Recently published over at WQ, a piece I wrote on the unique role of the producer in creating a reading experience for the screen.
For the last few months I’ve been working with a small tech start-up company with big ideas. Called oolipo—a nod to the oulipo movement that pioneered experimental constrained writing techniques—this company is taking the nineteenth century idea of serialised storytelling and bringing it to a contemporary audience via that most twenty-first century device, the smartphone. Stories for oolipo aren’t just existing narratives repackaged for a handheld screen, they are stories written specifically with the device in mind.
One of the stories I am working on is called Valhalla. It’s a very modern take on Norse mythology, combining fantasy, history, humour, and a whole lot of arse kicking.
I’m not the writer of Valhalla; I’m the producer. This is a new kind of role, somewhat akin to an editor, but expanded into taking a text and translating it into something a designer and engineer can work with in producing a work unique to reading on a phone.
Just think about the reading experience on a phone. Forget any other device. Just concentrate on the phone. What can you do? You can combine text and images. Animation and video is a possibility, as are sounds that complement the story. But that’s just the beginning. Phones have GPS and accelerometers. A phone knows where you are on the surface of the earth, your coordinates on the map and even your altitude. Most importantly, a phone is networked. It has a live connection to servers and other devices proliferated throughout the planet. It is not simply a passive device for consuming content; it can help create and share.
That’s a lot of additional tools available. So how does a story for such a container come together? As a writer, you may be tempted to turn your story into a multimedia assault. Or maybe you fall into another camp that sees nothing wrong with sticking to long, elegant blocks of text. A story for the phone might work at either of these extremes, but more likely you’ll want to navigate a path somewhere between larding up the narrative with distractions or creating an impenetrable wall of text that brings nothing to the reading experience beyond what ink and paper does.
This is where the producer comes in. Use the possibilities of the platform, imagine how the features of the device can bring something unique to the story. And at the same time never lose sight of the reading experience. The producer’s job, like the editor’s, has much to do with balance and restraint. The writers of Valhalla have built their story around a narrative voice that relies on short but evocative strings of text. When released, Valhalla will combine this voice with background textures, black and white illustration and the subtle use of animation, sound loops and three-dimensional parallax effects into a kind of ‘hand-made, high-tech’ aesthetic.
For much of this year, I’ve been grappling with the question of what skills and capabilities writers will need in the future. We can’t know for certain how our devices and media may evolve, but we can assume that the fundamentals of good storytelling will remain. The choice of medium must always serve the story. And the reading experience must always serve to take a reader deeper into the story world. All the cool ‘features’ in the world will add nothing to a story if they’re not relevant. And all the beautiful prose in the world will never reach a reader if it’s frustrating to access. More than anything, what writers will need is not that different to what writers have always needed: an understanding and appreciation of how their stories are experienced.
We can’t know for certain how our devices and media may evolve, but we can assume that the fundamentals of good storytelling will remain.
In the meantime, I need to get on with turning Valhalla into a database-readable spreadsheet. Yes, being a producer has its glamourous moments too. ♦