Interactive Storytelling: Lessons From TV

An interactive narrative is one where the audience plays a key role in creating the story. What they say and do alters the course of fictional events. Often, they even exist within the story as characters. This is a pretty memorable experience for participants, but can be a tall order for a writing team. How do you create an engaging narrative when your protagonists can do whatever they want? 

 

The answer is… a lot of things! Over the next four articles we’ll be gleaning lessons from different mediums on how to give audiences agency in telling a story. To begin, we’ll look at the world of television.

Y’all still have one of these, right?

TELEVISION

So… TV. At first glance, this isn’t the strongest example of an interactive medium. You sit and watch a screen, stuff happens, you laugh, you cry, you turn it off. However, as social media has become a more influential force in our culture, the relationship between audience and the television they consume has shifted. This once mostly one-sided experience is now more reactive than ever to the opinions of its viewers, giving us two excellent lessons on how to handle audience reactions as an interactive storyteller. 

Everyone’s favorite character…

Embrace Characters The Audience Connects With

On everybody’s favorite show about messy dynastic conflict and wacky ice zombies, Game Of Thrones, they introduced a minor character named Bronn. Audiences seemed to resonate with this quippy sellsword, so the writers elevated him, an unimportant side character in the original plot, and made him a recurring companion for the more major players to play off of. Whether or not this was a good move for the show can be up for debate, but in an interactive story this is an excellent example of rewarding audience agency. Audiences may not connect with the characters you expect or want them to. You may write a best friend character with a gripping backstory who the audience is utterly uninterested in. Instead, they seem to really want more interactions with a side character, the old-timey bartender. This isn’t a fault of your writing, it is the audience telling how they’d like to play! Either shift your plot so they can have more interactions with that beloved bartender, or figure out what they found engaging about that interaction and expand on it in other aspects of your narrative.

Shocking twists can lead to disappointment.

Don’t Seek To Surprise

Television and movies love shock value, but television has a hurdle it has to overcome if it wants to retain the element of surprise. As a long running show picks up steam, audiences take to the internet to try and predict what might happen next. In 2017, Westworld writers requested that fans stop trying to guess the plot of Season 2. After one fan accurately predicted a plot twist, the writers rewrote the episode. So, what happens if the audience accurately predicts the shocking ending of your story? Do you alter it in order to preserve the surprise, or stick to your guns? In an interactive narrative, if the audience guesses a plot point, reward them! Let them feel a sense of accomplishment for accurately predicting future events. If you wish to surprise them, create an exciting consequence for their astute detective work. Surprise twists for the sake of shock often give audiences a feeling that their decisions and opinions did not matter. Reward their agency.

That’s all for this week! See you all next time when we discuss lessons we can glean from storytelling in video games.

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