A Long, Long Time Ago...
Many years ago, I was in film school, showing one of my first projects. The screening should have been a walk in the park because this was graduate school, and I had already made many films as an undergraduate, studying and winning awards for—you guessed it—film. To my surprise, my classmates and professor were quite disappointed by my short. The biggest criticism: the flow. The story had no discernible narrative arc. It took too long to get going, then once it did, it never really went anywhere, and then, it kind of just ended. The result? My viewers were disengaged, which was definitely short of my goal.
Sound familiar? It’s something that most filmmakers, as well as designers, developers, entrepreneurs, product managers, and content and marketing strategists tackle on a daily basis. A good story engages. A good user experience engages, too. While a good story can be quite complex, the essence of engagement is simply this: a story must have a strong narrative arc. And while such a narrative arc can sometimes emerge innately from the things that we create, if we don’t consciously think about it, it might not emerge at all. This is what happened to me.
Over and over and over again.
My films would either win awards and grants or bore everyone to pieces. Even though simple narrative structure is something that I learned during my first week as an undergraduate, I pretty much forgot about the technique.
Fast forward many years later when, instead of crafting films, I was working in tech crafting digital products like websites, software, and apps. Much like my film career, my experience in tech was resulting in hits and misses. The apps, landing pages, screen-flows, and signup flows, features, even entire products and services were either working great or not getting the results I wanted.
A good story is structured in such a way that it grabs the viewer, engages them, keeps them engaged, offers some sort of high-point or pay-off, and then provides closure. Might the same principles apply to crafting engaging non-filmic experiences?
While my background is in documentary and not fiction or episodic television, I decided to draw inspiration from something that fiction writers – especially television writers – do to plan, structure, and maintain story arcs over time. Literally, plotting out the plot points of a story over time to ensure a solid structure, cohesiveness, and most importantly, an engaged audience.
Plotting A Course
As John Gardner says in The Art of Fiction, "Plotting [a narrative] is ordinarily no hasty process but something the writer broods and labors over." Multiply that by many episodes over many seasons written by many writers a television writers' studio is a den of plotting. Take, for example, the writers' room for the television show Breaking Bad. On the surface, it very much resembles and design studio or tech office with walls of post-its and cards. The difference, however, lies in what EM Forster calls a "tapeworm," or the story that slithers from the beginning through the end of the timeline: a cohesive story. It's like a backbone. And it has a structure. Fluid like a tapeworm, sure, but a structure nonetheless.
Plotting. The simple act of plotting. We do it for making films, do it for writing novels, do it for TV. Why don't we plot stories in this way for interactive screen-based products?
I kind of was plotting. In tech and design, we have many techniques for plotting. Wireframes and storyboards to plot flows. Flow charts, too. I was also kind of using stories, more broadly. Working on agile teams, I pushed my teams to think in terms of stories and the big picture behind said stories. You can even map stories out using a method called Agile Story Mapping, which is a great way to add depth to your planning process. All wonderful techniques.
But what I often had were a bunch of pictures or words...or both...maybe even a production plan or timeline...but not always a story behind things I built that would help me hypothesize why on earth anyone would ever engage with this thing that I was building. Why sign up for this service? Why finish this signup flow? Why engage with this product or service over time? Why watch this TV show? Why keep watching this episode? Why keep watching this TV show over time? As I started to find in my own work, applying narrative storytelling techniques to crafting digital products and services works as well as with screen and fiction writing for figuring out ways to engage an audience initially and over time.
And the core of narrative storytelling is, as Gardner says, careful plotting.
Careful plotting like this closeup of Breaking Bad's story map for season 4:
Careful plotting. It's how we make things go BOOM.