I talk a lot about different ideas for mixed-media, interactive stories, but how do we actually create something. What are the steps? What does the  process look like? Is this really something I can do?

Yes. Let me show you.

From step one.

1. Inspiration

The most common question at any book signing is “where do you get your ideas?” That is a subject for about a thousand books on its own, and to begin this walk through of telling mixed-media, interactive stories, it may be a bit beyond our scope. We will start with one of the most time-honored launching pads: the writing prompt.

I have a copy of The Amazing Story Generator which I have used to concoct the following three scenes.

  • Penniless after a failed business venture, an old lady with twenty cats solves a ten-year-old murder
  • After a monthlong fast, a North Korean scientist forgets to mail an important letter
  • While on a second honeymoon, a small town mayor is initiated into a secret cult

And from here, we construct a story.

2. Story

I chose those three, bizarrely disconnected plot lines on purpose. My stories always begin with scenes, characters, or emotional moments. Interesting bits of news or questions that I connect to personally. Then, I ask question to connect these bits into a functioning story. The above prompts are not really connected at all, but we can create connections and birth a beautiful story.

Story Fundamentals

Let’s begin by understanding what a story is and has, at least for our purposes. At its most basic level, a hero’s life is at balance in their world, ordinary as it is for them. Something happens to knock that balance out of whack and sends that hero on some sort of quest to set the world to rights again. Along the way, lots of things try to stop the hero, and a few things (like mentors) will be the hero’s aid. Even more important, our hero grows. They begin with a want (to set the world right again), a wound (something bad that keeps them from growing), and a need (to be get past the wound). The story takes the hero through the growth. They are not the same at the end, and neither is the world, but this new world is in balance, at least for the hero.

Yes, that’s all from my treatment on the Hero’s Journey, and (to me) the simplest structure to create powerful stories. I’m using it here as a sort-of-formula. Normally, I’m not that rigid, but this is a blog post, after all.

Questions to Construct Stories

Now that we know what we’re aiming for, how can we connect those above prompts? Well, in a virtually infinite number of ways. Here is how my questioning path led to a story outline.

  • Is the important letter connected to the murder? Yes, the letter was an last minute cancellation of a contract assassination.
  • Why was the scientist wanting to assassinate someone in the first place? Obviously because they were rivals in some secret government research.  He changed his mind when, after his fast, he believed his god spoke to him in a vision. Now, I’m changing my prompt from “forgets to mail” to “fails to mail”.
  • So, what stops the scientist from mailing the letter? The secret cult also wants the rival dead, so they dispose of the scientist and let the hit man take care of the rival.
  • Why does the secret cult care? They are an old order that believes they must protect the world from abomination of medicine. Both scientists were working on advanced genetics.
  • The secret cult uses mind control serum to indoctrinate their members.
  • That means that the small town-mayor is going to be the villian of our story. He is recruited by the cult to dispatch of the cat lady, because the cat-lady is stumbling upon the truth.
  • What is the cat-lady’s wound and growth? She is scared of being independent and has been relying on others to get her through. She learns that she can take care of herself — and others. The wound, her son passed away from an infection years ago. She couldn’t save him. She isn’t capable. Not great, but it’ll work.

And I can keep going. Suffice it to say, that works out enough plot for this post.

The Treatment

Now that I have the connections, lets fashion it into a short description of the story for our purposes. Remember the story fundamentals. Our hero will be the cat lady and our villain will be the secret cult that is manipulating the small-town mayor.

Beth spends her days at home, dreaming of ways to become independent. Of ways to stop needing to rely on others. Of taking care of herself as she once had. But, she is too afraid. What if she can’t? What if others rely on her? What if she lets them down? Her latest hopes were dashed when a business venture — that she invested everything she had into — fell through. Not just fell through: the CEO of the company died suddenly and the headquarters were destroyed, taking all of the research with it and bankrupting the entire process. The genetics lab was promising to enhance vision, reflexes, and memory. Now, it’s all gone.

Normally Beth would just wallow in her misery. But she’s through wallowing. She does some more digging and finds that there have been lots of similar incidents from around the world. Then she remembers the story her father told her. Of when he was a boy and his father (a North Korean Scientist) was murdered. She still has the last letter her grandfather meant to send. It’s never been opened. Now is the time.

The letter describes a secret cult that will stop at nothing to “preserve the human race from medicine.” Fascinated, Beth digs some more. The cult, every watching for those who may know its secrets, discovers her and recruits a small-town mayor who is sympathetic to their cause and on a second honeymoon nearby. They drug him and brainwash him to go after Beth.

A lot of stuff happens in the middle. You know: mystery, intrigue, blah, blah, blah.

In the end, Beth and the Mayor (who we will call Roger) must rely on each other to defeat and expose the cult. Beth’s growth is complete when (in the final climax) she surrenders any control and relies totally on Roger. That doesn’t make her weak, or helpless, or a loser. And, she realizes that she is capable.

Of course, they save the world.

Wow, what a weird story, right? In any case, its enough to start splitting it into mixed-media and interactive bits.

3-4. Mixed-Media, Interactive Awesomeness

Our mantra is “don’t do anything for novelty sake.” That said, what parts of this story would best be told in which mediums? Well, you could definitely have a journal from the North Korean scientist with all his clues and suspicions. Images, sketches, very visual. For that matter, a few audio recordings would be great two.

Beth’s story would best be done in narrative prose so we can get inside her mind and really grow with her. Ditto with Roger’s storyline, but maybe a touch less.

What about the person Roger is on a second-honeymoon with? If Roger is sneaking away to get at Beth, that would make Roger’s wife pretty suspicious. Let’s give her a smartphone and have her do her own investigation, snapping pictures and taking videos to tell that part of the story. That isn’t just a gimmick. Images in that way produce great suspense as the audience must decide what in the image is important and what is not. The author can do amazing things with misdirection

As far as interactivity goes, I like the idea of making the journal interactive. Let’s give the audience the ability to explore the journal and piece the mystery together herself.

That leaves us with a novel that alternates between photographs, novel prose, and printed journal entries alongside an interactive journal. And, for the fun of it, a hidden track where one of Beth’s cats narrate the story through a feline POV.

5. Collaboration and Awesomeness

That’s a lot. More than I could do myself, admittedly. I would start, as I have, with a fleshed out draft all in text. In it, I would break the scenes into photos, prose, or journal and describe what the photos show and the journal says. Once I have my story more-less perfect, I can approach others to help flesh it out. Working together, we are stronger.

I will talk more about my format experiments in a later post.

For now, I hope you were able to follow this and see that, even from bizarre beginnings, a mixed-media, interactive story is possible. Think what you could do with an actually good idea.

Comments, please. What’s your process?

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Chris Michaels

Storyteller. Researcher. Coder. Innovator. I seek to push the boundaries of storytelling and education.
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