Tag Archives: storytelling

The Literary Platform

Quick update, I’ve been asked by Leila Johnston, editor of The Literary Platform, to write a few pieces around research & development in storytelling and narrative. I’ll be looking at developments inside and outside of the BBC, hopefully pointing people in the direction of a few projects they may have missed, and trying to bring together some disparate themes for an editorial/publishing audience. The first piece is up now, and looks at developments around the changing interactions between writers and audiences.

Second piece – The Stories in Enchanted Objects

Third piece – Telling stories to our computers

I hope they’re of interest – feel free to get in touch if you’d like to discuss any of the themes I uncover.

Upcoming Events – Immersive, Playful & Complicity

Excuse the slight self-promotion, but I thought this would as good a time as any to let anyone reading know that I’ll be speaking at two events in the near future.

Firstly, the Immersive Writing Lab, on August 20th and 21st, at Ravensbourne College, next door to the o2. Here, I’ll be talking about how writers can be inspired by the ideas behind the Web, how they can create more compelling experiences online, and some possible future directions for the mechanics of Web storytelling.

Secondly, Playful ’11, on the 21st October, at Conway Hall. There, I’ll be talking more concretely about Linked Data and games – and how we can perhaps have a little more fun with it all.

Finally, I’d like to point you all in the direction of Complicity, a one day workshop/masterclass led by Alexis Kennedy (he of Echo Bazaar & Failbetter Games) & Emily Short. It looks very interesting, especially the part about structure and architecture. On a related note, this post by Alexis (taken from his talk at The Story last year, which was excellent), has got me thinking – both about narrative structures/patterns, and especially the idea of ‘fires in the desert’. Go and have a read, and maybe I’ll get around to writing something more about it soon…

Tuning Fork

Tuning Fork, by Toby Esterhase, via Flickr – Creative Commons

Part three of my investigation into fictional content modelling. See the previous two posts for the background to the project. Thanks to those who’ve been discussing the ideas – I think it’s coming along nicely. I’ve been playing around with writing some RDF, trying to link up various ontologies, and explaining what I’m trying to do as I go along. Here’s a plain text file of quasi-RDF within comments – see what you think…(UPDATE: Now here in beautiful RDF format 🙂 )

One thing that has come up in the discussions, though, is that there’s perhaps two elements to what I’m trying to achieve. The first is to link existing ontologies and, if needed, build a new one, to help describe the narrative content of ‘stories’ within the context of television and radio programmes. The second is to experiment (and for me to learn) with existing ontologies, again, linking them up, to build dynamic and interesting webpages that work on linked data principles.

So I’m interested in the ontology *and* what kind of cool stuff we could build on top of it (which includes ideas around remixing narrative, and audience story-telling). I haven’t got any definite plans on top of that at the moment, but I think the key is to see where it takes us. Well, I have an image in my mind of the types of things we could do, but again, it will be easier to describe them by prototypes. Something that might help is if I was to link to this diagram, from the aforementioned Tristan Ferne’s Radio Labs blog, describing similar things to do with the Archers – except linking that up with linked data/ontology work…

Which would lead to something like the diagram below. Again, it isn’t a complete set of what I want to do, but it shows the types of objects we’re talking about, the relationships between them, and where they link to ontologies:

Contextual Data Model

Contextual Data Model

Actors – Using FOAF, with possible extensions, this would be a URL for each actor who appears in a BBC show. This page could pull in a biography from WIkipedia, for instance, but mainly it will show the audience all the programmes that the actor has appeared in. Linking Actors to Characters, all the way through to Episodes, would allow us to auto-generate the cast lists for the /programmes episode pages. However, one problem in an early implementation might be that if we only record ‘significant’ events within an episode, the cast lists won’t represent everyone – but over time, this could be improved (the rest of the cast could possibly be listed manually against the episode, greyed-out, until they have their own URL).

Portrayal – This would allow an Actor to play many Characters, and a Character to be played by many Actors. Here I’m thinking more of ‘flashback’ scenes where you see a character as a child, but as Tom pointed out in the comments, this could be used to handle the different actors playing the Doctor. BUt how then would you deal with the different ‘characterisations’ of the same character?

This is where the recursive relationship around ‘Character’ comes in – I haven’t worked out exactly what to call this yet, but it would allow both the foaf:knows relationship, and potentially use the owl:sameAs to link different Doctors? (Perhaps not – but something along those lines).

Again, a many-to-many resolver is needed between Characters and Events, which I’ve called ‘Action’ – I’m not sure whether these many-to-many objects would need to be made explicit and have their own URLs, but the main objects certainly would, as they could have useful pages for the audience to explore.

Events would be pages that would describe a significant event in the episode, something that would be worth describing, for instance an event which is part of a wider story arc – we would then need a URL to link these together, so you could say that ‘Someone points out that Donna has something on her back’ is part of the ‘Donna/Time-Beetle’ story arc (apologies for the random example!). This is, though, where the main value of the project would be for the audience. BY giving an event a URL, the user could trace storylines throughout the episodes, outside of the confines of the episode structure – making the fictional universe more cohesive, rather than restricting our view to the episodes, which are like ‘windows’ onto the fictional universe.

Similarly, if a user then wanted to write a story featuring some of the characters, they could refer to the character’s URL (which would then allow us to have something on the character’s page to say ‘others have written stories using this character’ – linking out  onto the web, and promoting new writers and stories. The users could equally refer to events, perhaps building events into their owns stories, taking them as cues for new stories etc. Again, it all fits in with the idea of giving our audience the tools to be creative, whilst using the advantages of the BBC website’s exposure to promote audience creativity.

There’s one many-to-many resolver which I’m not sure about at the moment – between Events and Episodes – what if the same event was  shown, or even just referred to, in more than one episode? We would need some way of defining this – but I’m not sure of the correct term for it yet, hence the ‘???’ object.

So – events could be described using the Event Ontology. Actors and Characters would use the FOAF ontology. Episodes would use the Programmes Ontology. We therefore just need a way of tying them together, and then once we have some examples, it would be good to start thinking about what new things we might need from a new ontology.

On the subject raised in the comments about expressing a person in FOAF as  fictional or real – I’d side withi Tom in saying that it would be  better to label the individual people as fictional, so that it was explicit which FOAF people were characters or not – and then you’d also have the issue of characters being used to represent, for instance, historical figures such as Charles DIckens…

Anyway, that’s enough for this entry. I hope I’ve got a little further in both clarifying the two strands of the idea, and exploring the breadth and potential of it. Comments, discussion, etc. encouraged! I’m hoping to present the idea in a meeting this coming Tuesday as a possible 10% time project, so I will keep you posted…

Content Modelling and Storytelling

BBC Television Centre in panoramic view – by strollerdos, from Flickr (Creative Commons license)

During the past year or so, the team at bbc.co.uk/programmes have been putting together a resource which allows people to access information about the BBC’s output in a structured way. This has been done using the principles of the semantic web, and of Linking Open Data. I’ll not go into great detail here, other than to explain the basics. When people think of the content of the web today, they think of ‘websites’ and ‘webpages’. These sites and pages have addresses which are unique, so that when you type the address into your browser, you’ll know where to expect to be directed to. On these websites and webpages, people can write about all sorts of things, any number of topics. And these topics can be repeatedly discussed on various different websites and pages.

What’s missing is the links between these sites and pages. Usually, it takes a search via Google (other search engines are available, folks) to get a good example of this. You type in the topic that you’re looking for, and the search engine will return all the pages it can find where the words that form that topic are mentioned. But there’s no single webpage which represents the topic itself. If there was, and if it had its own, unique address, then everyone could, on their own websites, link to that ‘topic’ as a way of saying “This is exactly the thing I’m talking about.”. If several people did this, their websites would be automatically linked together by the fact they share the same topic – rather than by the fact that someone has created a physical link between one page and another. The former makes more sense, and is much more useful in the long run. Indeed, if these ‘topics’ or ‘concepts’ had their own, unique, permanent addresses on the Internet, then the web would become not only a store of ‘pages’, but of ‘concepts’ which happen to have ‘pages’ related to them – not everything on the web would have to be a ‘page’. Only things that were ‘pages’ (say, of a book…) would then be referred to as a page. We could reclaim the word page, people!

Ahem, I think I’m getting slightly off topic. Anyway, the point is, that the good folks at /programmes are taking these ideas on board, and are creating addresses (i.e. URLs) for each programme that the BBC produces. For instance, an address like this: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00gfzhq is an address that uniquely identifies that programme. People all over the web can use that address when discussing that particular programme, so everyone will know exactly what they are referring to. In effect, therefore, although if you type in that address into your browser, you are presented with a ‘page’ about that programme, the address itself represents the programme, rather than the page about the programme. (Because I could post one blog entry saying ‘I loved watching this particular programme’, and another saying ‘I hate this particular page about the programme’).
All this is well and good, but it relies on a solid foundation. These foundations have been constructed over a number of years by people who have been thinking about the structure of what the BBC produces, and the way in which it produces and distributes its content. These structures, or models, include thinking about how a programme is organised into brands (e.g. Blackadder), series (e.g. Series 2), episodes (e.g. ‘Bells’), even versions of the episode (e.g. pre- and post-watershed versions), and then broadcasts of a particular version on a particular channel at a particular time.

The modelling around this is by no means complete, and is being refined and improved all the time. However, I would suggest that, for the most part, the modelling around these sorts of things is approaching maturity, in that those structures are fairly well accepted (that’s not to say they won’t change, but I think most people working on these things now agree that there’s areas of the model which are pretty stable). As I have mentioned, I think these structures represent the production and distribution of the BBC’s content. But what about the content itself?

I think what we haven’t yet looked at modelling is the structure of the content – this applies particularly to fiction content, but also, perhaps, to sport. Taking the semantic web ideas into account, if we have unique URLs for each episode, each series, each brand, why not have a URL for each character within a programme, for each event that connects characters, for each place within the programme? Just as if we make brands, series and episodes in effect the building blocks for ourselves and others to create all sorts of semantically interlinked websites on top of (using SPARQL, the semantic web equivalent of SQL queries – querying concepts and the links between them, using the web as a huge datastore), if we were to give characters, events, places their own unique addresses, we could mash them up to create sites (and new content) such as timelines from a particular character’s point of view, follow story arcs etc.

I like to imagine that the ultimate would be something where every character, event and place in the fictional universe of a programme has an address – and then just like taking toy models of those things, we and the audience could make our own stories from them. You want to add your own characters to the mix? Sure, give them an unique address (for instance, in your own webspace), and start linking them to other characters, events etc. One final point to bear in mind as a caution, however. Although essentially all this structure is a good thing, one thing we should be wary of is creating too much structure, and limiting what we can do with it. If we fix things down too much, saying that this is the ‘official’ version of a particular event, or background or character, in too rigid a way, this will limit creativity and stimulate only arguments about who’s right or wrong. We want to give people the building blocks and toys to create new stories, but we don’t want to restrict the stories they tell.

So, that’s the theory. Now for the practice. I’ve made it my mission to explore these ideas, and experiment with making them a reality. Thanks to a great presentation the other day by Yves Raimond, Nicholas Humphrey and Patrick Sinclair, I’m getting to grips with ontologies such as FOAF. I’m going to be using FOAF and the Events Ontology in particular to try and express stories in a semantic way, and see whether we need a new ontology for storytelling, and what we need from it. As I say, it’s going to be very much trial and error. I could sit here with an extremely detailed plan, working out all my structures and linking everything up straight away, or even not getting started until I’ve got a new ontology in place and working just right. But I think it would be more useful to get in there, try things, discuss them and come back with new ideas. In short, I may not do things correctly the first, second or even third time, but it’s a case of experimenting, and seeing what works, how else it could work, and what’s the best way of doing things.

With that out the way, I invite you to join me. Please give me feedback on what I discuss here, and what I construct. It’ll be extremely welcome and will hopefully help us build a greater way of doing things even faster. And it’s already begun – I’ll write a seperate blog post soon on my first forays into the world of Fictional FOAF modelling….