Storytelling: print, audio, digital and beyond

During the past few months, I’ve come across a number of different stories that have hung around in my brain for longer than expected. Each one explores different ways of storytelling: an unexpected context; an engagement with a physical object or space; a forced slowdown, or pause; a blurring of play and story. Here are five stories that have made an impression.

1. The medium is as important as the content

Chris Ware – Building Stories. A graphic novel about an apartment building in Chicago. Building Stories is made up of 14 separate parts – newspapers, comic strips, a board game, a cloth-bound children’s book – all collected together in a box. The reader can work through the different stories in any order; there is no one certain start and end point. It’s a linear narrative that can be approached in any number of ways; and depending on the order of reading, it changes the experience of the story.

What makes this graphic novel fascinating is the form chosen for each of the 14 parts of the story. Moving from a story printed as a poster, to another printed as a cloth-bound children’s book, evokes personal memories and associations.

I’m hugely envious of those who’ve not read this graphic novel and have the whole experience yet to come.

2. A story to encourage dawdling

Dear Esther. This game / story was recommended to me by @prehensile. Dear Esther feels like a computer game, but it’s something more than this. The reader / player begins near an abandoned lighthouse on a Scottish island, which encourages exploration. The eerie solitary island setting and abandoned buildings suggest a horror, or a thriller story. But Dear Esther is neither of those things – although it took a while for the nerves to settle, and to trust that there wasn’t a murderous stranger hiding behind each half-opened door.

Dear Esther is a linear narrative drawn through a location. It gives you freedom to explore an island, guided by fragments of narrative. Unlike a game, there are no goals, no achievements, apart from the journey – the story; and that encourages exploring, looking and thinking in a very dream-like way.

In a similar vein of part story, part game, I’m looking forward to seeing @FaberDigital / @storymechanics’s digital adaptation of John Buchan’s classic, The Thirty Nine Steps, due for release in spring 2013.

3. Listening and letting go

Daniel Morden – The Odyssey (live spoken word performance at Warwick Arts Centre). Listening to a story being read out loud isn’t anything new. But the experience of being read to as an adult, by a live performer, in an age of books, digital, TV and theatre, feels raw and exciting.

I was captivated by Daniel Morden’s performance of the Odyssey when I saw (heard?) it at Warwick Arts Centre. It was different from a book reading, an interview or lecture. This kind of reading is an implicit allowance to let go, to be allowed to drift, to let your eyes wander around the room, or to close, while your brain is completely engaged with the words. It’s about allowing the listener to imagine the story around the framework of the spoken words, while doing nothing other than sitting or lying still. Spoken word is a colouring book for the brain.

Another thing that struck me afterwards: hearing the slight movements and breathing of other people in the audience felt like the pops and clicks of a much-loved vinyl record. Very intimate storytelling, and utterly compelling listening.

4. ‘Each snowflake added to the depth’

New York Times – Snow Fall. This project was shared over Twitter when it launched late 2012 – and with good reason. Snow Fall is a great example of multimedia storytelling on the web. It makes the most of different media – audio, video, animation, graphics – without any element feeling extraneous. Every element is carefully chosen and placed, creating a story that could belong in a weekend newspaper, but engages the reader so much more online. A great example of choosing the right medium for the story, and using that medium to its fullest.

Robert Mills has compiled a list of other good examples of web-based storytelling on his blog.

5. Digital without a screen

Tim Burrell-Saward & Mike Kann – Madam Bottwright’s Bureau. Digital storytelling often uses devices with screens: Kindle; mobile; laptops; web. But what about digital without screens, where a story is embedded into an object, or hidden within a space to be explored?

Madam Bottwright’s Bureau is a physical object, a wooden writing bureau, holding secrets that reward the curious. People exploring the object find each of the bureau’s drawers locked; but how to open them?

On his blog, Tim writes about the background to the piece, commissioned by Designersblock:

‘Designersblock gave the starting brief of recreating the writing bureau that the landlord’s wife, Madam Bottwright, used to conduct her not-entirely legal secret trade as brothel madam. We decided that she would naturally have wanted all of her secrets safely locked away’.

There are different parts to move and explore, including a gas light that changes colour; wooden figures that can be turned in different directions; and a musical lock, where knocking a rhythm on the desk surface triggers one of the drawers to unlock.

Part play, part story, this is a fascinating form for storytelling, embedding a story into an object. It’s something I’m investigating with my own Library of Lost Books project, a book that tells a linear narrative as a reader interacts with it through gestures.

I’d love to see more storytellers work in this area, blending digital technologies with physical objects to create new ways to experience stories.

Nikki Pugh is creating some exciting work in this area – take a look at her playful project Secret Police Disco.

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