The Blend Podcast EP006 – The Immersive Effect of Non-Linear Storytelling

Tom Payani  00:27

This week, we’re talking about nonlinear storytelling.

Brendan Cox  00:33

Yeah. So we both got the idea of doing this, we watched Tenet. Christopher Nolan’s film. And we thought, hang on a minute, this is something that’s quite interesting. And we can maybe dig more into especially because we actually realised once we started looking into it, it applies to a lot of stuff we’re doing. And a lot of other ways of telling stories and films and various other things that have have always stood out and have been quite interesting. So yeah, let’s dig into that.

Tom Payani  01:03

Yeah, I mean, Christopher Nolan has used nonlinear storytelling throughout a lot of his films. And him and Tarantino, I would say are the two that stuck out for me in terms of using that as a form, and as a method in their films. Nolan started it. The first one I can remember from his films that use nonlinear storytelling was a Memento.

Brendan Cox  01:29

Yeah, I think there was a thing, there was an interview with Chris Nolan. And he was talking about how he always writes his films, and he directs them as well, in terms of doing it from the perspective of one of the characters. So he writes, he uses nonlinear storytelling. 

So basically, nonlinear storytelling just means that it’s not in chronological order. For something like memento, you’ve got someone with a fractured mentality, their mental state, so he’s kind of got amnesia, and he can’t remember anything short term. And so it’s filmed in parts in black and white and parts and colour. 

From start to finish, it jumps from black and white things which are in the future, to the colour things, which are now and it will it alternates between the two. So you’re almost given the perspective of the main character who doesn’t know what’s going on. And he’s trying to piece everything together, and has information from before and currently overlapping. 

It’s that whole thing of immersing yourself in the story, to a point where you’re like, you’re following the way that person’s mind is digressing is remembering one thing from one place and coming back to it referring to something else. And it basically really sort of sticks you in the middle of the story.

Tom Payani  02:44

Yeah. And I think why sort of, we’re inspired by this type of storytelling is because the viewer or the user, depending on the form of, of what you’re creating is invested in that story. And it’s like a puzzle they need to figure out, rather than being more of a passive user or audience member, when you have more traditional linear storytelling. I think I like that. I like that distinction.

Brendan Cox  03:12

I think the thing is, there’s very different feelings as an audience member, as when you’re in a cinema, and you’re watching a horror film, and everyone’s shouting at the screen going, Oh, my God, don’t go in there. It’s almost like, you’re saying, like, I’ll just be right back. 

Everyone in the audience is just like, oh no, because you’re watching someone make these decisions like sitting above them. And you’re detached from it. So you’re just watching someone, make the mistakes, go and get something for the woodshed get murdered or whatever. Whereas when you’re when you’re in a nonlinear story, you’re in there with the characters. 

Obviously, one thing from our sort of background of loving films when we were kids, and everything is Pulp Fiction, which is another great one for getting to see everyone from different storylines, and told from other people’s perspectives, you get to see the same characters appear in different narratives. So you get a sense of their character from different directions says I think of with John Travolta where he’s a hitman. But then also, you get to see the side of him from whom a Thurman’s character where he’s a sort of he enjoys dancing, and he’s into his milkshakes and stuff. And you get to see the different aspects because the storyline is coming at it from different sides. And I think that’s what makes it really interesting.

Tom Payani  04:33

I think one of the thing that’s interesting about Pulp Fiction is you’re seeing the same scene from a different perspective. So that is something that I think could be used, for example, in elearning. I know it’s a strange leap from Pulp Fiction to elearning, where you can reinforce information, reinforce learning for the user, by getting them to repeat the same task but in a different context. 

That’s how sort of film and nonlinear storytelling can be applied in different forms. And I think that’s why we love films anyway. But we always try and use these things as influences in the stuff we’re creating. I mean, going back to to Christopher Nolan, because I do think he’s great at this – we mentioned, tenet, which is the reason why we decided to do this, this podcast. For me, this was just taking it to the next level. 

What I loved about it was that it was the first thing I’ve ever seen where it’s a step up from Pulp Fiction, where you have multiple characters going through the same timeline, whereas this was a timeline changing, whether it was going backwards or forwards. 

I’ve never seen that before in a film. So not only was it a character from a different perspective, how they were experiencing time was different, because this was fascinating. Then obviously, we geeked out on it, as well, in terms of trying to figure out what was actually happening.  

I think the main reason why I wanted to speak about Tenet is because it’s a good example of giving the audience a little bit of credit, and giving them the opportunity to figure it out, and not dumbing it down for them and not assuming that it would be too complex or too boring for them to lose interest.

Brendan Cox  06:23

That’s a big thing, because, dumbing stuff down, has its place if you want a big dumb movie, but I think a lot of it with eLearning is that often there’ll be  something for kids, they make it almost too childlike. And there’s that aspect that you shouldn’t underestimate people’s ability to learn from things, especially if you give them the opportunity, through nonlinear storytelling, coming up with a problem from different angles and break through the assumption of, okay, they’ve seen this one problem from one direction. 

So they make an assumption based on the information, you’ve given them about how to solve that problem. If you come at it from multiple angles, you can really like open people’s mind to okay, we can come at this from different places.  

I mean, there’s a lot of things in gaming nowadays where like you don’t you kind of get thrown into the deep end. And so there’s that aspect of people’s ability to get stuck in and work it out; to enjoy and appreciate not being dumbed down and not being kind of underestimated is a big component of like the gamification in the eLearning side of it.

You see it in video games where you get no intro, you are literally chucked in at the deep end. And kids and teenagers love it. Because there is a boundary to it. It is like a barrier of entry where they’re willing to kind of dig in and work it out for themselves. And they get a sense of achievement, from understanding it and getting their head around it.

Tom Payani  08:00

This isn’t a new thing, either. This is from films, and this is from novels even before that, where the start of the story for whoever’s reading or watching is, the midpoint of a story, the midpoint of the narrative. Then you’re given a certain amount of information, because it’s in the middle of the story. So you don’t know exactly what’s going on. But you know, that it’s not the beginning. 

Then the story then takes a lead back to the beginning, until you work yourself to the point that you originally started with, and then usually continue on even further and that connects to the hero’s journey and stuff like that. I mean, if you look at Breaking Bad, the start of the final series of that this is a good example of that. 

He’s just in his pants in the desert. And obviously, you know something has had to happen for him to get there. That is not the start of a story. Then you go backwards, and then it takes you to that midpoint. And then the story continues on after that. I think gaming is started to use that a lot more. I think it’s engaging for the audience and is a good tool to engage the audience. They want to know how the protagonist or the characters got to this crazy situation, and they’re more engaged or they’re more curious to work it out, I think.

Brendan Cox  09:27

Yeah, I think the thing is that although the stories have ups and downs and like a roller coaster of moments and peaks and troughs, if you can start your start the learning process, with a peak, you can grab their attention the same way you do with a big opening sequence in a movie. And obviously, we’re coming in from the perspective of two people that absolutely love films. There’s tonnes of examples of this, in books and novels and things like that as well. So if there’s some good examples.

Tom Payani  10:10

You want to start people off with a bang, and they’re at this peak point of a story. Therefore, there’s that incentive to work out how this person’s got there. And they’re more invested. Thinking of another example of a film that has an interesting concept is looper, Do you want to talk about the grandfather paradox or…?

Brendan Cox  10:34

So basically, you’ve got someone who goes through time as an assassin, and then at the end of their career is basically sent back through time to wipe themselves out, which is obviously highly entertaining as a concept. But it has that whole aspect of what you did previously affects who you are in the future. 

And there’s the grandfather paradox thing is that if you went back in time and killed your grandfather, you cease to exist, and then therefore wouldn’t have gone back in time and killed him anyway. And so it could just go on forever as a loop. So there’s that whole aspect of like time that makes it fascinating in terms of it’s, it’s almost like an additional dimension. 

So like you’ve got 3d space in which we live in. But time is another dimension of life, because we experience it forward. When you play with it, and start changing the direction it’s going in or dropping into things running parallel, you can unlock a whole other level of storytelling and engagement. 

There was a game that I played as a kid, and it’s a perfect example of this. And it was a point and click adventure, which was around the same time as the, the, the Sam and Max hit the road that we loved, we kind of used in our as a point of reference for our content detectives, and it was called The Day of the Tentacle. And it was about an evil tentacle that basically creates a machine that splits time, into three timelines. 

You play as three different characters in the same house. Each of them one is in the past, one is in the present, and one is in the future. And a certain point, the one in the future is stuck in a tree. And the only way for them to start there go is for you to get one of the original writers of the the American, the document that George Washington wrote, completely forgotten the Constitution. 

That’s how you can tell I’m not American, and one of them I think is john adams goes and chops down a tree. And you basically have to get them to do the Constitution. And then the guy goes out chops down a tree, and then suddenly, the storyline starts in the future, because the tree that they were stuck in is no longer doesn’t exist anymore. And so you’ve got this, this wonderful, like overlapping story of how you’re trying to defeat this evil tentacle. 

Three timelines set in the exact same location. So each thing you do affects the next one. And ever since that I’ve always been fascinated with this sense of time is an additional thing that you can play around with the storytelling.

Tom Payani  13:17

This element of playing with time and how time is used in storytelling or in content gives you a little bit more freedom in terms of what you can make the user do. If a user makes a decision, then that decision impacts the story going forwards. But why not that decision impacting the story going backwards? I like the direction storytellers and content makers are going with because I think people now are much more apt for changing the way we tell stories in terms of it being nonlinear and playing around with the concept of time, in many different forms of content, not just films anymore.

Brendan Cox  14:16

We all have a range of our kind of comfort zone of what we understand what we appreciate and what we enjoy. And if you think all the way back to like when the they first introduced cinema, film, and they filmed a train coming towards the screen, and literally everyone panicked, because they’ve not ever seen that before. 

Nowadays, you’ve got kids that are literally playing computer games that are the best version of a computer game that we’ve had access to, from the point of which they first touched it and was a little kid. Formed story narratives and things that play with the sense of space, things that play with the sense of time and computer games means that they’re way more open to exploring other approaches to storytelling and learning. And I think that that’s what’s that’s what’s key is that it’s always an evolving thing. And it’s always, it’s always kind of adapting and getting more interesting.

Tom Payani  15:24

I also think nonlinear storytelling gives you a bit more flexibility with the amount of different strands you have in a particular story. Because you can switch back and forth between these different strands and these different timelines. And it gives you more flexibility in terms of where the user can go within that particular content. And I think linear storytelling is a bit more constraining in that sense.

Brendan Cox  15:49

Yeah, I think that you also got the aspect of when something’s linear, if you make a decision it is final. And I think that as kids, kids have a very exploratory approach to learning, if they fall over, they get up and try walking again, it’s not like oh, you’re rubbish you’re walking, you’re just gonna live the rest of your life, dragging yourself along the floor, it’s like, you’re gonna just keep it’s just part of the process is to fail. 

The thing is when you create scenarios where you can comfortably fail, and it’s just part of the learning process, and time has the freedom to basically, okay, you’ve made a decision, it wasn’t quite right, restart, reset, undo, and reload.

 And that kind of aspect to it means you’re not punished for making mistakes. And the thing is, you shouldn’t be because making mistakes is a good way to learn. And I think that’s cool as well.

Tom Payani  16:44

Let’s try to bring it a little bit back into into what we do. Obviously, there’s a big connection between nonlinear storytelling and multiple stranded stories, You’ve got these map based games like Super Mario, or Zelda, or whatever, where it’s not necessarily about linear or nonlinear. But there’s different ways you can go. I think what we want to sort of get across in this podcast is how engagement and personalization is increased if you don’t constrain yourself to linear storytelling. And for me, linear is not necessarily just forwards or backwards like Tenet, is it? It’s going off in a different direction, or from a different character perspective.

Brendan Cox  17:37

Yeah, it’s the personalization. All students, no matter how much you want them to do one specific goal, everyone has a different personality, and everyone will have a slightly different approach. As long as you’ve, you’re going towards a common goal, and letting people do it the way that works for them, and giving them a few options to personalise that journey towards the goal makes the learning experience much more personalised and stengthening their connection to it.

Tom Payani  18:16

People are not blown away as much by that anymore. Don’t get me wrong. I know before we spoke about the hero’s journey, that there’s a certain tenets in storytelling that have been around for a long time, and they always work and they prey on human emotion in a strong way, etc, etc. 

But I think people are more easily bored, more easily disinterested or disengaged. And I think, try playing around with these sort of storytelling tropes is just going to become more and more standard, in any context, whether it’s film video games etc.  I mean, look at video games, as the easiest example. How much that’s changed and people’s expectations.

Brendan Cox  19:06

I mean, everything’s a sandbox. I remember the first time that they introduced the idea that you could just wander around and do stuff in Grand Theft Auto and hunting was amazing. It was suddenly an open world you could you didn’t have to do a specific thing. You could just build a house and let people live in it and things like that. And now there’s open world games, they’re absolutely huge. They technically take up the same space as a physical country if you’re actually if you actually mapped it out.

Tom Payani  19:37

From a learning point of view, there is a theory called constructivism. And this is basically where you’re building the learning is based on previous learning, or is this sandbox type idea where you explore a world to learn it’s not just a teacher or whoever telling you some knowledge, and then you go and try out.

You’re tested on that knowledge, you can go in multiple directions to eventually try and achieve the learning objectives that were set. And I think just, going back to my teaching experience as well, this is always going to be a more effective way of learning for someone because they’re in control of their learning. 

They’re pushing their learning in a direction that engages them, you know, they’re doing something that they enjoy, because they’ve got multiple choices, rather than being told this is what you’ve got to do. Obviously, you need the framework, and you need to build that in, in in an intelligent way. So people basically think that they’re deciding the route they’re going on, but you’re creating that guidance and that framework and that foundation for them.

Brendan Cox  20:51

Yeah, I think that’s the thing, isn’t it, it’s like the top of the pyramid for learning is being able to create something, because to be able to create something you need to fully understand and apply it at all levels. And that the the aspect of when you make someone run down a corridor, they’ve kind of limited in their choice. If you put them in an open field, they’ve basically they have the freedom to create their own narrative. And that creative aspect is where the learning really comes into what they you know, that’s like the top level of learning, isn’t it? Really?

Tom Payani  21:22

Yeah, I mean, the key to good learning is creating this sandbox world that people feel they’re in total control of, and they have total freedom. Whereas at the same time, you know, you’re guiding the user to a learning objective, and you know, they’re going to get there, regardless of what direction they take. That’s the skin of it, isn’t it?

Brendan Cox  21:42

Yeah, I think that’s the thing is these leaders, guiding them and leading them? And while making them feel like this is their decision to get there?

Tom Payani  21:50

Yeah, exactly.I think it’d be quite interesting to see if other people sent examples that they’ve come across of nonlinear storytelling. I was doing some research for this episode. And I saw quite a funny Twitter thread where you were Beyonce’s assistant, and it’s like a choose your own adventure branched scenario on Twitter. It’s like a Twitter thread, you know, you gotta choose…Do you give her a smoothie or a coffee for breakfast? Or when you see her in the morning, and then she reacts in a certain way what do you do? And that takes you to like a new Twitter thread.

Brendan Cox  22:29

Nice, they can combine it with Bear Grylls. And they could just have Beyonce and Bear Grylls doing an adventure together?

Tom Payani  22:38

It was interesting, because we’re talking about films, obviously, you’ve got examples of novels, we try and use it in terms of instructional design and elearning. But you know, now you’ve got Choose Your Own Adventure on social media platforms. I thought that was pretty creative.

Brendan Cox  22:53

Yeah, yeah, because there’s the same thing, obviously, like LinkedIn, and Instagram, have their carousels. So if you, one good thing you can actually do is if you want to make something that’s very clickable and good for social media, you can make a document that’s like a PDF. 

And if you’ve got each page comes up as an individual image on LinkedIn, or you do as images for Instagram. And what you can do is, in theory, I guess maybe we should try this is actually, each of the slides on the carousel, I mean, in Instagram is limited to however many 10 or 20 or something. But on LinkedIn, you can have up to 100, I think, or something crazy. So in theory, you could actually build a choose your own adventure, saying which slide you have to scroll to.

Tom Payani  23:40

You could start seeing it in presentation decks, even on websites. Websites becoming gamified?  You have a map of the website with a character and they’ve got to go to a certain part of the website to discover certain information about the service or company or whatever.

Brendan Cox  23:58

I mean, at the end of the day, when we talked about the hero’s journey, we were talking about emotional touch points, a longer story. But when you take it into a nonlinear storytelling, you’re basically letting that order of those touch points for the emotional attachment to be in any order you want. 

Let them choose the order that happens. And I think that’s the thing in theory, it’s just a framework. So if there’s if any tool where you can basically, de-linear it and choose where you’re going. And let the user who’s the person who’s in it, exploring it, change where you end up. You can potentially do that with anything. Yeah, that is the power of it really.

Tom Payani  24:46

That is the skill of the art in itself, isn’t it? You know, integrating those emotional touch points in in a variety of ways or in more creative ways, you know, that we’re still touching on The same emotions, we’re still trying to get people to feel, you know, the same levels of engagement or, or immersion into whatever they’re, they’re dealing with. But it’s how creatively can you get people to access those emotional touch points in more unconventional ways or nonlinear ways? Or branched scenario learning. I think it’ll be interesting to see if any people listening have any other examples of either how they’ve used it, or how they’ve found this type of nonlinear storytelling ideas.

Brendan Cox  25:35

There’s so many good examples, that you don’t realise it’s there until someone points out what nonlinear storytelling is. And to be honest, I’ve never really thought about it until I started looking into it. And then I was like, oh, man, this references so many things. 

I was searching for something or other and there was an interview with Billy Connolly on Parkinson. And it was basically the way Billy Connolly the comedian tells jokes. He tells a story basically, but he’s constantly going off story, and constant digression. 

It means everyone in their seat just sort of slowly leans in, because you never quite know at what point it’s gonna branch off in a different direction. And it made me realise that nonlinear approach to engagement is in everything. So I’d love to hear where it really stands out for people or where they enjoyed it, or if they found it really engaging and a little surprising moment.

Tom Payani  26:40

Well, nonlinear storytelling in or at least branched scenario type storytelling has hit some of the most consumed content we can think of, I mean, something is as big as Harry Potter. She’s got multiple storylines going on at once there, and they’re all interlinked. And her skill as a storyteller is really good. She saw the strands and all these webs back, so they’re all connected with each other. And it all fits really nicely in at the end.

Brendan Cox  27:13

Yeah, it’s got a level of callback, and I was chatting to one of my mates. And he was saying about the thing with the comedian, we mentioned it in a previous the previous episode, where they reference their own jokes. He said a callback, I couldn’t remember the name of it at the time. But it’s that aspect of it, where it you the the audience is rewarded for remembering other aspects of it. And, like the amount of payoff that you get hit the Harry Potter. Yeah, it’s impressive.

Tom Payani  27:37

Yeah. And I think the sort of conclusion is, when we say nonlinear storytelling, it can be forwards or backwards or staying at different points of the story, but also how different strands are linked between each other, or thing. I think all these things can fit together, regardless of what you’re doing. And I think in general, allows you to be really creative. And I think that’s what we try and do a Blend.

Brendan Cox  28:01

The stories are there to be like be owned by them when they experience them. And I think if you can write a good story and a good bit of  eLearning where the the audience feels like they owned it, then they’ll remember that.

Tom Payani  28:26

Cool. All right. I reckon that’s a good place to stop. We’re always interested to hear anybody’s thoughts on the topic and just give us a shout. And I’ll speak to you next week Brendan.

Intro/Outro  28:41

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