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).
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