Elements of Digital Storytelling

When I consider the idea of “storytelling” I immediately think of two things: books and oral history. I think of the first because for me books are the homes of stories, and have been my refuge for more than thirty years, in a variety of forms. I have studied language, particularly the written word, for a long time, so my experience with stories is intricately tied with words on a page. I pay attention to their placement, to the spacing, to which words are chosen for which particular task. I pay attention too to the way they sound, which leads me back to the idea of stories as oral history.

When I think of stories as oral history, I think of the long tradition of passing stories to the next generation, of how stories are living records of history, culture, and tradition. I think too of the way similar stories can exist across borders, only changed because of variations made by the line of tellers. I think of audio books or regular books, or even the act of telling a story to my children, and the sheer pleasure that comes from listening to the rhythm and cadence of the language.  I think too of the ways that storytelling can bring us together, how the act of giving confidence, or sharing grief or laughter, can solidify a relationship. I think about how it conveys emotion and inflection in a way that is terribly difficult to manage through writing.

We could argue that “digital storytelling” is no different from what I have just described, and in some ways that is true. Mechler (2012) argues that narratives change behavior by changing brain chemistry. This is definitely true of more traditional storytelling forms I have already mentioned, but I am not convinced it always holds true in a digital context because digital “stories” do not always behave in ways we might expect. They do not always follow Gustav Fretag’s theory of the dramatic arc, at least not in a ways that are immediately recognizable (Mechler, 2012).

Although I know that stories can be inherently a group “possession,” I tend to think of them in the guise of a teller/ writer and an audience. Some digital platforms maintain this form. For example, one of my favorite podcasts, The Moth, is simply an audio broadcast of individuals standing on stages at various places around the world, telling stories. The stories must be told without notes, so it is easy while listening to hear the ways the audience reacts to and even influences the dynamics of the telling of the story. Nevertheless, the model still keeps with that oral history traditional format. The fact that I am listening to a recording makes me more of a voyeur than an actual participant.

Other digital variations of storytelling greatly alter the traditional conceptions of what makes a story or who has ownership over it. The novel, Arcadia, which came out in 2015, was intended to be interactive in a sort of choose-your-own-adventure kind of way (“The real future,” 2015). The author has populated a website with all of the elements needed to make up four possible “universes” in which readers can traverse. It is then up to the reader to decide what happens as the story unfolds. Other so-called “illuminated” novels have embedded QR codes that bridge the interior fantasy world with the outside. In both of these examples the audience is asked to take a more direct hand in the way they interact with the texts.

I am of two minds about this trend in digital storytelling. On one hand I greatly appreciate the drive to attract a readership from a population which purportedly has a drastically shrinking attention span. According to a study conducted in 2015, many humans now have shorter attention spans than goldfish, thanks to the wide-spread use of handheld devices (Watson, 2015). If our average attention spans are really that short, how can authors ever hope to attract a following for 400 page novels? Even as an English major and life-long reader of paper books, I get it. I know these authors have to compete with video games and Twitter and Facebook, which all provide nearly instant gratification. Current trends suggest that readers, especially of a certain generation, only want to take time for something if it directly involves them. (Whether or not this stems from a desire to have everything be about the “me” for each person will have to be covered in another post.)

On the other hand, this feels an awful lot like a cheapening of the tradition of literature and storytelling itself. If we go back many hundreds of years to the original oral tradition, the storyteller, in every human society, held a special and honored place within their group. They were seen as an entertainer, but also a bearer of truth, knowledge, and tradition. Audiences at their performances may have influenced the pacing or intonation of the delivery, but they did not change the message. Moving forward to the last four hundred years we find ourselves with great writers-poets, novelists, dramatists- who have also been some of the greatest thinkers of our time. They have written about social justice, corruption, human nature, and many other topics in ways that have changed our societies. It is true that interactive stories can also be concerned with these topics, but if the “reader” is more interested in the journey than the lessons and reflection they can gain from it, the experience is inherently shallow.

If we think about the “why” of digital storytelling, as in why do it, and why does it exists, I think the main motivating factor is a desire to connect. One of the greatest paradoxes of our time is that we live in societies, at least in the United States, where people will go to extreme lengths to not have to interact in person with others, yet they will devote endless hours interacting with online personas. It is almost cliched now to mention how I see tables full of teenagers at restaurants all looking at their smartphones rather than talking to each other. They, like many of us, are probably desperate to make human connections, and yet they don’t seem capable of or willing to make them with the people right in front of them.

Going forward, I believe we will begin to see distinctions between actual storytelling and voyeurism. Think of it like the distinction between classical literature and tabloid newspapers. This may sound elitist of me, but I truly feel that some lines will need to be drawn, and soon. We need to decide what exactly counts as storytelling. Is it the interactive novel? Is it the podcast? Is it the Facebook posts we read while also watching the show they are commenting on? I think of last year’s presidential debates which I watched while reading comments from friends all over the country who were also watching in real time. The posts certainly added another level to my viewing experience, and could even be argued that a communal narrative was being crafted as we reacted to each other’s comments, but I still would not call it storytelling.

I suppose my short answer to the question of, “what is digital storytelling” is to say that I just don’t know. I do know that it is not my beloved paper book, nor is it oral tradition in its purest form. It could encompass everything from audio books to QR codes to YouTube videos, or it could exclude all of them. I could throw out more ideas and examples, but the truth of the matter is that I will probably be wrong by nature of the fact that the world doesn’t really seem to know the answer yet. Only time will tell us.


A.C. (2015, November 23). The real future of electronic literature [Web log message]. Retrieved Nov 26, 2015 from http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2015/11/interactive-fiction?fsrc=scn/tw_ec/the_real_future_of_electronic_literature

Melcher, C. (2012, October 3). Empathy, Neurochemistry, and the Dramatic Arc: Paul Zak at the Future of Storytelling 2012 [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q1a7tiA1Qzo

Watson, L. (2015, May 15). Humans have shorter attention span than goldfish thanks to smartphone The Telegraph. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/