Co-Creation and Iterative Storytelling

There’s an idea that I took with me on my trip to South by Southwest this year – and that idea is iterative storytelling. I don’t know if there’s an official definition at large anywhere (if you know of one, please get in touch!). In my version of it, it’s a process of story development and creation, carried out in conversation with an audience. The goal is to provide the audience/community with a point of engagement and entertainment – a cultural product – but one that is built around the assumption that the story can and will continue to change and grow – a process. And what excites me most about the way I’m going about this at the moment is that it allows me to draw on a variety of modes of narrative creation, from different disciplines, to develop and form stories in dynamic, digital and real life spaces.

There are some fascinating story-makers who have drawn on this approach in their work. Lance Weiler is a prolific and renowned transmedia storyteller. He spoke at this year’s SxSW about a number of his current projects. Amongst them was Pandemic, a transmedia work which had an outing at Sundance in 2011. It used everything from seeded mobile phones, to toys embedded with tech, to bottled water, as well as a bunch of different screens to create a storyworld and points of engagement, as well as a series of narratives and interventions for the audience within that world. (I have a theory Weiler has some kind of neurological-processing-super-power to be able to think all those things up and string them all together, but I guess that’s what makes him Lance Weiler.)

At SxSW, Weiler was describing the process of creating and implementing Pandemic and his approach to future versions and the forthcoming feature, and he said: “I treat story as software” referring to releasing a ‘story’ over a number of versions. As reinforcement, Pandemic‘s first outing was numbered “1.0”. What Weiler is talking about differs from the idea of serialising content in the way that blockbuster releases are instalments in a franchise (although some of the same efficiencies of marketing and audience development cross over). He goes on to discuss what he considers to be the meaning of storytelling in the 21st century, saying “Those formerly known as the audience are actually collaborators.” They get to feed back into this iterative development, creation and release process.

So yes – we can do this now: technology allows us to work this way. But why? Why would do this? What are the benefits to story? What are the benefits for the audience – and to the project originators?

I know it’s not a process for everyone, nor maybe even right for every story.

But I think it’s exciting to flesh out the story world and the characters in a multiway dialogue. In a conversation between the audience/community and the originators (and the characters!), as well as amongst the audience/community itself. And in exploring the pathways that the different characters can take, there’s the opportunity to experiment with visual storytelling devices, different modes of address and different forms of engagement. But in order for this to stay sufficiently cohesive to be satisfying and rich, one is continually forced to pull a story right back down to its heart, to its essence. But from this place, you can engage creatively with the tendrils and shoots that emerge, tending to the exciting, unexpected fruits that the process can bear. Ideas that you might never had. Ideas that are better than yours alone.

And as storytellers – filmmakers, writers, animators, fine artists, musicians – we know the joy of creation, and of creativity. Surely this joy is amplified and multiplied when we undertake this process with those who share our passion for the story: the audience. Our collaborators.

In recent conversations with visual artists and writers, I’m finding myself increasingly perplexed by the binary values assigned to that work created by “artists” and to that created by “users”. Of course this tension crosses a range of disciplines from journalism, to photography, to prose, to filmmaking, whilst I, naively, continue to assume that everyone is letting go of the notion that there’s a line that can (or should) be drawn between the products of ‘amateurs’ to those of ‘professionals’.

Last year I was listening to a respected and successful producer talking about his body of work – in particular, the special effects-laden blockbusters he had produced. He spoke about his job as the producer being “to serve the director and help realise their vision.” A member of the audience raised their hand and asked what opportunities he was creating to enable the audience to participate more deeply in the creation and exploration of the story and the storyworld. His reply (and I quote): “I don’t give a fuck about the audience. If they want to tell a story, let them write a script and get it financed.”

*cue awkward silence*

There’s space for all kinds of cultural products and blockbusters will be with us for a long time. And maybe if I was passionate about making mainstream Hollywood fare, I’d feel the same way as this guy. However, iterative storytelling is one way to show that we – story-makers, writers, filmmakers, artists, musicians – that we do indeed give a fuck about the audience. And given that any artist’s survival depends on an audience, through the care we take we’re in turn are sustaining ourselves, our crafts and our businesses.