A new platform could make story writing fun and engaging for a generation of young writers. Its creator James Pope explains how and why he got Genarrator off the ground.
In the summer of 2006, I ran a week-long project with Year 10 students at a secondary school in Portland, Dorset. In that week, we shot video, wrote storylines, took photographs, recorded sounds, and built four lovely interactive stories using Flash. (see http://cemp.ac.uk/inp/) The students loved it, so did the teachers, and so did the Digital Media undergraduates who helped the school pupils handle Flash.
I wanted to do more ‘Portland’ projects, to continue to develop youngsters’ interest in new-media story-telling. But it had taken a lot of planning, expensive kit, and a team of skilled undergraduates to get us to a finished product. I needed to make it easier for everyone, not just school pupils, to tell stories without technical training or backup.
I don’t want the need for professional tools or technical training to be barrier. There are free applications around but none (that I’ve found so far) that allow simple implementation of interactivity, in a multi-media environment, with design functions, and publishing facility, all in one place. So, my solution was to invent my own story-writing package, Genarrator. I have been working with this program, since 2008, with Media, and English students, none of whom have had specific digital design training, and we have produced some fantastic work (see the folders in ‘groups’, labeled BACOMM and BA English, on the Genarrator homepage).
Genarrator is hosted entirely online (http://genarrator.cemp.ac.uk/) and will work via any browser. It is free, and all work, once completed, can be published by the writer onto the homepage. It is very easy to use.
The writing platform includes the following functions:
- Text entry: text can be typed or copied into movable/shapeable boxes.
- Image import and insert: jpeg or png files can be uploaded.
- Layering of elements, re-sizing, cropping: screen layouts can be created within Genarrator.
- Video, animation or sound import: authors can upload an animated gif, mpg, or mp3.
- Soundtrack options: music or sounds can play across the whole narrative, change from page to page, or be activated on items, e.g. images.
- Hyperlinking from/to page or media or text: it is very simple to create hyper-jumps, so that interactivity and non-linearity are possible.
- Display rules: an effective plot manager, because the writer can ‘direct’ revelations or twists by ‘hiding’ elements of the narrative until the ‘right’ moment.
- Site-map generation: to keep track of and display hyperlinks (Figure 1). This map is dynamic in that the writer can arrange the map to helpfully represent the plot structure.
Figure 1: Genarrator site map
Sidebar Menu view: this makes sure that a site and narrative overview are always on show. This is seen in Figure 2, but note that the writer can choose not to show this menu if preferred.
Figure 2: Genarrator writing screen showing writing and navigation tools
And so, bringing us up to date, in the spring of 2013 I worked with around 20 Year 11 pupils from a local school. I wanted to see if young ‘uninitiated’ writers would be able to use Genarrator to build pleasing new-media stories.
The whole project could be run by the school teacher, without the need for specialist technical backup. The goal was to introduce the school students to the concept of interactive storytelling, get them to use a range of media to make their story, use multi-media within their story, and build and publish a story that could be read and interacted with online.
The pupils were firstly briefed at their school. My approach is to talk very simply about the idea that story is a kind of journey; but a journey, as we all know, doesn’t always unfold along a straight path. So they are asked to come up with a short story idea, and to think of all the possible digressions, diversions, choices, obstacles, alternatives that the protagonists may encounter. The pupils easily relate to this conceptualising of interactivity because, of course, it is a game-like proposition.
Following the briefing, the pupils write storylines and create their assets: images drawn or photographed, or Googled (copyright free of course!), video, sound effects, animated gifs. Much can be created in something as accessible as a mobile phone: photos, sounds, videos can all be uploaded from such familiar ‘kit’.
The final part of this small project was to bring the pupils into Bournemouth University’s Media School for an afternoon, put them in front of our iMacs and let them build their stories in Genarrator. Of course, the results are variable, but the pupils enjoyed their project – and the finished pieces show that, very quickly and easily, multi-media, interactive stories can be made by young, non-technical writers. The more writers who grow to love this wonderful narrative environment, the better for the art and for audiences in the future. I await the first best selling hyper-novel to come out of a major publisher, and I urge anyone who has a story to tell, to have a go at using Genarrator!