Elements of Digital Storytelling

“To hell with facts! We need stories!”
Ken Kesey

Amidst the vast amount of reading and collecting I’ve done for writing this blog post, I wanted to first ask myself something:

From my own experiences, what do I know to be true about stories and storytelling?

Stories affect us.  We find meanings in stories, whether it’s the storyteller’s intention or not—meanings that vary from person to person.  We distinguish between “good stories” and “bad stories” — good stories are pleasant and hold our attention while bad stories boring and easily overlooked.  Likewise, these labels are affected by personal preference.  Stories can teach us something, pass along a message, make an important point, or purely entertain us.  They even have the ability to touch us on a deep emotional level because they offer up certain emotions or situations we can relate to.

Storytelling is a form of communication.  As far as we know, every human culture on earth tells stories in at least one way, shape, or form.  Stories represent a significant role in how we are able communicate with one another.  Storytelling has roots in our most basic human ability to encode and decode. It is one of the many ways we connect the things that happen around us and make sense of them.

Stories are everywhere, and we all tell them. I tell stories. You tell stories. Your mom’s twice-removed, great-uncle Ed tells stories.  The one thing that pretty much all of us have in common is that we construct our own stories every day. These stories could be built from any number of things (people, places, objects, events, experiences, emotions, etc.), but it doesn’t negate the fact that we are telling them.  If you have the means to communicate and the consciousness to experience things around you, then you have the ability to tell a story.

In fact, storytelling comes so naturally to us that often we don’t even realize we’re telling them.

“Storytelling…is as natural to human beings as opposable thumbs, as upright posture.” -Jonathan Gottschall, from Why We Tell Stories (2015).

So then what is a story?

If a narrative is a sequence of events that is connected by time and causality, then a story is simply a narrative with a purpose (Martin, 2011). Stories are taking the noise that happens around us all day, every day, and reconstituting and reorganizing it into an understandable format.  Author Frank Rose calls stories “a signal within the noise” (2011).

To simplify things even further, Bryan Alexander recognizes that “[s]tories are assemblages, storytelling is a kind of scaling up” (2012).

These stories (read: sequences) can occur in many different orders.  Some people like to call these “shapes.”  In a short lecture recorded on YouTube, Kurt Vonnegut recognizes three of the simplest shapes as “Man in Hole,” “Boy Gets Girl,” and “The Most Popular Story in Western Civilization (a.k.a. Cinderella Story)” (Comberg, 2010).

Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories
Image from user dky718, hosted on Visually

I believe it’s important to consider the existence of many other shapes that stories can take—some far more complex than others, and perhaps some that haven’t even been thought of yet.  But on the most basic level, every story has three things in common: a problem, a transformation, and a solution.  These three things are what Jason Ohler calls The StoryCore (2012).

Jason Ohler diagram of his Story Core

Now I have to ask myself, if all of these basic principles are applicable to what we consider “traditional storytelling,” then are they also true for digital storytelling?  Absolutely.  A story is still a story—a means of communication, a vehicle for generating understanding.  Throughout thousands of years of humans telling stories, the one thing that has truly evolved has been the way we tell the stories (Sabia, 2011).


However, simply stating that digital storytelling is “telling stories with digital technologies” is the understatement of the century! (Alexander, 2012).  Sure, we are telling stories and we are telling them on digital technologies, but there is so much more to consider.

For one, we must make distinctions between “analog” and digital storytelling.

As a general rule of thumb, Bryan Alexander presents us with two criteria to consider something as digital storytelling:  1) it must be “born digital,” and 2) it must “be published in a digital format” (p. 15, 2012). If anything, this makes me feel even more confused.  If a book is written in Microsoft Word before it’s published as a physical book, couldn’t it be considered digital storytelling?  What if that same book is delivered through a Kindle?  Or what if I watch a movie on Netflix that was filmed using digital cinematography and is edited with computer-generated imagery (CGI)?  When all is considered, this working definition of digital storytelling is actually a bit of a misnomer.

I’d rather recognize digital storytelling from a different perspective.


“The internet is the first medium that can act like all media — it can be text, or audio or video, or all of the above. It’s nonlinear, thanks to the world wide web and the revolutionary convention of hyperlinking. It’s inherently participatory — not just interactive, in the sense that it responds to your commands, but an instigator constantly encouraging you to comment, to contribute, to join in. And it is immersive — meaning that you can use it to drill down as deeply as you like about anything you want to know about.” -Frank Rose, from The Art of Immersion (2011)


Digital storytelling represents the complex and increasingly participatory ways in which stories are being told.  The intrinsic values of traditional storytelling are still present, but modern storytellers are now able to use digital tools, resources, and platforms to present and reshape their stories on larger and deeper levels.  Audiences—who are also storytellers—can effectively immerse themselves by working through multiple, overlapping, and nonlinear threads (Jenkins, 2010) and engage with these stories by “carv[ing] out a role for themselves”(Rose, 2011).

As we continue to create new technology, so too will we develop new methods of storytelling.  This doesn’t nullify the storytelling that happens on other media, it merely creates new pathways for us to present our stories.



Alexander, B. (2011). The new digital storytelling: Creating narratives with new media. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Comberg, C. (2010, October 30) Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories. Retrieved February 2, 2016 from https://youtu.be/oP3c1h8v2ZQ

Jenkins, H. (2010, August 23). How new media are transforming storytelling in four minutes [Web log message]. Retrieved January 30, 2016 from  http://henryjenkins.org/2010/08/how_new_media_is_transforming.html

Martin, P. (2011, September 27). What is a story? [web log message]. Retrieved February 8, 2016, from https://janefriedman.com/what-is-a-story/

Ohler, J. (2012, October 28). Story making tools [web log message]. Retrieved February 8, 2016, from http://storyconcepts.blogspot.com/2012/10/story-maps-shapes.html

Rose, F. (2011, March 8). The art of immersion: Why do we tell stories?.  Retrieved February 2, 2016 from http://www.wired.com/2011/03/why-do-we-tell-stories/

Sabia, J. (2011, May). The technology of storytelling. Retrieved February 11, 2016 from http://www.ted.com/talks/joe_sabia_the_technology_of_storytelling

World Science Festival (2015, February 13). Humans are storytellers. Retrieved February 3, 2016 from https://youtu.be/gey6ksOYYqo

5 comments on “Elements of Digital Storytelling

  1. Hi Hailey!

    I thought the personal meditation on stories was a nice way to start off the post and then lead into the research. All of those ideas are important to the discussion of stories and the human experience angle certainly draws the reader into the post.

    The debate about what counts as “digital” was particularly good, and I liked your discussion of the gray area when deciding whether something was analog or digital. The Frank Rose quote that followed that paragraph was a strong choice and refocuses our attention from the technical aspects of the media to how people are experiencing the stories.

    There were a couple sentences that I had to read over more than once:
    “These stories could be built from any number of things (people, places, objects, events, experiences, emotions, etc.), but it doesn’t negate the fact that we are telling them.”
    “This doesn’t nullify the storytelling that happens on other media, it merely creates new pathways for us to present our stories.”
    This isn’t as clear a comment as I would like, but I genuinely took time to think about why these two sentences threw me off today, and I still can’t tell you exactly what it is. It’s either word choice (negate/nullify), clauses put in the negative, or that those statements were never previously mentioned and so refuting them seemed out of the blue. Also, in the last clause of the second sentence the pathway analogy feels like it’s missing something. You usually don’t think of a pathway as something from which you can present. Maybe it could be expanded, or the word pathway replaced (opportunities, platforms, ways, etc.) I know what you’re trying to say though in both sentences, so I wouldn’t say these are big issues.

    One thing that I’d like to commend you on was your choice of media. Usually when I’m reading something online I don’t watch the videos until I’ve read through it once. But while reading your post, I watched them as I read through simply because you chose ones that were short and sweet. This made a huge difference in the building of your argument as the post went on. Nice job finding concise videos that were more sound bite than separate lecture.
    Also, your embedded hyperlinks were all well placed, and it was great to have access to something from the text instead of going down to the reference section to check it out. I always forget to put them in my own posts until I see them used well in somebody else’s ☺

    Here are a few grammar/citation things to look at:

    * I really like your use of dashes in your writing, but sometimes they are the length of a hyphen – and other times like an em dash —. See if you can get your website font to play nice and create em dashes, which is the way to go if you’re using it to break up different phrases/clauses in a sentence.
    * At the very beginning of your post, consider throwing a colon at the end of your first sentence. It would help set up the question that leads your first story discussion.
    * In the “Stories affect us” section, “whether it’s storyteller’s intention or not” reads like it’s missing an “a” or “the” before the word “storyteller’s.”
    * The quote beneath the “Why We Tell Stories” video is missing a date.
    * In the paragraph below Vonnegut’s story shapes image, “every story have three things” needs “have” replaced with “has.”
    * In second to last paragraph, “platforms to present and reshape with their stories” can have “with” taken out. Also, there’s a space missing between the final quotation mark and the citation.

    Really enjoyed reading your post!!

    1. Hi Noelle! Thank you for your thorough feedback. Just wanted to let you know that I fixed the grammar/citation things you pointed out. I have a tendency to step away from a piece of writing, only to come back and realize I would prefer to write the same point in another way. Unfortunately this means I sometimes flub verb tenses or forget to add/remove a word! 😉

      I’m a little short on time at the moment to address your other critiques, so I will have to come back to them a little later. Just wanted to let you know that I have read your critique and made it public for other people to read. Happy Valentine’s Day!

  2. Clarity of message
    Clear definition of stories and “why we all tell stories”.
    Story – a narrative with purpose! Wonderful.

    Depth of message
    Topic of storytelling was covered well. It was interesting how you chose to define and then understand the concept of digital storytelling, and how the internet makes storytelling ever-changing and immersive.

    Writing Standards
    I didn’t’ find any issues.

    Quality and appropriateness of media
    great media
    I thought the internet quote was very useful…it helps the reader better understand the topic of digital stories.


  3. For the sake of time (I have very little at the moment), I skipped reading others’ comments. Apologies if anything I say is redundant!

    Overall: Loved your catching intro quote! I also appreciated the exposure to different sources than I used.

    Clarity of message: In “Storytelling is a form of communication,” I was left feeling like there were some statements that would benefit from supporting evidence/citation. There’s kind of an implied citation in the inclusion of the video a ways down but the distance between these and the fact that some people won’t watch the video may be an argument for citation. I loved the Rose block quote (“The internet is the first medium…”), but I feel like it needs more explanation to fit into your writing. I felt like it was just sort of put there and linked strongly to your argument to feel natural.

    Depth of message: Seems solid here, except for that bit above about the quote needing better incorporation. I wasn’t sure it that was an issue of clarity or depth. :)

    Writing Standards
    In “Stories affect us” section, there is a missing word in here: “while bad stories boring.” Quotes require a page number (or paragraph number if not paginated or time stamp for video) and years go right after the mention of the author. Example: Author Frank Rose (2011) calls stories “a signal within the noise” (p. 5). Example: Bryan Alexander (2012) recognizes that “[s]tories are assemblages, storytelling is a kind of scaling up” (p. 33). (I made up the page #s. See https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/560/02/) Punctuation issue here: “understatement of the century! (Alexander, 2012).” — the ! goes after the citation bit.

    Stylistic/usability side note: I had a hard time finding and using the scroll feature on your website (button is very light gray/low contrast and very slender, the scroll “bar” or track that it runs along is invisible and also narrow so it’s difficult for some to click on it, too). It may or may not be something that you can edit in your theme but I wanted to point it out to you.

    Also, the Sabia video wouldn’t load for me.

  4. I found your narrative to be nicely developed. In that sense I like your inclusion of Martin’s quote about a story being a narrative with purpose. It’s one thing to string together a series of events and another to make it a compelling story. Your narrative accomplishes the task of looking at evidence and source material and developing a thesis (drawing a conclusion, really) based on that sequence. Although some cohort members have chosen to respond to this assignment by creating a story from their narrative, we don’t need to conflate the two in this context. The distinction is an important one, so I’m glad you mentioned it.

    I share some of your confusion over Alexander’s “born digital” criteria for digital storytelling. Clearly the medium is not the message in the case of a manuscript composed with a word processor. It’s similarly absurd to consider a digitized version of King King as in any way different from the original film version–although clearly it wasn’t born digital. In both cases, the distribution of the resulting stories may be different in the analog vs digital realms, but the stories are unchanged. I think you’re right to try to understand digital storytelling not so much in the creation of stories (although I still hold the belief–hope?–that there must be some form of storytelling that can only be actualized via digital technologies) but in the way stories are distributed, consumed, and interacted with.

    Regarding the nitty-gritty technicalities, please take a look at D’Arcy’s very thoughtful review. There are a few corrections that should be made, and I don’t see any that she hasn’t covered or that you have already corrected from previous comments.

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