“Every story is a physical map of how to travel from one place to another. Some places are physical; others are not.”
– Don Rowlands, Aboriginal elder and ranger at Munga-Thirri National Park in Australia
WHAT DEFINES A STORY? Each of us has a slightly different interpretation. What I’ve found over the years is that whether methods of storytelling are visual — photography or video — or through writing, all powerful stories share a common quality, something evoked by Rowlands’ definition above: They express movement. The narrator isn’t describing a static place but a world in motion. Or the image compels your eyes to move all over, rendering the story through the interplay of subject and background.
And this movement isn’t limited to physical movement, but a sense of temporality, or time itself moving. Of characters in the midst of experiences and events to which there’s a clear before and after. There is a feeling, as is often said of a successful photograph, of “capturing a moment” in the characters’ lives, revealing their emotions, presenting the story map of their place and culture in a way that shows how things are always changing, always moving around them.
Even simple blog posts, which one might not think of as stories, can be snapshots of thoughts and emotions that contain this sense of movement.
You can also turn this element of movement outwards towards the audience. What effect should your image, your video, your story have? Ultimately we want the reader or viewer herself to be moved. We want that sense of temporality to be powerful enough to enclose the audience, so that when we’re finally released, we come away with new emotions — inspiration, outrage, encouragement, empathy, celebration — all of which can lead to actual movement in our lives — trying something new, booking a flight somewhere, deciding to volunteer, take action. This is when digital storytelling becomes an art form.
One way to further understand temporality or movement is to look at the concept of locating ourselves. Throughout life, our familiar routines, environment, and day-to-day activities undergo moments of turbulence, change. Moving to a new city. Quitting an old job and starting a new one. Traveling. Losing a loved one. Getting married. Giving birth to a child. Experiencing health problems. Accomplishing important projects. As we transition through these large-scale changes, we undergo a process of locating ourselves in a new reality. There’s both a physical and emotional adjustment period.
Even our daily lives can be seen as a minute-by-minute experience of locating ourselves. Again, it’s physical: Going out to a new restaurant, literally choosing where to sit, noting who is there, studying what’s on the menu. But it’s also emotional, a process of registering our feelings (anxiety? joy? boredom? curiosity?) as we sit down, eat, converse, interact with the company. In some ways each time we wake up, have our morning rituals, look out the window, think about the day’s schedule, we go back through the process of locating ourselves.
Notice how this process encompasses all different measures of time, or as described above, a sense of temporality. Locating ourselves contains the “now” we’re experiencing this very second, but is influenced by the whole arc of our lives, the series of decisions, actions, and patterns that brought us to this moment.
This is especially important when considering other characters. When you observe people — say, the patrons of your local cafe — how much of their stories are you actually seeing? A distrait young mom with her legs pulled up in a yoga pose, scrolling through her phone while her daughter plays absentmindedly with a spoon. A man in his 70s with a scarf loose around his neck, solemnly reading the newspaper. An anxious-looking late-middle-aged woman reaching into her bag and pulling out a folder, presenting it to a woman across the table.
If we only look at them in this one moment, we tend to see one-dimensional figures, stereotypes. The yoga mom. The retiree. The saleswoman. But if we could learn how these people are themselves located in this particular moment in time, then we start to see people we can identify with through their stories. Say the young woman is just entering a trial separation from her husband, and is waiting for a girlfriend to arrive, debating whether or not to tell her. Or the retiree has just made the decision to sell his home in the neighborhood and move into assisted living. Or the saleswoman has received bad news about her health earlier that morning, and as she pitches a potential client, she can’t believe she’s actually there working, pretending to be OK, when inside she wants to cry, revolt, escape.
What makes stories resonate with us is that we’re able to inhabit a different temporality for a while. Even just stopping to gaze at a photo can become a kind of transport into another set of emotions. And so by paying attention to how we locate ourselves — and how other people are surely in the process of locating themselves as well — we begin to see potential stories everywhere and how they fit together.
Where you are right now
In addition to looking at how to locate ourselves through different points of time, we can also look at “location” in a literal sense: registering exactly where we are geographically, physically. Consider right now in this present moment. Where are you located exactly? Not just a street address but within the greater geography of the region? If you could map out the local watershed, where are you right now within the branches of creeks and rivers, estuaries and ocean? Where does the water come from? Where does it go? What is upstream and downstream?
Without checking smartphones or other devices, do you know which way is north? Point to it. From where do prevailing winds blow? What phase is the moon in? Where in the horizon will it be coming up tonight, or setting?
What is the name of the street you’re on? The town or city? Who gave it that name? What does that name mean? Who was there before you? What is the history of the room you’re in right now? The lot your house or building is on?
Do you see how this can trigger a story?
As your write, continually circle back to these concepts again and again:
1. How do you show where you (and other characters) are located?
2. How do you portray your life (and other characters’ lives) through certain moments in time?
When you figure out the answer to those two questions, you have your story.