Friday, January 05, 2007

Successful Storytelling in the Digital World


Happy New Year! Here, at long last, is our presentation at the RWA on Successful Storytelling in the 21st Century. We wanted to review the evolution of storytelling over time, determining what the essential elements are, how they have changed and how they have remained the same over time.

The goal of a story is to entertain or inform—sometimes it achieves both. That has remained true over the centuries, though the kinds of stories and the way those stories are shared have changed with the times.

Our session at the RWA explored how the changes and opportunities that technologies have brought us as publishers and writers enhance and open up storytelling in new and different ways.

The group also shared insights into how they were exploring this new frontier. With the advent of new formats, technologies and the rise of consumer controlled content, writers have the opportunity to think differently about connecting with their audience, sharing their stories, and they do....

Workshop presented by: Malle Vallik Editorial Director, New Business Development & Isabel Swift, VP, Author & Asset Development at the RWA National Conference, 2006. Workshop Notes, including Q & As are courtesy of Vicky Elabd with profound thanks! I would also like to credit Amy Wilkins for her brilliant selection of graphics to accompany our 10 points, and thank the amazing Maria Marfori for translating them so I could post them on the blog. Truly, it takes a village!


In the storytelling world of the future, publishers and authors can leverage assets into new formats to reach a broader audience.

Stories both entertain and inform. An attitude of New Vs Old, “us” Vs “them” has historically prevailed when new technology came along—the monks thought they had nothing to worry about with the appearance of the Gutenberg Press. They were secure that the superior quality of their workmanship with illustrated manuscripts would win! Do we see similar responses now as traditional publishers look at electronic publishing? Perhaps.


Now we are seeing new ways of reaching an audience being layered upon the old, and the challenge is to get the story to the audience in some format—often more than one format. In fact often the more formats used, the more people can be reached.

Additionally this is a “communal age” in which we can all participate and build on each other’s ideas to move storytelling to a new level.


Top 10 things to remember when telling stories in the Digital Age:


1. A great story is still the foundation. Humor, emotion, effective characters, a compelling situation, strong conflict are all key elements. A storyteller must deliver universal themes that connect with readers, making her laugh, cry—touching her. That has always been true. That will always be true. But a great story can be shared across many different formats as well.


2. Bite-sized presentation reaches a larger audience, and more quickly. Examples are RSS feeds, cable news, computer news, Sesame Street, Headline News, making information or entertainment so 'easy to swallow' it's impossible not to access. Several examples of authors who write in this style are Sharon Sala (in her Mira books) and James Patterson. Harlequin On The Go (HOTGO) a mobile phone service providing Harlequin content: chapters, tips, trivia polls, book covers, etc., every day directly to cell phones.

Q: How is this format different from an e-newsletter?
A: this service comes directly from the cell phone provider (Verizon, etc.) and is the first such service geared towards women.

Q: Is the content different from eHarlequin?
A: The menu is new. We offer on-line reads from eHarlequin as well as original material, and in future we may be bringing in additional original content.

Q: Is it going through the e-mail service on our cell phones, or does it hook up to a web page from Verizon?
A: It is one of the entertainment menu options from Verizon. You do not require an e-mail hookup to view content.


3.Re-purposed Content: The market has changed with the addition of these new formats. Now there are more ways to access stories that might never have been reissued in the past. eHarlequin reads, Harlequin Mini and Round Robin as 99cent eBook offers, backlist series romance in Retail and eBooks. Re-releases are now much more popular, and more readers are able to access back-list material. We can release them chapter by chapter, even by cell link. This is good for both readers and authors.

Audio Books: Gives an added dimension of sound and the quality of the narrator's voice to the story experience. Additionally you can 'read with your ears' during times when you normally couldn't physically read.

eBooks, the kind that you can download to a portable PC or reader are a small market right now, but give readers another option. Harlequin has increased to 40 new books per month and the backlist program is over 20 titles per month.You can add information to an e-book that is not available in print versions, i.e., back-story on characters for readers who want more information (in the same way a DVD contains “bonus material” on movie releases).


4. Portability: phone downloads, TV shows on iTunes for IPOD; you can have access to so much material anytime, and there is more of everything.

Audience suggestion: you can schedule what’s coming out so you can go buy new books when they are released, as well as utilize electronic contest entries and PR materials.


5. Multiple layers: Back-story can help publishers/producers by soliciting reader/viewer response to storylines.

Example: Lost used customer online response to create interest and also develop a richer, better story. Snakes on a Plane also used the audience to change elements of the film to improve the experience.

Audience comments:
• “I’ll often post scenes I’ve discarded, and get reader responses from them.”
• “I include interviews with characters, character photos, and email addresses, so my readers can communicate with them directly. I have an opportunity to expand and do more with my story and characters, and interact more with readers.”
• “Adding content makes the fictional worlds we create more real, so that the line between fiction and reality is blurred.”


6. World building: audience participation in the fictional worlds of the story, i.e., Lost,Lord of the Rings, Star Trek spin-off stories, fan-fic. If you ask for interaction, you let go of some of the control over your story. But you gain because you have more ideas to work with. One author is thinking about creating a virtual casino that exists only in her story, so readers can visit.


7. Interactive, connectedness, participation: A collaborative business model in which everything comes together, and everyone is part of the whole (example: Wikipedia). A writing group does this, as does “TV Without Pity”, in which producers and writers will look at comments and respond to their audiences.

Audience examples of interactive experiences: Choose-you-own-adventure; DVDs; kids are also writing their own stories online, since they are familiar and comfortable with the media. With virtual movies, you could throw out an ending you don’t like and replace it with one you like better. How can we make more of those things happen?


8. The world we’re in now is full of discovery, uncertainty, and lack of control. We’re all in it together. In genre fiction, there is an element of predictability, but we should always ask ourselves how we could add more unpredictability, discovery and sense of adventure to our stories. Technology and interactivity can help make that happen.


9. Voyeuristic: reality-show appeal. We relate, gain insight, feel superior to the people we see on “reality” TV. The lack of polish can make the experience seem more relevant to our own lives. What does this trend do to storytelling? What is the window into reality? How might that relate to the more grounded-in-fantasy storylines? Not at all? Or is there a spin?


10. Freedom: to tell the story of your heart; new technological options allow you to create a deeper, more complex story. The audience can become involved in a much richer storytelling world, and can help create it too. The possibilities are virtually limitless!

Two quotes very relevant to our time:


“Omni mutantur, nuhil interit.”
“Everything changes, nothing perishes.”
Ovid, b 43 BC

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”
“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Alphonse Karr, b.1808

These words are centuries old, but they are as relevant today as they were when they were spoken.

Some things really don't change.

As authors, always: Embrace change, and Evolve....


Experiment and Entertain

and never stop Engaging your reader with your story, no matter what the medium

Change creates options--it's often not "instead of" but "as well as." Most of us will always enjoy reading a book. But when we are trying to travel light, isn't it great that we have an option to carry all of Proust--or far more appropriate, the entire works of Nora Roberts, Diana Palmer, Penny Jordan and Debbie Macomber in our Kate Spade purse?

To have the option of accessing all my favorite keeper romances without having to build a second addition to my home? To listen to the latest while I'm walking the dog? It's appealing!

General Q & A:

Q: Yesterday at the digital fair, you talked about original content, what are you looking for?
A: If you have a great idea for our cell phone content, we’re very open.

Q: Are you doing wallpaper?
A: The people we hired weren’t able to do that yet.

Q: You could do wake up calls (like Target does on sale days)
A: Great idea!

Q: (from panel) How do authors respond to readers rewriting your story (as in fan-fiction)
A: some like the idea, others feel that it would take away from their voice

Panel comment: Your story moved them so much that they wanted to engage in it? Awesome!


Ericka Scott said...

Wow -- I learned a lot from your presentation of the presentation! Thanks for posting this.

Isabel Swift said...

Ericka, thank you for letting us know--it makes it all worthwhile!

Barbara Bretton said...

I second Ericka's WOW. Isabel, this should be required reading for any writer looking to understand this brave new world of 21st century publishing. I'm going back to re-read it.

Isabel Swift said...

Barbara: how wonderful to hear from you! Thank you for your kind words--they mean a lot. I am so pleased to hear the material was helpful, and I hope both reassuring and inspiring. I'm rushing off to tell Malle Barbara Bretton wrote us a fan letter. She is going to be tickled.