Ellen de Vries
Ellen de Vries
23rd August 2016

It’s the end of the day and the orange street lights are coming on. Tucked between the skyscrapers of London’s Liverpool Street station there’s a terraced house, no more than 4 storeys high, a rich smell of wood smoke, and baked bread. Candles flickering in the window. 

You knock on the black door, a gentleman opens it and you hand your crumpled bit of internet booking paper to him. In you go. You’re not sure what to expect. You arrive in 1724 in a family’s house. Apparently, they’ve only just left to go to church. A cat sits purring on the lounge chair.

This is the Dennis Severs’ house. You are a snooper. Snooping around the rooms of this family’s home in no particular order.

“ Dennis Severs (was) an artist who used his visitors’ imaginations as his canvas and who lived in the house in much the same way as its original occupants might have done in the early 18th Century. This he did for his own personal enjoyment as well as for the harvest of an atmosphere, which he then employed to provide the visitor with an extraordinary experience.”

Dennis Severs’ House website.

Allow your audience to bring 70% of the story to the experience.

When you’re in a new place, a story environment, the journey you choose to take can be an exciting experience of discovery. You might be in a museum, an immersive theatre experience, or on a website. But if it’s a very new environment, and you are free to roam, you can also literally lose the plot and wonder what you are supposed to be doing there. You begin to question how to act, what to take away from it, where to go next.

If you’re a designer of experiences you can use well distributed, very human reassurances to keep people ‘picking up the thread’.

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There’s a letter about a personal affair open on the study table, a half eaten bread roll beside it. An opium pipe is tucked into a gentleman’s coat pocket on the back of the chair. Someone has dropped their knitting on the floor.

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When you can’t design a clear linear journey, design with a narrative system that helps the user piece it all together.

A non-linear narrative system is like putting all the really good components of a story into a blender and giving it a quick blast on a very low setting.

It does seem to matter where your story begins and ends in time, but feel free to play with the middle. Your experiencer will weave the experience together. If the ‘human reassurances’ are sufficiently stimulating, then you have the human on your side.

Here are some ideas for broken down narrative components, in no particular order:

A hero(ine) who has a significant thing to overcome (which can also be an object that has to overcome something)

  • A conflict or a point of friction
  • A chorus (or a group of people who may be the onlookers)
  • A process of resolution
  • A marriage (a joyful celebration or mild resolution)
  • A magical element (think of James Bond’s high tech accoutrements)
  • An advisor

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Gestalt psychologists believe that we construct our stories by composing them from an essentially chaotic world; we naturally compose our days out of a non-linear narrative that goes on around us and within us.

Gestalt therapists, from my very basic understanding, work with their clients to assess their ‘dissatisfying experiences’ to figure out where the ‘blockage’ has occured in this trajectory of ‘composition’.

  1. Sensation: Sight, sound, texture, smell, taste, tempo, environment etc.
  2. Excitement: Being stimulated enough to decide on a clear ‘want’ around that sensation.
  3. Action: This is a move to carry out the ‘want’.
  4. Contact: This is an interaction with the environment.
  5. Reflection: Deciding how satisfying the interaction has been.

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By giving visitors, audiences or users the right jigsaw pieces, distributed across various rooms (but with each jigsaw piece clearly being of a system of themes, motifs and flavours) they will begin to collect them up and form their own interpretation of the story and be satisfied by them. The beauty is often in the different stories each experiencer might form.

“The web operates in ways that can conflict with our traditional view of what a “story” — with a set start, middle, and end — is. Content is chunked, spread across various channels, devices, and formats…Cue nonlinear narratives. They’re collections of related content, organized around a story.”

Senongo Akpem, A List Apart.

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Stories happen in space over time. Time is the element that provides the most familiar sense of linearity.

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Tempo, pace and cadence are hypnotic and powerful story tools.

Your user, your audience member, your visitor is free to move between the rooms. There are indicators. Forward buttons, staircases, ushers. A man at the door letting you in.

Designing the tempo of space and transitions between spaces is the design of the pace of the journey. It taps into the heart rate. It is a fundamental in the story we create of our experience

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He is downstairs watching Mr Robot, and the muffled musicality of the narrator’s voice is leaking up through the ceiling. It’s a hypnotic monotone drone, a mesmerizing narration, an atmosphere.

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There is the hero’s journey. There is the story arc. There are Kurt Vonnegut’s absolutely brilliant ‘Shape of stories’ videos. These storytelling techniques are fundamental; they can be applied to anything that needs a story. They are so useful precisely because they are planned out on linear trajectories; the progression of story over time from point A to point B on a line. But let’s not be too prescriptive, we can go further with the way we play with our stories.

There is an art to storytelling, yes. It is magical, and we need that for our lives. And then there is a constellation of potential when we explode the art of storytelling into the construction of wonderful narrative systems with their own unique structural integrity; like the collection of micro-stories within a macro-story in 1001 Arabian Nights, the overture to an opera, or like the way brands are distributed across their media.

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Your visit ends. You exit into the street. There are the skyscrapers all around Liverpool street station like a honey comb of artificial light. Imagine 1724, when none of it existed. And all the houses in the street had candles in the windows.

This post was reposted from Medium.