A Multimedia Storytelling Lexicon

What is multimedia storytelling?

It’s more than just a combination of text, photos, audio, video and graphics. Stories are fashioned through narrative structures, devices and techniques designed to draw the audience into the characters and events.

Inspired by the writing coach Jack Hart, who created “A Storyteller’s Lexicon” for The Oregonian newsroom, I decided to write out a multimedia storytelling vocabulary and some examples of how various news projects employ them.

Here are some of the common approaches and elements found in engaging multimedia news stories.

Anecdote – A personal account of a series of actions.
Example: Julio Diaz shares his experience of being robbed in a surprising, two-minute anecdote. (StoryCorps.org audio)

Character – An individual who undergoes change or takes action.
Example: Photographer Luis Sinco goes beyond the iconic image of the “Marlboro Marine” and takes the viewer on an intimate journey into the soldier’s emotional and psychological struggles. (MediaStorm.com audio slide show)

Complication – An event or development that forces a character to respond or react.
Example: When the Gulf Oil spill hits the small town of Venice, Louisiana, the residents must decide whether to stay or leave. (News21.com video)

Contiguity – How all of the media elements on a page or website work together. The best multimedia pieces combine text and visuals in meaningful ways and avoid extraneous elements.
Example: The Highrise Project is a series of interactive documentaries about urban residential buildings that pays particular attention to the integration of text, images, video, sound, design and animation. (National Film Board of Canada interactive documentary)

Curate – Gathering, sourcing, verifying and redistributing information or social media elements to track an event.
Example: Andrew Carvin uses Twitter to cover major international events. (NPR social media)

Data Story – An application that allows users to search and access data a variety of ways.
Example: The Dollar for Docs news application lets readers search pharmaceutical company payments to doctors. (ProPublica database)

Detail – Distinct observations, facts or moments included for the purpose of conveying character or plot.
Example: This story of the world’s largest religious festival in India is told through intimate snapshots of the spiritual pilgrims. (Bombay Flying Club)

Dialogue – Conversation between two or more characters that allows the audience to see and hear characters interacting with one another.
Example: The back-and-forth between two adult daughters and their father who has Alzheimer’s disease helps provide insight into a family’s struggle to hang on to memories. (StoryCorps audio and photo)

Dramatic question – An overarching question posed at the beginning of a story; audience wonders how it will end.
Example: An award-winning 2007 article by columnist Gene Weingarten starts with a question, “If the world’s great violinist performed incognito in a Metro station, would anyone stop and listen?” (Washington Post article and video)


Establishing shot – An opening visual, often a wide-angle view that provides location and setting.
Example: The opening shots of an interactive documentary about Canon City, Colorado, a town built around 13 prisons, provide a sense of landscape and place. (Prison Valley interactive documentary)

Five W’s – Basics information or facts of story: who, what, where, when and why. The crux of the story often originates in the “why.”
Example: This story about same-sex marriage is told through the voice of a seven-year-old girl, who answers the “five W’s” simply and poignantly. (San Francisco Chronicle audio slide show)

In their own words – A story told by the characters without narration by the storyteller.
Example: In this profile of a ballpoint pen rapper, the reporters choose to stay in the background and allow the viewer to focus on the performer. (Newsworks.org video and article)

Interactivity – User engagement and participation.
Example: A virtual game of rock-paper-scissors illustrates how computers can be programmed to mimic human reasoning. (NYTimes.com interactive feature)

Linear story – A narrative with a distinct beginning, middle and end. The audience experiences the story in the format created by the storyteller.
Example: This web video chronicles how one Illinois farm became a suburban housing development. (Media Storm video)

Map story – A geographic display of information that responds to input from user.
Example: Mapping the battles and casualties of the Civil War provides a new way to understand the war’s regional impact. (WashingtonPost.com map)

Moment of reflection- A clear statement of what the story is about, often following an anecdote.
Example: The radio show This American Life sent nine reporters to a rest stop for two days to see what kinds of stories they could find. The episode is structured around anecdotes and reflections on travel. (This American Life audio)

Motivation – A reason or inspiration for the character’s action.
Example: What motivates someone to walk 10,000 miles a year? This profile of Dr. Marc Abrams, known as the Silver Lake Walker, seeks the answer. (LATimes.com audio slide show)

Multimedia – Combining multiple media elements (text, photographs, audio, video and/or graphics) to tell a story.
Example: This multimedia feature uses various media elements to revisit the 1960s Pirates baseball team. (Pittsburgh-Post Gazette multimedia package)

Multi-platform – Presenting a story across multiple news publishing platforms, including newspapers, magazines, social media, blogs, websites, apps for mobile devices or tablets, radio, television and documentary film.
Example: This series on the environmental issues of New Jersey’s Barnegat Bay was published in a series of newspaper articles, a website, and social media. (Asbury Park Press website)

Narration - The storyteller’s voice provides information and context.
Example: The reporter’s voice-over helps provide background to a story about New Jersey state budget cuts and educational resources for blind students. (Star Ledger video)

Non-linear story – Presentation that allows the audience to decide the order of information and story structure. Has no definitive beginning, middle or end point.
Example: This interactive documentary about the Great Lakes lets the user choose where to begin and end. (Waterlife.ca web documentary)

Opening – The beginning or start of a story that hooks the audience.
Example: The opening seconds of this multimedia feature about traumatic brain injury draws the audience into the lives of soldiers who suffer from it. (WashingtonPost.com multimedia feature)

Profile – A concise biographical sketch of an individual or group of people. Different from an event or issue-based story.
Example: Rosie Rios, a woman who runs a service for the homeless in Los Angeles, is profiled in this audio slide show. (LATimes.com audio slide show)

Resolution – An ending that provides closure to a story.
Example: In the final quote of this profile, an ironworker describes cycling as therapy. (NYTimes.com audio slide show)

Role-playing game – An interactive feature that puts the user in the position of a story’s character and enables decisions and choices.
Example: How would you balance California’s state budget? (LATimes.com budget game)

Sound bite – In audio or video, a short phrase or quote that captures an essential point in an interview.
Example: Three short sound bites in the first 30 seconds of video draw the viewer into the story of one family’s journey through the U.S. immigration system. (San Jose Mercury News multimedia package)

Soundtrack – Music synchronized to images or video. A powerful tool for setting the rhythm, tone and mood of a story.
Example: Music is the key element that ties together a web film called “Words.” (RadioLab video)

Story arc – The progression of a story from beginning to climax to resolution.
Example: Five Years Later: Hurricane Katrina follows a traditional story arc. The website’s navigation, which breaks down the story into a three main acts, guides the audience through the stages of the tragedy. (USA Today multimedia feature)

Timeline story – A chronological display of information that responds to input from the user.
Example: Tracking the 2011 Middle East protests and how events unfolded. (Guardian timeline)

User-generated – Story elements created by users, who provide multiple perspectives and experiences.
Example: Reader submitted photos of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. (NYTimes.com photo gallery)

2 thoughts on “A Multimedia Storytelling Lexicon

  1. Pingback: Tuesday, Jan. 17 « JOUR 2700

  2. Along with all of these storytelling techniques, I’ve been taught to always include emotion and human interest into everyone of these, even if it is just timeline story or a soundtrack. It’s just as important to evoke inspiration or sorrow in your audience as it is to reach them in the best way that fits the structure of the story.

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