the core of a digital narrative

As someone who increasingly on digital storytelling assignments, I’m both excited and challenged by the ideas that other faculty have about how they can incorporate digital media into their courses. One of the challenges that irks me though is the insistence of using the term “narrative.” I think I know why professors do it: It sounds more respectable and less subjective. If I may be so bold, I think it also removes the expectation that the narrative has to be compelling, like one assumes a story would be (narrative kind of screams “respectable but boring story”). I’m guessing that most faculty don’t want to have to grade on aesthetics beyond paper margins and type settings. But in my personal experience in teaching students to tell research-based stories, telling an engaging emotional story that substantially reflects the research they’ve done is difficult if students lack a comprehensive understanding of the topic.

Okay, gripe over.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the most crucial elements of a digital story when an assignment doesn’t allow for our standard model. That model we teach in workshops, by the way, is a 3-5 minute story told from a first-person perspective and answers a dramatic question. We also encourage participants to weave something personal from their own lives as a way of adding an emotional hook that helps them connect with the audience. These usually lie along a spectrum of universal themes such as love, loss, and family (unfortunately, these sometimes can be rather shallow and ineffective).

I know that the intent of digital storytelling as framed by the Center for Digital Storytelling is about reflecting and sharing those transformative experiences in our lives, but I also know that it’s not always appropriate for a course assignment. In fact, it might not be appropriate for most course assignments. Even I’m forced to admit that it seemed a little forced in a course that I taught myself. But that doesn’t mean though that many of the elements aren’t relevant, including an emotional hook or a dramatic question. The following are things I believe to be core to any digital media story, whether it’s part of an exhibit or a documentary:

  • Point – Is it just a stream of consciousness or a listing of facts, or does it have a clear purpose in engaging the audience?
  • Dramatic question  – What is the central conflict of the story being addressed? Is it a story of survival? A story of discovery?
  • Voice – Who is telling the story? Are they expressing it appropriately with a natural cadence and infused with the emotions that emerge from the subject matter?
  • Economy – Is the storytelling trusting the audience with just enough information to understand and engage with the story? Or is it overloading the viewer with information and visual media that probably isn’t going to be retained?

I may adjust these as time goes on, but I feel that these are the essential elements that make for a story that truly engages an audience and, well, tells a story. The definitions might be a little rough still, but this is where I’m at with articulating it (and with wanting to move on to my next appointment).

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