“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).
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).
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