How We Tell Stories

by Chris Duesing

Humans have been telling stories since the beginning of time. Some of the oldest attempts of humans trying to immortalize their stories appear through carvings. Over time, this evolved into applying ink to various surfaces by hand. The invention of Gutenberg’s printing press in 1439 led to the mass production of books at affordable costs. This impacted not only Europe but the entire world, as books were being produced more frequently and were more readily available. Today, stories are being told in more immersive and innovative forms than ever before. These deviations from standard prose can be categorized as interactive, collaborative or alternative fiction.

Social Storytelling

Though the history of Western fiction and Western literary criticism has reinforced the division between author and audience, human stories didn’t start off so one-sided. Long before the advent of writing, and millennia before Roland Barthes promoted the “death of the author,” the best and only way to preserve history was through the spoken word. Families would tell their children the stories of their ancestors. Village elders would tell stories of the history of the whole people. Over time and repeated retellings, embellishments and alterations would naturally occur within the tale. What started out as a factual story of a King leading his army in battle against a warring people would branch out to become the narrative fiction epic tale of a hero laying waste to giants and dragons. As the stories were passed and proliferated from generation to generation, and from region to region by travelers and migrants, different people told their stories in different ways. Names would be modified, relations of characters would change slightly, the antagonist would take on the identity of whatever threatened the people who now told the story… in other words, the foundational stories of our societies were created in collaboration. Archaeological evidence and linguistic analysis of the structure of ancient epic works show that these poems were originally made to be told aloud with a group, probably with call-and-response segments. They were also likely to have been sung instead of spoken. Story-sharing has been a treasured passion of many societies and cultures, and it continues in new and exciting forms to this day.

Parlor Plays

Even in eras of storytelling where the author held primacy, collaborative storytelling still had a niche. During the Victorian era, which exemplified modern conveniences and social niceties, there was a great deal more time and resources with which to entertain guests. Social gatherings didn’t just entail chatting over a cup of tea; they often engaged guests in loosely structured storytelling activities, known as parlor plays, which were well-beloved for some time.

Parlor plays, also known as drawing room plays, were a popular form of entertainment for guests. They were often adaptations of historical or fictional stories suitable for performance in the home. Parlor plays became so popular that some contemporary authors took to writing plays specifically for this purpose. Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest was originally written as a drawing room play. T. S. Eliot, one of the defining authors of the modernist movement, continued to write drawing room plays until well after the height of their popularity. Changing times brought new technology, like the phonograph and radio, and new entertainment forms with them. By the time television came along, the parlor play had faded from our memories almost entirely.

Exquisite Corpse

Even as parlor plays were on their last leg, another form of social storytelling emerged to take its place, however briefly. T. S. Eliot’s contemporaries in the French surrealist movement had devised a game called cadavre exquis, or “exquisite corpse.” Exquisite corpse is a game in which a story, poem, or image is crafted by a group of players. Each player adds a line to the story, but they’re unable to see what the last person has written. The results are always surreal, often hilarious, and sometimes even beautiful. It gets its name from a line in its inaugural run: “The Exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine.” This style of blind storytelling is similar in some ways to what we now know as mad libs, in which a person fills in words of a certain part of speech (noun, verb, adjective, etc.) without knowing how they will be used in the subsequent story. Art Spiegelman, creator of Maus, curated and edited a comic version of the game entitled Narrative Corpse, in which 69 different comic artists attempted to tell a story by the same rules.

Role Playing Games

One modern example stands out in the world of social storytelling experiences. Dungeons & Dragons was created in 1974 by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, originally as a tabletop miniature battle strategy game. What sets D&D apart from other games that preceded it is the lore. Gygax was inspired by the works of Tolkien and Lewis Carrol, as well as other myths and fantasy stories. He developed a set of resources describing specific character types, races of sentient creatures, species of monsters, magic systems, items and weapons with which a storyteller and narrator, referred to in-game as “Dungeon Master,” could craft a shared story experience for a group of players. While the Dungeon Master has some level of control at the outset, it is the players’ critical thinking, decision making and curiosity that determine the direction the story goes. The Dungeon Master is a guide who knows the goal that the adventure is meant to reach, but who is never 100 percent in control of how or if the other players reach that goal. The story unfolds over multiple sessions in a “campaign” that follows its own storytelling conventions. Player characters may meet in a tavern at the beginning of the campaign, for example, whereupon they get hired as armed guards. D&D has retained its place as the definitive roleplaying game, and thanks to The Adventure Zone podcast and HarmonQuest TV show, there are more ways of participating in it than ever before.

Illustrated & Photographic Storytelling

While social storytelling represents a vein of passing along stories that began with the earliest humans conveying lessons on the hunt or tales of gods and spirits, oral messages were quickly followed by painting and drawing to accompany and add depth. They of course also allowed a story to be told not just at a single time, to the people present with the storyteller, but in a manner in which the could be shared with people not even yet born. While both modes of depiction, oral and visual, continued throughout history, there are several interesting instances of creative combining of the two.

Woodcut Illustrations

On February 14, 1461, for the first time ever, illustration and text were combined in a published work: Albrecht Pfister’s edition of Ulrich Boner’s fable Der Edelstein, which was also the first ever book written in German. Using the innovative woodcut printing technique, a design was cut into a wood relief, covered in ink, and then stamped onto fabric by hand. The coloring was also done by hand, either by a hired colorist or the person who purchased the book. The text, meanwhile, was a product of moveable typesetting, another Gutenberg import first displayed in Gutenberg’s Bible. Because of these innovations, prose works were able to be accompanied by illustrations – and then reproduced en masse – for the first time ever… in Europe, at least. It’s worth noting that woodblock printing and movable type had existed in China and Korea several centuries before Gutenberg was even born.

In the following years Albrecht Pfister continued to make his woodcut books, releasing an illustrated version of the Bible, retroactively titled Biblia Pauperum, or the Pauper’s Bible. Despite its name, the book was not meant for impoverished people. In fact, purchasing a handmade book was quite costly. Therefore, Pfister’s book was for the moneyed yet poorly educated. It became instructive in growing literacy among this class of Germans.

Following in the footsteps of Gutenberg and Pfister, illustrated Christian texts were spreading across Europe. For example, a German printer published Cardinal Torquemada’s Meditations on the Life of Christ, which had 33 woodcut illustrations, the first of its kind in the Italian states. Though German woodcutters and Italian card-makers initially opposed these changes to their industry, arguing that it harmed the craft, illustrated texts provided an immersive storytelling experience that was received warmly by audiences.

Early Days of Cartooning

When the average person hears the term “comic book”, they probably think of superheroes, of brightly colored onomatopoetic sound effects, and of dynamic artwork spilling out of multiple panels on a page, leading the eye through a sequence of action and dialogue. Names like Stan Lee or even Alan Moore might come to mind. The average person probably doesn’t associate comic books with mature, alternative storytelling, much less with moral messages or calls for social change. However, that is where comics as we know them got their start, and many continue this trend today.

In the 16th century, English artist William Hogarth created a genre he called “modern moral subjects.” The genre was comprised of a series of paintings or engravings, arranged sequentially into ‘scenes’ or ‘plates’ and sometimes accompanied by text. They presented narratives which focused on a range of modern societal ills like cruelty and laziness. Hogarth’s first series, A Harlot’s Progress, follows the story of a woman who goes from being the mistress of a noble, to a prostitute, to eventually dying of venereal disease. Aside from the general commentary on prostitution, there is an abundance of references to famous works of art like The Last Supper and to contemporary London events. Justice John Gonson, a real-life figure who led a crackdown on the Covent Garden red light district, appears in Scene 3. The literary device of foreshadowing is used in Scene 1: to the left of the protagonist, Moll, a pile of buckets is close to toppling, a symbol of Moll’s impending downfall. In other words, Hogarth pioneered not just a new form of art, but a new form of storytelling which relied on printed images. As if that wasn’t innovative enough, Hogarth also introduced a rough version of the now-ubiquitous “speech bubble.”

Hogarth’s modern moral subjects were emulated by other artists of his time, though the style fell out of fashion for the next two centuries. It would reemerge in 1837 with Rodolphe Töpffer’s Histoire de M. Vieux Bois, known in the US as The Adventures of Obadaiah Oldbuck, which is today considered the first comic book for its use of bordered panels and “the interdependent combination” of words and images in a comic strip format. There were no speech bubbles, however, and the subject matter was lighthearted, reflecting a young and lower-class readership. This distinguished Töpffer’s work from earlier “picture books” like the Biblia Pauperum and A Harlot’s Progress, but its tales of ghosts, duels, and double-crossing intrigue proved wildly popular with audiences and incredibly influential in defining the comics medium. In the 1890s The Yellow Kid and Buster Brown, created by American cartoonist Richard Outcault, reintroduced and refined Hogarth’s speech bubble. These comics were even more popular than Obadaiah Oldbuck; The Yellow Kid in particular was a national sensation, inspiring theater and vaudeville shows, selling merchandise, and turning comic strips into a must-have for any newspaper. Though it initially applied Hogarthian satire to the Yellow Kid and his life in the tenements of New York City, social critique fell away as commercial success grew. The tension between meaningful storytelling and consumerist demands – between highbrow and lowbrow, between art and entertainment – persists in the comics industry to this day.

Photographic Narratives

To an extent, this same tension also existed in another medium the narrative photograph. Like Hogarth’s modern moral subjects or The Yellow Kid, photographic narratives combined images and text to better comment on the zeitgeist. Photography (narrative photos) was also like cartoons in that it wasn’t taken seriously as an art form until the mid-20th century.

The first photographic narratives emerged relatively early in the medium’s history. Alexander Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the War, which was published one year after the US Civil War ended, presented 100 photographs of battlefields and encampments with and without soldiers. Accompanying the images were captions musing on the war from a Northern perspective; “Every army had its scouts, but none proved more efficient than those of the Army of the Potomac,” reads an excerpt from one. Photographic Sketchbook of the War contains work from eight photographers and an unnamed writer.

One decade later and one ocean over, British socialist journalist Adolphe Smith and photographer John Thomson teamed up for Street Life in London. The two felt that Smith’s essays exposing urban poverty in industrial London would gain authenticity and credibility if they were juxtaposed with photographs of dustmen, chimney sweeps, and other myriad figures. They were right: today Street Life in London is recognized for being a trailblazing work in the canon of documentary photography.

Back in the US, a Danish-American ironworker-turned-police reporter-turned-photographer did much the same thing, but with the immigrant community of 1890s New York City as his subject. How the Other Half Lives was a technical feat for its use of then-new flash photography, but more importantly, his work captured the reality of many Americans and fostered empathy and social reform in a way that hadn’t been done before.

Other forms of art, such as painting and writing, could depict reality and conjure fantasy. Was photography capable of doing both, or would it forever be documentary? And what was reality, anyway? These were the kinds of questions being asked by artists in the aftermath of World War I. Old empires were crumbling and nationalism was increasingly taking its place. Attempts at seriously understanding what was going on in the world seemed futile in the face of such destruction, so a group of young creatives in free, neutral Switzerland proposed that the primary function of art in this era was to embrace absurdity and mock the forces shaping their reality. These “Dadaists” and Surrealists participated in every art medium, including photography. They recognized that photography – and the combination of photography with text, or with other images in a collage – could comment on the subjectivity and strangeness of life. Photography proved especially adept at capturing the uncanny, a core theme of Surrealism. Eugène Atget took a series of photographs of mannequins distorted by reflections in shop windows; Dora Maar’s Père Ubu is a close-up of an armadillo fetus. Other works, like Philippe Halsman and Salvador Dalí’s Dalí Atomicus, involved touch-ups and intense staging – in the case of Dalí Atomicus, this entailed 26 takes to capture three cats and a bucket of water, as well as Dalí himself, soaring through the air. “Nothing proves the truth of Surrealism so much as photography,” Dalí once argued. His fellow painter and surrealist, Man Ray, would contend that he photographs his fantasies, rather than nature. In 1922 he published Champs Delicieux, which stitched together poetry with his “Rayographs,” or negative images of objects placed on exposed photosensitive paper. Ray and other experimental artists like Marcel Duchamp would continue to publish their text-photograph hybrids into the 1960s.

Despite the influence of Dada and surrealism on the art world, photography continued to be used primarily as a documentary tool. Cameras and color film became more readily available, allowing people with only a casual interest in photography to “pick it up.” Self-identified artists and non-artists alike used photography to preserve their best memories. Most of these personal photographs were only meant to be seen by a small audience of family and friends looking through photo albums. In the second half of the 20th century, however, memoir books exploded in popularity, and some authors included photographs as a way to lend authenticity to their stories. Among them was iconic Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Comprised of a selection of 70 photographs, Snapshot Poetics documents intimate moments with Ginsberg’s friends and lovers from the 1950s to the 1980s. The images are transcribed with extensive recollections and prose by Ginsberg, handwritten (for additional authenticity) in the bottom margin of photo paper which Ginsberg left extended after printing.

The strong association between photographs and memories was explored in the 1990s by W.G. Sebald. A German writer living in England, Sebald’s works are meditations on how time, place, and identity influence each other. He wrote with a mixture of fact and assumed-fact, recollection of historical events, and myth, which he sometimes described as “documentary fiction.” It makes sense, then, that his novels would incorporate another documentary tool: photography. Black and white photographs, found objects, postcards, and old newspaper images appear in all of Sebald’s books. What truly sets Sebald’s illustrated narratives apart, however, is that his photographs blend fact and fiction in much the same way as does his text. The images do not clearly relate to the story and are presented without captions. When looking at them, we (the reader) must ask: what does this image tell us about the text, and what does the text tell us about the image? By leaving the photographs up to interpretation, Sebald combines the traditions of social documentary, personal, and Surrealist photography into a unique form of storytelling.

Modern Comics

The medium’s popularity was outgrowing the confines of newspapers and magazines by May 1938, when the first issue of Action Comics was published. This was the first publication consisting of original sequential art, not just reprints of strips that had previously been printed elsewhere. Action Comics #1 was the first appearance of Superman, too, and therefore the birth of the superhero genre. It’s also notable for innovations in visual storytelling. The Superman story features a speech bubble spilling out of one panel and overlapping with another, a technique which has been further developed as a tool to lead readers in the right direction. Other stories guide the reader’s eye through irregularly-sized panels packed with action. The content and style of Action Comics was widely imitated and built upon across numerous publications and subgenres throughout the late 1930s and 1940s, kicking off a Golden Age which “cement[ed] the comic as a mainstream art form, with its own defined language and creative conventions.”

As with anything in life, conventions are inevitably overturned and even destroyed. The mainstreaming of comics meant that it was no longer “alternative.” So omnipresent were comic books, in fact, that a public outcry began to build in response to their perceived negative influence on children. Churches burned them. The US Congress held meetings about them. Psychiatrists also sounded the alarm. In 1954, the comics industry got together and decided the only way to stave off government intrusion in their medium was by censoring it. The Comics Magazine Association of America and their Comics Code pressured publishers to inject morality and erase any unseemly content. For a couple of decades, publishers followed these guidelines loyally. However, the audience that first grew up with Superman and Captain America was aging, and DC and Marvel sought to regain their interest (and, of course, their money.) One solution was to forego the Comics Code seal of approval and publish separate lines of comics intended for mature audiences. Small-scale “underground” publications like Zap Comix appealed to adults in the counterculture with explicit sex, violence, and drug use that totally defied the Code. Another, more indirect solution was the graphic novel. Will Eisner, creator of the iconic Golden Age-era weekly comic The Spirit, turned the tragic loss of his daughter, his relationship to his Jewish faith, and life in 1970s New York City into the first modern graphic novel, A Contract with God.

Eisner considered himself not a writer or even a cartoonist, but “a graphic witness reporting on life, death, heartbreak, and the never-ending struggle to prevail.” These themes proved incredibly compatible with the graphic novel format, which allowed its author(s) to go in depth and structure their stories outside the limits of the periodical. Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the first volume of which was published in 1986, followed in Eisner’s footsteps by telling the type of story that was hitherto reserved for more “serious” art forms like the novel. This autobiographical work is told in a nonlinear format, alternating between Spiegelman’s experiences as a post-Holocaust Jew and his father’s experiences in wartime Poland. The most iconic aspect of Maus is its allegory of Germans as cats and Jews as mice, which visually segregates the characters – harkening back to the Nazis’ penchant for categorizing people into discrete racial categories – and underscores the power imbalance between the two groups. Maus also employs postmodernist storytelling techniques like metafiction. The human Art Spiegelman’s arduous creative process is reflected in the mouse Art Spiegelman, who himself is working on a version of Maus with human characters. In the 12 years it took to complete Maus, DC Comics released Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, signaling that superhero comics could thrive in the maturity and complexity offered by the graphic novel format.

The origins of manga – aka Japanese comics – date back to the 12th century, if not earlier, and the first use of the term was in 1798. Its history is too rich to be properly covered here, but suffice it to say that the confluence of indigenous Japanese artwork and storytelling with 20th century American cartoons was (and remains) explosive. Though manga publications in Japan and comic publications in the US have both experienced declining circulation in recent decades, reading manga is still much more of a cultural staple for Japanese people than reading comics is for Americans. Increasingly, manga is becoming part of alternative American and global culture, too. It possesses its own unique visual language; Frederik L. Schodt, one of the first Americans to write about manga, once commented that “manga are merely another ‘language,’ and the panels and pages are but another type of ‘words’ adhering to a unique grammar.” Sweat drops, bloody noses, and motion lines are just some examples of the visual language present in most manga. The format also has a variety of narrative and character archetypes that are unique to its many genres, such as the hot-and-cold tsundere girl in romance plots and the action hero’s rival. The influence of manga in the West can be seen in everything from Apple emojis to fashion to film and, of course, to American comics.

Interactive Fiction

Text and digital literary works that are not read in a linear fashion arose as alternatives to the social structure of the experiences mentioned above, as well as the predetermined path of classic short stories and novels. These devices brought reader choice in to the mix, where actions could have consequence, giving the reader a greater sense of agency to determine the direction the story took.

Choose Your Own Adventure Novels

In 1979, the format of interactive fiction made its book debut. The Choose Your Own Adventure series contained games in the form of a story (usually fantasy). They were written in second-person perspective, addressing the protagonist as “you” and placing the reader in control of the story’s path and eventual end based on their decisions. At the end of every page a choice was presented, which directed the reader to turn to a corresponding page to find out what results from their choice. The original series of books ran through 1998, and spawned a number of similar titles, including the Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Gamebook series. This series featured single-player campaigns in the style of Choose Your Own Adventure, with the added component of a bookmark-sized character sheet which requires players to roll for their character’s stats and apply them to their path in the story. Choose Your Own Adventure was wildly popular throughout the 1980s, but it fell victim to its success; the rush to meet audience demand led to a noticeable drop-off in quality. The idea of foregrounding readers and providing a multitude of stories within one work still retains some of its allure, however. Recently, actor Neil Patrick Harris wrote his autobiography in this style, which he aptly titled Choose Your Own Autobiography. In it, the reader is placed into Harris’ life story and makes decisions that drive the autobiography in often clearly fabricated directions.

Text-Based Games

A text-based game is a digital game, usually on computers, composed almost completely of text. To advance the game, players must type in responses to the text that appears on screen. The first text-based game, Colossal Cave Adventures, was created by Will Crowther, a programmer who combined his knowledge of computer programming and cave exploration with his love of Dungeons & Dragons. The original version was released in 1976 with 700 lines of code, though fellow programmer Don Woods worked with Crowther to greatly expand the game with more high fantasy elements, map locations, puzzles, and treasures. Players were tasked with exploring a cave network by typing their commands. Colossal Cave Adventure paved the way for interactive fiction, online roleplaying, computer gaming, and video games in general.

As time went on, developers found innovative ways to further expand upon the genre. Text based games began to include flat graphics, followed by colored graphics and soon music and other more programmable features. Mystery House, which was created in 1980 for the Apple 2 computer by Roberta and Ken Williams, was the first text-based adventure game to feature images. This game was highly inspired by both Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and Colossal Cave Adventure. Roberta and Ken Williams were looking for more text-based games and, having seen none on the market, created one of their own. Today, the open-source software Twine allows anyone to create their own works of interactive fiction and share them with the world – no programming knowledge required. Some Twine games take creativity and interactivity to new levels. Take With Those We Love Alive, for instance, which asks players to design and draw sigils on their arm as the game progresses.

The trend toward adding visual elements to interactive storytelling reflects the long-established appeal of illustrated storytelling.

Modern Interactive Fiction

As personal computing technology and the World Wide Web have become available to billions of people, interactive storytelling grows more visual, and visual storytelling grows more interactive.

In 1990s Japan, the visual language of manga was combined with the minimalist gameplay and branching storylines of interactive fiction, creating the visual novel medium. Visual novels can be differentiated from Western interactive fiction in both style and content. They use anime-style still images, dialog boxes, and sound to tell stories that focus on character interaction, often of a romantic nature. Dating simulation games draw inspiration from visual romance novels but are more interactive, as player dialog choices affect relationships with several dateable characters. “Good” responses statistically increase the likelihood that a character will return your affections, while repeatedly choosing “bad” options might lead to an inflection point after which a romantic storyline with that character is impossible. Other video games, like the Dragon Age, Mass Effect, and Fallout series, have used dating sim-esque branching dialogue systems to romantic and non-romantic ends. Interactivity isn’t limited to dialogue, though; completing side quests and offering gifts are other ways that players can influence characters and, by extension, the game. Being able to affect the outcome of a story through one’s actions is a crucial part of what makes visual novels and video games so appealing.

If computers and electronic gaming systems have synthesized visual and interactive storytelling, then the Internet has made it social in a revolutionary way. Stories shared over the Internet have the potential to engage a wide audience. At its best, this engagement has fostered compassion and philanthropy. Digital fictions take the simple structure of a written story and layer on elements only achievable with a computer, from links to video to animation and sound.

“The Boat,” a short story written by author Nam Le in 2008, was rereleased on the website of Australia’s SBS public television network. Through HTML coding, Nam Le’s tale of Vietnamese refugees is transformed into a blend of black and gray watercolor illustrations, some in panels with speech bubbles, connected by text from Le’s original story. The sound of crashing waves and other ambient background noise eventually gives way, at the story’s pivotal moment, to a beautiful a capella song in Vietnamese. The reader scrolls through to the end, whereupon they are presented with looping archival footage from a Vietnamese refugee boat like the kind featured in Le’s story. Superimposed over the footage is an epilogue provided by SBS detailing the growth and struggles of Australia’s Vietnamese community. By inserting context, elevating moments of drama, and quite literally painting a picture of what happened, this version of “The Boat” builds empathy between the reader and those who experienced the hardship depicted within it.

Another example is “MOON: A Story You Can Turn Around Whenever You Want.” This is a Spanish-language interactive story published by the ING Group bank. Intriguingly, it was designed to be viewed simultaneously on a computer and smartphone. A series of animations tells the story of a boy who lacks access to education. But as its subtitle suggests, “MOON” encourages readers to quite literally flip the script by rotating their phone, which then activates a series of animations depicting the same boy going to school. Like “The Boat,” “MOON” connects readers to the real-life people whose experiences inspired the story; however, “MOON” takes it a step further by giving readers the opportunity to donate to UNICEF. More than €286,000 in donations were gathered for UNICEF as a result of “MOON”’s interactive storytelling.

Further Reading
Chris Duesing
Chris Duesing

I am a photographer, writer, entrepreneur, and programmer living in the great city of Chicago. I love to solve problems with technology and share what I have learned along the way.