Are you a storyteller? The purpose of this article is to provide an overview of some of the storytelling tools and software you can use in constructing stories and in creative storytelling.
To me, storytelling is two things: the construction and ideation of a story, and the “storytelling” part, in whatever form or genre it may express itself.
When we talk about “storytelling tools,” I am not just thinking about apps, software, and hardware, but also some of the mental processes behind actually constructing and telling good stories.
As you may know, I come from a film background. Many of my approaches to storytelling and the tools I use are informed by practical experience at the intersection of filmmaking. Making documentaries means putting complex storylines into a form where they make sense. And into a state where they engage the audience emotionally. In the tools I am about to show you, there is a strong connection between writing and storytelling, or storytelling and writing.
The tools and approaches presented below are also suitable for digital storytelling, and some of the tools mentioned are specific tools for digital storytelling. Some of them also lend themselves to “content creation” and content marketing. At the end of the day, they serve to help you create a good story!
The Stages of Storytelling
There are three important stages we go through when we construct and tell stories, or a digital story. We switch back and forth between these states.
Story Awareness, Story Construction, and Story Telling.
Awareness is the inspiration and ideation phase. Remember, this is not just at the beginning, but runs through the entire process of storytelling and story construction.
Next comes what I would call construction. It's the main building blocks, the architecture of the stories. Basically, researching and outlining.
Finally comes the actual storytelling, whether it's on the screen, the stage, or the page, as I like to say. Whether it's a film, a written piece, or even a performance. This is where we enter the wonderful world of drafts.
The Drafting Process
We go through ugly, horrible designs that you cannot bear. Yet it is necessary to spew out onto the page, onto the stage, onto the screen, to get the first draft out!
This is true regardless of the type of content you end up creating. Be it social media, infographics, explainer videos, a brand story, visual content, a video, Facebook, Twitter, a full-blown novel, an interactive story … You get the idea.
We then move on to better drafts, be it second or third or even more than that. We look at hooks, endings, and middle parts and how we approach them conceptually as we put our stories together.
These three significant stages – awareness, construction, and narrative -it is not that they come one after the other, 1, 2, 3.
You might have a little bit of awareness that brings an idea. You start to actually write it out into an ugly first draft. Then you might take a step back and look at the construction, or you start the construction phase. You already have an idea for a story. You sketch it out first, and then you have another inspiration. Then you move into the actual storytelling phase.
Most of the time, I find myself literally starting to write or starting to let the creative stuff flow onto a page or screen.
Then I step back and start thinking, “Wait a minute, what could be the story or theme here?” Because that's the nature of creative work. That's the way it works. The most important thing is to realize that there's no dogmatically fixed order. You can take it anywhere, in any way you want.
Chances are, you'll be switching back and forth between these things as your story begins to emerge.
Don't Let Tool Tail Wag Story Dog
Very importantly, before I get into apps and software and tools: Never let an app dictate your creative process. Once you get into tools, it's sometimes easy to lose track of what's important. Always remember that stories are about entertainment and emotion. There is a strong connection between inner transformation for your characters and heroes and, more importantly, for you as a storyteller or digital storyteller. Make sure apps and tools serve your story, not the other way around!
Intuition and inspiration: it is endless. It is a matter of observation and awareness. On a deeper level, it's about the relationship between your story and you. Connecting the things you observe and are aware of with your own inner processes and then finding the feeling deep within the touch point to inform your story.
You may be walking in the woods observing things and meditating as you do so. Meditation leaves room for inspiration.
There are some exciting meditation apps coming on the market now. One that I have been using lately is called Tripp and it's in virtual reality. I got an Oculus Quest and now I go into Tripp almost every day. Remarkably, it creates a mindfulness experience in a virtual reality headset! You have to experience it for yourself to believe it.
Recall of image sequences is very, very strong in humans, in almost everyone. We tend not to forget an image. We tend to remember when an image is fresh. You can show us thousands of photos in a sequence and then show us a bunch of others, and we know which ones were among the thousands and which ones were not. You can use that to your advantage.
Apps like Flipboard, Feedly, Pocket, virtual reality animations from Quill, Dribble, Behance, DeviantArt, Wander in VR, where you can walk around the world in 360 degrees. Pretty amazing. It can all stimulate your imagination, make connections, spark associations, develop ideas and build a story.
The use of music is hugely important, I find, when I am trying to develop ideas, get inspired and get stories going. I usually put on ambient space music because it puts my mind in a relaxed state – a state that lends itself well to writing, sketching, or even restructuring and editing. You already know that you can use music in this way.
You can use music to create the particular mood you are writing about. For example, if you are writing about a 1920s coffee shop, put on 1920s music to put yourself in an appropriate state.
Of course, take a notebook with you everywhere! Preferably a small one so you can always have it with you. Digital notebooks – there are so many on the market. Evernote, Bear, One Note, Simply Note. The list goes on and on.
An exciting trend lately is what is called block-level referencing and bi-directional linking. Basically, this means flat databases where you do not have to decide where to put information in your notes before you just enter it in. But you have absolute certainty that you can find those notes at the right time in your research or work process.
‘Block level' means that your notes are divided into sections, the length of which you decide. You can think of it like bullet points.
Having researched this area pretty thoroughly, the best of this new generation of note-taking apps is Roam Research. It's not cheap at $500 for a five-year “Believer” license. However, I think it is the best on the market. I use this great tool daily and enter everything. It is tremendously powerful when it comes to making automatic bidirectional (two-way) links that connect pieces of information together. The app also helps me a lot with outlining articles and my other writing.
There is a free app called Obsidian that I do not think is quite as powerful as Roam Research because it does not work at the “block” level.
The other trend in research – and this is a bit of a game changer – is that there are apps that effectively aggregate an enormous amount of information. This is then presented in summary form, pointing you in the direction of the most popular or up-to-date information. This can reduce hours or days of research to literally minutes.
I use an app of this type daily called Frase.io, which unfortunately is no longer available on a lifetime deal. I believe it costs about thirty dollars a month. It pulls in information very, very quickly in an organized form. It gets me away from opening hundreds of tabs in Google and going on endless browsing trips.
I am a big fan of mindmapping. It's by far the fastest way I have found to get ideas down on a page where you can actually see what's going on. Then you start moving the thoughts around, connecting them, and developing storylines.
I have never found a better way to outline a story, develop one, or just write down my initial thoughts and then flesh out and develop the ideas.
The mindmapping app I use almost every day is iThoughts. It's cheap, about $20, and available for Mac or PC. There are iOS and Android versions as well. It's a really great digital storytelling tool.
There are other mind mapping apps out there. You can even use a pen and paper. The most important thing is to make it visual, include pictures, doodles, diagrams and make it radial and engaging. Do not make it too scientific or like a flowchart. You want to bring your mind maps to life. It becomes an organic being!
Let us say you want to get inspired about different types of mind maps. In that case, you can go to a website called Biggerplate, which has 1000s of mind maps on every topic imaginable for free.
Whiteboards, Storyboards, and Timelines
If you fancy using digital whiteboards, there are apps like Miro that let you share whiteboards and attached resources. Collabroative whiteboarding. I have physical whiteboards in my study that I use sometimes, but I largely use mindmapping.
Next up is storyboards – the classic visual storytelling tool. Spark from Adobe might be useful. You may find it easier to storyboard directly on paper. Storyboards come in handy when thinking about a visual story, where it helps to see the flow of shots and scenes.
Timelines can be very important for stories – visual storytelling or not – and especially for complex stories. If you are writing a novel, you may have parallel or triple timelines, you may have subplots, and you may bring in a non-linear narrative. Things can get very complicated very quickly. It's essential to have a record of what actually happened.
When, where, and by whom or with whom, and to understand where that fits into the overall chronology. The best app I know of to do that is Aeon Timeline, which allows you to get an overview of what's going on in the story arcs. It's an excellent app, not too expensive, and allows you to see the chronological view.
It also has a tabular view of the same information, which helps you understand which characters were present at a particular time or which characters were observers and things like that. It allows you to cross-reference what's going on in your plots so you do not end up with plot holes in your books or your movies. In effect, it works like an interactive timeline of your plot and characters. Super useful.
The writing app Scrivener, which is excellent, has something similar in the form of a timeline where you can have plot arcs. Still, it's not as powerful as Aeon Timeline. But if you just need simple timelines, then Scrivener's index card feature might be enough for your purposes.
As for writing tools: for my money, the two best on the market are Ulysses and Scrivener. I know you can use markdown apps, Microsoft Word, and so on. You can also use a pen and paper, as I often do. But the point about Ulysses and Scrivener is that the way they do backups is excellent, and the experience of writing in them is excellent. You can break down what you have written into parts and move bits around very quickly. This is important when trying to find structure in writing.
Stream of consciousness writing is another essential part of my process. The app I use to do this best is Otter AI, a dictation app. It can be installed on your desktop or smartphone, and you get 10 hours free each month, which is a great deal. If you pay $100 a year, I think you get 100 hours a month, which is more than enough to write a full length novel every single month!
Once I get a few ideas together, usually in a mind map rather than typing them out by hand or writing them out, I get into Otter AI. Literally, I dictate the first ‘messy' draft of an article or scene or chapter straight out. When I write fiction, sometimes I close my eyes and let things flow.
I accept the fact that this is going to be an extremely ugly first draft. Then I put that ugly first draft on a screen and master the second and third drafts back in Otter to get an evolving series of drafts done quickly and with great ease. I do not like typing that much, so this is a fantastic solution for me. It might work well for you, too. It takes a little practice to find the right cadence and pace, and to accept that sometimes you'll make mistakes.
But the fact that Otter automatically punctuates the dictation makes it a much better option for me than Dragon Dictate.
When it comes to tightening up our writing, we need to get a handle on style and grammar. I think Grammarly is the best app on the market. I used Pro Writing Aid for a long time, but honestly, I find Grammarly to be much faster to use. It's more pleasant to use and it fits into many different writing environments.
I use Grammarly's desktop app on my Mac because I like to switch back and forth between it and the browser and keep a clear delineation between the two.
AI Writing is Coming
It would be remiss of me not to mention writing with artificial intelligence. You may groan in disbelief at this point. But the fact is, artificial intelligence writing is quickly appearing on the scene. In July 2020, GPT-3 was launched on the market. By now, there are quite a few apps that use this algorithm. One of them is AI Dungeon, which is extremely good. It has pre-made “worlds”, and you can also write your own text in them.
There are quite a few copywriting apps like Copy AI, Copysmith, Nichesss, and others.
It's worth remembering that there are already 175 billion sentence parameters within GPT-3. The version of Natural Language Processing NLP that Google is about to release will apparently be 10 times more powerful. So we really are at a stage where a lot of typing can be done by AI.
The problem is that AI writing tends to be rather generic and tendentious. It requires intelligent workflows, which will be the topic of another article, to make good use of it. But for now, I would definitely recommend you try one or two of them to understand how they actually work.
Virtual Reality Storytelling
Finally, I would like to point out the role of virtual reality in storytelling. For we may have thought of how we disseminate our stories on stage or on screen. For example, books, articles, public speeches or videos are usually distributed or extended onto the internet or on television.
Now there is a new kid on the block, virtual reality. I am very excited about some of the possibilities for storytelling in VR, not least animation and things like Engage, which has been trialed in partnership with Oxford University. It enables educational experiences and storytelling experiences in virtual reality. The experience of participating in these things is really quite extraordinary.
Platforms like AltSpace set up storytelling events that are very fun and educational to participate in.
I hope you enjoyed this article, an overview of storytelling processes and tools, and found it inspiring and useful. Remember, at the end of the day, it's all about creating stories that stand out and satisfy our target audience!