Making the Hard Calls

Putting story first

by Hope Voelkel

Making the Hard Calls

Initially, it was hard not to love Moonbot Studio’s iPad app, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. Flying books! Narration! Interaction! Charm! Developed by a former Pixar animator! Swoon.

And it wasn’t just me who felt all warm and fuzzy inside. The Atlantic Monthly recently sung the app’s praises — and even took a trip to Shreveport, La., to experience Moonbot Studios — because, “At one point or another, it has been the top book app in 21 countries. A New York Times reviewer called it ‘the best,’ ‘visually stunning,’ and ‘beautiful.’ Wired.com called it ‘game-changing.’ MSNBC said it was ‘the most stunning iPad app so far.’ And The Times UK made this prediction, ‘It is not inconceivable that, at some point in the future, a short children's story called The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore will be regarded as one of the most influential titles of the early 21st century.’”

Flying Books is cool. Really cool. But here’s the “but”: Is it a story? Or is it a half-story, a game or something else entirely? Our conventional mediums, the ones for which we knew how to explain the idea of story, have been blown to bits as things like tablets and smartphones have found their way into more and more hands. Hence, our current scrambling to GET SOMETHING DEFINED. And fast.

In an article on Nieman's Storyboard (a project of Harvard's Nieman Foundation for Journalism), graphic designer and consultant Pedro Monteiro says that the new digital narrative should be “a flow of content, presented using every digital tool available." Using a TV series season approach, he says, "the storyteller will present her story, one episode after another, in a way that will not break the flow of the narrative, regardless of the technique used for each episode.” Flying Books, in his opinion, is a well-done new digital narrative.

But is that what we want all future stories to be — a flow of content using every digital tool available?

Though mediums are rapidly changing, the basic things we love about a good story — a good narrative — are not. For the most part, the good ones — whether in film, images, words or sound — have characters that intrigue us, plots that sweep us up or missions that compel us. The strongest narratives are the ones that suck us in and monopolize our senses. That is the most important detail we creators, of any kind, need to pay attention to.

Over the holidays I sat down with my niece and nephew to “read” Flying Books. We didn’t actually read, per se, though the narrator was doing his best to help us pay attention to the story. Instead, we wrote our names with the alphabet cereal (one component of the interactivity) and plunked out “All Around the Mulberry Bush” on the piano (another example of the app’s interactivity). We did these two activities over and over. And over. We played, but we certainly didn’t read or follow any sort of narrative.

That’s one of the problems presented by the web and burgeoning technology — there's so much we can do, but that doesn't mean we should do it. With great power comes great responsibility (a la Spiderman’s uncle). Human creators must now learn to use technology responsibly, to let it serve the story rather than vice versa. Good stories are still crafted, still intentional.

Multi-layered digital narratives like Flying Books feel like those old-school Choose Your Own Adventure books, which I LOVED, but not necessarily for the stories. As a kid who didn't get to choose much in life, I loved that I got to choose the endings. It was the novelty, not the stories, that kept me begging for those books. Nowadays, I read certain authors over and over and watch films by certain directors one after the other because I like the way they put a story together. I trust that they have thought through where the story needs to go and that they will bring me to the right place.

We, as publishers, writers, photographers, designers, etc., have to be willing to step up and make the hard calls, decide what we want the story to be, and then do everything in our power to make it the best possible story — whether it utilizes the latest technology or not.