I used to sit down with my art director and hack away at ideas.
We’d spitball, land in ambiguous places, plateau, leave it for the evening, come back, and figure it out. Then I’d whip up a script, we’d board it and revise it, and there you go, you’ve got a TV spot.
At the time, it seemed simple enough: take the concept and walk the line from top level all the way down, filling in the blanks as you go. All in all, it was pretty formulaic.
“Apply idea at top level, make a brand book. Write and produce broadcast. Create outdoor and guerrilla (if possible). Go into point of sale and brand the tags on the merchandise. Done. Repeat for next product.”
The only variation was whether it was a product or a service and which touchpoints were being used. In the digital sphere, however, the storyboard is much more ephemeral. Scripts and ideas are more easily laid out on oversized sticky notes than templates in Photoshop.
In traditional media, brand storytelling is structured in a very standardized way. Advertisers tell a short story to a viewer who digests it as presented. The only interaction available is switching away entirely or adjusting the volume. And as far as content was concerned, it was either consumed as was or not at all. Nowadays you don’t march past the applications of your idea checking off boxes on a list.
In the digital space, you create an idea, and suspend it in midair. Then, you walk around it again and again, discovering new ways to extend the brand. It’s not linear; and therefore can be somewhat disorienting because there is no guarantee that you’ll identify all the ways to apply your idea in one go around. It’s an ongoing process. You keep circling the thing —even when it’s ‘done’— in hopes that you can do just a little bit more with it.
What was it the man said? “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
These days, I sit through short adverfilms on the Internet like Lexus’s latest effort and wonder where the skip button is? This thing is a movie for crying out loud! It’s beautiful and I’m trying to go elsewhere! Why? I don’t know. Nature of the beast. The Internet lends itself to being clickable and it’s easy to skip around from place to place. We’re so accustomed to it, it’s hard to sit still and absorb content as we do in more passive media. That said, how do you tell a story when a user still isn’t obliged to follow any set path (not even so much as a choose-your-own-adventure format)?
Planning for Non-Linear Storytelling
The most important thing is planning. Make plans for your plans and plan ahead for those. A great example is a project we’re just finishing for a client (unfortunately, not yet launched – sorry!). The site is designed so the user can experience the story in any order. This is what I’m talking about: A multi-piece story that’s told… however the hell the consumer wants to hear it. So instead of making sure three follows two and two follows one, you have to make sure that 3.e can flow nicely into transition B which takes them to 2.b and that all of that makes sense in the overall concept and don’t forget the back button. The only way to manage that is with careful organization and attention to detail.
When you have finished everything on your writing task list, use your Concept Comb to make everything tangle free. Hold each piece up to your original message and see if it’s congruent. Then comes the trick: Can everything on the site flow reasonably well into just about everything else? Yeah. That’s the part where your eyes hurt. It’s not easy, by any measure. But clarity will always rule the day. Style and tone will happen as you write for the client/project. Keep your eyes on the message and write around it.
I think of it like lining up a pool shot. I never take my eye off where I have to hit and let my hands do the aiming.Image Credit: Nate Anderson Photography