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Writers-Rooms, Storyworlds and Museum Narratives

- Or, how to write an immersive, magic-realist, historical thriller experience for a museum about cold-war era navy warships…

What place has a writers-room in the development of a museum exhibition? How do you write a spatial, immersive narrative for a museum audience? What is the role of Genre and Dramatic Storytelling to a Museum collection?

The past few months have seen me overseeing the development of a multi-platform storyworld bible for the Australian National Maritime Museum who are embarking on an ambitious exhibition project. The ANMM is building a new exhibition space and audience experience around the Australian naval warships in their care. And by warships, I mean actual Ships - three very real, decommissioned, cold-war era military vessels which include the Destroyer HMAS Vampire, the O-class Submarine HMAS Onslow and the Patrol boat HMAS Advance. All three are wharfed adjacent to the ANMM at Sydney’s Darling Habour.

As a writer my work is more diverse than most, working across traditional books, TV and film as well as interactive, digital and multiplatform projects. But in a former guise  I also worked in the museum sector and these experiences - both good and bad, inspiring and intensely frustrating - generated a perspective on Museum exhibition development processes.  

At a simple level, it seemed to me there there were two fundamental flaws in the way a great many museum projects were conceived and constructed. The first was a liberal use of the word ‘story’ without any actual, genuine, meaningful or informed engagement what a ‘Story’ really was! The other was an inability to conceive of the museum exhibition as a true integrated ‘multiplatform’ experience. Museums certainly have long used audio-visual and interactive components, as well as online extensions, but more often than not these are after-thoughts and add-ons rather than designed from the outset as a unified, and unifying, experience for an audience.

As with any creative endeavour, a project is shaped by it’s process - if the process is narrow or centric to a specific element, it will forever be chained and limited by the constraints of that element. For museums this has often been a misguided origin point - starting with the Objects and the Knowledge rather than with the Audience and the Experience. 

This was a topic I discussed at length with eminent big-thinker about museums, Seb Chan of the Cooper-Hewitt museum of design in the US, in his blog Fresh+New(er).

Over a year on from that interview, the ANMM project has provided the opportunity to directly test some of the ideas Seb and I discussed, and to enact a process that attempted to get away from a curator-lead (which invariably means object-knowledge focused) process, and one that endeavoured to see the exhibition experience primarily as a multiplatform narrative that took Audience Experience and Story as the central pillars. 

As I said in the interview with Seb….

“Parallel and Multi-stranded narratives are an vital part of conceiving and developing multi-platform projects. The idea that an audience on one platform may experience a different set of events, point of view, narration or catharsis to an audience on a different platform, but that all those parallels – be they 2, 3 or more variations – are unified. This brings us to the idea of a ‘Storyworld’ an idea that, like ‘Transmedia’, is a bit of a buzzword, but one which is also a very useful as a conceptual and development tool…. But Not all stories should be interactive, not all stories can be cross-platform, so you need a kind of framework to be able to sort out the right stories from the wrong as much as you do the good from the bad…”

So, with this as a starting point, the gig at the ANMM went like this… 

As a basis i designed a process that drew upon elements of writers-rooms for long-form TV series as well as interactive and multiplatform development modes and assembled a Writers-Room for ANMM Warships project.

The members of the writers-room included 3 people with experience in museums, but who did not come from a particularly traditional museum background. This included ANMM creative producer Hamish Palmer along with digital curators Penny Edwell and Nicole Cama. The rest of the writers-room was comprised of people who don’t have museum experience, but rather come from screen storytelling industries - Multiplatform Media Producer Ester Harding, Illustrator, Production Designer and Director Alan Chen, and Film, theatre and Digital producer Mel Flanagan. This gave us a 7 person writers-room steered by yours truly

The writers-room aimed to deliver two outcomes for the ANMM project: the first being a Storyworld Project Bible. Storyworld Bibles are an increasingly common document used in both traditional media such as TV as well new ‘transmedia’ forms of production. Transmedia poster-boy director, Lance Weiler, sums it up well when he describes;

“What was once a single-format design for me is changing. I now consider my process akin to architecture… the creation of a storyworld bible, a document that provides an overview of the experience that I wish to create. It shows the relationships between storylines, characters, locations and interactions…”

Hence, for the ANMM Warships project, the Storyworld Bible is a document that defined the concept and audience narrative experience, and which would serve as the basis for future curatorial, research and design execution.  

Aside from the bible, the second outcome for the ANMM was the process itself; a detailed structure for developing multiplatform exhibitions that was audience-experience centric rather than curator-knowledge centric. A structure that could continue to be adapted to help inform future museum projects. 

The writers-room process was divided into three sections over a couple of months. The first session of two-days saw the team assembled to scope the Storyworld of the project. The background briefing information prior to this was deliberately succinct -  overviews of three warships, what they did and where they served; background on the historical post-war period; and select quotes and perspectives of people who served aboard them. Just enough to set the scene and let our imaginations run, not so much that we got bogged down into detail that - as any historical fiction writer will attest - is the enemy of imagination and creativity.

Writers-rooms work by leading a creative team within a framework for posing good questions to debate and explore in an environment focused on saying ‘yes’ and extending on any ideas put on the table. It’s not an easy thing to steer such a process but, at its best, it makes for ideas that are escalated and elevated above any that might come from a single voice or vision.

Illustration by Alan ChenThe first key area I set the team to interrogate was Genre; what is the narrative genre of this project? By having a clear sense of what story genre the audience will be immersed in we can, as writers and the architects of experience, be clear about what emotional states the audience both expect and desire. Genre speaks to how an audience chooses to feel, what they want emotionally from an experience? When we stand out front of a movie theatre and say to our friends, “Hey, what do you feel like seeing tonight?” we are asking an emotional question not a cognitive or intellectual one - we are asking what emotions do you want to indulge? An exhibition experience can and should be no different - if we can define the genre we can define the audience’s emotional connection. 

The cold-war setting of the project clearly set us on a path towards crafting a ‘Thriller’ with various prefixes - action-thriller, political-thriller, suspense-thriller. But the depth of personal emotion and imagination in the way sailors communicated and spoke of their experiences on board the ships also pushed us in a parallel direction - something more supernatural where imagination unleashed a kind of magic into the reality of the life onboard a warship. The result was a separating out of the experiences of each of the vessels as ‘episodes’  and embodying different genre variants - that each ship was a different kind of story yet unified by common elements. 

With some good articulation of our narrative genres, the rest of the first writers-room sessions focused on bringing some clarity and focus to the unique storyworld we are asking our audience to enter: What is the Time, Place and Problem of this storyworld? What is the audience’s relationship to time? Where are we and what are the unique properties of the world spatially and visually? What does it look and feel like? And, most importantly, what are the Problems of the storyworld? What dilemmas, troubles or crises effect the whole storyworld and all characters in it? From there we asked what are the Rules of the storyworld; what can and cannot happen, what are the principles that shape it? Similarly what are the pressures inherent in this unique storyworld, what forces are in opposition, what is the driver of the problems characters in the storyworld must face?

These elements were rigorously brainstormed and scrawled on notes to be pinned to the walls of the writers-room. Moreover, our resident visual artist, Alan Chen, set to work illustrating and sketching the key ideas as we went. These images become the vibrant visual foundations for conceptualising the ideas and making them vivid in the minds of the writers-room team. 

Alan Chen drawing ideas on-the-fly

From a scope of the storyworld and its problems comes the crucial dramatic questions. Whilst the word ‘story’ is liberally bandied about in Museum circles, I’ve rarely seen it used with any genuine understanding of what a story really is for an audience. What most museum folks refer to as a ‘story’ in an exhibition is rarely anything more than an anecdote - a tidbit of context rather than a genuine compelling narrative. 

This separation can be expressed simply as Dramatic Questions; asking what are the dramatic questions your audience is compelled to ask? Such questions are not based on curiosity or pondering, but rather on circumstances where there is something at risk, where there are stakes and consequences. Without the audience asking ‘what happens next?’ there is no Story, and audiences will only ask ‘what happens next’ if they feel there is something at risk for the characters they are following in that story. 

So, for our writers-room, the articulation of what the dramatic questions of the project were, was a central and complex component. For a multiplaform project like this, dramatic questions had to be framed at macro and micro levels and needed to be expressed in ways that arose organically from the Storyworld as it had been defined, and which would compel an audience to ask ‘what happens next?’ 

‘Will the submariners make it out of the sinking submarine in time?’

‘Will the sailor’s letter make it home to his family?’

‘Will the submarine remain undetected in its stealth mission to china?’

etc, etc….

Once we had a sense of the dramatic questions that governed the project we could begin to refine the position of the audience and the actions they might play in an interactive or immersive experience of the storyworld. Importantly this is Not about coming up with digital games for audiences to play, but rather the higher level questions of how the audience are aligned in the storyworld, from what point-of-view do they experience the narratives and, crucially, what role are they being asked to play? This role-play speaks to defining how an audience might be made ‘active’ and, as such, the writers-room worked through the possibilities by constructing and examining active verbs within the storyworld - collector, finder, solver, builder, navigator, etc - and how these lent themselves to the dramatic questions and problems of the storyworld.

Having scoped the span of the storyworld and framed some high level parameters, the second phase of the writers-room process was one of research. Nicole, Penny and Hamish from the ANMM set about using the elements we had defined in the project bible, and the questions the room had posed, as the basis for their research and had a two week period to collate a body of inspiration for the writers-room.

This idea of research positioned as a Secondary rather than a Primary phase of exhibition development, may seem an anathema to traditional museum process but it is fundamental to an audience-centric rather than curator-centric result. By framing the storyworld at a high level first, the process of researching has parameters built from the intended experience of the audience, rather than the subjective or personal inclinations of curators or an pre-determined idea of ‘knowledge that should be imparted’. 

When our third writers-room phase came about following on from the research, Penny, Hamish and Nicole were able to present back a rich and detailed, But Focused and Engaged, array of ideas and possibilities - all of which stemmed directly from the storyworld and all in direct response to the audience alignment and emotional experience we had defined. 

With the walls of our writers-room now covered in images, words, sketches and concepts connecting Research, to Storyworld, to Project Bible, we now had the ingredients to flesh out our narrative experience. The final 2-day writers-room session then focused on identifying the 5 chapters of our story and the potential story-lines of each chapter. The emphasis here was on how those story-lines matched with the emotional expectations of the defined genre of each chapter, and how they embodied the roles and perspectives we wanted to position the audience in. 

In order to distill this complex holistic storyworld into something both digestible and useful in communicating the the project’ to others, the writers-room set about collectively writing synopses for each chapter of the experience. These synopses focused on being clear and specific in 4 areas;

1) the genre, concept and themes of the experience.

2) the characters, their struggles, their goals and what is at stake?

3) the types of experiences and platforms, and what the project hopes to provoke or awaken in the audience.

4) the triggering event and narrative element that sets the dramatic questions and audience engagement in motion.  

By answering these 4 elements in a writers-room round table brainstorm, the broad scope of the storyworld and its possibilities becomes distilled and focused, transformed into a succinct document that can be functional and useful to later development stages.

The end result of this intensive writers-room process for the ANMM Warships project was something genuinely exciting and filled with fresh ideas and perspectives. Moreover the ideas that emerged were unlikely to have been generated or uncovered by a traditional exhibition process. By viewing the project as inherently a multiplatform experience from the outset, any digital or online elements are intrinsically a part of the whole rather than an extraneous add-on. 

Certainly there is still a long way to go before the Warships project is a reality. From the initial storyworld bible will follow a further intensive research period followed by a focused writing process to turn the storyline ideas into actualised scripts, documentation and executable components. But by starting with a writers-room process that brought in experts in storytelling, cinematic engagement and interactive game design to a museum context, a process has begun that may deliver something really quite special.


(note: the post above does Not represent the opinions of the Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM), or its staff.  It is intended only to reflect my own perspective in delivering a process for the ANMM as an external consultant.)

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Reader Comments (2)

This is an interesting and exciting process Mike and thanks for sharing. On reading this my question is where does the audience voice fit within this process? It is great to have intensive sessions with writers and producers but if there is no sense of the storylines that are of interest and intrigue to the audience then the writers could spend a load of time coming up with dramatic questions that “your audience is [NOT] compelled to ask”. How do you include the visitor perspective into the storyworld bible so that “the relationships between storylines, characters, locations and interactions” are ones that the audience will actually respond to??

As someone working peripherally on this project so far I’m wondering if you had any thoughts about when in the storyworld process the ideas and narratives are tested with “live” people – those that we ultimately want (and need) to attract to the museum and to be moved, inspired and somehow changed by their interactions with the experience and each other??
February 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLynda
Its a great and obvious question and the short answer is a definitive YES - absolutely identifying and considering audience is fundamental and a key part of the Storyworld process (as it is for all film, tv and interactive productions). Particularly in identifying different narrative genres (emotional expectations) for different audience desires. This requires having the audience defined in terms of not just demographics, but also profiles and behaviours, as the very starting point for narrative development.

BUT, at the same time I would argue that being slavish to Audience Data (as I fear too many museums and other institutions such as Broadcasters are) is wrong headed. I would argue, that Audiences Dont actually know what they want (or at best want only what they enjoyed last time) and this truism for example informed the approach of Steve Jobs with Apple - Decide and Define what the audience want and then compel them to want it. No one thought they wanted an over-sized smart phone that couldn't make phone calls - but the iPad became the biggest consumer product of the past 5 decades. :-)

Knowing audiences is crucial and fundamental, but satisfying them should not mean delivering only what you think they want; it should mean knowing where they are starting from and moving them to things they never knew they wanted or perhaps never even thought of. Dramatic Questions of a narrative are not pre-existing in an audience, they are constructed by a narrative.

As the famous marketing guru David Ogilvy said....

"I notice increasing reluctance on the part of marketing executives to use judgment; they are coming to rely too much on research, and they use it as a drunkard uses a lamp post for support, rather than for illumination."

Audiences should illuminate and provide the launch point for a storyworld development process but they should Not define or pre-determine it.

This then of course leads to the idea of audience testing which you rightly raise. In TV, Books and feature film, testing the audience basically doesn't exist. Theres no sense or tradition of 'seeing if it works' and having the space to respond and adapt to that test. However in the multi platform and interactive space, particularly online production, such user-testing is absolutely standard practice and commensurate with a robust but flexible storyworld bible. Minimum Viable Products, UX testing, participation groups, eye-tracking, spatial mapping, user-joruney maps - all forms of testing audience response to a narrative scenario be it virtual or physical. A good Storyworld development process provides a framework from which there are multiple iterations not just one - a network of pathways not a set of railroad tracks. So if the Storyworld Bible is robust and user-testing reveals blockages and unexpected behaviours, the bible should be flexible enough to adapt whilst retaining its authorship and narrative consistency.

Easier said than done, but nobody said this was easy ;-)

March 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMike Jones

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