Elements of Digital Storytelling (or, My Journey to Understanding #DigitalStorytelling)

I am not a storyteller.
I don’t have any stories to tell.
This is the story I have told myself.

Mitch Ditkoff (2015) thinks my story is absurd. In his excellent post directed at people who share my story about not being a storyteller, he lays it out front and center:

You already know how to tell a good story. You do. You’ve been telling good stories your entire life. Today, you probably told a few. And later, tonight, you will probably tell some more….Story is the ocean we are swimming in. And because it is, we don’t necessarily feel wet when we’re in it, but we are. Fish aren’t taught to swim. And you aren’t taught to tell stories….Just because you don’t know how you do it, doesn’t mean you lack the knowledge or the skill. You don’t. It’s in there. It is….Storytelling is what some psychologists refer to as an “unconscious competence” — a skill, like walking, eating…that has become second nature to you. Where do you begin? With one simple commitment: To stop telling yourself the story that you don’t know how to tell a good story. (para. 2-6)

In his talk on humans as a storytelling animal (embedded below), Jonathan Gottschall (TEDx Talks, 2014, May 4) similarly relates the ways that stories permeate our lives but often in ways that fall outside our awareness. Like Ditkoff’s all-encompassing ocean analogy, Gottschall offers his own, a storm:

Human beings live inside a storm of stories….We live in stories all day long. We dream in stories all night long. Stories are how we communicate with each other. It’s how we connect with each other. It’s how we learn. It’s how we think. (7:51)

Not only are stories all around us, but we are constantly creating our own stories about what we observe and experience. He says, “we are [constantly] trying to impose the order of story structure on the chaos of existence” (5:39). Every single one of us, then, is a master storyteller (well, at least the vast majority of us, those with the capacity to observe and interpret).

In a post that is supposed to target the elements and definition of digital storytelling, why am I focusing on stories and storytelling in general? Because digital storytelling is, first and foremost, storytelling. Without understanding storytelling, one cannot begin to understand digital storytelling. In his book The New Digital Storytelling, Bryan Alexander (2011) suggests that participants in his digital storytelling workshops often have anxiety about the technology used to create digital stories. My anxiety when approaching the topic is entirely different. I feel great about the technology, excited to explore and work with the tools. But coming up with a story? A story worth hearing and experiencing? That’s an entirely different thing. It’s the notion of telling a story that terrifies me. I had to start by understanding what stories are (not just their components but what they are in essence), what storytelling is, and what it takes to become a storyteller. For this reason, in all my readings and viewing thus far for my Digital Storytelling course, Ditkoff and Gottschall were the most important ones for me.

After much reading, viewing lectures, and thought, I have developed the following personal definitions. A story, at its essence, is an engaging piece of communication that conveys a sequence of related events (something happening), centers on a problem or challenge, and has meaning, a point. Storytelling is the act of delivering this type of communication to an audience via any medium or method. A storyteller is virtually every human with the capacity to communicate. Yes, even me.

Now for defining digital storytelling. Bryan Alexander (2011) provides this simple definition for digital storytelling: “storytelling with digital technologies” (p. 3). Well, I suppose that’s true based on the word digital in digital storytelling. Unfortunately, I find that word to be a poor choice that places an arbitrary divide between what is a digital story and what isn’t. For example, a blockbuster movie is still a movie whether it was originally filmed using actual film or whether it was born digital. As an audience, we experience it the same, though the graphics quality isn’t. We see it in theaters, on DVD, on BluRay, and even online using any number of devices. It’s still a movie, it’s still a story told in moving images. When Alexander further narrows the definition to be stories that are “‘born digital’ and published in a digital format” (p. 15), the waters are only muddied more (something he does acknowledge but leaves open).

I propose that what we are really talking about when we say “digital stories” is technology-mediated stories, ones in which a storyteller uses (any) technology to present or communicate the story to his or her audience. The ways technology has been used to tell stories, and what that looks like, has changed as the technologies themselves has changed. From the birth of moving pictures, to the interactive and text-based computer games and fiction that pre-dated the internet, to the widely diverse digital stories of today, people have told “stories with nearly every new piece of communication technology we invent” (Alexander, 2011, p. 5). (See Alexander’s chapters 2 & 3 for a great overview of the history of digital storytelling and 4-7 for the current state of affairs.) With this definition, for example, we can think of all movies as existing in the same realm of storytelling without the arbitrary divide of saying one is a digital story and one isn’t.

Certainly, the current era of technology-mediated storytelling has facilitated incredible diversity in storytelling forms and in storytellers whose stories may be heard. We can now tell stories in ways that couldn’t have been imagined even 20 years ago. Nearly everyone has access to tools for creating, publishing, distributing, and consuming digital stories — at least within the United States — thanks to the proliferation of smartphones mobile devices as well as the affordability of other technologies for creation and consumption. (See the following Change of Storytelling interview compilation (Center for Storytelling, 2010) and mini-lecture by Zach King (TEDx Talks, 2014, May 15).)

Having said all that, I’m not in charge of naming conventions and the name “digital storytelling” is already out there. Shocking, I know! In order to participate in the conversation about digital storytelling, I will continue to use this established phrase. However, I will use it as if it means the same thing as technology-mediated storytelling as I have described above, with an understanding that people are generally referring to current technologies.

Wading through the materials to prepare myself for this course and for this writing assignment was a journey in understanding story and starting to accept that I am, in fact, a storyteller.

I do have stories.

Not all stories are epic. We tell stories every day.

I tell stories every day. My stories.
And people listen.

Now I just need to practice making and telling stories consciously, on purpose — and give myself permission to explore and try and fail and try again.


Alexander, B. (2011). The new digital storytelling: Creating narratives with new media. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Center for Storytelling. (2010, July 1). Storytelling part 1: Change of storytelling [Video file]. Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/12999733

Ditkoff, M. (2015, June 19). How to tell a good story [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mitch-ditkoff/how-to-tell-a-good-story_b_7618534.html

TEDx Talks. (2014, May 4). The storytelling animal: Jonathan Gottschall at TEDxFurmanU [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/Vhd0XdedLpY

TEDx Talks. (2014, May 15). Zach King: The storyteller in all of us [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/VMIpxqeoI1c

Further Reading/Viewing

Briggs, S. (2015, December 5). How storytelling can enhance any learning experience [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.opencolleges.edu.au/informed/features/how-storytelling-can-enhance-any-learning-experience/

Future of Storytelling. (2012, October 3). Empathy, neurochemistry, and the dramatic arc: Paul Zak at the Future of Storytelling 2012 [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/q1a7tiA1Qzo

Hsu, J. (2008). Secrets of storytelling: Our love for telling tales reveals the workings of the mind. Scientific American Mind, 19(4), 46-51.

Iwancio, P. (2010, June 18). 7 elements for digital storytelling (in 4 minutes!) [Video file]. Retrieved from http://vimeo.com/12672069

Jenkins, H. (2010, August 23). How new media is transforming storytelling: A new video series [Web log post with video files]. Retrieved from http://henryjenkins.org/2010/08/how_new_media_is_transforming.html

TEDx Talks. (2011, August 16). TEDx Gallatin – Amanda D’Annucci – Storytelling, psychology, and neuroscience [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/KKB_JVNGjLY

Zak, P.J. (2013, December 17). How stories change the brain [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_stories_change_brain

12 Replies to “Elements of Digital Storytelling (or, My Journey to Understanding #DigitalStorytelling)”

  1. Hi D’Arcy,

    Apologies for taking so long to get a comment to you!

    First off, I love how you started off the post with those three (rather poetical) lines. They basically sum up the feelings of awkwardness, but also the unavoidability, of storytelling. Framing your post as a personal meditation on storytelling was really compelling and as a reader I definitely felt that you took us on your journey with you. The short statements again at the end of the post created lovely bookends.

    One thing that I appreciated was the logic in your post. Trying to cover so many aspects of the discussion can sometimes make writing jumpy, but you transitioned smoothly from section to section. Your post was very cohesive, which certainly makes for an enjoyable reading experience!

    There was really only one section that I found confusing, and it’s actually because everything else was so tightly tied together that it stood out. Near the end of your post you embedded two videos, but they didn’t get much of an intro in the paragraph above their placement. I think if you bring them into your written argument, they can better support the overall post. Especially because they are longer videos, the reader should get a heads up to how they are connected to the rest of the piece. I assumed they were necessary to the argument because you embedded them, but if they are actually non-essential, maybe they can live in the “Further Reading/Viewing” section.

    Here are a few grammar things to check out:
    * In the paragraph that starts “Not only are stories”: The “then” is oddly placed in this sentence. I would consider getting rid of the commas around it so it flows through the whole thought, or rewrite with something like “If this is the case, then every single one of us is a master storyteller…” – “Every single one of us, then, is a master storyteller…”
    * In the paragraph that starts “In a post”: I think you want to pluralize “viewing” so that it matches “readings” (and I know you watched more than one video) – “in all my readings and viewing thus far”
    * In the paragraph that starts “Now for defining digital storytelling”: The following sentence has a comma splice, and would be much happier if the comma was a semi-colon since you’re working with two independent clauses. – “It’s still a movie, it’s still a story told in moving images.”
    * In the paragraph that starts “Certainly, the current era”: I think you either meant “smartphones to be singular, or there’s a comma missing somewhere in there. – “…thanks to the proliferation of smartphones mobile devices as well as the affordability of other technologies for creation and consumption.”

  2. I enjoyed your post. As the others have mentioned, your writing style really flows and doesn’t feel like you are doing an assignment in which you are responding to prompts. Unlike you, I am more at ease with the telling of a story than the use of the technology! Most of the applications being used with this assignment/class is all new to me and I am finding myself spending a large amount of time catching up on programs I intentionally avoided for years. I loved the quote from Ditkoff; and would agree with him 100 percent. I find myself telling many stories to students in my classroom all day. Whether to get to know them, let them get to know me (that I am more than a voice at the front of the room), or to reenforce the material I am covering.

    Anyway, nice job. The only comment I have for things to fix is the use of “diverse” twice (back to back) in your paragraph that starts out with “I propose…”

    “to the widely diverse diverse digital stories of today”

  3. Brilliant, D’Arcy.

    Based off of Gottschall’s TEDx Talk, I think this blog post in itself is a digital story. In fact, I think all of our blog posts are digital stories (and ourselves the digital storytellers, of course)! I’m still struggling with a clean cut definition of digital storytelling, and was also bothered that Alexander never really clarified beyond stories being “born digital.” For all we know, though, this was intentional.

    At this time, I haven no critiques to give you.

    • Thank you for the praise, Hailey! I did try to approach this prompt as an opportunity to show myself that I can incorporate storytelling elements – already, right now, because it truly is innate!

  4. “It’s the notion of telling a story that terrifies me” It’s like you read my mind!

    I love how personal you made this assignment. It was clear from beginning to end and you have a very nice tone throughout the blog (very clearly you and not someone writing an essay). I don’t see any mistakes made to my naked eye.

    Your choice in the two ted talks presented are wonderful! I thoroughly enjoyed Zach Kings talk and think it really fits well into the blog (really all of your media does but this was the one that really got me).

    However, I firmly agree with Skip in that there are some stories that can only be told through digital storytelling and I have a few examples on my own blog post about interactive websites on specific events and people (https://www.nfb.ca/interactive) I really recommend looking at Welcome to Pine Point (http://pinepoint.nfb.ca/#/pinepoint) as a really good example of this. Welcome to Pine Point started as a book project but become so large and there was so much digital information that it was adapted into an interactive website with videos and audio files.

    • Clarity of message
      Clear message! I loved how personal and conversational you made this post. Very easy to read, relate, and understand.

      Depth of message
      I enjoyed links to the TED talks – perfect!

      Writing Standards
      I couldn’t find any writing or APA problems to correct.

      Quality and appropriateness of media
      Really liked the idea that we are all storytellers!

    • Thank you for your thoughts! As I continue to grapple with the idea of digital stories and refine my definition, your recommendations for examples to explore will be helpful!

  5. You had me at the opening lines.

    And that’s essentially what a story does–it grabs you and speaks to a need (or fear, or hope…) that is universal and easily approachable. The delicious conceit of your post is that you have used an effective story to communicate your ideas with us. You move from dealing with the fear of exposing a perceived weakness in yourself to, having gone through a quest of sorts, becoming a confident storyteller. Very nicely done.

    Like you, I find that there needs to be more to the definition of digital storytelling than “a story told with digital technologies,” and for exactly the same reason. What’s the difference between an analog movie and a digital movie of the same story? Is there some essential story element that can’t be expressed analogously, that HAS to be told digitally? There just feels like there has to be more to it than that. I think the answer lies in the larger context of how stories are distributed and consumed–and increasingly how they are remixed and repurposed by participants in the story. Digital technologies allow us to experience stories in ways that analog methods don’t. The essential elements of storytelling haven’t changed, but access to those stories appears to me to have undergone a significant revolution not dissimilar to moveable type over 500 years ago.

    Having said that, I still hold on to the notion that there are, somewhere, stories that can only be told digitally. I don’t have an example, and I’m not at all sure I can imagine what that might look like. We may still be in the Flatland stage of imagining what digital storytelling is all about. But it’s still essentially about stories.

    I rambled a bit because I don’t see any need to make any changes to your narrative. Very effective. I think I’ll go read it again.

    • I’m glad that my attempts to incorporate a story into my post were effective. I wanted to push myself, to show myself that I can tell stories and that it truly is innate. This approach was more valuable to my development than writing an academic essay, which is why I decided to take a loose interpretation of our writing prompt. I’m very glad that you and others found it to a be a successful departure.

      You may want to look at the 2 examples of digital stories that Keriann posted. She argues that these are examples of stories that can only be told digitally (they certainly are told in a way that seem to only be possible by digital means, though perhaps the essential story could be told in another way/format?).

  6. Clarity of message
    I found your work clearest in the paragraph that starts “After much reading…” because it gets to the heart of your argument – not just about storytelling but the wider argument about there not being so great a divide between traditional storytelling and digital storytelling.

    Improvement of message
    While the argument of digital v. technology-mediated stories is interesting, the section could use some tightening up. The definition of digital storytelling comes off more as bookends to the technology-mediated discussion rather than a central point.

    Writing Standards
    This is perhaps more of a stylistic point, but the last block of text would read better with spaces between the paragraphs. It loses some of its impact squished together like that.

    Quality and appropriateness of media
    The videos are interesting and relevant to your post.

    • Thank you for your feedback! When I’m back to having computer access, I’ll give the post a closer look and consider edits.

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