Storytelling Inspiration

Developing Interactive Content with the Help of Picture Books

Meg Cannistra By Meg Cannistra January 21, 2016

One of my graduate school professors told a story about watching a baby interacting with the picture book Goodnight Moon. She spoke of how, even though the child was too young to read the book himself, he opened the book and placed both his feet and hands on its pages. He curled his fingers and toes, grasping at the images, trying to find his way into the story.

For many of us, picture books are our first taste of immersive storytelling—something we still crave as we get older. Even though most adults seldom read picture books, that love for meaningful, captivating stories remains.

As content marketers, storytelling is how we communicate with our readers and build an audience. People are comforted by stories, particularly those that resonate on an emotional level or appeal to their creative instincts. We want stories that engage our inner child, and as writers, we want to write content that gives us room to play. The marketing format that most closely emulates the picture book experience is interactive content.

The Importance of Immersive Content

According to a study conducted by Microsoft, the human attention span dropped from twelve seconds to eight between 2000 and 2013. With such a short window to grab your audience’s attention, it’s important to consider more unique methods of drawing people into your content. You want your audience compelled by what you have to say, grasping at your story just like the baby with Goodnight Moon.

Developing interactive content is a lot like crafting a picture book. It’s an innovation on the form we loved as children. It makes storytelling fun, and helps position content in front of a wider audience. The majority of people no longer have the time or patience to read a 4,000 word article. In an age of instant gratification, creating an interactive infographic or microsite that gives readers a hands-on, visual experience is the best way to bring your story to the world.

There are many interactive storytelling techniques we can learn from studying picture books. Below are a few techniques used by some of the greats to capture the hearts and imaginations of their readers.

Be Concise

Goodnight Moon

Source: Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown

The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way -John Ruskin

When it comes to both picture books and interactive content, there’s very little room for verbosity. However, I find a messy and longer first draft is more valuable than trying to start out concise. Writing long helps you get your ideas out on the page and gives you a better sense for what needs the axe. My writing motto has always been that it’s better to chop off the limbs than stretch the body.

That being said, in writing for interactive content and picture books, it’s crucial to develop an editorial eye. When it comes to both forms, leaner is better. It’s not as simple as cramming a lengthy article into an infographic or eBook and calling it a day. You can’t be afraid of whittling down your words and, depending on the format you choose for your interactive content, this cutting could take your piece from a couple thousand words to a few hundred.

Unlike when writing a blog post or whitepaper, creating an interactive piece forces you to scrutinize every word on the page. It makes you consider whether or not a word holds its weight or if it’s merely fluff. An infographic, for example, would feel bloated if it contained thousands of words and readers would quickly lose interest. Likewise, in most cases, picture books must convey a rich story in as few words as possible.

In Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown only uses 146 words to tell her story. It was said that Brown’s first drafts were “written in wild, enthusiastic haste” and that her revisions could take up to two years. Now, taking two years to revise a piece of interactive content isn’t realistic when your deadline is next week. But ultimately, Brown honed in on what words made the story compelling versus what was just taking up space, a process that is particularly important when writing copy for an interactive piece.

Let Images Do Part of the Work

I Want My Hat Back

Source: I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen

An illustration is an enlargement, and interpretation of the text, so that the reader will comprehend the words better. As an artist, you are always serving the words. You must never illustrate exactly what is written. You must find a space in the text so that the pictures can do the work. Then you must let the words take over where words do it best. It’s a funny kind of juggling act. -Maurice Sendak

What makes interactive content so special is its ability to combine images and text to create a harmonious and immersive narrative. But writing for interactive pieces can pose a bit of a challenge for those of us who are used to blog posts or articles. Like picture book authors, content marketers interested in developing interactive content must master this “juggling act” in order to create a successful piece.

One of my favorite picture book authors, Jon Klassen, does an excellent job of balancing his words with the illustrations in his books. In I Want My Hat Back, the bear protagonist travels through the forest in search of his hat. Tension builds as he interrogates one animal after the next, and there is still no hat. On the pages above, feeling morose, the bear sits down to contemplate his missing hat. Rather than have the bear ruminate aloud about his frustration and anger or exclaim that his eyes shot open in realization, Klassen illustrates his epiphany then grounds it in text.

Both the text and illustration are necessary in conveying the bear’s surprise. The moment would have fallen flat for the reader if Klassen chose to pair the illustration with the bear’s feelings. It would be unnecessary and redundant text since the reader can see how the bear feels, which is more impactful than telling. By allowing the text and image to work together, Klassen creates a fuller picture of the bear’s realization giving the reader a more compelling moment.

When developing interactive content, visuals are just as important to your story as they are in a picture book. In collaboration with your designer, you’ll need to flesh out the visual portion of your narrative in addition to your text. As you develop your creative concept, it’s good to let your designer understand what visuals you’d like included in the piece, as well as the general direction you envision them taking. But it’s equally as important to give your designer the freedom to source or create  the visual components—after all, that’s his or her area of expertise, not yours.

As discussed in the Klassen example, text should also complement the visuals in your piece. It’s crucial to avoid redundancies between copy and images, as these can feel overbearing for a reader. There’s no need to describe what’s already portrayed in graphics, videos, or animations. Rather, balance them with enriching text that helps drive the reader through the piece.

Establish Rhythm

Where the Wild Things Are

Source: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

But the wild things cried, “Oh please don’t go—we’ll eat you up—we love you so!” And Max said, “No!” The wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws but Max stepped into his private boat and waved good-bye. -Maurice Sendak

Another important aspect of interactive storytelling and picture books is creating flow in your content. An interactive piece is more fluid than your standard article because it includes engaging elements meant to captivate your reader. The text should not be distracting when scrolling down an infographic filled with timed animations and rich visuals. Rather, it should have a semblance of rhythm to help the reader stay focused. Likewise, it needs to keep pace with the interactive elements—uninspired content paired with exciting animations makes for a lackluster combination.

Picture books employ rhythm for similar reasons. In order to keep children immersed in the story, they ensure their writing has shape, that it isn’t monotonous or stale. Perhaps one of the most iconic children’s author/illustrators, Maurice Sendak, utilizes rhythm in his classic Where the Wild Things Are to keep his readers glued to the page.

In scene above, Max is leaving the Wild Things to return home. Rather than telling the story using similarly structured sentences and flat language, Sendak infuses his writing with rhythm to create a more engaging pace. He varies his sentence length, experiments with alliteration, and uses enjambment to create tension.

Establishing a rhythm isn’t just about looking at the sentence. It’s also important to look at the copy as a whole and how it fits into the piece. Along with traditional writing techniques, Sendak varies how much text is on each page in order to develop pacing, balance story with visuals, and keep readers from feeling overwhelmed. This is perhaps one of the most important ways to create flow in an interactive piece. You can experiment with how much text you add to the first layer, what text readers should drill down into, and what displays in a lightbox.

Try looking for ways to add flow to your content after finishing up a first draft. Are there places you can enhance pace by playing with how much text you display on each layer? Can you use enjambement somewhere in your copy to build anticipation?

Pay Attention to Structure

Jumanji

Source: Jumanji by Chris Van Allsburg

Form follows function -Louis Sullivan

Like interactive content, picture books adhere to structures. Typically, a structure is discovered when coming up with the creative concept for the piece, but sometimes after writing the first draft, it may become apparent that a different frame might work better for the story. Regardless of how you arrive at your structure it’s important to make sure you choose the right one.

Structure serves many purposes. It sets the parameters of how readers interact with your piece, it creates anticipation, it helps guide readers through the content, and it aids in adding context to your story.

A few picture book structures include:

  1. Linear: straightforward story from start to finish
  2. Circular: ending mirrors the beginning of the story
  3. Increasing Cumulative: repeating elements stacked until the plot falls
  4. Decreasing Cumulative: elements removed until nothing remains
  5. Question/Answer: a question is posed at the beginning that the narrative must answer
  6. Story within a story: a larger story that frames a smaller story
  7. Parallel: two stories that occur simultaneously in the narrative

Chris Van Allsburg’s picture book Jumanji utilizes a circular structure. He begins the story with Judy and Peter discovering the magical board game in the park. After playing through the game and learning of the power it holds, the picture book concludes with Judy and Peter witnessing their neighbors finding the game in the park and bringing it home. Jumanji takes shape within the circular frame Van Allsburg employs. When looking at the story as a whole, we can see how if he chose a more linear structure the story’s conclusion might not have had as much of an impact. Or, if he decided to tell Judy and Peter’s experience with the board game alongside that of their neighbors’ it might feel overwhelming.

Some examples of interactive content structures include:

  1. Interactive infographics: organized information that blends text or data with visuals
  2. Microsites: a standalone site containing specific information on a topic, product, or campaign
  3. eBooks: a digital narrative-driven experience; generally linear in format
  4. Lookbooks: visual-driven catalogs with integrated product information
  5. Magazines: like a traditional magazine, but augmented with multimedia and animated content

Similar to picture book structures, interactive content is created within specific frames. It’s important to understand how your content will operate within these structures. Interactive infographics, for example, may have a more controlled structure whereas a microsite might be more reader-driven. So, if your piece is linear or poses a question that concludes with a concrete answer, choosing an interactive infographic or eBook might work best.

Find Your Story’s Heart

Madeline

Source: Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans

In an old house in Paris, that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines. In two straight lines they broke their bread and brushed their teeth and went to bed. They left the house at half past nine in two straight lines in rain or shine—the smallest one was Madeline. -Ludwig Bemelmans

Understanding the heart of your story is just as important when developing interactive content as it is when writing picture books. The heart, or theme, is what drives your story and keeps your reader interested. Ideally, this theme is also something you can write passionately about. The enthusiasm you bring to a project will live in it.

Finding your story’s heart begins when brainstorming your creative concept. The overarching question many of us consider is: why do we think this will be important to our audience? Within that question resides the story’s heart. The reason so many children and adults love Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline is because the story’s heart resonates with them. At the heart of Madeline is that bravery lives even in the smallest of us. Bemelmans taps into a real human yearning for courage. Though the book series also focuses on other themes like love, adventure, and friendship, these are sub-themes of the overarching heart.

When beginning to think about ideas for your interactive content piece, you must first ask why you want to tell this story. What do you have to say that will resonate with your audience? By establishing a heart, you’ll increase the chances of building a stronger emotional connection with your audience. Content marketing, after all, is about creating relationships. It’s about giving your customers valuable information. By honing in on your story’s main purpose, you’ll be able to build a high-quality piece that’ll resonate with them long after viewing it.

The Bottom Line

Interactive content lets you explore ideas in a more engaging, dynamic way than your typical, static long-form content. It gives you the opportunity to inspire your audience, just as their favorite picture books did when they were children. Taking the same approach you would with a whitepaper or article doesn’t work with interactive content. You must view your process differently if you want to create an effective piece.

What are some of your favorite picture books and how have they influenced your approach to interactive content? Let me know in the comments!

Featured image source: The Doodle Girl

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