The ‘S’ Word

‘Storytelling’. At this point, it’s gone beyond buzzword, and is fast approaching meaningless. Hell, even as I began writing something here, I was confronted by a prompt inviting me to ‘Tell your story’.

Really? Really?

Advertisers cottoned on to this ‘story’ thing, too, so now we’re invited not just to ‘give a gift’, but to ‘give a story’.

That doesn’t even make sense.

Did you know that every car has a story too? Well, that’s handy, Mr. Insurance company.

You’re insuring narrative now?

The virus has even spread to that most dry of places, the application release notes. Now, I know plenty of people who like this kind of thing, seeing it as charming and so on. But release notes have an actually important use — if I’m going to download your software, I want to know darn well what I’m letting on to my device — and what I’m spending my bandwidth and memory downloading. Or do we just put our trust in Facebook et. al. and give them free reign (and yes, I know the answer is most likely ‘of course, no-one cares about this).

No. No. NO. NO!

This just gives me the Ben Kingsley vibes. And I don’t mean Gandhi.

I’m not alone in this. Stefan Sagmeister has some choice words for people who brand themselves ‘storytellers’ when they’re already doing perfectly interesting jobs already (NSFW). I think Sagmeister’s perhaps a little too harsh, but you get the point.

The thing is, as someone who’s been researching, prototyping, and generally banging on about narrative structure and so on for eight years or more, it’s annoying. You find something that you’re genuinely interested in, and slowly, slowly it gets more and more infested until the term becomes meaningless, and widely derided.

Of course, I’m not claiming any special treatment here. I’ve given talks at conferences making a case that Sir Tim Berners-Lee, and by extension, web designers, are alchemists and magicians, so who am I to talk? (It was tongue in cheek, I can assure you)


There are so many books out there about scriptwriting and storytelling, so many definitions (most of which are strangely lacking when it comes to the use of the term in the online community), that it seems perverse to offer up a new one. And yes, I’m in danger of burying the lede hugely here. But. Indulge me.

“Storytelling is the revelation of connected information, over time.”

There you go. Now I guess I’ve got to justify it. Well:

Time is obviously important. As far as I’m aware, we humans haven’t yet mastered the ability to take in an overwhelming amount of networked information in an instant, so any kind of storytelling has to factor in time. It has to be at least to some degree, serial in nature. This happens, then that happens. As the great sage, The League Against Tedium, once said:

“I decree that history shall be rewritten. This time, without any punctuation, so that it is just one long sentence, linked by the phrase ‘and then what happened was…’”

The TV series 24, with its’ often-aped split screen effect, probably comes closest to breaking free of the traditional serial narrative restriction. But still, that brings us on to the second part of the definition.

Connected information. To be a narrative, there has to be some kind of connection. Often, these connections are explicit. People are related to each other, events are caused by, and cause other events, and so on. These are the pure ‘facts’ of the fictional universe that is strung together, and stored in your mind, as you process a story.

But these connections can be implicit, too. Juxtaposition, the whole art of editing, and directing, of choosing what follows what, which words to use, what’s in shot or in focus, all of these are designed to seed implicit connections in the minds of the audience.

Which is one of the beauties of storytelling — and probably the thing that the marketers and #brand #storytellers love and hate in equal measure. Those implicit connections can be influenced, sure, but they can’t be guaranteed, or controlled. We all interpret these things differently. Which is a difficult, but beautiful thing.

One thing I spend a great deal of time telling people is that the Web (by which I simply mean the irreducible parts of it — URLs and hyperlinks), imperfect as it is, is possibly the ideal medium for communicating stories. It gives us a chance to construct these beautiful, complex webs of information that represent narrative in a way that has only ever been possible to experience in a singular, linear way (so much so that we’ve had to invent the flashback, the split screen and so on to get around it). The telling has to remain linear, but the heart of the story — that’s a Web.

But it also gives us the opportunity to share, and compare, our interpretations of those stories — we can take those raw building blocks of narrative — the people, the places, the events, and build our own connections between them. Fan fiction as network, as it were. The plural point of view.

It doesn’t mean all points of view are of equal weight and value — they should be backed up by sources, evidence and so on (though humorous ones may take their strength precisely from their lack of, or obsessive attention to, detail — I’m looking at you, Bigger Luke).

Anyway, my point being — storytelling relies on connections between the things introduced in the story — either explicit, or implicit, or even made by someone not involved in the creation (and telling) of the story.

So finally…

The revelation. As I’ve said, and even when we use techniques like split-screen, storytelling is about serial communication of information. We could, of course, reveal everying all at once. Indeed, the danger of the story-as-navigable-web approach I’ve outlined above is…

If you shine a blinding white light on the world of a story all at once, there is no thrill, no enjoyment, of the narrative. So storytelling is dedicated to revealing elements of that world, in a very particular order — shining a flashlight into the dark, and lifting the fog of war, piece by piece.

Choosing what to reveal, and in what order, so that the audience gets a satisfying, enjoyable, complete experience (these are all optional, even in ‘good’ stories, of course), is a vital skill.

Ultimately, it comes down to the skilled architecture, and communication, of information — whether that’s real, or fictional. So, next time you use the word storytelling, or you want that in your job title — have a think — is that what you really mean? If so, great. More power to those original architects of information — the storytellers.