Elements of Digital Storytelling

The Stories We Tell

What’s the point?

What is a story? Since that’s not an easy question, maybe it’s simpler to talk about what a story is not. A story is not a data point, an anecdote, spectacle, or even a simple narrative (Alexander, 2011, p. 13, and McClellan, 2007, p. 69). A story is not always fiction, nor is it always nonfiction. We see stories in literature, but also in business, journalism, marketing, and certainly politics. A common theme I found as I read and collected resources on this topic is that what separates “story” from “not-story” is simple: a story has a point or a purpose (Nick Montfort in Jenkins, 2010, Part 1; Alexander, 2011, p. 13).

This “purpose” and the progression of a story often takes a similar form. In Kurt Vonnegut’s lecture (Comberg, 2010), he points out that stories usually take a character from a low point to a higher point, with some sort of critical juncture, tension, or problem along the way that must be resolved. Stories have a particular arc: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement (Melcher, 2012). I studied music in undergrad, and one feature of music theory that always stuck with me was the importance of dissonance. A chord expresses tension, and then when the tension is released, the music (the story) is propelled forward. Stories have a purpose or a point; non-stories lack this purpose or intention.

Stories Connect Us

Among their many purposes, stories serve a social purpose: they connect us to others. Considering music again, I had a vocal instructor who always said that you can’t sing “O Holy Night” without going for the high note (in the line “Oh night, divine”… you know which one I’m talking about), because that’s what the audience is waiting for. They’re waiting to see if you will make yourself vulnerable enough to attempt it, and then they feel fulfilled by your performance and their participation in your performance when they connect with your vulnerability. (There’s also a bit of “tension” in here too, as I think they are also waiting to see if you’ll mess it up).

McLellan (2007) explains that stories can become a conversation between the storyteller and the listeners (69). In the video by Melcher (2012), the narrator explains how researchers identified specific brain chemistry changes that occurred in response to a story. In this video, a researcher monitored the brain activity of people as they watched a story about a terminally ill child and his father. As people watched the story, the researcher observed that viewers experienced the release of specific neurochemicals associated with compassion and empathy. People who watched the video, too, were more likely to donate money or take other action as a response to the story. In other words “stories transport us into other people’s worlds” and in doing so, help us connect with others, even if we don’t know them and will never meet them (Melcher, 2012).

Digital StoriesImage of sunset that says, "Digital Storytelling: Intimate yet Participatory"

Like traditional stories, digital stories also have a point and connect us to others. In many ways, the purpose and point of stories remain the same, whether they are told orally, in writing, or using digital means. According to scholar Tom Abba, “Homo sapiens has always been a storytelling animal; so is homo digitalis” (A.C., 2015). Digital stories, then, are simply the art of telling stories with digital tools (Alexander, 2011, p. 3). 

McLellan (2007) contrasts digital storytelling with digital spectacle, explaining that, in spectacle, the audience members are observers. She continues: “By contrast, digital storytelling is far more intimate and participatory, with less flamboyance, yet with deep and lasting power. Ultimately, digital storytelling seems to reach people more profoundly than spectacle” (69). I think the core difference between digital stories and traditional stories, then, is twofold: digital stories have the potential to be more participatory, but also more intimate.

Reaching Up and Reaching Down

I envision that an oversimplification of the history of story and storytelling could be divided into three overlapping and co-mingling eras. The first era is perhaps the era before our reliance on the written word, when oral stories among small groups of people were the primary means of storytelling. In the second era, we got books, literature, mass media, film, and radio. Now, in this third era, we have digital storytelling, which as described by Alexander (2011), relies on tools like blogs, Twitter, Wikis, social images, Flickr, Facebook, Podcasts, web videos, etc. (p. 47-91).

So what separates this third era of digital storytelling from the previous two? In my second “era” of storytelling, most stories (films, books, movies, etc.) were transmitted one-way, but this new form of digital storytelling has the potential to increase the participatory nature of stories. According to Dean Jensen, before, only a select few individuals had the means to craft a story and get it out. Now, “almost anyone can create a story and get it out to a potentially unlimited audience. The fundamentals of storytelling are beginning to change” (Jenkins, 2010, Part 1). Clay Shirky explains that, in digital storytelling, we have more stories that overlap, told in multiple times, with more users actually participating in the story (Jenkins, 2010, Part 1). Barriers that the typical “storyteller” used to face are being reduced, as “digital storytelling makes it possible to capture, archive, and retrieve stories with greater ease and flexibility than ever before. And digital storytelling techniques make it possible to present and share stories with exceptional power” (McLellan, 2007, p. 73)

I think that digital storytelling also reflects a desire to return to the first era of storytelling, when the experience between audience and storyteller was more intimate. Digital storytelling is an attempt to reach “up” to reach more people and participate with wider numbers of people across broader platforms and with less linear restrictions, but it is also an attempt to reach “down” in order to connect more intimately with specific personal stories on a human level. As Lambert explains, digital storytelling is an attempt to “bring back orality in the communal circle as a core human activity” (Jenkins, 2010, Part 1).

Digital Stories and Education

Storytelling is considered “the” original form of teaching by some, and has numerous pedagogical merits. Stories were are are often used to teach us lessons, beliefs, and digital storytelling boasts many of the same benefits (Educause, 2007, p. 1).

When students are the creator of stories, they’re empowered and have the opportunity to find their own voice. This fosters “a sense of individuality and of “owning” their creations.  (Educause, 2007, p. 2). According to McLellan (2007) digital storytelling helps students develop critical transdisciplinary skills such as mastery of technology, collaboration, self-direction, personal initiative, and visual literacy, which are transdiciplinary skills necessary for student personal and academic success (p. 68).

When students are the audience of a digital story, they’re asked to participate, which taps into emotional learning as well as logical, sequential learning (Educause, 2007, p. 2). Students will be more profoundly impacted by a lesson or a topic if emotional learning is considered; if both reason and emotion are required for engagement (McLellan, 2007, p. 71). 


A.C. (2015, November 23). The real future of electronic literature [Web log message]. Retrieved Nov 26, 2015 from http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2015/11/interactive-fiction?fsrc=scn/tw_ec/the_real_future_of_electronic_literature

Alexander, B. (2011). The New Digital Storytelling: Creating Narratives with New Media. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger. 

Comberg, D. (2010, August 30). Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oP3c1h8v2ZQ

Educause (2007, January). 7 Things you should know about digital storytelling. Educause Learning Initiative. Retrieved from https://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ELI7021.pdf

Jenkins, H. (2010, August 23). How new media are transforming storytelling in four minutes [Web log message]. Retrieved Aug 20, 2011 from http://henryjenkins.org/2010/08/how_new_media_is_transforming.html

McLellan, H. (2007). Digital storytelling in higher education. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 19(1), 65-79. Retrieved from http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF03033420

Melcher, C. (2012, October 3). Empathy, Neurochemistry, and the Dramatic Arc: Paul Zak at the Future of Storytelling 2012 [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q1a7tiA1Qzo

12 thoughts on “Elements of Digital Storytelling

  1. Bob says:


    I am always a little jealous of your command of scholarship and scholarly style. You are good at it and probably should keep going and get yourself a terminal degree and research and publish.

    Knowing you were in the class, I actually quoted from our textbook.

    I am intrigued with our first element, point/non-point. Living in rural Alaska, I am reminded of other narrative strategies, the spiral logic of Elders’ discourse. For us, they seem almost determined to never make the point but to always be working around it, gesturing at it, but requiring the listener to make the connections and hence, make the learning their own. The story does not have a point but the telling/listening can be pointed?

    Your next point about spectacle/storytelling seems parallel in the celebration of joint participation, or “reach up” as you say.

    All the buzz right now in the business literature is “emotional intelligence” and it seems to be overlapping in the education literature as well. Therefore, your final insight regarding the emotional learning fits neatly in this landscape. Weirdly, we fret about trolls and cyberbullying and yet we have folks exposing vast swaths of their lives and decision models to the world. Funny ol’ world isn’t it.

    • admin says:

      You know, I’m glad you pointed out the spiral logic of Elders’ discourse and stories along those lines. I’m also taking ED 616 this semester & I almost wish I would’ve written the assignment for 616 before I wrote this one. It’s got me thinking about what I mean when I say a story has to have a “point.” I think that the definition of “point” can be a lot broader than what we think it may be- maybe the “point” isn’t part of the story, but the “point” of the story is as you suggest- to make the listener listen and find their own connections. Maybe the “point” of the story is that there sometimes is no “point.” Thanks for giving me some additional things to think about!

      • Skip Via says:

        Perhaps “purpose” would be a better word than “point” in this case? Point connotes a moral, or an attempt to persuade, or even a punchline. But purpose might fit your observation more aptly: “…to make the listener listen and find their own connection.” Is that splitting hairs?

  2. Nikki Stein says:


    I love the way you write, and I’m really happy to be in cohort with you again. You always publish work that is well researched and easy to understand. This post is no exception. I love that you wrote about your personal connection with story telling in relation to music. Very well expressed.

    It made me reflect my own personal connection with storytelling: standup comedy. I’ve been performing standup for about a year and found it to be much more challenging than I thought it would be, mostly because of the elements of storytelling that go into it. Obviously what makes a joke funny is the point of it, but if it does not have a strong dramatic arc and a connection to the audience, it falls flat.

    Great piece Valerie!

    • admin says:

      Thanks Nikki! I’m glad to see we get to take another class together this semester, too. I bet you have learned a lot about storytelling and what makes or breaks a story from doing standup! I’m sure that standup and comedy requires a much different type of arc and different components to be successful than a lot of other forms of storytelling.

  3. Skip Via says:

    I’ve rarely encountered a more focused, well documented, and compellingly narrated discussion of digital storytelling elements than this one. Thank you. I have very little to add, but here goes…

    Your discussion of the three eras of storytelling is particularly interesting to me. It’s a powerful way to think about the core concepts of storytelling and how they change as technologies and cultures change–if in fact those core concepts change at all. I might stretch your characterization to four or five eras, but I’m even fudging on that a bit. Clearly the first is the oral tradition that is the basis of all storytelling then and now. We still engage with each other through stories, and we order our world through shared stories of culture and history.

    When we get to the written word as a way of transmitting stories, the picture gets a bit muddier for me. I see an important dichotomy here. We had the written word for millennia before we had a way to reproduce and transmit stories via moveable type. It wasn’t until we could print and distribute books that novels and similar forms emerged as a storytelling mediums. You might argue that novels are simply oral tradition in print form, but the fact that one could distribute stories to a much wider (and newly literate) audience was a significant leap forward over oral stories or hand-copied texts. The Renaissance didn’t just happen…

    The next leap forward came with what we call mass media–photography, radio, film, television. To my way of thinking, mass media brought an immediacy and sense of realism to an audience–a much larger audience–than print media could. We could experience the world in new ways, even as history was unfolding. Storytellers had more tools in their kits. But–and this is hugely significant–mass media worked in one direction only. So in that sense you could argue that moveable type was the first mass media tool and that later electronic media were simply deeper and broader iterations. This is your take on the subject, and it makes perfect sense.

    Now we find ourselves in an era in which media can be created by anyone, consumed in a variety of ways, and interacted with even to the extent of changing the underlying narrative itself. You’ve done a splendid job of cataloging and explaining what that means. Mass storage, easy retrieval, the ability to sample and alter existing content, creation by anyone, audiences hyperlinked to sources–it’s easily as significant as the invention of moveable type in terms of the tools of storytelling.

    It sounds like an oversimplification to say that digital storytelling is telling stories with digital tools, but I can’t disagree with that. We still tell stories for the same reasons we always have. A.C. was right.

  4. Heather Marie says:

    Your choice to define storytelling by what it is not, rather than what it is, allows you to define stories with a succinct simplicity…and yet, it’s quite profound and thought-provoking. I love, too, your comparison of stories to music throughout, as I have always loved music for the same reasons I love stories – the emotions they evoke and the way in which we tie them to moments in our lives and our, as you mention, connections to others. (And, on a side note totally unrelated to class, bless you if you can hit that high note because, I 100% cannot…nor do you want to hear me try.) That said, what great imagery as it relates to the vulnerability of the connections we crave through stories.

    Although we have all seen Melcher, I wanted to see more explication here on the brain changes we experience. If someone had not seen the video, or didn’t take the time to watch it, they lack the richness of background knowledge to understand the point you are making here, which is a strong one.

    You might consider going back to the point of stories connecting us in the paragraph where you discuss McLellean, comparing digital spectacle and storytelling. Although your ending statement is quite powerful as is, I think reiterating your point about seeking connections takes that intimacy to the next logical step. Perhaps a reader will see that on their own, but a single sentence making the point, in my opinion, would further strengthen your argument.

    I really love the point you make here: “I think that digital storytelling also reflects a desire to return to the first era of storytelling, when the experience between audience and storyteller was more intimate. Digital storytelling is an attempt to reach “up” to reach more people and participate with wider numbers of people across broader platforms and with less linear restrictions, but it is also an attempt to reach “down” in order to connect more intimately with specific personal stories on a human level.” Honestly, there’s nothing more to say.

    Finally, I also couldn’t agree with you more that digital stories empower students and allow them to find their voice. I think the ease and affordability/availability of technology goes a long way to giving voice to those who have been historically marginalized, whether by circumstance or lack of legitimacy in the eyes of a publisher. Very few teens were published in the past, however, digital empowers them to come into their own at a very early age. Powerful stuff.

    • admin says:

      Thank you so much for your detailed feedback! You made some great points about expanding on the effects of stories on brain chemistry as we saw in the video by Melcher so I will definitely revisit those sections and consider your input. I also very much agree with your point that the ease and affordability of technology gives voice to those are historically marginalized. The democratizing effect of the internet, as they say! 🙂

  5. Krista says:


    I really enjoyed reading your post. It is organized a clear and easy to read. You used many great sources and I find myself clicking on your links and learning more through them. I know I will learn a lot from you this semester!

    I like the part about stories connecting us and being a conversation between the teller and audience. I think connection is very important to digital stories and how they work. I also like your digital stories and education critique. I agree with McLellan in that when students get the chance to take ownership of their work it can give them a voice and be successful.

    Lastly, I loved reading the education section. I too think that students are empowered when they are given the chance to take ownership of their own creativity and work. It gives them a sense of pride as well as ownership.

    I really look forward to reading more of your posts!

  6. tatiana says:

    Valerie, what a wonderful reflection. I have to chime in with the rest of the guys, you really created a well-rounded and thought-provoking overview. You brought up a couple of points that made me really think and question my own perceptions. One of them especially is that digital stories can be more intimate. I never thought of this before. If anything, I thought of the opposite — they are more public and collaborative in experience if only for the fact that there is always someone else reading it, watching it, commenting on it with you even if you are not aware of it. And they are always open and accessible. I see them like the books that never get closed and put back on the shelf, even if you are done reading them. But I can see how they can be more intimate in content (your post made me read the McLellan article). And that, I think, has something to do with the “digitalization,” meaning how easy it is to punish a snippet of your life (like in personal blogging) or a draft, or work in progress… Whereas, before the proliferation of the digital tools the work that was published had to be complete, revised, vetted, thus a bit removed from the intimate, immediate record.

    Later, McLellan (2007) states, “But the main focus of digital storytelling is the creation of personal narratives rather than interactive stories or games.” I wonder why? Would a personal narrative created in a form of an interactive story not be a digital storytelling? Brings to mind the pop-up books. Is it a similar distinction as they are not really considered to be “literature?” Furthermore, McLellan (2007) states, “The premise of digital storytelling is very simple: It is designed to help people tell stories from their own lives that are meaningful to them and to their audience, using media to add power and resonance, and to create a permanent record.” We might think that “digital” means “permanent” but it does not. Sites go down all the time, YouTube videos get taken down consistently, servers crash, people loose digital information all the time. I think that “digital” is the opposite of permanent. It is also much easier to delete a digital record from the existence than to obliterate something that was published on paper… I might be wrong. But maybe this transient quality is what makes the biggest difference between the traditional and digital stories? It is a snippet in time for some time until it gets replaced by another snippet…

    Sorry, I think I went on a tangent 🙂 Great post!

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