Storytelling Gets an Upgrade: Reach Out and Touch It

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JC HutchinsBy J.C. Hutchins, Novelist and Transmedia Storyteller

Last April, Apple Inc. released a product that jaded technogeeks derided as “a big iPod Touch,” but consumers saw as a brilliant new way to experience the web and multimedia.

Fourteen months and 25 million units sold later (nearly 5 million sold in the last quarter alone), the iPad has single-handedly defined a new consumer electronics product category. More than 90,000 applications designed for the iPad are now available from Apple’s iTunes App Store. Dozens of competing tablet products will soon emerge on the market, presumably with their own app stores.

Productivity apps, games, social network tools… these tablet apps are as diverse as the people who download them. But when Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced the iPad last January, I saw the potential for storytelling crack wide open into a frontier filled with innovation, promise, and profit.

I’m a writer of “transmedia” novels, screenplays, educational experiences, and online marketing campaigns — which is a fancy way of saying I design cohesive narratives that unfold across multiple media using many distribution platforms. An example of my work: Personal Effects: Dark Art, a novel I co-wrote with game designer and transmedia storytelling pioneer Jordan Weisman, featured mysterious items (such as photos, IDs, and business cards) that accompanied the book. These items, and the narrative itself, directed readers to online-exclusive plot twists. The novel is presently in development as a Starz TV series, with Gore Verbinski executive producing.

The creative potential I envisioned for tablet-based storytelling last April is now coming to pass. We’ve already seen incredible applications of the iPad for nonfiction — the inspired and innovative $5 app Our Choice by Al Gore (based on his 2009 book of the same name) is one example that showcases the possibilities for documentary-style narrative. In case you missed it, here’s a video of the product in action:

I’m convinced the “text meets multimedia” techniques seen in that video, and more, can also be used to tell resonant, memorable fiction stories. Using the technologies and creative philosophies I’ll soon present in this series of posts, I believe progressive creators and publishers can explore entirely new ways to tell and sell stories of any genre – including original and licensed intellectual properties — by making the reader an active participant in the unfolding narrative.

Understand that what I propose is wildly different from the ebooks you’ll presently find in the Kindle marketplace, or “enhanced ebooks” that integrate multimedia such as video clips into the reading experience (such as Alan Dean Foster’s excellent Predators I Have Known and others). Also understand that I enjoy those electronically-delivered stories. Like the print novel, these formats will be consumed by many people for many decades to come.

This simple and largely predictable A-to-B “porting” of content from print novels to ebooks provides a present-day gold rush for publishers. However, it largely ignores the arsenal of built-in technologies of the iPad and other tablets — the very features that differentiate them from other media consumption devices. By ignoring these features, publishers are missing the most disruptive and innovative storytelling opportunity since the debut of the motion picture.

By using the proven technologies integrated in the iPad and other tablets — features such as intuitive touch-based gestures, a motion-sensitive accelerometer, robust graphics and audio, and internet connectivity — folks like me can do far more than merely enhance a text-based narrative. We can create a new breed of narrative. Not a novel, not a movie, not a game — what I propose is all of these things and more: a presentation designed to immerse readers by using physical interaction as a meaningful part of the narrative.

Here are a few examples of how the iPad’s built-in features can be elegantly wedded with a story.

In the example images above, a sci-fi thriller could begin by requiring the reader to place his palm upon the device. This would activate a spiffy animation that thematically introduces the reader to the fictional world and launches the narrative. The act of touching the screen is psychologically important; it builds the first of many physical “connections” between reader and content.

Say you’re reading a near-future thriller in which a private detective receives a mysterious envelope. You flip the virtual page on your iPad, and behold the detective’s actual desk… and the actual envelope described in the story. What happens next? Your participation and investigation moves things forward.

Using the iPad’s built-in motion sensor accelerometer, readers could “shake” the device at specific prompts during the narrative to engage with, and further, the story. In the multi-image example below, the reader uses the device’s built-in “shake” feature to coax out a series of photos from the envelope, as he would do in real life… and as in real life, those photos fluidly scatter onto the detective’s desk in real time.

Based on the text-based story the reader has read so far, he knows one of these photos is of the tale’s mysterious villain. But the story’s hero doesn’t know who it could be. It’s the reader’s job to find out.

“Shaking” out a set of photos is one thing. But examining them requires physical interaction with the screen and story. Using the intuitive built-in touchscreen gestures of the iPad, a reader can simply touch an on-screen element (such as the photos seen here) and easily move it from one location of the screen to another.

This interactive technique could be used in numerous ways, including:

  • Arranging /assembling jigsaw puzzle pieces
  • Assembling “shredded” secret documents
  • Sifting through a pile of keys to locate the appropriate key for a “locked” story section
  • And more

Like the iPhone and the iPod Touch, the iPad also supports a touch-based gesture called “pinching,” which permits users to increase or decrease the magnification of on-screen elements. In our example here, the reader believes he’s successfully identified the photo of the villain; this is based on in-text clues he’s read and a quick examination of the other photos.

To confirm this, and to further the investigation in our futuristic detective story, the reader zooms in on the photo using the intuitive tactile “pinch” gesture. Perhaps a computerized “scan” of the photo (presented at particular moments in the narrative) will yield the confirmation our story’s detective’s hunch needs and unlock more information necessary to move the story along…

Unlike traditional novel or film experiences — in which all narration, foreshadowing, and plot payoffs are plainly visible and delivered linearly — this breed of story uses immersive, physical techniques to resonantly deliver plot twists in nonlinear ways. Readers discover plot information just as a story’s hero would and are rewarded for their curiosity.

This is just the beginning of our story: in my next post, we’ll take the next step and bring in even more innovative technology-enabled narrative techniques.

So, until next time!

J.C. Hutchins is an award-winning freelance writer best known for using multimedia narratives, emerging fiction trends, and participatory storytelling techniques to entertain online audiences. He is a published novelist, represented screenwriter, and experienced transmedia storyteller. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR’s Weekend Edition and by the BBC. Learn more about his work at JCHutchins.net.

Photo Credits: Tablet images courtesy of J.C. Hutchins. Portrait by J.R. Blackwell.

Interested in finding out more about innovations in digital storytelling or about using transmedia storytelling strategies to extend your brand and intellectual property? Then, join us at StoryWorld, the only major gathering of industry leaders, decision makers, and transmedia specialists, to explore new business models, innovative partnerships, and fresh revenue streams.

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11 thoughts on “Storytelling Gets an Upgrade: Reach Out and Touch It

  1. Not just mystery or choose your own adventure would be changed, but the face of storytelling could be altered permenently by allowing the audience to actively participate in the story. The trick would be in how much control does the audience hce over the story, and with that, anticipating what the audience would accept for interaction and how much interaction would be appropriate without it feeling like a hassle for those who just want a story. But then again, those who are just looking for a straight read or more traditional story won’t necessarily be part of the audience.

  2. Not convinced. The basic story where the reader or listener has been able to sit back, relax and wallow in the world created by the storyteller or writer has existed for over 4,000 years. I know that doesn’t mean it has any right to last another day but there is a reason for it’s longevity and the reason is the reader or listener has to do very little.

    I’m not saying this won’t catch on; although I doubt it will; this is a different product to a story; it’s a quasi game. This looks to me like an electronic version of one of those adventure books where the reader reads a paragraph then has three choices; choice A go to page 123, choice B got to page 124 etc. and eventually the reader works his or her way through the story and if he makes the right choices eventually reaches the end.

    So this is nothing new; it’s just an adventure book rehashed with an iPad. It might catch on with children but I doubt it will last long and it will never replace the story. Sorry to be so negative but I didn’t want people to invest too much time in something thinking it was new when it wasn’t.

  3. I disagree; I think it will catch on if it’s done right. The problem with a lot of the choose your own adventure genre is that it lacks the emotional engagement present in traditional storytelling. The reason for this? It takes skill to tell an engaging story, it’s therefore very difficult to abstract that story into a branching narrative and keep it engaging. I know because it’s what I’m working on; a participatory story engine – choose your own adventure – that can also be set for passive consumption – traditional storytelling.

    The mechanism that facilitates this has been fairly easy to create, but the story layer, the part the consumer sees, has been very tough. It has to be done properly, or Christopher Wills is right, it will fail. Tablets and smartphones are a gateway into expanding a story world, but I think it’s dangerous for creators to get carried away with the little quirks, such as shaking and swiping, if the action itself doesn’t impact the story. Story has and must always be primary.

  4. I’m afraid I’m a sceptic too. This is not story telling, it is simply an inter-active game play story. It negates the whole idea of story TELLING all together. I am very keen to see how these devices might enhance story telling but this simply isn’t it. The example given is like an electronic version of Cluedo.

    There is a panic in the TV and Publishing industry to try and define what people are going to do with these devices – and the examples given certainly have a level of engagement – but don’t for a moment believe it is the art of novelisation.

    Every attempt in any media to compel the audience the find their own way through a story, or decide their own ending, has failed – from theatre to TV – and the reason is that part of the DNA of enjoying a story is going along for the ride, allowing the author to have a voice, to fool you, to surprise you. These new styles of narrative need to be very careful of pure gimmickry.

    At the moment this world is so new everyone seems distracted by the tricks of the hardware. It is similar to the days when the synthesiser came out in music – people feared it would mean the end of a good song, but of course it wasn’t. The stories will still need a great plot and gripping characters. None of the above tackles how these devices will really enhance that part of the experience, and it is, I believe, the most important part. Right now everyones eyes are on the wrong part and the reason is… because to focus on the right part, the character and plot, is much much harder.

  5. Your suggestions lead us back into the world where the act of publishing requires humongous amounts of money . . . to create these “apps” – for they are NOT books, rather, they appear to be simplified computer games. Back to the moneybags game just when we thought we’d escaped.

  6. As an author who has been attempting to leave linear narrative behind but has been bound by the traditional approach to publishing fiction I am thrilled by what you are saying and so desparate to explore this more. I have a young adult narrative told in multiple text types and created in a random but serenipitous manner, but don’t know where to take it from here. No-one in Australia seems to be thinking in this head space at the moment! Keep up this brilliant and innovative work. With thanks. Will await future posts with interest.

  7. Pingback: JC Hutchins’ Excellent Series on iPad – Storytelling Gets an Upgrade: Reach Out & Touch It. Pt 1 « Transmedia Camp 101

  8. Pingback: Storytelling gets an upgrade: Beyond tactile stories [Hutchins]

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