This short post is written for the monthly J-carn blogging conversation about journalism.
— That shower scene —
There’s a wonderful moment in the third act of the 2012 biopic Hitchcock. The premiere of Psycho is nearing the infamous shower scene. Hitch, played by Anthony Hopkins, waits in the foyer, his ear pressed to the theatre door. He’s listening for the audience reaction.
Then suddenly from within we hear the recognisable jabs of strings and the audience begins to scream. Hitchcock sways his arms like a conductor, anticipating every gasp and every cry from his audience.
He walks away satisfied.
It’s a wonderful nod to Hitchcock’s extraordinary ability to control his audience reaction. We call him the Master of Suspense, but really he was the Master of something much more interesting — something half a century later we’ve come to call User Experience — or UX.
It’s a design term employed in relation to a user’s interaction with an interface, be it an app, a website or a physical device. When our stories appear on, or as one of these things, I believe it is a term journalists, producers and storytellers of all stripes must understand UX too.
We should ask: how do we design stories to be great user experiences?
When you do this in non-fiction, you focus on designing a narrative that pulls an audience in and delivers them elegantly to a meaningful climax, instead of just creating a logical arrangement of the facts.
With each scene, each beat, Hitchcock would know what his audience would be thinking. How many journalists and non-fiction producers plot this when they create their stories? It might seem unfair to compare an iconic thriller director with a hack writing on the web but I am increasingly convinced that on a noisy internet in a complicated world, we owe it to our audiences to produce stories which are more than just a rehash of the inverted pyramid.
— A design thinking approach to story —
Design Thinking is about taking a disciplined, objective and methodical approach to solving a design problem: clearly defining the challenge, creating multiple solutions, picking the best and executing.
Combining this with story creates a process where we inject this same discipline into the narrative process, effectively removing the guesswork. In this case, the design problem is identifying and delivering the meaning of your story in the mind of your audience in the most memorable way.
— The process —
It begins by identifying the problem, in the case of narrative: what is the idea or the meaning we are trying to convey? In narrative terms this is known as the Controlling Idea and it is, from experience, the hardest part of the process. We must distill and refine a complex idea into an essence that is simple and yet loaded with meaning. Try to tell the jury ten things, a lawyer once quipped, and you tell them nothing.
Our goal as a storyteller is to bring our audience to this profound understanding in the most interesting way possible. In a designed story, they often reach this moment at the climax (Hollywood has exploding helicopters, we create explosive meaning).
And so we plot multiple solutions to the problem, using a solid understanding of narrative techniques.
Great storytellers in fiction and non-fiction from John McPhee to Rebecca Skloot to Vince Gilligan have praised the simple Index Card as crucial to their Story Design and I feel the same. Above is an initial narrative layout for a short video essay I produced about creativity and what it means today.
In orange, the events of the story are plotted, slowly moving towards the climax in an intentional order. Beneath, in pink, I have plotted the audience’s frame of mind at each stage. What do they know? What don’t they know? What do they want to know?
It’s very easy to settle on your first idea but challenging yourself past this point is a good discipline to have and a key part of design thinking. This commitment led to a second iteration (above), and the one which was eventually used in the film. Notice the rise and fall of the structure, a rough sketch of the emotional intensity of the story at various stages.
Objectifying the narrative like this makes it easier to create stories with intention, and easier to apply specific narrative devices in careful ways. It also keeps your ideas organised and stops you wondering off on a trail: essential on long and complex stories. And above all, it allows you to choose the most arresting, entertaining, confusing, enthralling journey to lead the audience somewhere that matters.
— The hard graft —
Story Design takes the four-step process of design thinking to build intentional narratives that take the audience on an engaging journey, to a meaningful climax, no matter the medium.
But it is difficult work and hard to master. The article, video, podcast, book will take longer as a result, and will probably be more expensive.
So I don’t expect to see Story Design widely adopted across organisations as I once did. Instead I see it as a replicable and valuable process for those artists and small organisations who are committed to quality over quantity and believe storytelling is a craft deserving of discipline.
It’s an approach that takes time, but ultimately creates stories which are timeless.
(For anyone who’s interested, here’s the essay which the above storyboards refer to)
Adam Westbrook is a web video maker in London & Paris. He runs Story Design for Non-fiction an online course about the principles of narrative non-fiction. He founded Delve, a video knowledge project which produces a new video essay every month. He is the editor of Inside the Story Magazine.