Wednesday, 3 August 2011

How do writers create a great story? - Part 1

How can the approaches writers take to create stories apply to creating web experiences?

What makes people want to read or experience something from the very beginning to the very end?

Recently I've been giving some thought on how useful it is to apply some well honed practices in story-telling and novel writing  to creating web experiences. I'm not sure where this came from to be honest, but I found it in my head and I've been unable to shake it. In having these thoughts I have come to a perhaps obvious conclusion that from what I understand of the techniques writers use there is indeed a benefit to this approach. So I've decided to pull together some quick summaries of my 'story-telling' approach to creating web experiences, and you're reading part 1.

A great story grabs you from the beginning, perhaps even the title or first sentence, and makes you want to keep reading, listening or watching to the end. In my opinion it's about more than just a series of 'hooks', and its creation often starts with some basic steps.

The following is a summary of how I think a writers approach can apply to the initial process of creating a web experience:
  1. First you need to establish a clear picture of the (story you are about to write) journey you need to create - the vision or plot. This needs to clearly set out the end goal(s). Keeping a parallel with writing techniques I believe this step is similar to what writers call setting. It's at this stage that you need to establish your initial view on the success crtieria for the journey as well.
  2. Then I think it is important to write a summary of this - a single sentence or paragraph that explains what your journey is about and perhaps it's over-arching goal (key business and/or user objective). This is rather like an early process of synthesis following idea generation. This summary is possibly something that comes first in writing practices. The aim here is to be able to refer quickly and easily to this summary when dealing with the detail / problem solving tasks - it should also help keep a greater continuity and focus throughout the team involved.
  3. Then we need to create a flow - what are the steps in the journey that we need to take our audience through? This step may involve some initial information architecture planning and early user task modelling.
  4. Now we can build a list of the elements that make up this story - the features and attributes that are needed to make the story work. This may include some of the technical aspects of the process as well, and perhaps at this stage we may even need to shape the flow that we've already created.
  5. Now we can bring the flow and list of attributes together so we can understand what is needed to tell this story / create this journey, and document this as the initial model.
I'm sure for many this is the sort of process that is used all the time, it certainly has a lot of parallels with approaches I've taken over the years and to those in the many textbooks on my office shelves. I do however think there's benefits in giving another perspective like this, and I feel that a lot of the detail in writing techniques that I've read about could help support people through each of the steps above.

After this initial process is completed a next step might be to create a prototype (draft) and start asking some questions about user acceptance and how best you can use real-people (the end consumer) to help edit the story / shape the journey. And start to make it work for everyone who is likely, or who you'd like, to consume it (UCD). So, I'll be exploring this in part 2.


    1. I think that step 3 - Flow, is very important in that you try and keep the user captivated and don't have 'plot gaps' or unnecessary plot to wane the user's interest (if we are to keep the analogy going).

      My other thought on this is that it can be a little difficult to think of a web experience as a story due to a story generally being a linear experience. What some web applications could be likened to is a collection of short stories. What immediately springs to mind would be Aesop's Fables - You can get a good experience from reading a single story, but you might be wanting more and are happy to digest a good quantity of these short stories in a single sitting, thus providing a great experience. Not everybody's web experience is as linear as the next person.

      I like the idea Rory and feel that in the right place, can make the process interesting and thus, more productive!

    2. You're of course correct in suggesting that not all web experiences are like one story (linear) and I like the short story analogy.

      In application these things always need to adapt / be applied as appropriate.

      This comment just makes me think you get the idea - and it has perhaps given you that slightly different perspective. Which is good. ;

    3. I agree with this - esp Step 1. But the key to a successful story (of the most boring subject) is to keep the readers interested even if "the vision or plot" isn't something that they would normally be into.

      I'd be interested to read the next parts to see how this could be overcome.

    4. You got it Priya - the next steps will deal with keeping the user hooked.