The essentials of effective storytelling in the digital age


The way we consume stories is radically changing. Today we’re less inclined to spend weeks or months engaged in epic novels like Moby Dick and are much more likely to binge-watch Game of Thrones, dip in and out of Call of Duty, and follow Twitter threads on Storify.

This observation would make any diehard storyteller throw their head in their hands and lament over what the world is coming to. And in a way, they’ve got a point. We’ve reached an end of an era: stories have evolved beyond independent events like books and fireside tales that punctuate our lives. Today they represent open, continuous, and fully integrated reality streams that seamlessly flow and intertwine with our everyday experiences.

Like a protagonist clinging to his long-lost love, the only problem with this arises from an unwillingness to accept what’s happened and move on. The romanticised idea of sitting down and reading a classic 900-page hard book from cover to cover may be going the way of the dodo, but the intrinsic elements of storytelling are still very much alive.

The key, therefore, for storytellers to adapt and thrive well into the digital age is in asking two questions: 1. How is the way in which we consume stories changing? And 2. Why do we read stories today? We’ll look at these questions in two sections: Setting The Stage, and Selling The Tickets.

1. Setting the stage

Today, the pinnacle of storytelling is found in places like Warner and Universal Pictures and other big-budget movie studios. Their practically unlimited budgets enable them to manifest whole new worlds before our very eyes. And thanks to video and streaming services like YouTube and Netflix, every time you click open a new draft and start writing, this is essentially what you’re competing with.

A problem writers face is, when writing a story, there’s no music, costumes, or props to help set the scene and convey particular moods or feelings. You don’t even have your own body, face, and hands to work with; the whole scene has to be painted using only words and, more often than not, communicated via a tiny four and a half inch screen.

Luckily, words are the most powerful tools when it comes to telling stories. When banded together into effective prose and figurative language, they can appeal to all of the five senses and build an incredibly detailed reality in someone’s mind, no matter what the medium. And if you know your words and your audience well enough, techniques like metaphors and imagery can be strong enough to trigger emotional memories and literally make readers feel like they’re inside your story.

Words also have a lot of worth and visual practicalities beyond their ability to convey meaning. Their layout — sentences, paragraphs, sections, and the space in between them — can say just as much as a meticulously arranged West-End theatre set. And their formatting — italics, bolding, “dialogue”, etc. — is like a universal bag of tricks that helps bring the backdrop to life.

Any writer worth his salt understands these aspects of storytelling; the key is in applying them into the technological age when only 20 percent of readers will get past your headline, and most people’s reading is done sitting on the loo. For stories to be read, every word needs to count.

2. Selling the tickets

Blog articles and GIFs may appear world’s away from ancient tales like Noah’s Arc and Homer’s Odyssey, but as touched upon earlier, the reasons we love and engage in stories hasn’t changed one bit.

Neuroscientists believe we love and react to stories in certain ways due to a biological mechanism that’s linked to our survival. Stories plant us in someone else’s shoes, and by doing so allow us to explore different ways of responding to predicaments and gather experience without having to suffer the real-life consequences. They’re like flight simulators that prepare us for dealing with the challenges and uncertainties of flight without ever leaving the ground.

A joint benefit of this is thought to be that we can step outside of our own problems for a moment and experience life from a different perspective. Our brains love this for several reasons: A fresh perspective brings new wisdom into our lives, aiding in problem-solving and the organisation of chaos into order; And it helps us improve our social skills and ability to empathise with others. Stories are, in fact, so effective at putting us in the shoes of other people, that when a character feels pain or joy, the same areas of the brain light up just like they do in real-life experiences.

Although people are always going to read stories for the different reasons — perspective, understanding, self-actualisation, esteem, etc — it’s arguable that, due to our lack of connection and meaningful relationships today, feeling closer to others is what we read them for most. This is one explanation as to why romance and erotica is the leading book genre by more than double, and also a significant driver in the shift from the written to the spoken word.

Being loved and accepted by others is just one aspect of life that is essential to our survival. The key thing to remember here is, no matter what the superficial motivation for reading something is, it’s always related to increasing our chances of staying alive.

As the saying goes, a writer is someone who writes. But if you want to make it as a writer in the digital world, you also have to be someone who directs the show and sells the tickets. Use your words to set the stage and understand why your readers would take a seat in the first place — although most will stay standing — and you’ll make sure your stories keep getting read.

Joseph Pennington is a freelance writer and long-term traveller from the North of England. Find him on Medium exploring remote working, technology, spirituality, meditation, and everything in between.