Beginning, Middle… aargh! Where now?!
For National Storytelling Week, our Creative Director Kate Dimbleby explores the importance of mapping your story – from songwriting to filmmaking!
Mapping is something that most creatives do in one way or another when they begin any project.
It’s a way to take the chaos of the ideas in our heads and figure out how they work together and how we might go into turning them into a story of any kind – be that in written word, song, film, animation….even a painting.
Mind mapping, character mapping, storyboarding – it is all a way to get the ideas out of your head onto paper and then wrestle them into a story!
The importance of Mapping your Story
My favourite experience of mapping was when I was working on my 7th solo theatre show in 2017 – Songbirds (to accompany my album of the same name). It was the first time I had made anything so autobiographical – so it felt very frightening and if I’m honest, I was stuck.
Songbirds, the album (Folkstock Records, 2017)
Added to which, I was ambitious – I had a dream in my head of a show that was mixed media – film, sound recordings, songs and script – all working together to tell the story. It was like a massive jigsaw in multiple pieces but there was no image on the box to refer to to help put it together.
Luckily, my director/collaborator/creative midwife (every creative project needs a midwife!) was actress, writer and producer Katy Carmichael.
After several meetings with Katy, in which I blurted out my thoughts in a dis-organised splurge, she suggested that we get a whiteboard and map it out.
We wanted to discover the main themes, the images, the characters, and the songs I wanted to include. Get it out of my head and onto paper. A way to stop me endlessly trying to tell the story in a straight line.
“Beginning, middle…argh….where now?!” …was how it generally went
As we did this, we started realising that the contents of my head and what I wanted to say could be contained by different ‘islands’ – story islands.
The island where I met Bobby McFerrin; the island where I performed at the Festival Hall; the island where I took a microphone around Bristol and sang with people on the street… etc
The power of the idea of story islands is that they were self contained and so a bit like a song, they were manageable, short-form and moveable.
You didn’t have to immediately work out how they were connected. It also stopped me focusing on getting a perfect beginning – the blocker for so many creatives in getting anything off the ground.
It was an important transition for me as a performer (and an adult!) – letting go of just one version of events and allowing for other ways of telling it.
The importance of rehearsal and play
When it got to rehearsals and performance, I stopped trying to tell a story that made ‘sense’ from beginning to end and started to see it as a map – that could be traveled through in many different ways depending on how you wanted to tell the story or what the audience wanted to hear.
Once I realised that I could move through these islands of content in different ways and each time, tell a slightly different story, I felt liberated.
It was an improvisational and playful way of working.
I still had to put the work in, tighten the script and the music, rehearse and make sure each section worked really well but when I took the show around the country, I had the freedom to experiment and find the version that worked well for that audience, for that night, on that stage.
Kate Dimbleby on stage for Songbirds
I took a version of the show on tour around the UK – telling my story and singing with my audiences.
Excited by this improvisational way of working, I developed an even more improvised and interactive show in 2019 called Sing Happy.
Because the concept of the Story Islands had freed me from having to follow the same order each time, I could arrive at each venue fully prepared to travel through my ‘story’ in different ways depending on the night, depending on the audience. You can have a glimpse of the live show here. It was pretty free!
Then in March 2020, the pandemic cut this tour short and I had to stop performing…
But another story was already mapping itself out
Whilst making Songbirds and Sing Happy, I had talked a lot about the concept of ‘story islands’ with my husband Ru – and it turned out to be a perfect serendipity.
He had been (separately) trying to figure out a process for making interactive films more easily. He had made the first interactive video on YouTube (‘Indecision’ 2008), as well as trying to code Choose Your Own Adventure Books from the age of 9.
Indecision, Ru Howe, 2008
He had an idea for his next version of the story but he was stuck – he needed a creative midwife.
So there I was – a creator and his actual wife!
We mapped it out on our kitchen wall with some paper story islands. The story of one man’s morning walk to work across Bristol and the choices he makes along the way. Should he hurry on his way or stop and take the scenic route?
Kate Dimbleby with the ‘wall map’ for Life Moves Pretty Fast
We called it Life Moves Pretty Fast – a reference to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Ferris’ motto is :
“Life Moves Pretty Fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while – you could miss it”.
It felt pertinent to this new improvisational way of thinking about story and living our life. We took Ferris’ advice and looked around us to see how we could turn this dream into a reality. We had no budget but a lot of energy – we set some days aside and filmed it with professional friends and favours on 2 very cold days in December 2019.
Life Moves Pretty Fast – watch here
The film features Ru’s videoblogging alter ego Wolfie who talks to camera and invites the audience to choose how he travels to work on his birthday.
Each of the ‘Story Islands’ can be mapped to a real location in Bristol. This was our shoot map.
Life Moves Pretty Fast shooting map
We got 30 sequences in the can across 20+ locations on the shortest days of the year.
If we hadn’t done the wall mapping and the shoot mapping, and if Ru and I hadn’t held the whole map and script in our heads, there’s no way we could have done it.
But we’re old pros at this kind of thing (in video and theatre), and we were well prepared – it was a lightning schedule and a lot of fun to make.
So now, we had the footage…
If only there was something that enabled you to map out all the scenes in different ways and let the viewer journey through them?
Once again, the end of one story became the beginning of another.
Throughout the process, Ru had been sifting through all the online tools and platforms that might help him make and deliver the film – there was nothing that would do all the parts he needed.
He’d been thinking about the need for a sort of ‘WordPress for interactive video’ for a while. All it needed – again – was a midwife…
And so Stornaway.io was born!
Cut to 3 years later – we have made a no code interactive video platform and game engine where Story Islands are a core concept.
Like digital post-it notes – you map out your islands on our Story Map and get to instantly rehearse (play through) your story – with stock footage or just text, even before you have shot any video.
Add your mixed media – script, images, video, audio – test it, move it around, connect it in different ways and when you are ready – release it to your audience to watch and replay as many times as they like.
Life Moves Pretty Fast – film mapped out with Stornaway.io’s Playable Story Islands
Stornaway itself is playing the part of a creative digital midwife to thousands of people all over the world – in theatre and entertainment yes, but also business, marketing, training and education. Stornaway helps you plan, get your ideas on digital paper, map it all out and play test with your team or stakeholders before you’ve spent any budget on filming and shooting.
And then, finally it enables you deliver those ideas as finished playable interactive stories – on the web, on YouTube and soon via our Unity integration to mobile, TV and games platforms.
My personal journey to play, and to create new things, has become one where I now see creators all over the world using Stornaway.io to innovate and deliver new forms of media that they couldn’t imagine before.
For example, today I just got an email from an animator making an AR game who used Stornaway to plan, map and communicate with her developers.
“You have made an AMAZING product. It will change a lot of people’s lives for better. It has so many uses too! Headspinningly AWESOME!”
That’s not an ending I would have expected when I was whiteboarding Songbirds with Katy Carmichael – in the top room that I’ve spent the whole pandemic in building Stornaway with Ru.
Life Moves Pretty… Fast?
Wait – that can’t be the end! What happened to Life Moves Pretty Fast?! You might have noticed I skipped forward 3 years in a nonlinear way. Let’s go back to the middle.
Well… Life Moves Pretty Fast moved pretty slow while we got on with building Stornaway for everyone else. It patiently waited 18 months – and then when we’d built and launched it for other people to use it, we realised that our first interactive baby was still in the can.
So finally, Stornaway played midwife to its elder sister! That’s about as non-linear as it gets.
You can play it here – in Stornaway.io – and when you’ve played it through once, the map below is a clickable playable map of Bristol that lets you jump in anywhere you like, stop, look around and find the paths you’ve missed.