Tags: stories

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Thursday, November 24th, 2016

Keeper of the Clock

An unfolding series of vignettes written by Danny Hillis back in 2010. It’s all very Borgesian.

Sunday, October 23rd, 2016

Refreshing The Verge: no platform like home - The Verge

Mandy is fighting the good fight for the open web from within Vox Media. Her publishing tools have been built with a secret weapon…

This practice — which I refer to unoriginally as progressively enhanced storytelling — also has the added benefit of helping us make our content more accessible to more kinds of users, especially those with disabilities.

Saturday, October 31st, 2015

Some Thoughts on Hope, Cynicism, and the Stories We Tell Ourselves | Brain Pickings

Critical thinking without hope is cynicism. Hope without critical thinking is naïveté.

Echoing Margaret Atwood’s observation:

If we abandon hope, we’re cooked. If we rely on nothing but hope, we’re cooked. So I would say judicious hope is necessary.

Wednesday, October 28th, 2015

Storyforming

It was only last week that myself and Ellen were brainstorming ideas for a combined workshop. Our enthusiasm got the better of us, and we said “Let’s just do it!” Before we could think better of it, the room was booked, and the calendar invitations were sent.

Workshopping

The topic was “story.”

No wait, maybe it was …”narrative.”

That’s not quite right either.

“Content,” perhaps?

Basically, here’s the issue: at some point everyone at Clearleft needs to communicate something by telling a story. It might be a blog post. It might be a conference talk. It might be a proposal for a potential client. It might be a case study of our work. Whatever form it might take, it involves getting a message across …using words. Words are hard. We wanted to make them a little bit easier.

We did two workshops. Ellen’s was yesterday. Mine was today. They were both just about two hours in length.

Get out of my head!

Ellen’s workshop was all about getting thoughts out of your head and onto paper. But before we could even start to do that, we had to confront our first adversary: the inner critic.

You know the inner critic. It’s that voice inside you that says “You’ve got nothing new to say”, or “You’re rubbish at writing.” Ellen encouraged each of us to drag this inner critic out into the light—much like Paul Ford did with his AnxietyBox.

Each of us drew a cartoon of our inner critic, complete with speech bubbles of things our inner critic says to us.

Drawing our inner critic inner critics

In a bizarre coincidence, Chloe and I had exactly the same inner critic, complete with top hat and monocle.

With that foe vanquished, we proceeded with a mind map. The idea was to just dump everything out of our heads and onto paper, without worrying about what order to arrange things in.

I found it to be an immensely valuable exercise. Whenever I’ve tried to do this before, I’d open up a blank text file and start jotting stuff down. But because of the linear nature of a text file, there’s still going to be an order to what gets jotted down; without meaning to, I’ve imposed some kind of priority onto the still-unformed thoughts. Using a mind map allowed me get everything down first, and then form the connections later.

mind mapping

There were plenty of other exercises, but the other one that really struck me was a simple framework of five questions. Whatever it is that you’re trying to say, write down the answers to these questions about your audience:

  1. What are they sceptical about?
  2. What problems do they have?
  3. What’s different now that you’ve communicated your message?
  4. Paint a pretty picture of life for them now that you’ve done that.
  5. Finally, what do they need to do next?

They’re straightforward questions, but the answers can really help to make sure you’re covering everything you need to.

There were many more exercises, and by the end of the two hours, everyone had masses of raw material, albeit in an unstructured form. My workshop was supposed to help them take that content and give it some kind of shape.

The structure of stories

Ellen and I have been enjoying some great philosophical discussions about exactly what a story is, and how does it differ from a narrative structure, or a plot. I really love Ellen’s working definition: Narrative. In Space. Over Time.

This led me to think that there’s a lot that we can borrow from the world of storytelling—films, novels, fairy tales—not necessarily about the stories themselves, but the kind of narrative structures we could use to tell those stories. After all, the story itself is often the same one that’s been told time and time again—The Hero’s Journey, or some variation thereof.

So I was interested in separating the plot of a story from the narrative device used to tell the story.

To start with, I gave some examples of well-known stories with relatively straightforward plots:

  • Star Wars,
  • Little Red Riding Hood,
  • Your CV,
  • Jurassic Park, and
  • Ghostbusters.

I asked everyone to take a story (either from that list, or think of another one) and write the plot down on post-it notes, one plot point per post-it. Before long, the walls were covered with post-its detailing the plot lines of:

  • Robocop,
  • Toy Story,
  • Back To The Future,
  • Elf,
  • E.T.,
  • The Three Little Pigs, and
  • Pretty Woman.

Okay. That’s plot. Next we looked at narrative frameworks.

Narrative frameworks as Oblique Strategies.

Flashback

Begin at a crucial moment, then back up to explain how you ended up there.

e.g. Citizen Kane “Rosebud!”

Dialogue

Instead of describing the action directly, have characters tell it to one another.

e.g. The Dialogues of Plato …or The Breakfast Club (or one of my favourite sci-fi short stories).

In Media Res

Begin in the middle of the action. No exposition allowed, but you can drop hints.

e.g. Mad Max: Fury Road (or Star Wars, if it didn’t have the opening crawl).

Backstory

Begin with a looooong zooooom into the past before taking up the story today.

e.g. 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Distancing Effect

Just the facts with no embellishment.

e.g. A police report.

You get the idea.

In a random draw, everyone received a card with a narrative device on it. Now they had to retell the story they chose using that framing. That led to some great results:

  • Toy Story, retold as a conversation between Andy and his psychiatrist (dialogue),
  • E.T., retold as a missing person’s report on an alien planet (distancing effect),
  • Elf, retold with an introduction about the very first Christmas (backstory),
  • Robocop, retold with Murphy already a cyborg, remembering his past (flashback),
  • The Three Little Pigs, retold with the wolf already at the door and no explanation as to why there’s straw everywhere (in media res).

Once everyone had the hang of it, I asked them to revisit their mind maps and other materials from the previous day’s workshop. Next, they arranged the “chunks” of that story into a linear narrative …but without worrying about getting it right—it’s not going to stay linear for long. Then, everyone is once again given a narrative structure. Now try rearranging and restructuring your story to use that framework. If something valuable comes out of that, great! If not, well, it’s still a fun creative exercise.

And that was pretty much it. I had no idea what I was doing, but it didn’t matter. It wasn’t really about me. It was about helping others take their existing material and play with it.

That said, I’m glad I finally got this process out into the world in some kind of semi-formalised way. I’ve been preparing talks and articles using these narrative exercises for a while, but this workshop was just the motivation I needed to put some structure on the process.

I think I might try to create a proper deck of cards—along the lines of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies or Stephen Andersons’s Mental Notes—so that everyone has the option of injecting a random narrative structural idea into the mix whenever they’re stuck.

At the very least, it would be a distraction from listening to that pesky inner critic.

Thursday, October 22nd, 2015

Advanced storytelling: Narrative. In space. Over time. | Ellen de Vries

I’m loving Ellen’s thoughts on taking storytelling to the next level.

Let’s say that we’ve got a lot of useful storytelling models for design now. Achievement unlocked. Let’s move on to discuss narrative structure, in space, over time.

Monday, October 19th, 2015

Periodic Table of Storytelling

Combining the molecules of narrative tropes to create stories.

Tuesday, August 25th, 2015

Climate Futures on Matter

A collection of cli-fi and cli-fact.

Friday, August 21st, 2015

Crafting A Bridge Between Storytelling & UX Design

I kind of want to link to every one of John’s post chronicling his 90 days at Clearleft, but this one is particular good, I think: how narrative ideas from the world of storytelling can help unlock some design problems.

Tuesday, July 14th, 2015

Google Web Fonts Typographic Project

Google Fonts aren’t renowned for their quality but this is a beautiful demonstration of what you can accomplish with them.

Sunday, July 5th, 2015

Domain Stories | Citizen Ex

The fascinating tales behind Top Level Domains as part of James and Nat’s Citizen Ex project. So far there’s .scot, .cymru, and .ly, with more to come.

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

The Secret Life of Passwords - NYTimes.com

A fascinating look at how the humble password gets imbued with incredible levels of meaning.

It reminds me of something I heard Ze Frank say last year: “People fill up the cracks with intimacy.”

Saturday, October 11th, 2014

ysltf on Huffduffer

Sam Greenspan from the brilliant 99% Invisible podcast has created a Huffduffer feed based on his “You Should Listen To Friday” Tumblr blog.

If you have a Huffduffer account, add this to your collective.

And definitely subscribe to this RSS feed in your podcast app of choice.

Saturday, September 13th, 2014

Hypertext as an agent of change | A Working Library

The text of Mandy’s astounding dConstruct talk.

Marvellous stuff!

Sunday, August 17th, 2014

A Ficly Farewell on The Writer’s Room - Official Ficly Blog

Now this is how to shut down a service: switch to a read-only archive, and make the codebase (without user credentials) available on Github.

Sunday, July 27th, 2014

Twelve Tomorrows | MIT Technology Review

This year’s collection of twelve sci-fi stories from Technology Review features three dConstruct speakers: Lauren Beukes, Cory Doctorow, and Warren Ellis.

Friday, October 19th, 2012

Stories from the New Aesthetic : Joanne Mcneil

A lovely piece from Joanne on storytelling, identity and the internet.

Friday, August 17th, 2012

Stories and Tools - Anil Dash

This post is ten years old, but I think it might still be the best attempt to demarcate a difference between web “sites” and web “apps”: think of them as stories and tools.

It’s also remarkably prescient about the need for an effort exactly like HTML5:

A widely-distributed, standards-compliant, browser and platform-independent library of functions that would perform the basic user interface functions for a web-based tool, relying on the server side only for the logic and data sourcing.

Monday, January 9th, 2012

Did I ever tell you about the time….

There’s something zen-like about these banal stories of celebrity encounters.

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

One week of Map Tales

It’s been just a week since Clearleft unveiled the Map Tales project that we built at Hackfarm and there have already been some great stories told with the site.

Paul documented his 2009 road trip to South by Southwest.

Alessio put together a photographic guide to his adopted home, showing the secrets of Barcelona.

Andy told two tales of two different trips: wine-tasting in California’s Dry Creek Valley and hanging with the hipsters in East London.

Fellow Brightonian Tom Prior has recreated the story of the famous Stirling Moss victory at the 1955 Mille Miglia, the legendary open-road endurance race in Northern Italy.

I love the simplicity of Oliver and Peter Walk to School that Peter Ruk has embedded on his site—beautifully simple .

I’ve made a map tale of the voyage of The Beagle with material fromAboutDarwin.com.

Meanwhile Anna is putting together the tale of the Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole because—get this—a relative of hers was part of Scott’s team!

There’s plenty of room for improvement with Map Tales. It would be nice to have customisation options at some point—colours, fonts, maybe even map tiles. Some narratives would probably work better with aerial imagery, for example. In fact, that’s something that Andy has been tirelessly tinkering with. To get a taste of how that looks, check out Britain From Above, the epic map tale of the 2008 BBC documentary series.

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

Follow the lives of four Londoners during World War 2 via Twitter – Network’43

A nicely-designed project to highlight everyday life in a three-week period in England in 1943 by imagining how four people would have used Twitter.