Online Storytelling, Justification, And What The Godfather Has To Do With It

This is the first in a series of posts where we will try to discover and define the art of online storytelling. The aim of these posts is to create a conversation, and as such, they will be posted in Facebook and relevant mailing lists. All posts will be tagged with “online storytelling” – I’d appreciate if you’d tag response posts the same so we could trace the conversation. Also, if you read this post not on my blog, I’d appreciate if you will post comments here too – so everyone can join the discussion – even if they are not on Facebook….

In a past post, I’ve detailed my view that Internet TV is only one side of video on the Internet, and as such, provide limited storytelling tools.

I was asked by a local College to create a course detailing the theoretical background and practical applications of this medium. We’ve created a multidisciplinary team, including a TV director and media innovators, to work together and define the medium.

In our work, we stumbled across many issues. It seems that the narrative tools of the Internet are complex, and yet to defined.

Here is an example – do Internet storytelling tools act as a film camera, or they are a manifestation of a fictional world? Though seems like a trivial question – it is definitely not an easy question to answer. The reason is that each answer have wide implications. If we treat the Internet as a camera, we assume that viewers and characters are accepting the convention of the existence of the camera- The 4th wall concept is accepted, and viewers and characters alike are not “aware” that the camera exist. In this case – one does not need to justify the existence of the camera – we agree that it is there, and we agree to ignore it. Therefore one can tell a story in the Internet with a clear entry point – a website that starts the story, and the storyteller can upload scripted and pre-recorded videos in its most simplistic way to advance the plot. However if the Internet is the manifestation of the fictional world – the writer needs to justify every piece of media that the characters upload to the Internet – meaning, every online activity has to be in the boundaries of logic of the character.

Sounds trivial – but it is far from that. If a character needs justification to every online activity, the narrative is limited to very specific story types – ones that there is a character that writes a diary  or online journal. While it provides a great narrative tool for drama, it complicates other genres such as crime or espionage story. How can you tell a story about a secret agent if you need to justify the fact that he has a blog or Facebook profile?

Furthermore it narrows the type to characters you can create – they have to be active online, otherwise they are not seen.

This point made me think about the final scene of Godfather 2Michael Corleone, in one of his darkest hours, remembered the past of his warm family. In a flashback scene, we see Vito’s Corleone birthday, where Michael tells his brother that he is going to the army. Everyone are waiting for the guest of honor, and then we hear a door open – it is clear that Vito has arrived. This emotional scene works great, and shows the difference in the life of the Corleone family through the years – for the worse. Merlon Brando refused to participate in this scene, and is not shown at all. It doesn’t change its impact, and sometimes I think that it increases its effectiveness. So, can we use the same tool in online storytelling? Can we use online characters to reflect on offline characters – and how does it affect our narrative possibilities?

My main concern with deciding that the Internet is just like a camera, and that viewers and characters alike are willingly buying in to the illusion it creates is the following:

1. The art of online storytelling is in its infancy. “Letting” creators “get away” with the 4th wall concept might be a slippery slope toward just posting video on the Internet and calling it online storytelling.

2. Online users do not get the same overall experience that films provide. When going to the theater, the dark room, sound system, and overall experience allows you to dive easily in to the fictional world presented on the silver screen. Online experience is different – viewers are less focused, which increases the pressure to create a reliable world that is adjusted to the medium, and not take for granted that users have their full attention to the creation they see.

In the mean time – take a look on this Nine Inch Nails / Godfather mashup…

[YouTube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IlfrUwBq7Fw]
YouTube – The Godfather Part 2 w/ Nine Inch Nails

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7 Responses to “Online Storytelling, Justification, And What The Godfather Has To Do With It”


  1. 1 Justin Kownacki December 4, 2007 at 5:40 pm

    The “rules” of online storytelling will be defined by the successful storytellers. They will also likely be variations on the “rules” that have worked in previous media.

    I think the key rule is immediate audience engagement. A web viewer isn’t seated in a theater, subject to the pacing of the writer / director for 90 minutes. He or she is also not watching TV, where the act of changing the channel still requires the act of finding and clicking a remote control. On the web, sitting still long enough to watch a 5 minute video IS the anomaly of “standard” behavior, so to engage that viewer, a video must be immediately interesting.

    After that, anything goes… for five minutes. (And yes, that includes references to unseen / offline characters. It worked in “Cheers” as well — we never see Norm’s wife Vera in the entirety of the TV series’ run, though she’s referenced in nearly every episode.)

  2. 2 John Leeke December 4, 2007 at 5:56 pm

    You can construct the “4th wall” out of any materials and systems you wish, or you can become the 4th wall yourself.

    Vlogging an (extra)ordinary life

    Do you wish your life had a better outcome, like that really great movie you saw last year? Do you wish you could get that spark of insight that solves one of life’s major problems by simply reflecting on the glint of sunlight in your cup of coffee, like the neat vlog you took a moment to watch yesterday? Then live your life like the movie or vlog you want it to be. Decide what effect you want your life/movie/vlog to have on it’s viewers, including you and the people close to you as well as distant observers. Write up a treatment. Shop it around to your friends. Pitch it to your sponsors, your champions and even your enemies. Dream up the story. (Don’t forget the twist at the end where everything works out great.) Write down the script. Sketch out story board. Live the story (hey, that twist at the end? in reality it double-twisted better than I could have imagined!) Shoot the footage and edit, edit, edit. Distribute it to the theaters, or feed it out on your vlog. Five stars? No stars? Either way, learn the lessons, write the next chapter in your life, live it, vlog it.

    Why does this work? Because we humans have an inner need to share our selves and our lives with others. Because if we follow good plans the result is good works. Because if we know someone is watching the work is bound to be better.

    With my own work in this world I help people understand how to care for the historic buildings they live and work in. I earn my living with hammer, clipboard and camera in hand, writing and vlogging about my work. I do often make decisions about what to do, with print articles and vlogs very much in mind. My remaining life is getting too short to do anything for just one result. If I take a hands-on contract to restore a porch on an historic house down the block, I need to get at least three to five results:

    1. Earn some money fixing the porch so I can feed my family.

    2. Take notes and photos of the work so I can write a print article or
    book chapter about that type of work.

    3. Shoot some video for a vlog or two.

    4. Help out my neighbor.

    5. Fix those classically styled Ionic porch columns so they improve the
    looks of this neighborhood and make the whole world a little more
    beautiful place for all of us to live a better life.

    If I have a choice between two projects and the first will give number 1. above, and the second will give 1. through 5. above, I’ll definitely pick the second, which has the greater outcome. Case in point:

    Stop by to shoot the breeze with John out on the Front Porch:

    http://historichomeworks.com/hhw/frontporch/front.htm#House

    – John Leeke
    by hammer and hand great works do stand
    by pen and thought best words are wrought
    by cam and light he shoots it right

  3. 3 John Leeke December 4, 2007 at 6:09 pm

    >> or you can become the 4th wall yourself.<<

    In which case the 4th wall dissolves, even the notion of “story telling” evaporates, there is no storyteller, just a direct connect between the story and the viewer.

    In the best case all artifice evaporates, the camera, internet, even the images and words become a mere connection between the listener and the teller, and then the teller and the connection drop out and the listener is IN the story.

  4. 4 Tim Street December 4, 2007 at 7:01 pm

    Like a good book, online storytelling can take you places you are not supposed to visit and let you see things you are not supposed to view and…it can let you interact with the characters and have the real world intrude on your story.

    When For the Love of Julie launched we were contacted by the LAPD, the Santa Monica PD and the Los Angeles Sheriffs Department because people thought the guy who had “created” the site was stalking Julie. In Online Caroline you get to interact with the main character Caroline and help her make choices.

    Both of these interactive online stories were created years ago and we were unable to monetize them directly because advertisers didn’t understand what we were doing but Movie Studios and Television Networks got it and hired me to create online stories for them. Then advertisers started to test the waters with ARG (Alternative Reality Games) and I think that is where the biggest strides have been made in online storytelling to date.

  5. 5 John Holden December 4, 2007 at 7:16 pm

    “We’ve created a multidisciplinary team, including a TV director and media innovators, to work together and define the medium.” I hope you have a poet on your team. And I don’t mean a poet with a capital p. I mean a small time, little magazine, coffee house person. Find one who knows about syndicating short works of dubious worth on an irregular basis. And I have a feeling you’ll find more parallels between “storytelling” in poetry and online video, than any other medium.

  6. 6 Kfir Pravda December 5, 2007 at 7:14 am

    Thanks all for your comments. John – this is the challenge – how can you do that without a diary kind of plot?
    Tim thanks for the historical perspective. We are looking into ARG as well -and from what I saw it is the most advanced one. John- do you anyone?

  7. 7 Guy Bendov December 5, 2007 at 9:26 am

    hint:
    Internet is an asynchronous interactive media. So stop thinking TV. If anything, theater (and at that, Commedia dell’arte) is closer to what you are looking for.


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