ADAM WESTBROOK IS A BRITISH JOURNALIST AND DIGITAL PRODUCER. HAVING WRITING FOUR EBOOKS ON JOURNALISM, STORYTELLING AND PUBLISHING, HE NOW ORGANISES THE RECURRING ONLINE COURSE ‘STORY DESIGN FOR NONFICTION‘. HIS MAIN FOCUS IS ON ONLINE VIDEO REPORTING AND NEW WAYS OF PRODUCING AND PUBLISHING NEWS RELATED CONTENT.
What is story design?
Story Design, as I define it (and it is very much my own definition!) is applying design thinking to the storytelling process. This means applying discipline to the act: taking an objective view of the aims of the story, breaking it down into events and then arranging those events, and other narrative elements, with intention. I have personally found a lot of my own storytelling relied on guesswork or what ‘felt’ right. If a story worked I didn’t understand why. Story design looks at what are the mechanics that make a narrative work so we can remove the guesswork and tell stories with intention.
Why the need for it? What are the advantages of bringing storytelling techniques into news reports?
I am not sure whether it has applications in news, as that relies on templates and formulas to allow stories to be produced quickly. Story Design makes the process longer so it is better suited to long-form, feature and in-depth pieces. It is not really new, it has been practiced by some journalists since the 1960s, but the chaotic and noisy world of the internet has given it new purpose. The only way to stand out online is to tell stories which resonate and to be better at telling stories than others. Story Design is about learning the principles of storytelling to do that.
What are the main differences between storytelling for fiction and non-fiction?
The only difference really is that one is made up and the other isn’t! Otherwise the same devices and narrative elements come into play: structure, conflict, character, meaning etc. In non-fiction we have constraints as we can’t just make up a conflict as a screenwriter would. We have to look for it – it is always there, but it requires a more universal approach.
Where did the need for non-fiction storytelling come from? Online journalism?
The fact is the world is getting more complex and in many ways more dangerous, but journalism is failing in its duty to help people understand that. This is partly because the journalists themselves no longer understand how the world works, but it’s also because we need new ways of conveying that complexity. That is why good storytelling matters: it is the best way to help people understand an event as if they have experienced it themselves.
Storytelling is gaining traction in news environments, why just now?
I think we’re realising that people are jaded by the formulas and story treatments journalism has been using for the last 60 years. We’ve learned to switch off or distance ourselves and I don’t think people feel affected by stories told by journalists at the moment.
Are the different techniques for the non-fiction sub genres: video, tv, online, longreads, … and if so what are they?
There are many differences as we go along the process, but actually at the start they are similar. You are still breaking a story down into events, trying to understand the meaning, place the climax and arrange events in the story in the most effective order. This can be done before getting too medium specific. After that the biggest difference is probably between visual and non-visual stories. Visual mediums like video and slideshows require a separate treatment later on to tell the story with few words. That is a whole new challenge in itself!
As with many new techniques, overkill is just around the corner, how to avoid too much design, or can it never be enough?
I’m not sure this is the same as, say, the overkill that we saw with ‘snowfall’ type stories. In those things, the overkill was very much about the superficial look of the story, its skin. Storytelling is more about the bones, the skeletal structure of the story. It is often invisible. Certainly online there is a tendency to focus on, celebrate and mimic the superficial parts: the visible design, so the underlying scaffolding is less visible. Still, as people do practice telling stories with intention I’m sure we’ll see some overly zealous attempts, but that is all part of the learning process. You have to tell lots of bad stories before you can tell some good ones!