Digital Storytelling

A page mock-up from Earth, my new digital storytelling project with Ben Train.

‘It’s Evolution, not Revolution – Novel, Radio, Theatre, Web, eBook, Virtual World, App. A story is still a story. The story has not changed that much since cave people.’ 

So says Mike Jones, screen media writer and producer, who recently presented Screenworks seminar, Multiplatform Storyworlds. It was a daunting session title but the content was down-to-earth and accessible for even the most paper-bound writer. Jones is a writer first, technologist second and he asked the question, ‘How do we build story worlds big enough for exploration across multiple media forms?’ He encouraged writers interested in this kind of story to ‘think adaptation from the beginning’. He assured us that digital storytelling is simply about telling traditional stories with new tools. The session was just as relevant for authors as it was for filmmakers and game creators.

I write books for children, stories delivered, until now, mostly on paper. It is widely agreed that kids’ books on paper have a much longer life ahead of them than books for adults, yet I believe that it is essential for all writers to dip a toe in the river of digital innovation. Right now the opportunity is there for individual writers armed with nothing more than a laptop to make a valuable contribution to the new ways we will read and create in the coming years.

Kids Stink eBook

I have two new digital projects for June release, one with Random House and one via my website. I have no assurance on the outcome of these experiments but the process is sure to be valuable and exciting. The Random House project is a fairly straightforward proposition – a digital-only illustrated short story, Kids Stink, featuring Australia’s angriest grandpa and Tom Weekly, a character from my earlier collection of short stories, My Life & Other Stuff I Made Up. It will be a 2000-word eBook offered at around a dollar. This is not unusual in books for adults but eBooks are a much smaller portion of the Children’s reading pie. My hope is that kids will download the book to iPod Touch and squeeze some reading time in between games of Star Wars Angry Birds and Lego Batman. Use of the iPod Touch as a reading device may take some re-education, hence this experiment.

The second project, Earth, is an ambitious collaborative, narrative-driven digital story project for 9+ year-olds. It was recently awarded a fellowship by CAL and the WestWords Young People’s Literature Development Program. The story follows the exploits of Pip, a kid born inside the world’s largest and most extraordinary theme park, Earth, set on an island in the Pacific. The website will feature a one-minute book trailer, providing the story setup. Readers / users will then be left with a series of clues – photographs, ticket stubs, a key, a notebook, a diary and some old manuals in a virtual tin box. They must use the clues to help create the remainder of the story.

A ride idea for Earth being developed at a recent camp for creative students.

Children & teens will contribute to the project by developing attractions for the theme park as well as characters and story twists. They can use text, illustration, Sketchup creations, images, maps, Google Lit Trips, music, video and other tools to build the world of Earth and develop the story. They can share and discuss their contributions on the website and earn rewards as Storytellers and Earthitects. A community will be built around the project through live talk and workshop sessions in schools and at literary festivals.

Earth is a collaboration with Ben Train, programmer / designer of our free Story Scrapbook brainstorming app which has had a successful beta release. Our intention with Earth is to provide an outlet for children’s imaginations and to further blur the line between creator and consumer of stories.

Earth User Content Page Mockup

These experiments may not work, but they might just work in entirely unexpected ways and lead to new to possibilities for connecting and collaborating with readers. It is no secret that we are at a pivotal moment for the publishing industry. There is great opportunity for individuals and publishers to experiment with digital narrative projects and to invite the reader into the creative process. I believe that these projects can contribute in a meaningful way to the future of children’s literacy and the future of the book.

On this journey, it is useful to remember Mike Jones’s assurance that it is ‘Evolution, not Revolution’ – traditional stories told using new tools.

This article was first published in Northerly, the magazine of the Northern Rivers Writers Centre and Byron Bay Writers Festival. Mike Jones blogs at


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