Sunday, November 14, 2010

Story/Message Theory

Photo Credit: Mike Bailey-Gates

We know that Stories entertain and enlighten. We know Stories create emotional connections and present useful tools for the transfer of cultural values and information. And we also know that without a doubt, the best stories create lasting impressions, drive action, add to our cultural capital and lend themselves to replication.

But what is a Story, exactly? The word is so common that it is almost never defined.

Is Story represented by any entertaining and engaging stuff? Is it the mere explaining of Cause and Effect?  Is it simply the presentation of a situation?

The definition of Story, like many concepts, depends entirely on context.

Some people describe Story as anything that creates an emotional connection.

Others might simply define Story as a fiction; an explanation; an account; a journey; a series of incidents influenced by a theme. Similarly, a historian might define Story as simply an explanation of how a series of choices led from this decision to that event. In contrast, a group of criminals might want to modify their recent history with a new Story, which we might frame as an agreed-upon reality ('That's our story and we're sticking with it!')

A playwright I once studied scripting with defined Story as:

'Someone wants something badly enough and we watch them fail or succeed'.

Screenwriters and film fans may be with familiar with Film theorist David Bordwell's definition of Story as:

 'The causal-chronological series of events'. 

Contrast this with his definition of Plot, which he defines as:

 'The order and duration of events as they are presented to us.'

Story is often equated with the kindred concept of Narrative. Kevin Werbach, Wharton business school professor teaching on Gamification has suggested that narrative in this domain is:

‘The structure that pulls together the pieces of a given system into some coherent feeling whole.’

Similarly, Transmedia Evangelists and marketing professionals might describe Story as a narrative told, or an experience delivered, in any format, and across multiple formats, which serves to provide a sense of connectedness between the elements and platforms that deliver it. Narrative itself has been described as any set of words, objects or experiences which suggest a beginning, middle and end, or  as simply a way to engage, entertain, win fans and otherwise build relationships.
Students of Story Structure have long been taught that an effective Story describes 'The 5 Ws'
  • Who
  • What
  • When
  • Where
  • Why
Then there are those who suggest that stories might be told without employing text, but with data or pictures, maps or some other sensory trigger.

So, it seems not that no single definition for Story exists, but that many do. And I think that this very point demonstrates the flexible nature of the art form. Indeed, a list of grocery items or even search terms might indicate a Story if we read carefully, connect the dots and let our imaginations wander. By the same token, the same batch of data can be used to tell many different stories, or it can represent nothing at all. As a result of this ambiguity I've found it useful for my own work to create a independent model for story building that I call Story/Message Theory.

Story/Message Theory describes Narrative as a textual Data Set whose sequenced points are connected by meaning (Theme) and afterwards explained (either directly or suggested) in a conclusion (Message) in such a way that audience members will use the resultant information in subsequent decision making processes.

Thus,  Storytelling is defined as the process by which data is†:
  1. Converted to text (if it is not already in a textual format)
  2. Identified (Perspective)
  3. Sequenced (Narrative)
  4. Connected by meaning (Theme)
  5. Presented by some chosen method. (Medium)
  6. Explained (Message)
[†This definition is a work in progress and was last modified 1/1/13]

First, the model is unique because Data by itself is considered absent of Story until a given set is defined, analyzed through the 'lens' of narrative, and then an explanation formulated and delivered. In other words, data is not simply aggregated and presented: it is interpreted ,and  meaning is inferred upon it, whether inherent or imbued. Thus a list by itself is not a Story although it may suggest a Theme and even anchor points within a Narrative.

One might think of the storyteller as a Data Analysis who explains the implications present in the data through narrative.

However, Narrative by itself, or the Journey, even one embedded with a theme, can not represent a Story according to this system. In the Story/Message system, all components must be present in order to indicate a Story form. And everything else, however valid or interesting, is something else.

So, this model limits what kind of works can be fully considered as a Story. And at first, this restriction may seem inhibiting to the creative mind; feel free to reject it entirely or use simply as a measure for comparison. On the other hand, it's very limitations may also serve as a platform for inspiration.

Yes, it is a box, but it is also a very useful box.

Indeed, many professional storytellers define and employ one formula or another in their work. Some models are conventional, others proprietary; some are based on medium alone, and others influenced by genre; every writer forms strategy, even if it is not always strictly followed.

For instance, a screenwriter will write a commercial screenplay or sitcom according to basic formulas as identified as being the most effective means of entertainment for a given medium and genre. Popular songs, too, for another instance, are formulaic.

In this respect, Story/Message Theory is simply another formula, and no better or worse than any other, but however basic, it nevertheless forms a powerful tool. For if think of a TV commercial, a sitcom, a Hollywood script, an electronic game  or even a Transmedia Branded Story Experience, each represents a different Story format. But each might also employ Story/Message Theory in construction, in conjunction with whatever other Story algorithms are at play.

Again, models may overlap; and any tool might prove itself a useful tool in the construction of a Story world.


Beauty and Beast: By Giovana Medeiros
Story/Message Theory describes Story as a Data Set whose sequenced points are connected by meaning (Theme) and then analyzed via Narrative with the intention of eventually producing a 'Message'.

We might even say message drives Narrative, but is only explicitly stated at any given Story's conclusion.

As a parallel concept:

Story/Message Theory essentially distills the Parable/Fable Story Framework into a fundamental algorithm, with the aim of producing an standardized, replicable creative strategy for the employment of objective based Story Experiences.

But while providing a unique perspective of Story, this strategy is hardly a new construction. For as it happens, Parables and Fables share an identical framework. Their main difference being that the former excludes fantasy figures while the latter relies upon them. But the underlying process is the same. And by consolidating the pair, we  produce a strong Story model that has already been time tested across many, many centuries.

Story/Message Theory further suggests that the Parable/Fable formula serves as the model from which all Stories are formed and their construction measured. Working backwards, within in this construction, Stories are solely defined a Narrative informed by Message.

Narrative is defined as simply a Data Sequence, being formed from an identifiable Data Set. A Data Set in this case indicates a collection of events, incidents or concepts; concepts being all the items one might include in a given Story World. The Data Set itself, however, is not a Story,  though it might indicate one the same way a picture, a list, a recipe or a map indicates a Story. Additionally, those items within the set useful to the author's intent must be sequenced or otherwise connected by Theme in order to fully represent a Story.

Therefore, unlike other models, in the Story/Message model, Narrative is never synonymous with Story. While others may use the word Story as a synonym for Narrative we will not follow this convention. In our model, Narrative provides an incomplete and unfulfilled Story experience, because Narrative alone lacks a point.

This is not to say Narrative alone also fails as an alternate work of art or experience. Only that it does not fulfill the full requirement for Story within the Story/Message model.

Message is defined as a lesson, proverb, maxim, saying or command or a suggested way to behave in order to insure maxim happiness or maintain survival. Also, a compact expression of a general truth or rule of conduct (; the distillation of wisdom from a given folkloric culture; or as Cervantes writes of proverbs: "a short sentence which is the fruit of a long term experience."

Message suggests 'the point' of the Story: why is the Story being told? And what is the lesson learned?

In general, many will argue that Stories don't require lessons. Nevertheless, within this model the Narrative analysis of the data must result in a 'Message'. Indeed, within the Story/Message model, Storytelling and Data Analysis might be considered synonymous with each other.

Either way, Story/Message model defines Story fully conceived as an Objective based art form, i.e., Strategic Storytelling; Storytelling with specific purpose. Moreover, by creating a framework we can better understand why some Stories fall short of delivering a desired impact.

For instance:  

You lived; you died; you did some stuff in between.

This Narrative suggests a Data Sequence, but it's missing a Theme or an Objective that drives Narrative towards Message delivery.In other words, one's chronology, no matter how detailed, lacks the requirement for Story (under our model).

However, we can take the same exact life and frame it in another manner that does:  

You were born into squalor; against all odds and doubt you rose above your place; you achieved great things and fulfilled your destiny. Along the way you realized that with great effort comes great reward.

That is a Story.

Objective Messaging transforms Narrative into memorable, compelling Stories.

Further parsing permits all other commonly understood aspects of Literary Structure, be they Plot, Purpose, Setup, Conflict, Thematic Patterning or any other element, so long as the fully completed Story structure contains both a Narrative and Message. Lacking one or the other, we are left with only a Story element, or a Story form belonging to another model, or something else altogether.


Snow Black & White: By Lucia Whittaker
For those old enough to remember, once upon a time, a rapt audience would sit and listen to an entire Story, from beginning to end, regardless of how long it took, regardless of the fact that the only thing that awaited them at the end was some basic principle or lesson it purported to deliver. In fact, one listened to stories, not for the sake of entertainment value alone, but in order to learn something useful.

Since the dawn of man, stories have followed the same model:

Narrative (N) followed by a lesson, a general truth, a rule of conduct or a maxim [Message (M)].

For a modern example, let's draw our analysis to the traditional thirty-second TV commercial as an opportunity to convey a Message, and call this unit 'Story' (Story=S).

Typically, thirty-second spots are constructed so that the first twenty to twenty-five seconds of the work contain a compelling conflict, which is then resolved in the final five to ten seconds with a simultaneous product or service reveal (The Message). In case it’s not completely obvious, the intent of commercials is to fulfill a Marketing Objective.



It looks like math but it's not; it's simply an acronym:

Narrative Plus Message Equals Story

This is as true for movies and modern television commercials as well as for folktales, myths or biblical parables.

Examples of a traditional maxim or message are:
  • Beauty is but skin deep.
  • He who hesitates is lost.
  • Look before you leap.
  • Business before pleasure.
  • Love sees no faults.

Examples of contemporary maxims or messages include:
  • Just Do it.
  • Think Different.
  • A diamond is forever.
  • Have a coke and smile. 
  • Don’t get mad. Get GLAD.
  • Things go better with Coke
  • You Deserve a Break Today.
  • For all you do, this Bud’s for you.
  • Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.
  • There are some things that money can’t buy. For everything else there’s MasterCard. 


Accounting for Time (X), we might also write the equation as:


So that a thirty-second spot might be written as follows:

N25+M5= S30(FO) [Fulfilled Objective]

What is interesting about traditional construction is that the difference between short and long Story formatting lies wholly on the length of the Narrative: Message is never abbreviated. So, if your purpose is to tell a Story in order to say something, you had better leave room for that, no matter how transparent your characters or how thinly drawn your Narrative.

And this is true whether one produces a three-volume novel, a two-hour movie, a half-hour sitcom or a sixty-second commercial. All must terminate with Message fully stated, regardless of whether the various Narratives are concluded in a few sentences or a few hundred thousand.

But if we flip the traditional commercial on its head, and lead with Message, a new paradigm is formed:

[FO=Fulfilled Objective]

Though practically speaking, execution would more closely resemble:


See, it doesn't look like rocket science and it's not. –Notwithstanding the fact that this construction is clearly difficult to achieve in an abbreviated fifteen-second spot, though such spots still attempt to follow traditional modeling.

(I think it's safe to assume that 'FO' is always implied whenever we see 'S'.)

So, really our alternate model, if not impossible is nearly impractical. We might be able to state the Who, What, When and Where, and even the Why, but with such a limited time frame we will invariably lose the sequence of events.

The elements of Story construction alone do not by themselves constitute a Story. Where Narrative alone in other forms might constitute fine entertainment, Narrative alone does not constitute Story in the Story/Message model.


Kurt Vonnegut: By Rashawerakh
Once we reduce the the familiar Parable/Fable Story Framework into a fundamental algorithm, and limit our concept of Story to this specific formula, we also gain immediate insight how the component parts of Story may by themselves be useful communications tools.

Certainly, in a world where attention spans are said to be diminishing, and communications as a result are increasingly abbreviated, then we must eventually ask ourselves, 'Do I need to tell the whole story? Or even a Story?'

And upon examination, we might conclude that if the task is simply to engage, that Story is the wrong tool, and that a more effective approach would be to simply deliver a Message sans Narrative, or to flip the Story/Message model and follow Message with Narrative, as often happens 'in the real world'.

Messages by themselves can be effective and cost efficient means to inviting focus and sustained attention. And when audiences are stingy with attention, Story is definitely not the solution.

Novelist Kurt Vonnegut suggested writers of short stories start as near the end as possible.

But what does it mean to begin a Story fifteen seconds before its conclusion, even if we take into account the additional magic and time manipulation the moving image affords us?

It's as if you began the biography of a great man or woman with his or her funeral and never got around to explaining the importance of this figure:

Once Upon a Time,
[Insert Name of Great Historical Figure],
May He/She rest in peace.
The End.

In practice, we might also condense a Story, not by simply skipping to the end, but by opening at the beginning and summarizing the journey.

Imagine a series of plot points along a line, like pearls on a necklace. We can string those plot points along a short or long thread, thereby reducing or lengthening our Story, while retaining most if not all the plot points.

However, this technique not withstanding, at what point, it is fair to ask, does the semblance of Story disintegrate as a result of brevity? And can Message alone be an effective tool at fulfilling a marketing objective as the traditional model of Narrative + Message?

We know from direct experience that twenty or twenty five seconds is quite enough to panic housewives that their marriages are on the cusp of dissolution lest they figure out a way to make their whites whiter, and that within another five or ten seconds we might provide them with a relationship saving bleach. –Hence, the thirty-second spot.

But while fifteen-second commercials modeled on a tradition construction may or may not work (as a means to fulfilling a marketing objective) what’s interesting is the following is also true:



Message = Fulfilled Objective


Image By Mate Airman Michael D. Blackwell II
Can Message alone –sans Narrative or 'Story World' cues– possibly be an effective way to connect with people?

Yes! It happens all the time. In fact, it is often by Message alone that many connections are made. Narrative usually develops afterwards as a natural evolution stemming from reciprocal signification. We see evidence of this all the time with introductions, salutations, hand and facial gestures, gang signification, air traffic operations, –in fact, every time we simply say 'Hello' and shake someone's hand.

By this measure, in 'Real Life', Narrative proceeding Message appears to be the artificial construct of the Storyteller.

The alarm clock goes off; that's a Message. You get up and go to work; Narrative begins; that's a journey. If the alarm clock goes off after you get home, it's too late. In Real Life, Message drives Narrative. Or lacking an objective, Life feels meaningless, and while a meaningless life may suit some people, it does not make for a compelling Story, although the lesson derived by one's eventual demise certainly might in the hands of a capable biographer.

That said, the image of a life in free fall, though it might be brief, might also indeed send a powerful message to a passerby, and that message might fuel their own story. This is the power of Message sans Story, to impact lives and initiate a journey.

Therefore, if one's assignment is to create a means by which to influence behavior and drive action, a Message Lead model may be more practical, more effective and less costly than attempting to tell a Story and hoping customers will hang around long enough to hear your Message. Indeed, in a fast paced world, Message may prove a more acceptable interaction with consumers than pushing a 'Story Squeeze'. That's because:
  • Messages influence Behavior 
  • Messages Trigger Connectivity.
  • Narrative follows Message (in the real world)
  • Shared stories that follow reciprocal signification (Message) lead to relationships.
Bear in mind Message is not synonymous with Introduction, except insofar as an Introduction may be facilitated by Signification.

No doubt the day will come when video commercials will be produced at lengths even shorter than 15 seconds. Network Television and cable already create 5-second 'bumps' and IDs. What is the message here? With apologies to Marshall McLuhan: The message is the message. 

And while the notion of a 5-second or even 1-second product or service commercial may seem like science fiction now, the use of a gif or gif like video to communicate branding is quite conceivable, as is the notion of printed video; how else might we describe video signification on electronic billboards and signs?



It’s not that people lack patience for stories (though it may seem that way to content makers), but that given the multitude of distribution channels, a rapt audience is no longer guaranteed. So, people have lots of time for stories. They just don't have time for yours.

Narrative, it turns out, is no longer –or at least not always– the bait for Message. Therefore, rather than charge consumers a pitch after watching an entertaining Narrative,  it might be a better strategy to reward consumers with Narrative if they've accepted an enticement to connect (Message). In other words, shift Story in time and purpose, and possibly space, from print or TV to Interactive Media, by way of a chain of initiating Messages themed together by Narrative, and keep skipping across as many screens as one's budget allows or a given demographic demands).

In this way, Narrative is presented as a reward to consumers and audiences for responding to introductory signification. Are customers interested in your story? Probably not; why should they be? However, a compelling Introduction might make some curious.

Notwithstanding the Super Bowl when some consumers tune in to watch the commercials, advertising is considered an interruption to most people's lives. So, how do you get customers become advocates? One way might be to reward response to signification with something of value to a customer, and thereby begin if not a shared narrative, an opportunity to play a role in their Story.


Moroccan Stop Sign: By David Ooms
Some suggest Story is inherent in our DNA or wired into our brains, but I've not seen evidence of this. It certainly makes for a very good story, as they say. But if it's true, the next question must be: What do we mean by Story? What is the structure and anatomy of Story? And are we really talking about Story or something else? Not every human experience needs to fit into a Story box in order to be validated as cognitively significant. Nor is every empathic interaction evidence of our being involved in a Story.

In other words before we can accept any claim to a unified theory of Story, we must have a unified theory of Story.

As to whether or not humans are biologically wired for Story, I'm not sure. However, I can reasonably accept the theory of Archetypes, whereby primal urges –say an instruction or urge to action– become manifest as simple forms of communication, and which eventually take initial form as symbols.

Signs, whether spoken or illustrated exemplify highly effective messaging systems that influence behavior and drive action.

Then, once a concept is born as a sign, it acquires memetic potential. If acted upon narrative is born and further develops until satiety is declared. So perhaps best to suggest that Narrative develops out of signification, and that Signification gives birth to Story.

Consider a Stop sign, or take the word 'Help', for instance:

The word 'Help' never comes at the end of a Story. If anything, 'Help' is the first word of a pretty gripping Story.

No one says: "La, I was walking down the street, minding my own business, humming a little song, when I got hit by a car, and now I'm hurt badly, in a great deal of pain, I might even be dying, and oh, by the way, I need your help."

To the contrary: If you want help, it’s the first thing out of your mouth, and you must deliver the word with a rather convincing and compelling cry, all in caps so to speak: 'HELP!' –And only then, if your audience is suitably compelled, do they run to your assistance, at which time you can be sure that they will then listen to the details of your Story, and with full and complete attention, senses overloaded, highly alert, highly receptive and definitely interested.

'HELP!' It turns out, is not just a pretty good hook, but also an effective call to action.


5th Floor: By striatic
A 15-second commercial is exactly as long as what also commonly call a 'Fifteen Second Pitch' or 'Elevator Pitch'. As it happens, a pitch is not designed to be a story, because pitcher assumes 'pitchee' doesn't have time and perhaps lacks interest in being told a Story. It is simply a preamble to a Story, designed to pique interest. And one only need look at Hollywood, Wall Street and Silicon Valley to find evidence that well designed pitches can easily grow into million and billion dollar stories.

One might thus consider that because traditional ads in the modern world can't be relied on to motivate consumers to action (because they're too easy to ignore), it may be that a Message-Lead/Narrative-Follow will prove to be an exponentially more effective advertising model than the traditional construction (at this time).

If this sounds conventional enough, the convention has been to provide context first (Narrative), followed by Message, in hopes that a viewer will actually pay attention to the Narrative long enough to have the Message engraved into their awareness. Unfortunately, given choice, this is not the way modern audiences behave. And that's why movies themselves –full length feature narratives– are sold to audiences with a pitch, in the form of a teaser or trailer that guarantees at least one of several things:
  • Fear
  • Laughs
  • Hope
  • Tears
  • Catharsis
  • A moving experience
And the promise that you will have a good time.


Luc-Henri Fage/Borneo
As with 'Help', the static image may not always present Story, but it capably delivers a Message.

We can think of a message as an Actuating or Motivating Trigger.  Either you will or you will not respond to the Trigger, but you can't ignore it completely, not to mention that with enough impressions, it will possibly produce a latent urge to act.

In fact, by the time one is an adult, conventional signs are so ingrained in the human psyche that it is nearly impossible to act on them. Consider a stop sign; consider a red or green light; consider even the compelling effect of ancient cave art. And yet few purely illustrative pieces, however rich with character or activity capably inform all audience members the same singular Story.

Granted, some static works of art do present a substantial amount of symbolic data, so much so that we can judge them to contain all the elements required of singular Story (within the Story/Message model). However, other works simply frame a composition, present a mise-en-scene or otherwise freeze a moment. At the very most, the pictorial content may indicate some point belonging to a Narrative. Alternately, in the case of signification, the generally non-verbal content devoid of Narrative is provided as a means to communicate instruction or to influence behavior and trigger immediate action.

It follows that Time may or may not be essential to Story delivery, but a chronological Data Sequence does make Story delivery easier to digest. We are perhaps better off by suggesting that a Data Set that lacks a Time element is best defined as a Puzzle. But if do choose to work within a very limited Time framework, we can advance abandon Narrative completely and still deliver a powerful Message, make a connection, trigger behavior and certainly initiate a relationship.


Hopscotch: By Jan Tik
Is Story Dead?

In 2003 I published and essay titled This Is Where The Story Ends in which I suggested Story is dead. Of course, it's meant to be a blatantly provocative headline. However, the article took the viewpoint of a  post-production professional working in music and audio applications for film, video, theme parks and new media, witnessing the transformation of the traditional storytelling by

And even though I had been working on computer art projects for well over a decade, digital media had yet to explode into the mainstream. Then, by the turn of the century,  it seemed as if Digital, multimedia, and even Transmedia platforms with interactive features were all suddenly and very realistically poised on the popular horizon like ships approaching a new world.
And although the mobile technology I witnessed at E3 in 2003 may not have enjoyed the features today's smartphones do, but the possibilities produced by portable devices that delivered communication and game playing experiences combined were already immediately evident. As a result, I concluded then that traditional storytelling was either fading away or evolving into something new and as of yet undefined.

I also arrived at the notion that while traversing links didn't necessarily connect each destination with a Narrative, the way a series of scenes in a Movie might. In other words, I concluded that Navigation does not necessarily give form to Narration.

The reason for that is that in order for Navigation to form Narrative (suitable to the construction of a compelling Story), it must be fueled with a singular Purpose.

Therefore neither Narrative alone nor the sense of self we imagine when we experience it, fulfill the litmus test for Story, engaging though it may be until we change the channel, switch stations, turn the page or click onward to the next titillating hyperlink.

Whether Fiction or Non Fiction, Narrative certainly provides simulation. But then, why shouldn't it? Active listening ignites brain activity. Heck, two people making love might even synchronize their hearts and minds as well as their bodies. But entertaining or engaging as a given activity and experience may be be in and of itself, none meets the threshold for Story until we support the Narrative (or Navigation) with Purpose (Theme) and cap with Message (Maxim).

Story will never die as a result of evolving mediums. Stories are fundamentally platform agnostic. Platforms change, but Story Experiences can be delivered with shadow puppets as much as they can with smartphones and pixels.

At the same time, our collective concept of Story has evolved to include any experience, and this may be prove an error. Games are called stories. Retail environments promise Story. Some say every great Brand delivers a Story. Whatever is happening, Stories are definitely moving 'Off Word'. 
Some new formats do deliver Story experiences, but do they all? Can we even frame Experience alone as Content or Narrative, let alone Story? Likewise, as a teaching and marketing tool, anything seems to pass the litmus test.

Are any of the following scenarios false. given the conventions?:
  • Q: What is a Story? A: Anything. 
  • Q: What is Digital Storytelling? A: Anything on a Screen. 
  • Q: What is Transmedia Storytelling? A: Anything on multiple screens. 
  • Q: What is Multimedia Storytelling. A: Anything across mediums.
No, none are false, but are any true?

If Story is anything we want it to be, than how can one possibly define it, teach it or measure its effectiveness?

To reiterate, the convention states that Narrative is synonymous with Story. However, that is not the measure by which we have made our model. Both are equally valid platforms for the creation and expression of artistic works, but Story/Message Theory is prescribed for Objective supported Storytelling.

I believe that future advertising professionals will have to transform themselves into masters of message delivery and signification, while educators may wish to decide if Story will encompass every data sequence or not.

This is not to suggest that words themselves will necessarily become less important, but only to say, when they are employed, their effective value will be measured by position and context, and that much input may arrive from a rather long tail.

In other words, if we are to hold onto both our traditional notions of story and marketing, then indeed, Story is Dead.

However, if we dispense with convention and flip the model, as indicated above, then we allow ourselves the freedom and opportunity to develop a more effective method for engaging audiences, being Objective based  'Message-Lead/Narrative-Follow'.


Consider a campaign designed to appeal to soccer fans. A Story that begins with a young klutz and which then tracks his or her progress and transformation into World Cup champion might work well as long format movie entertainment, but the same story would be rather to difficult to pull off as a fifteen second spot.

If we do as Vonnegut suggests, and start as near the end as possible, we will have to eliminate much of the journey. Now, a sixty second spot, if it is within our budget, although abbreviated, would still allow us to deliver a satisfying Story. However, if our audience is simultaneously distracted by other media, we may lose the desired demographic before we have a chance to present it with an attractive semiotic.

Therefore, it may be, that the best way to fulfill our marketing objective is to flip the traditional model, so that we lead with the image of a soccer player, or even a jersey and a pair of cleats, thereby capturing focus with signification, which we can then either reward immediately with narrative, or alternately cue details for a time/space shift to another medium where interested parties might even be eager to spend more time, and enjoy a longer telling of our Narrative.

Thus, by leading with symbolic data, we inspire interest and desire in Narrative, where upon delivery, every major connection strategy –Marketing Objective, entertainment value and Story– is fulfilled and concluded, and perhaps even extended.

Of course, by Time Shifting Narrative, we no longer have to condense or compromise Narrative. In fact, we can expand it, and even do so across multiple consumer touch points, so that we can now employ a non linear marketing strategy whereby S=M+N1+N2+N3...

Arguably, Pop Stars put this theory to the test every time a songwriter front-loads a song with a hook. But I wonder if sonic artisans applying craft to the moving image might also be able to apply the theory when designing audio treatments composed for traditionally constructed media, and with what results?


Image By wooleywonderworks
So what of digital narratology and non linear story telling?

First, what do we mean by non linear when we apply it to Story theory?
Is Non Linear synonymous with interactivity?

Many people indicate it as such, but Non linearity traditionally suggests absurdity, whereby one thing does not follow the other logically. However, in practical terms, there is very little if anything illogical or non linear about the human experience, much less most stories told, regardless how many platforms or plots are in play, or that we may or may not enjoy its direction or the conclusions drawn upon by measuring any activities therein, or values we assign to such things.

And try as we might, absurdity requires a linear framework in order to feel its effect. Thus, while we are all familiar with art we might describe as absurd, we are also familiar with the experience of making sense out of the nonsensical. Present two unrelated ideas or points in space to a healthy human mind and they will draw a connection. In this sense, absurdity evaporates upon detection.

American advertisers rarely attempt to present the illogical; they generally strive for clarity. So, it may be that what brand strategists and advertisers are really doing is better defined as an attempt to insert themselves into a person's own narrative, and that this is better conceived as 'Experience Shaping'. It might even be manipulation of a kind, but only if we want people to think of us first, which is true in all facets of human relationships. In the meantime, Time Shifted, Non Linear formatting and Branched Choices have simply become synonymous with Non Linear Storytelling

Whether they are or not, however, is another story.

Better I think to dispense with the notion that we are composing Non Linear stories and simply understand that hyperlinks don't fracture Story experience; they enrich it. This becomes perfectly evident when we consider games.

In speaking to an audience at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virgina, business author Dan Pink has described Storytelling as "putting facts in context and delivering them with emotional impact". This is arguably true of narrative, but I think it is an incomplete as a definitive statement regarding stories, especially stories that lend themselves to trans linear experiences. What's missing in Mr. Pink's observation is any notion of game theory.

In so far as there are goals, rules and challenges to overcome, a traditional story frames a narrative within the game of life, and its players are the characters that inhabit and interact within the fiction, –especially exemplified by the dynamic between the protagonist and antagonist and the obstacles our hero faces. However, in a trans linear story, the game is played by the audience/users, for they are the one following rules, attempting to accomplish goals and overcoming challenges.

If in addition we add the notion that someone might learn something, then we also fulfill the measure provided by Story/Message Theory.

As for non linearity, in the case of popular electronic games, any notion of non linearity is held by the story builders alone, but it's not shared by players. Players may be given a wide and complex array of choices to navigate a game by choosing one Story branch over another, but their experience is transparent, seamless and feeds back as  linear experience. In this sense, any multi choice branching video game is as non linear as a game of Tic Tac Toe or Chess.

Indeed, a game of HALO (or any video game) actually provides a linear Story Experience whose potentially unique outcome at any given moment of game play is sourced from a Choice Array. On the other hand, we might experience a multi linear film, such as PULP FICTION, as wildly non linear when if fact it simply features a non sequential narrative experience.

In the case of digital narratology, Stories are often subject to a 'Platform Cut', as we cease action on one screen and begin on another. But practically speaking, it bears little difference from a film or video edit, except that the former is also Time Shifted.

Non linearity in electronic games or marketing assets appear to describe the back-end properties inherent with the provision of a Choice Array rather than any actual non linear experience produced on screen, or across multiple screens.

Thus, CHOICE alone does not necessarily describe Non Linearity.

Image By Arenamontanus
So, it may be more practical that rather than describe Time Shifted Cross Platform communications as Non Linear Stories (though some may be), that we define them as 'Constructal' compositions (or insert your own nifty neologism here). Constructal Theory describes a natural evolutionary tendency inherent in flow systems over time.

Alternately, we can describe each Message opportunity as an anchor point (also, plot point or brand touchpoint). A set of anchor points in and of themselves does not describe a story, for the same reason Navigation does not necessarily indicate Narrative. But if one can influence an audience to connect the dots, and provide them with a purpose for doing so, then one at least has the chance of playing a significant role in each individual's own narrative. This is a model that feeds back flow systems to the audience, but is built on a backend branched choice system similar in construction to a Constellation or Conceptual Asterism.

In the Story/Message Theory model, a Conceptual Asterism is represented by Transmedia Storytelling, whereby several experiences unfold across several platforms in order to promote a film, product, service or brand.

That said, Transmedia vehicles in practice do not always deliver a Story experience. As often they represent what might be better described as supplemental non narrative theatrical exposition that employ the mainstream application of techniques that used to be more commonly called 'Experimental Art', i.e. A series of individual non narrative, immersive experiences that share a common idea or theme, and though entertaining in and of themselves, do not necessarily constitute a Story experience, although they may very well serve as enhancements to one. A score for instance, is not a Story, although it certainly enhances dramatic action and contributes to our experience of a given movie.

In any event, the very best Transmedia employs a masterful combination of multimedia design and exposition, such that one is tempted to define Transmedia professionals less as Storytellers and perhaps more as User Experience Designers whose medium is the Real World.

Wikipedia defines User Experience Design (UXD) as: "...a broad term used to explain all aspects of a person’s experience with the system including the interface, graphics, industrial design, physical interaction, and the manual. It also refers to the application of user-centered design practices to generate cohesive, predictive and desirable designs based on holistic consideration of users’ experience."

Does the label fit? I think it does. 


Hieroglyphs: By neofob
University of Chicago Divinity professor Bruce Lincoln defines myth as "ideology in narrative form."

Myths are created out of 'idealized experiences in order to influence behavior and create ritualistic practices'.

It's this practice that more closely resembles what advertisers are attempt to do with brand 'Story Building', than simply wrapping a company or product up in a narrative.

But however marketers and advertising creatives conceive Story today, it is clear that fast evolving Time Shifting, multi platform processes and the splintering, 'Attention Protective' audiences they seem to produce will force all those who trade in Story to stop assuming everyone is on the same page.

Therefore it behooves the modern storyteller to first define for themselves the meaning of Story, and then deconstruct their model until they capably arrive at their own proprietary Story Algorithm for themselves or a given venture.

It may also be that consumers don't want to play a role in a brand's Story, nor are they much interested in a brand playing a role in their own Story. What they want in a product or service is something that fulfills function, that's dependable, that works, no fuss, no muss and at a price that can't be beat. What they want in a brand relationship is sometimes no relationship at all beyond a transaction.

For many consumers, in fact, the ideal relationship with a brand resembles the same kind of transaction one might have with a prostitute. Payment for services rendered and full stop.

Quite obviously then, some marketers, faced with disinterested consumer demographics in a highly competitive market may need to develop 'Story Crashing' techniques in order to develop a consumer fan base, which they might execute by developing new ways to get people to remember something and replicate a certain behavior.

If this sounds a little like propaganda, I think bears a closer resemblance to wishful thinking. But no doubt some talented parties will find a way to make some of their wishes (or their client's) come true.


New models of communication will continue to proliferate; but the variety of communications, by and large, will not necessarily constitute new  objective based Story forms. Neither immersion in nor participation in an experience is evidence that what one is immersed in, participating in, collaborating with or otherwise experiencing, is a in fact a Story experience.

But so what; floating in a pool is an enjoyable experience, sans Story. Likewise, being a pet in a fancy home may be a purposeless life, but what a life. Great experiences don't require a Story in order to be effective as remedies from stress, or as marketing platforms.

And similarly, a roller coaster is simply a thrilling ride. Maybe a thrilling ride is all one needs to create lasting impressions, spread some happiness and convince customers to buy a souvenir and tell their friends all about the fun they had.

As with Experience, Message alone can also fulfill a communications directive. It may very well be that in an increasingly visually intelligent, 'Paste Modern', Multi Screen/Attention Deficient future, advertising is reduced to tags and hieroglyphs, and the most effective marketing messages will be composed by systems analysts collaborating with information designers and creative semioticians.

Of course, they will call themselves Storytellers, certainly, but whether you think they are or not, –and how much value you assign to their efforts– will depend entirely on how you frame the term 'Story'.

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This lengthy article has been divided into individual essays, available by clicking a link for any given section listed below:

Story/Message Theory (Original full length article)
What is a Story?
The Parable/Fable Framework as Story Algorithm
The Story/Message Theory Construct
So It Goes: Vonnegut's Law
The Power of Effective Messaging
Create Engagement with Compelling Signification
Elevator Pitch: Speed Dating Signification
Static Symbolic Accentuating Triggers
Story is Dead
Leading with Message Signification
Non Linear Cross Platform Transmedia Storytelling
Mythology and Messaging

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great article.
I'm reminded of the old Tin Pan Alley maxim, " Don't bore us, get to the chorus!"

-Chris Fosdick