Storytelling is going through an evolution. The impact of new technologies combined with an audience that has more control over its media is challenging everything from revenue models to authorship. There are more ways to reach an audience then ever before, yet the emerging storytelling channels — mobile apps, social media and the real-time aspects of the Web — are often left to promotional and marketing afterthoughts instead of elements developed from the start of a project. The tools exist to tell, deliver and share stories in more fluid and social ways, but traditional filmmaking structures often suppress these exciting possibilities. Gatekeepers, running times, formats and distribution platforms wind up dictating how stories are told — not the storytellers themselves.
Independent filmmakers today face a daunting prospect — acquisitions are almost nonexistent while low-cost filmmaking tools have resulted in too many films flooding the marketplace. Digital distribution is becoming commoditized, thus further fragmenting new emerging opportunities and impacting revenue streams. Independent films are plummeting in value and one is left wondering if they will go the way of recorded music. The music industry recently adopted what they call "360-degree deals" that give record companies shares of licensing, endorsements, merchandise and tour revenue. The music itself has become a loss leader and, in rare cases, an additional revenue stream.
Although film does not benefit from the replay factor that music enjoys it is possible to extend the film's story into other areas. An interesting thing happened when I began to stray from one format. With my last project Head Trauma, I began to experiment with a fusion of live performance, mobile interaction, gaming, remixing and storytelling. It quickly became obvious that I was able to move the audience from one screen to another. Along the way the audience grew as the story gained more and more access points.
A project universe was created around Head Trauma, one in which the audience could discover and expand elements of the story. The design left room for the audience to personalize and customize their experience. Of course not every audience member is looking for something beyond a passive viewing experience or even aspires to be a storyteller themselves. But by building a storyworld around the film that contained multiple layers of interactivity I could engage a wider audience and increase the ways in which the film itself could be discovered.
A New Approach
The way I write has fundamentally changed. I used to outline or write a treatment — maybe create backstory or generate character notes. From there I'd move into constructing a three-act screenplay. Since I tend to work in the horror genre, I'd often find myself adhering to scripting conventions — scare in the first five pages, introduce all my main characters before page 15 — not to mention a host of other trappings that dictated the way in which I told a story. Convention dictated that authorship was within my hands and the more thought-out and developed the script was, the less likely it would be subject to outside interference. Also, not to mention, the intended experience from an audience perspective was a passive one. They would sit, watch and hopefully enjoy and then maybe tell someone else about it.
This is no longer the case. We are now in a time of open creativity when amateurs and professionals are collaborating around media in ways similar to how those in the open-source software movement work together to develop, share and maintain software code. As this emerging participatory culture becomes more common within media it will forever change the relationship between creator and audience. The audience will become collaborators and, ironically, could replace distributors, especially if filmmakers can efficiently cross-pollinate the audiences that they build with other filmmakers, musicians, game designers and/or software developers.
The Concept Of Story Architecture
What was once a single-format design for me is changing. I now consider my process akin to architecture, where storytelling, technology, gaming, delivery and experience design work together to serve the stories I wish to tell.
The process starts with the creation of a storyworld bible, a document that provides an overview of the experience that I wish to create. It shows the relationships between storylines, characters, locations and interactions online and in the real world. Media consumption habits of the audience are considered and there is focus placed on how to build story bridges that provide seamless flow across devices and screens.
What drives the story is the what, who, why and how of the conversation that I wish to have with the audience. What's the story being told, who is the story trying to reach, why will the audience care and how can emotional connections be built between the audience and the characters within the story?
Another consideration becomes the pacing and focus of the story. For this phase of the design I'll work through a number of visualization techniques that include building out timelines, interaction trees and flow charts that show relationships between characters, locations, story arcs and audience experiences. In some ways this phase is similar to
the way Web sites are designed and mapped. Story entry and exit points are charted and estimates of time spent within stages of the storyworld are determined.
What's interesting is that story architecture borrows from a number of other industries. For instance there are elements of "beta testing," where the audience comes in and tests the storyworld similar to the practices of software developers. There is the creation of a storyworld bible, which has similar elements that are found within the game bibles often used by the gaming industry. Finally there are flow and mapping phases that are similar to how Web sites are designed. Overall these design elements are intended to help make the storyworld engaging and social.
Looking Back To Move Forward
Cinema has had a good run. It came of age in the last century. And don't get me wrong — I'm not declaring the death of cinema, I'm merely suggesting that storytelling is adapting for a new century, one in which the world is connected in ways never before possible. But ironically, in order to go forward we are drawing from a precinema past, when the art of storytelling was an experience and its authorship was not held by one but many. A time when stories were freely passed from one individual to another, and along the way embellished by those who told them.
Leaving Room For The Story To Grow
Social media and various Web 2.0 services and solutions provide a filmmaker with a host of new storytelling and community tools.
Blogs – A simple way to extend characters, additional storylines or simply maintain an overall narrative voice around your film.
Twitter – A great way to test characters in the real world. I've used Twitter many times for what we call story and character recon. From letting actors role-play within 140 characters to testing storylines and plot points, Twitter provides a real-time connection to an audience.
Streamy.com – A combination of a start page, news feed and social media aggregator. Streamy provides a way to monitor discussion around a topic of interest. It provides a simple way to track story elements and discussion surrounding a project in real-time.
FreeConferenceCall.com – There are a host of services that offer the ability to hold large free conference calls that can easily be recorded. This can provide an excellent cost-effective way to extend a storytelling experience.