Elements of Digital Storytelling

What elements are common to all forms (digital and traditional) of storytelling?

“The New Digital Storytelling” by Bryan Alexander (2011) offers one answer to this question. The sequence of introduction, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution, which first introduced by German writer Gustav Freytag (1816-1895), has become the most recognized way to learn the construction of a typical story. It’s known in English classrooms as the plot diagram. In my 7th-grade language arts classroom, I like to call it the plot mountain with the climax representing the peak of the story. Should all teachers instruct their students to write their stories using the plot mountain? Probably not. There are many ways to construct a story.

So what is a story? Alexander said, “A story is simply a thing, any media object, which demonstrates this clear sequence” (p. 6). A story also “reassembles previously existing materials” that include language, media, audience and lives. In other words, the process of storytelling isn’t a live event. Someone might be telling the story in real time, but the content has to have happened in the past.

Then comes along a story like Homestuck and breaks all the rules. Homestuck, according to an Atlantic article, is an “elaborate, self-referencing, inside joke collapsed in a truly digital narrative.” The story is more than 7,000 pages long and it’s not even finished. Thanks to the Internet’s infinite amount of space, perhaps this is a plot mountain that has no peak.

A digital story and a non-digital story should all have at least two things in common: 1. It needs characters; 2. Its purpose should be to capture an audience’s attention. Henry Jenkins of USC said storytelling takes different forms, depending on the types of resources being used. For example, when Homer captured his audience’s attention by telling an oral epic to people who were physically present, it’s much different that producing a television show.

According to Paul Iwancio, digital storytelling has seven elements: 1. Point of view; 2. Dramatic question; 3. Emotional content; 4. Voice; 5. Soundtrack; 6. Pacing; 7. Economy. This video should be shown to all students taking video classes. I teach a class called video announcements and I will show this to my students.

What elements of digital storytelling are unique to digital storytelling?

Both Jenkins and Iwancio made me think that telling a story to your friend and holding their attention is a craft that develops over time. Stop your story to say, “Oops, let’s try that again. I’m going to start from the top,” and you will likely lose your friend’s attention. Tell a story on camera, on the other hand, gives you, the storyteller, time to perfect it. That is one thing that makes digital storytelling unique.

Another element that is unique to digital storytelling is the emotional experience it gives humans. For example, scientist and writer Paul J. Zak described his lab’s study to see if narratives told on video could cause the brain to produce a neurochemical called oxytocin, which is produced in when humans are trusted, shown kindness or given the motivation to cooperate with others. The study was to see if his lab could figure out how to “hack” the oxytocin by showing video narratives.

The study increased the scientist’s understanding of why people cooperate voluntarily after watching narratives. Zak determined that in order for this to happen, a story must do the following: 1. Sustain attention by developing tension; 2. Get viewers to feel empathy toward characters; 3. Lead viewers to continue mimicking and the feelings and behaviors of those characters. One could argue that non-digital stories can do this also, but it seems like digital stories are more effective at it.

Why do we study or participate in digital storytelling as a distinct art form or communication medium?

Dean Jansen of the Participatory Culture Foundation described the changing landscape of storytelling. “More and more people are able to engage with the most important stories of their culture in a way that they weren’t able to,” he said. “The economics really made it so that only a few had the ability to craft the story. Now we’re seeing the world where almost anyone can create a story and get it out to a potentially unlimited audience. We’re just at the tip of the iceberg right now (Jansen 2017).”

Another reason we participate in digital storytelling is a concept called transmedia storytelling. Jenkins said that an exciting part of living in today’s world is that media content flows fluidly over the web. “It opens up a new possibility,” he said. “An expanded canvas.”

Jansen and Jenkins both point out that any person with a computer or smartphone can create a story. But can any person sustain the attention of its viewers? No. And that is why we study digital storytelling. Only those who study digital storytelling and filming techniques will have the skills to sustain the attention of its viewers.

Social Scientist, Elaine Raybourn, shared her thoughts on the TEDx stage regarding transmedia storytelling. Her research shows how it’s changing the way we tell stories and how it helps us connect memorable experiences to support informal learning and usage of future technology. I highly suggest watching her TED Talk because of the story she tells about how a young student who used technology for three purposes: to display a concept she had learned, to solve a problem and to teach others by using original content. “We’re moving beyond formal learning,” Raybourn said, “and into a paradigm that engages learners 24-7. This path begins with transmedia storytelling. Transmedia storytelling is when you take a core experience or story and expand it across multiple media with each medium making a contribution that can be experienced from diverse perspectives.” This is so good, it should be my essential definition of digital storytelling.

Clive Thompson’s 2008 article pointed to Marshall McLuhan (who died in 1980 and predicted the world wide web) about why we participate in digital storytelling: “Marshall McLuhan pointed out that whenever we get our hands on a new medium we tend to use it like older ones. Early TV broadcasts consisted of guys sitting around reading radio scripts because nobody had realized yet that TV could tell stories differently. It’s the same with much of today’s webcam video; most people still try to emulate TV and film.

“A bigger leap will occur when we get better tools for archiving and searching video. Then we’ll start using it the way we use paper or word processing: to take notes or mull over a problem, like Tom Cruise flipping through scenes at the beginning of Minority Report. We think of video as a way to communicate with others—but it’s becoming a way to communicate with ourselves.”

What is the essential definition of digital storytelling?

From my point of view, any human can create, write or tell a story. At the same time, any human can press the record button and record digital content. Also, any human can take that content and upload it to a movie making software or a social media site.

Not every human, however, can use that original content and create a digital story that will successfully capture the attention of others. These skills take time, creativity and good teachers.

Therefore, the definition of digital storytelling is taking an experience or story and artistically tell it on some sort of digital media with the purpose of capturing the attention of others.


Iwancio, P. (2010, June). Seven elements of digital storytelling in four minutes. [Video File]. Retrieved Aug 20, 2011, from http://vimeo.com/12672069

Jenkins, H. (2010, August 23). How new media are transforming storytelling in four minutes [Web log message]. Retrieved Aug 20, 2011 from http://henryjenkins.org/2010/08/how_new_media_is_transforming.html

Alexander, Bryan. The New Digital Storytelling: Creating Narratives with New Media. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2011. Print.

Min, Lilian. “A Story That Could Only Be Told Online.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 24 Feb. 2015. Web. 02 Feb. 2017.

Jenkins, Henry. “Storytelling Part 3: Transmedia.” Vimeo. Center For Storytelling, 01 Feb. 2017. Web. 02 Feb. 2017.

Jansen, Dean. “Storytelling Part 1: Change of Storytelling.” Vimeo. Center For Storytelling, 01 Feb. 2017. Web. 02 Feb. 2017.

Zak, Paul J. “Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling.” Harvard Business Review. Harvard Business Publishing, 05 Nov. 2014. Web. 03 Feb. 2017.

Thompson, Clive. “Clive Thompson on How YouTube Changes the Way We Think.” Wired. Conde Nast, 22 Dec. 08. Web. 03 Feb. 2017.


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