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Engagement-driven Narrative Design (or How to Build Discovery and Advocacy into your Transmedia Storytelling)

robert | December 2, 2011  ‐  10 Comments

The first diagram in this post presents a virtuous circle for an interactive storyworld that binds the story to social discovery and advocacy.  The questions that the narrative designer or transmedia storyteller asks herself are:

  • What social actions and conversations do I want to stimulate?
  • How do I want to engage the audience to produce these social actions?
  • What storyworld knowledge will they need to engage in this way?
  • Which characters/locations/things hold this knowledge and how/when will it be revealed? (i.e. the character conflicts & events plus audience interaction with the characters/locations/things)
  • What’s the impact on the audience when the knowledge it is revealed?
  • How can I empower the audience and leverage the momentum from the revelation?

Engagement-driven Narrative Design

I’ll now explain how I’ve arrived at this process..

The two key enablers to a successful venture today are discovery and advocacy. Without discovery nobody knows your venture exists so however good your venture may be, it will forever sit in obscurity. Without advocacy you are forever having to “feed the funnel” manually and never able to leverage those who have discovered your venture. Further, advocacy brings recommendation and social discovery which is much stronger at eliciting trial or purchase than search or stumbled upon discovery.

Consequently, much of my work this past year has begun with the questions:

  • how will the experience be discovered?
  • how will we generate discussion & conversation?
  • how will we empower advocates?
  • how can we blur the line between marketing and entertainment?

These questions have formed the foundations of my transmedia storytelling and pulled me further into the realm of participatory storytelling and persistent storyworlds. That is, storyworlds that allow audiences to role-play, explore and reflect at their own pace but also sometimes in collaboration or competition with others.

Narrative Design

One of the key pieces of transmedia storytelling is clearly the narrative design. Yet there’s rather little guidance available on how to write the actual story part. A key stepping stone towards this has been the work of Peter von Stackelberg who’s upcoming master’s thesis “Creating Digital Narratives” is going to be one to watch out for. Below is a diagram I’ve borrowed from Peter that shows three cornerstones to transmedia narratives:

  • engagement design
  • narrative design
  • interaction design.

Another key insight I gained from Mike Jone’s blog post Secrets and Lies. I’ve long thought that knowledge – who has it and who doesn’t – was a key piece of designing the narrative in open storyworlds but Mike’s advice really enables gripping storytelling.

Below I’ve tabulated the information in Mike’s blog post and added my own slant by indexing everything from the perspective of knowledge. This knowledge could be personal knowledge, group knowledge or world knowledge but the point is the same: knowledge is power and the politics around that knowledge makes for great storytelling and great social action.

To get from what the knowledge means in the storyworld to what this means in terms of audience participation, I created another table that starts with what we want the audience to do. Or more accurately answers the question “how do I want the audience to engage with the storyworld?”.

In the table below I’ve listed a number of basic “social actions” – activities I want to motivate the audience to do. These actions could engage the audience with the storyworld or could engage the audience with each other.

Using the two tables we now have a bridge between what the audience is required to do to participate and how the author intends for the story to be told. But to get the social action table we first need to consider the role of the audience in the storytelling because it’s the audience’s relationship to the storyworld that will suggest some actions and not others.

This final table illustrates how we can look at different types of interaction from a position of the audience inside or outside the storyworld. And, when inside the storyworld, to what extent we the author want to guide the story.

Audience role in interactive narratives