Seven Elements of a Digital Story according to John Lambert. Click here for his full text.

Overview 1. Point of View 2. Dramatic Question
3. Emotional Content 4. Gift of Your Voice 5. Power of Soundtrack
6. Economy 7. Pacing Return to Workshop Page


John's Overview:

Judging from the vast number of books published on the subject, the ways to approach crafting a story are endless. There is only the way that works for any one person. In our classes, the participants arrive with an enormous range of skills and life experience that suggest a particular path for the structure and style of their story. Coaching the storyteller through the conception of their story is a dynamic process, not a prescribed one. An entire range of issues must be considered while offering suggestions, both technical and emotional.

When we succeed in providing the right sort of feedback to the creator, we often witness an extraordinary transformation in the quality of story. It is enormously gratifying for us as teachers to bring a new story to life. To see the eyes of the creator well up with tears of surprise and joy at what he or she has accomplished, and to see others moved and inspired by the power of the piece, is what keeps us going, class after class.

Two years into teaching our workshop, we decided to introduce each class to the elements of constructing a multimedia story. Our principal consideration in preparing this lecture was to make it brief and inspirational. Between their emotional fragility in exploring a personal issue and their feelings of inadequacy about working with computers or multimedia, the last thing our students needed was someone dictating a specific formula to them. So we kept it simple, illustrating our few points with examples of student work from previous classes.

Our experience has also shown us that even people with years of training in various kinds of storytelling and communication lose touch with the fundamentals. Our hope is that people will use this as a starting point and then do as we have done: develop mentors, develop a library of resources, and deepen their practice to improve their skills and develop the level of mastery that makes sense for their occupation and interests.

The elements we describe in the pages that follow give you a great deal to consider in constructing your story. We emphasize our storytelling process in a group setting because we believe that most of us do not just read a book and do the work. If you are reading this disassociated from some group process, we strongly suggest you go find at least one collaborator or fellow storyteller. Storytelling is meant to be a collaborative art. It is much more realistic this way, and much more fun.

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1) Point of View

What makes a story a story? Dictionary definitions may call it a narrative, a tale, a report, an account, and that would seem to cover it. But hold on. When we think of a story, true or imagined, we do not consider someone sitting in front of us reciting a series of events like a robot: "This happened, then this happened, and then this happened." Hardly anybody ever narrates the events in their lives without some good reason for it.

We believe all stories are told to make a point. Most human stories follow the pattern of describing a desire, taking us through the action that desire led us to perform, and what realization came about as a result of our experiencing the events of our actions in relationship to our original desire. By point of view, we primarily are addressing this issue of defining the specific realization you, as an author, are trying to communicate within your story. Because every part of the story can service this point, it becomes imperative to define this goal in order to direct the editing process.

We need to look no further than proverbs to illustrate what we mean by a point of view. "A stitch in time saves nine." "A penny wise and a pound foolish." These are the points of stories, what somebody realized is the actual result, versus the desired effect, of a planned action. We may have forgotten the stories, but we remember the point. In novels or theater, another way of expressing the point of the story is the central premise. For example, in King Lear, the point or central premise is "blind trust leads to destruction." In Macbeth, it is "unbridled greed leads to destruction." Every part of the dramatic action can be boiled down to serving these points of view, and our connection with the story often succeeds or fails in how we understand the central premise as the operating context for the story’s action. In well-crafted stories, the point may be a little less apparent than the moral of a fairy tale, and it might require some thought, but if the story touched you, chances are you can define some central points or the transformative realizations the author intended.
Example: In 1994, we assisted on a project called The Answer, created by the husband-and-wife team of Rob Decker and Suzanne Serpas. They were both psychologists with an interest in the potential of autobiography as a therapeutic tool. They came to us with a large box of stock commercial images and an ambitious concept to provide a metaphoric look at the importance of a humanist perspective on the world, a kind of commercial for their brand of psychotherapy. We felt that they had defined their subject so broadly that they would not be able to complete the project over the weekend. We also felt that their personal connection to the point of the story was lost. We suggested they narrow the subject and asked if they had an example of the kind of realization they wanted their audience to experience. Rob subsequently offered the story that became the script of the final piece. They simply juxtaposed Rob reciting the story with the standard family images and home video and voilà: a powerful little tale about their realization about how we define our essential human values from an early age.

In thinking about the point of a story, we should also be considering the reason for the story. Why this story, now, for this group of people? Defining these issues inevitably helps to define which of the many proverbial summations we might take from a given story. Here is a typical give-and-take situation on defining the purpose of a story:I want to summarize a recent conference I attended abroad as an interesting story. My initial approach is to show some material from the conference, talk about the highlights, and how it failed or succeeded at meeting or exceeding my expectations. I run this past my boss, who reminds me that the presentation is for a specific group in the company working on issues that were only addressed in a single workshop. A general summary is too broad. So I adjust my story again, describing the give and take between participants and a balance of positive and negative insights about the subject being addressed in the context of the larger conference. But my boss suggests that the purpose of the presentation is not dry analysis, but inspiration, so could the positive, or particularly inspiring, insights be highlighted from the session? So I adjust the story and remove the critical or negative feedback. Finally my boss says, "Well, that is kind of boring and dry, can’t we spice it up?" I scratch my head. "Spice it up," I think. "Heck, it just wasn’t that spicy. But, hmm, that gives me an idea."
I remember, during the informal sightseeing part of the trip, hearing someone talk about the maritime history of the city and its involvement in the spice trade. A critical innovation in the design of the merchant ships led to their capturing a large part of the spice trade and turned the city into a thriving metropolis. I think, "What if?" and go back to work.

The final piece is about innovation: mixing sightseeing scenes, a few old historical photos, and images of people attending the conference into a story about this maritime innovation and a script that extends a few nautical metaphors to set up the sound bites of the conference highlights. The point of this story may be that it is best to please your boss, but you can see also how a specific definition of the project’s intended uses drives your definition of the central premise, which then prescribes all of the editing decisions.

We believe all stories are personal. Even our rather straightforward corporate report carries with it the indelible stamp of the author. For most storytellers, couching the story in the first-person point of view, either throughout the story or as a frame around the story, is an invitation to hearing the story in a more personal context. This tends to increase our attention as we look for insights about you as a storyteller. That is, "This is my version of events and my realizations, and I am self-aware about how my own prejudices, expertise, and frames of reference affect the ‘truth’ about the story." We are becoming increasingly sophisticated at discerning the authenticity of information. In general, we prefer the frank admission of responsibility that the first-person voice provides to the authoritative, seemingly neutral, but nevertheless obscure stance of the third-person voice.
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2) A Dramatic Question: Simply making a point doesn’t necessarily keep people’s attention throughout a story. Well-crafted stories, from Shakespeare to Seinfeld, set up a tension from the beginning that holds you until the story is over. To use our desire-action-realization model, we are talking about how we establish a central desire in the beginning in such a way that the satisfaction or denial of that desire must be resolved in order for the story to end. The conflicts that arise between our desires being met and the desire of other characters or larger forces to stop us creates the dramatic tension.

Dramatic and storytelling theorists, anthropologists, philosophers, and psychologists since the time of Aristotle have attempted to analyze how the action of a story is established and sustained. We have found that delineating structural story components for students who are essentially working in a short narrative form is much too complicated. Writing a script that slavishly follows a formal structure tends to create wooden, melodramatic writing that we can smell a mile off as not reflecting the author’s true voice. So we have reduced these several concepts to one.
We refer to a term coined from dramatic theory, "the dramatic question," to summarize an approach. In a romance, will the girl get the guy? In an adventure, will the hero reach the goal? In a crime or murder mystery, who did it? When any of these questions are answered, the story is over. Again, sophisticated story making distinguishes itself by burying the presentation of the dramatic question, like the realization, in ways that do not call attention to the underlying structure.
Tanya’s Story was created in the very first digital storytelling class we taught at the American Film Institute in 1993. It remains one of the most poignant and efficient expressions of digital storytelling we have experienced and also has served as an ideal example of a number of the elements we are currently describing, particularly the dramatic question. The statement of the dramatic question is elegantly posed and resolved in the first and closing lines. Monte states at the beginning that she didn’t understand friendship. At the end she leaves us with a rather open-ended statement, "I couldn’t believe she knew my middle name." It does not take much sophistication to interpret the dramatic question, "What is the meaning of friendship?" The answer suggests that it is the ways in which we un-self-consciously exchange intimate information with each other.

In this case, the particular meaning of the resolution of the dramatic question is in fact the central point of the story. But here is an important distinction. What we are really talking about with the dramatic question is a structural "setup," corresponding to a logical "payoff." The meaning of the story, as we have suggested, doesn’t have to have anything to do with the structure, just as there are hundreds of ways to draw different meanings out of any given sequence of events.
We are trained from early on to recognize that different dramatic questions often lead to predictable answers. If the question is about how the girl gets the guy, our immediate assumption is that either the guy, or someone the guy knows, doesn’t want the guy to be gotten. As a result, manipulating expectations is precisely what entertains us. What if the girl thinks she wants one guy, but she really wants the guy who is trying to stop her from getting the original guy? What if she decides to chuck the whole thing and become a nun? Are we unhappy? Only if there was nothing to suggest that these events were consistent with her behavior will we be confused or dismayed. A good author will make you think the central dramatic question was "Will the girl get the guy?" when it really was "Will the girl find happiness?", and we have learned early on that she doesn’t define herself completely by her role as spousal partner. If you watch movies, you know the possibilities for manipulating the dramatic question are endless. When we have the expectation pulled out from under us in a story, when the realization is dramatically different than the setup, it tickles us. The classic short story does the same, leading us quickly into a direction that establishes our expectations, only to twist the expectation at the end. The more you learn about dramatic structure, the more you dissect familiar stories into their structural components. The more you experiment with rewarding or surprising your audience’s expectations established by a dramatic question, the more rich and complex your stories will become.

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3) Emotional Content: All of us have been in the middle of a story, a novel, a film, a theatrical or storytelling performance and found ourselves emotionally engaged. It is as if the story had reached inside our consciousness and taken hold of us, and we know in that moment that we are in for a tearful or joyous ride. This effect is principally a result of a truthful approach to emotional material. A story that deals directly with the fundamental emotional paradigms–of death and our sense of loss, of love and loneliness, of confidence and vulnerability, of acceptance and rejection–will stake a claim on our hearts. Beginning with content that addresses or couches itself in one or another of those contexts will improve the likelihood that you are going to hold an audience’s attention. These are areas that for many of us are a challenge to express in a piece of personal writing or media. We may lack the experience of trying, as most if not all of our formal training processes in narrative–from scholarly essays to journalistic reports–stress distance and de-emotionalized perspectives. Or we may be unresolved about the emotional material, keeping us from gaining perspective or meaning from these experiences. The result of our failure to express our most honest understandings about these kinds of subject matter can lead us to trivialize or overdramatize the material. It can also lead us to being simply overwhelmed by feelings that are brought to the surface. Is it worth the effort to expose oneself emotionally? In most cases, it is. In our experience with the group production process, people value the courage to explore the intimate space of emotional vulnerability so highly that they will go out of their way to support those willing to attempt emotionally sensitive stories. But sometimes we are forced to steer students away from overpowering material, to select a different approach, or abandon the subject of the story entirely. This part of digital storytelling requires plain old-fashioned common sense and maturity. Along these lines, many people that read this may want to experiment with teaching or leading workshops as a way to mine powerful stories from a group of associates for the purposes of linking those emotions to a product, cause, or service. We want to emphasize that exploring emotional material is a personal decision.

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4) The Gift of your Voice: In our classes we encourage the storyteller to record a voiceover. Students may want to make a piece with only images and music, and some are working on stories that they feel are best suited to a particular voiceover or character representation. What we have learned in this process is in itself revealing. I grew up with a lisp. When I was seven or eight, I had to go to speech therapy classes thso I wouldn’t thspeak thso listhpisthly. Like most kids, it made me hate the way my voice sounded. That didn’t stop me from being the class clown and being the ham in the school productions, or perhaps it emboldened me. But when I first ran into a tape recorder, I couldn’t stand the way I sounded. And frankly, it still bothers me. Having worked with a lot of people who are creating a piece of video that includes their voice for the first time, I realize I am not alone. Either we feel we don’t have the clearest diction, or our voices waver, or we are too soft, or too gravelly, or just not like those caramel-textured assertive voices that come across our television sets and radios. Truly, our voice is a great gift. Those of us fortunate enough to be able to talk out loud should love our voices, because they tell everyone so much about who we are, both how strong we can be and how fragile. We listen to words spoken in various inflections and go into different modes of listening, which are also different modes of conscious interaction. When we hear conversational tones, we are listening for the moment that suggests response or affirmation, the "Oh I agree, but ..." or the "hm-hmm." In a speech we are listening for an applause line. In a lecture, we are listening for the major points, the outline. In a story, we are listening for an organic rhythmic pattern that allows us to float into reverie. In the place of reverie we have a complex interaction between following the story and allowing the associative memories the story conjures up to wash over us. Consistency in presentation is what allows us in the audience to participate, and breaking consistency, such as a person who is reciting a monologue suddenly asking someone in the front row a question, is jarring.

We have one specific concern to address about recording our voices: reading versus reciting the script. We all know what it feels like to be at a public event when someone reads a speech from beginning to end. It is downright uncomfortable. We do not know how to interact. We are caught someplace between waiting for the speaker to give pause for us to respond and wanting to drift into reverie, but the cadence and style of presentation does not allow it. We also know why people end up reading texts. They are petrified to speak and/or they simply do not have the time to practice the speech enough so that they can recite from memory. Similarly, in recording a voiceover from a script in our workshops, there usually is a combination of fear and lack of time for practice that means a reading seems like the only option.

The easiest way to improve upon a recording of your voice is to keep the writing terse. Record several takes of the text. The nice thing about a digital sound file is that you can mix and match each of the recording takes to create the best-sounding version. We suggest you work at speaking slowly in a conversational style. Finally, digitally constructing the story from a recorded interview is always a good fallback.

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5) The Power of the Soundtrack: In our experience working with beginning students, their intuitive sense of what is appropriate for a media piece is by far their most developed skill in the storytelling arts. In an era where we describe an entire generation as "the children of MTV," as people defined by their absorption of visual media in the context of music, is it any real surprise?
We have come to believe that people now walk around with soundtracks running in their heads. Those soundtracks set the mood of our day, change the way we perceive the visual information streaming into our eyes, and establish a rhythm for our step. It is as if by listening to or imagining a specific slice of music, we are putting ourselves into our own movie, a movie that puts our life into a clearer perspective, or at least entertains us. From earlier and earlier ages we are aware of the trick that music can play on our perception of visual information. We are all aware of how music in a film stirs up an emotional response very different than what the visual information inherently suggests. The sudden opening of the door becomes the prelude to disaster, when the swelling treble of orchestrated strings calls out suspense to our ears. A sweetly flowing melody over two people looking at each other for the first time signals that these are the romantic characters we will be following in the plot. We know upbeat music means happy endings, slow and tremulous music means sadness is forecast, fast music means action, heroic music means battles and victorious heroes are likely. We know the stereotype, and it is repeated enough from one show to the next that we often laugh when we catch ourselves being caught up in the manipulation. As such, even the beginning student makes appropriate decisions about music that either play into or against the stereotype.

The majority of our students use popular lyrical music. While the songs usually work, mistakes are sometimes made in mixing the lyrical story of the song and the voiceover narrative in a way that gives us an unintended conflict of meaning. I remember a young student who liked a particular song that had an appropriate tempo and timbre for his story about his family, but in listening a bit more to the lyrics, we realized the song was a fairly steamy account of passion. We asked if that was intended and the student admitted that he had not really thought about what was being said in the song. Instrumental music, be it classical, folk, jazz, or ambient, is often better suited to the style and meaning of the story’s text and visual narratives. The digital context makes testing a particular music in the video much easier than in film and analog media, and so experimentation is encouraged. You may find that, by going against the expected, you create another complete layer of meaning that adds depth and complexity to your story. Are music videos, or the juxtaposition of music and visual information in a media piece without text and voiceover, storytelling? The answer is yes. However, the specificity of language and the complexity of information that the human voice provides adds enormous emotional substance and authenticity to the media story. So far we have not experienced a single music video that created as powerful an emotional impact as the same story would have with the addition of the author’s voice.

The other area of sound use popular in the film and video tradition is sound effects and other elements of sound design beyond the mix of music and text. There is no question that the greater design of ambient sound or appropriate noises can add complexity to the narrative. They also can be juxtaposed to add surprise and humor. The development of these skills should be considered if the storytelling projects call for an increased sense of realism or, for that matter, surrealism. Otherwise, it is perhaps best not to experiment with sound effects as their incidental use is usually more of a distraction.

Using one’s own voice and existing personal archival material has the advantage of being copyrighted by you as the author. By using other's music, you are also likely crossing into the territory of deciding what should be the appropriate fair use of the copyrighted material. Put simply, if you are going to make money directly or indirectly by the presentation or distribution of the piece you have created, then you should have the composer's permission to use the music. Fortunately, numerous companies have developed copyright-free music collections and software to assist you in designing a soundtrack that is wholly yours.

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6: Economy: Despite our emphasis on story, text, and sound, digital media for many storytellers is principally a visual medium that integrates the other elements. As a visual medium we are concerned with composition and juxtaposition of visual elements in a single screen and over time. Since our emphasis is in repurposing existing images and video, your initial compositional considerations were already decided by your relative skill in shooting a picture or framing a video. Our concern is more with sequential composition. In any story we use a process called closure. Closure means recognizing the pattern of information being shown or described to us in bits and pieces, and completing the pattern in our minds. In spoken word or a written narrative, we are operating at a high level of closure as we are filling in all the pictures suggested by a text or words from images and memories in our brains. If I start a story, "Once upon a midnight dreary..." you are likely to immediately fill in a mental image of a foreboding castle, rainstorms, ravens, the works. We need specific sensual details, shapes, smells, textures to be stated for us to fill in the picture in our mind.

Storytelling with images means consciously economizing language in relationship to the narrative that is provided by the juxtaposition of images. There are two tracks of meaning, the visual and the auditory, and we need to think about the degree of closure each provides in relation to the other. In a normal screenwriting process, the writer is conscious of the visual information as the context for the spoken dialogue or narration, and he or she writes into the visual backdrop of the scenes. If the writer and director do a good job, they will shoot just what is necessary to keep the story visually rich while moving forward, with only the minimum of dialogue and number of scenes necessary to allow us to envision the larger story.

However, we generally are working with projects where the images and scenes exist prior to the script, as in the family album. So the natural approach is to make a visual narrative, to line up the photos on a table, and then figure out what to say about the pictures. The advantage is that you can be very specific about what information you must fill in to make sense of the narrative. The disadvantage is that if there is too big of a gap for the audience to close between images, you are left with holes in your story that you have to invent pictures to fill. We have decided that there is no right or wrong way to compose in this situation–script first or image sequence first. Different people have intuitive skills in the visual or text modes.

Economy is generally the largest problem with telling a story. Most people do not realize that the story they have to tell can be effectively illustrated with a small number of images and video, and a relatively short text. We purposely put limitations on the number of images and video clips our students use. We also suggest that, if they are starting with a script, they create a storyboard with their material and look at every possible way to edit their words prior to beginning the production process.

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7: Pacing: Often the most transparent feature of a story is how it is paced. Pacing is considered by many to be the true secret of successful storytelling. The rhythm of a story determines much of what sustains an audience’s interest. A fast-paced movie with many quick edits and upbeat music can suggest urgency, action, nervousness, exasperation, and excitement. Conversely, a slow pace will suggest contemplation, romanticism, relaxation, or simple pleasures. Changing pace, even in a short digital story, is very effective. Our narrative can have starts and stops, pauses, and quickly spurted phrases. You can always change music tempo to build a sense of action or release. Moving from a panning effect on a still image that slowly stretches out our concentration, followed by a burst of images in staccato succession, staggers our senses and vitalizes the media piece.
And vitality is the essential issue. Good stories breathe. They move along generally at an even pace, but once in a while they stop. They take a deep breath and proceed. Or if the story calls for it they walk a little faster, and faster until they are running, but sooner or later they have to run out of breath and stop and wheeze at the side of the road. Anything that feels like a mechanical rhythm, anything that does not allow for that pause, to let us consider what the story has revealed, soon loses our interest. Again, trust your own sense of what works. Everyone moves at his or her own pace.

Now you're ready to get started

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