On Storytelling and Digital Narratives
Be it in an oral, written or visual manner, storytelling always has been (and continues to be) an important part of the human experience. Stories allow us to gain new knowledge. Stories can inspire us and comfort us. Stories can warn us. And: stories can teach us empathy.
According to Arendt, a narrative weaves “the circle of selfhood into an ‘enlarged mentality’ capable of imagining oneself in the place of the other” (qtd. in Kearney 246). It is no surprise then that storytelling has a long history of aiding growth and learning (Kwak 5): by making the audience engage with the topic at hand from a different perspective and thus on a more reflective level, sympathy may be increased (10).
Many digital narratives do not only work with this effect but seek to strengthen it. They do this by effectively making use of different media by combining auditive, visual, animated and interactive elements, which allows them to give “deep dimension and vivid colour to characters, situations, experiences and insights” (American Digital Storytelling Association qtd. in Boase 1). Many of them are actively being used to build empathy and social awareness (Kwak 10).
The 2015 interactive graphic novel The Boat by artist Matt Huynh is based on the short story of the same name by Nam Le from 2008. The digital narrative was created in recognition of the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and 40 years of Vietnamese resettlement in Australia (Huynh) and can thus be considered to bring new attention to a story that many may no longer actively be thinking of at this point in time: the Vietnamese boat migrations from 1975 to 1995 (Lehman 169). While it is, in parts, less detailed than the original narrative, Huynh’s work manages to make up for the ‘lost’ details by employing various digital techniques.
Even before starting the narrative, the reader is already confronted with somewhat chaotic visuals: heavy rain is swept across a black screen, underlining how exposed those within the story are to their surroundings. The moment one presses start, lightning as well as a swaying sky and waves are added as effects. If viewed on full screen, this almost leads to a feeling of swaying with the ship oneself, of being inside the narrative. Active effort is needed in order to take in what is happening visually; the gaze needs to wander across the screen – from top to bottom, from bottom to top, from left to right, from right to left. A loss of orientation, reminiscent of what the characters are experiencing, occurs in the reader as well, making the situation more understandable even if viewed from the safety of one’s own home.
While it is possible to activate auto scroll, the effect of being part of the narrative becomes further increased if the reader chooses not to do so. In order to progress through the story, they must keep scrolling amid the stream of rapidly swaying imagery, thus creating “a dynamic relationship between narrative production and reception” (Lehman 170). However, control can never be fully gained: the way the story is set up makes it impossible to predict what will appear where on the screen next. The visual journey the reader is taken on is one defined by uncertainty.
Notable, too, are the auditive elements present in the narrative. According to Kwak, sound, if used intentionally, can “lead to the most engaging experience” for consumers of a digital narrative (23). In the case of The Boat, it is effectively employed to enhance the atmosphere already existent. As a result, and similarly to the visual effects described beforehand, it makes the reader feel part of the story, especially when following the recommendation of using headphones.
This effect, too, is intensified by its unpredictability. The reader is never quite able to adjust to the noises they hear. One moment the sounds of wind, rain, thunder and waves intensify, only to suddenly become dulled again. Undefinable noises cut in from the ship, noises one will never know the source of. Silence and more quiet sounds, too, become effective in enhancing the mood created by the story itself, never distracting entirely from the plot but instead working to underline it.
While the original short story by Nam Le is already highly emotional, and arguably more effective in helping one get to know the characters, the multimedia narrative for The Boat allows for a more direct confrontation with the topic at hand. By means of auditive and visual effects, the reader becomes engaged in the story in a way that makes it more relatable, that allows them to better understand situations they have never been part of themselves. This, then, is what turns Huynh’s work into what Kwak refers to as an “empathy-evoking digital narrative” (14).
Boase, Catherine. Digital Storytelling for Reflection and Engagement: A Study of the Uses and Potential of Digital Storytelling. Centre for Active Learning & Department of Education, University of Gloucestershire, 2013.
Huynh, Matt. “The Boat.” www.matthuynh.com/theboat.
Huynh, Matt, et. al. ”The Boat” SBS, 2015, www.sbs.com.au/theboat.
Kearney, Richard. Poetics of Imagining: Modern to Postmodern. Edinburgh University Press, 1998.
Kwak, Seo Yeon. Digital Narratives for Self-Therapy. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2021.
Le, Nam. The Boat. Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.
Lehman, Mike. “Kinotextuality in Matt Huynh’s The Boat”. Crossings: Journal of Migration & Culture, vol. 11, no. 2, 2020, pp. 169-185.