and can be made to define any story ever told.
Even with such extensive and elaborate tools, none of these can replace a writer’s understanding of the craft, their persistence and commitment to writing, emulation of previous works, and the most difficult thing of all, the finding of one’s unique writing voice.
To make the most of digital storytelling, a bit of knowledge about the underlying theme of emulation and copying is in order. Like in writing, TVtropes will remove your illusions of writing a story never told. There are no untold stories. There are only well-retold ones. To explain this better, I turn to the amazing series: Everything is a Remix to explain how the act of creation is sometimes an act of re-creation, first.
Part IV — Tools of the Trade
What’s out there to tell better digital stories
Swiss Army Knife of the Blogosphere
WordPress is (in my opinion) the Gold Standard for creating a personalized and customizable web experience. Having worked with HTML and its descendants, WordPress puts an enormous amount of creative capacity in the hands of its users. WordPress has a simplified interface. This allows those users who lack a degree in user-interface design or web design to make attractive web experiences capable of supporting a variety of media including graphic images in .jpg and .png formats, Youtube video, audio and Twitter elements right in line with the text.
Users who are more knowledgeable can make WordPress do even more than the free version available to anyone at WordPress.com. Customized design and programming can make WordPress one of the most powerful content management systems on the market. Some of WordPress’ most notable users include: Techcrunch, The New Yorker, BBC America, The Official Star Wars Blog, Variety, Sony Music, MTV News, Beyonce, Ebay, and Sony’s PlayStation Blog.
Pros: Powerful interface, accepts and integrates almost every format, extremely configurable, themes and source can be purchased from 3rd party vendors; lots of online materials for reference. Enterprising users can learn quite a bit online.
Cons: Extremely challenging learning curve, requires capable hosting company if you are self hosting rather than using the WordPress.com site. Even when using the secondary simplified interface (which I do recommend) WordPress requires a bit of computer savvy, and the more you know the better it can work for you.
The Nation is America's oldest weekly magazine, serving as a critical, independent voice in American journalism and a…wordpress.org
YouTube and Vimeo
The holy grail of storytelling: animation with a purpose:
Online media and sound can be stored in Youtube (in ten minute chunks for non-subscribers). Despite this limitation, Youtube is one of the most digitally diverse sites for video in the world.
Users can, as long as they stay with the EULA agreement post almost anything they create using video tools from their iPhones, animation software, and digital films. Youtube is the heaven of the Do It Yourself crowd with tens of thousands of videos on anything from applying makeup to video-game walk-throughs.
The Bar to entry can be as low as a smartphone camera or a computer-digital desktop camera like the Logitech Webcam C615, capable of high resolution video, and a built-in omni-directional microphone. Online services like GoogleChat can allow you to create animation streams and put them on Youtube with little difficulty.
Examples such as RSA and Kurzgesagt are two examples of great storytelling and excellent attention-holding animation styles.
Pros: Video is attractive to our video-obsessed culture. High quality sound won’t hurt your chances of being seen and listened to either. As a story-telling tool using embedded video can be very useful either as an enhancing agent or explaining how something was done behind the scenes.
Cons: Video requires another skillset complete with its own software, both video and audio. Anything more than simple uploads can become quickly challenging using Youtube or Vimeo. The art of video and audio editing can also be a bar to entry since they are very mature technologies offering a number of options depending on the quality of one’s software choices.
Programs such as Adobe Premiere or Final Cut Pro are at the top of the video editing options available. They are also the peak of complexity merging audio and video track management enabling a complete studio editing experience.
Adobe Premiere Pro is a timeline-based video editing software application. It is part of the Adobe Creative Cloud, which includes video editing, graphic design, and web development programs.
Premiere Pro is used by broadcasters such as the BBC and CNN. It has been used to edit feature films, such as Gone Girl, Captain Abu Raed, and Monsters, and other venues such as Madonna’s Confessions Tour.
Premiere Pro supports high resolution video editing at up to 10,240 × 8,192 resolution, at up to 32-bits per channel color, in both RGB and YUV. Audio sample-level editing, VST audio plug-in support, and 5.1 surround sound mixing are available. Premiere Pro’s plug-in architecture enables it to import and export formats beyond those supported by QuickTime or DirectShow, supporting a wide variety of video and audio file formats and codecs on both MacOS and Windows. When used with Cineform’s Neo line of plug-ins, it supports 3D editing with the ability to view 3D material using 2D monitors, while making individual left and right eye adjustments.
— Wikipedia: Adobe Premiere Pro
However, there are other tools out there from which to learn the processes used in video and audio studio work that don’t have to break the bank and can teach the fundamentals of good audiovisual production.
Twitter & Company
Tools to make Twitter useful to a story telling audience
Described as a microblogging tool, Twitter allows writers to create micro-statements of 140 characters or less. Twitter can be integrated with pictures, Vines, gifs, and limited video links. It has also been used as a storytelling application in a number of ways.
- The first is to tell a story tweet by tweet. This stream of consciousness storytelling is very popular among the writing set, as it requires a bit of skill and deftness to keep reader watching while you write and think in real time.
- The second is using a tool such as Storify, a tool which can gather recent tweets and place them into a format where the can be read consecutively, have text and other pictures added to create a blog-like experience.
- News agencies, storytellers and alternative media companies use Storify to gather tweets from a variety of sources and weave them together into data rich documents using a variety of media including: Tweets, pictures from archives such as Imgur, or Getty Images, URL links, audio files and video links from Youtube. Examples of Twitter-driven media using Storify:
Yesterday I wrote a science fiction story based on a prompt. This was to shake out the cobwebs on my creative engine…storify.com
America's entering a new era of prosperity; if you're a member of the .01%. For the rest of you hardworking, commute…storify.com
Twitter has made it possible to embed tweets and their art in an easy to read format. In addition, the link is a live one allow a user to retweet or like the content from right where they are.
Books in audio formats have in recent years become extremely popular. People trapped in their cars in traffic jams, joggers or extreme fitness types who spend a lot of time in a gym have become the market for books in a digital format. The most well-known company for this service is Audible.com. High-quality audiobooks are the top of the food chain for writers.
Audible Inc. is a seller and producer of spoken audio entertainment, information, and educational programming on the Internet. Audible sells digital audiobooks, radio and TV programs, and audio versions of magazines and newspapers. Through its production arm, Audible Studios, Audible has also become the world’s largest producer of downloadable audiobooks. On January 31, 2008 Amazon.com announced it would buy Audible for about 300 million USD. The deal closed in March 2008 and Audible became a subsidiary of Amazon. The company is based in Newark, New Jersey’s 1 Washington Park high rise office building. Audible is the United States’ largest audio book producer and retailer.
Where everyone goes for online distribution
The second most well-known distributor of online digital content is Apple’s iTunes. iTunes specializes in music distribution but it is known for providing a number of resources for writers and podcasters who can host their own work and iTunes will make connections for those content providers.
iTunes is a media player, media library, online radio broadcaster, and mobile device management application developed by Apple Inc. It is used to play, download, and organize digital audio and video (as well as other types of media available on the iTunes Store) on personal computers running the OS X and Microsoft Windows operating systems.
While you practice your storytelling or your hiring of a reading team for your book, as you prepare for the big leagues, I recommend you check out the audio minor leagues using SoundCloud. My statement isn’t quite fair to SoundCloud which does provide a comprehensive and high quality tool for putting sound on the web. Soundcloud is affordable and user-friendly.
SoundCloud is a global online audio distribution platform based in Berlin, Germany, that enables its users to upload, record, promote, and share their originally-created sounds. According to the company’s data, in December 2014, the service attracts more than 175 million unique monthly listeners, while content creators upload about 12 hours worth of audio every minute. Founders Alexander Ljung and Eric Wahlforss are the chief executive officer (CEO) and chief technical officer (CTO), respectively.
SoundCloud was originally founded in Stockholm, Sweden, but was established in Berlin in August 2007 by Swedish sound designer Ljung and Swedish artist Wahlforss. The founders initially aspired to allow musicians to share recordings with each other, but the concept later transformed into a full publishing tool that also allowed musicians to distribute their music tracks
Easy high-quality sound manipulation; still budget friendly
Audacity is a free, easy-to-use, multi-track audio editor and recorder for Windows, Mac OS X, GNU/Linux and other operating systems. The interface is translated into many languages.
Audacity is free software, developed by a group of volunteers and distributed under the GNU General Public License (GPL). Free software is not just free of cost (like “free beer”). It is free as in freedom (like “free speech”). Free software gives you the freedom to use a program, study how it works, improve it and share it with others. For more information, visit the Free Software Foundation.
- Record live audio
- Record computer playback on any Windows Vista or later machine
- Convert tapes and records into digital recordings or CDs
- Edit WAV, AIFF, FLAC, MP2, MP3 or Ogg Vorbis sound files
- AC3, M4A/M4R (AAC), WMA and other formats supported using optional libraries
- Cut, copy, splice or mix sounds together
- Numerous effects including change the speed or pitch of a recording
- Learn More at : http://audacity.sourceforge.net/about/features
Poster child of the digital storytelling crowd
Slate promises it will be the new and easier way to create compelling stories and marketing elements for future storytellers. It does boast an interesting interface which on the face of it is fine for simple point and click presentations.
Slate works best when the artist has both their content written, a design in mind and images already chosen. Think of it as a form of web or page design using an iPad or computer monitor. Visually integrated, Slate merges the need for simple design with creating an online presence.
Its greatest benefits are it’s relative ease of use. If you have ever done page layout or web layout, this will feel very familiar and user-friendly. It does require some thought on what you are hoping to create. I also don’t see it for extremely long pieces, though I am certain someone will get around to writing a book using it (if they haven’t already).
I enjoyed playing with it and planned to create this particular document using it, but time was of the essence and learning a new tool when you are short on time is never wise. Having played with it and found parts of the interface intriguing, I will likely experiment again in the future.
Adobe Slate is a free iPad app that lets you turn your next newsletter, report, invitation or travel adventure into a…standout.adobe.com
A picture and about a thousand words
- A visual tool which has been modified to promote storytelling elements by using the caption windows as a means to provide additional story and hashtags for any particular piece of photography or art.
- Unfortunately, the implementation of Instagram and media manipulation tools is still in its infancy not allowing much in the way of visually formatting the work in media systems outside of Instagram.
- More of something to look forward to, or as a means of combining stories and visual art or photography inside of Instagram’s boundaries, for now.
On my Instagram feed, sandwiched between a photo of a bagel and one of a friend's Christmas tree, is a black-and-white…www.niemanlab.org
Things to think about
This list is by no means complete. There are lots of other products out there who deserved a mention but I simply ran out of time:
- Tumblr.com: Which has an amazing collection of visual storytellers and curators making interesting stuff all the time.
- Google+: While not as popular as many of the other social media tools, has quite a nice integration with Google’s other products such as Google Docs and is being used by creative people to create new kinds of publications
- Pinterest: While it is an interesting tool, integrating pictures and text is still evolving and I hope it will be even easier to mix the two. I have used it to promote my writing but it still feels a bit clunky to me.
- Facebook has offered a number of new blogging services inside of Facebook in addition to its already existing page, forum or group page systems in place. I admit I don’t talk much about them because Facebook is a siloed environment. Meaning anything you create there is locked in there and only able to be seen by other Facebook patrons.
- Facebook is now debuting Instant Pages, a means of creating a magazine-like experience inside of Facebook. I only recently discovered it and haven’t even tested it yet.
What are your favorite digital storytelling tools?
- Do you have things you’ve created with it you want people to know about?
- Are you experimenting with new ways of telling (good) stories with new media technologies?
- Have you used any of the tools I am recommending in this article?
Why I love digital storytelling
When it’s done right it can be amazing.
So you want to be a digital story-teller, eh? © Thaddeus Howze, 2016. All Rights Reserved
Thaddeus Howze is a writer, essayist, author and professional storyteller for mysterious beings who exist in non-Euclidean realms beyond our understanding. Since they insist on constant entertainment and can’t subscribe to cable, Thaddeus writes a variety of forms of speculative fiction to appease their hunger for new entertainment.
Thaddeus’ speculative fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies: Awesome Allshorts: Last Days and Lost Ways (Australia, 2014), The Future is Short (2014), Visions of Leaving Earth (2014), Mothership: Tales of Afrofuturism and Beyond (2014), Genesis Science Fiction (2013), Scraps (UK, 2012), and Possibilities (2012).