Most people who begin a narrative project already have an idea in mind for the general format they will use: a film, audio podcast, animation series, narrated tour, guided map, or other type of project. Even then, though, you will have multiple choices for most tools.
When deciding on a tool, consider the type of content you want to include, and the type of audience interaction you want to encourage. You will also generally need to consider your available budget and time, though these considerations are more likely to affect the format you choose than the choice of an individual tool.
Your choice of tool matters for basic logistical reasons like cost, learning curve, and technological constraints, but it also matters because different tools and platforms are set up to prioritize certain artistic styles or narrative structures. Some encourage modern, streamlined aesthetics and minimalist unidirectional paths; others take a much looser, organic approach with user-driven exploration and lots of customization of style.
Editing access: does it allow the kind of collaboration you need?
Formatting & styling options, especially if there are built-in templates.
Allowances for different media to be included.
Difficulty of training/use: more options give you more flexibility, but take a lot of extra time.
Cost for the tool, and sometimes cost for hiring someone to help.
The possible output formats.
There are a lot of free or low-cost tools available for narrative projects; a more typical problem to have with building narratives using digital tools is that these tools have a steep learning curve and require a fair amount of expertise to produce a polished result.
Use a fairly simple tool and learn to do it yourself.
Use a more complicated tool, but invest the time to do it yourself (including probably taking classes both on the technologies involved and on storytelling practices for that particular style of narrative).
Work with someone with experience in that medium, either as part of your collaboration or by hiring them.
For narratives that prioritize maps or geographic aspects of a story, consider using a story map tool. These tools typically allow you to create a slideshow-like “tour” through a space, using either a built-in map or one that you upload. Some tools even let you use an image or drawing, so you can build narratives that walk through historical representations of space, or through fictional environments. Typically you can embed the end result in your own webpage or host it on the website associated with the tool.
When choosing a story map tool, the most important things to consider are whether you like the style a given tool encourages with its templates and built-in maps, how you want to host or embed the results, and whether you care about using an open-source application. Story Maps and StoryMapJS typically allow the user to read and advance the story at their own pace (with embedded video as an option), while Mapstory is mostly designed to show time-lapse maps as animations.
For video narratives, you are likely to be primarily looking for a tool or application that allows you to edit existing film clips together, add still images or other media and control its framing and timing, and add audio elements including voice tracks and sound effects.
For beginners, many video editing packages will be much more complicated than what you need, so look for simple interfaces. Most video editing programs need to be downloaded to your computer, so your platform (PC or Mac) will matter a lot. Macs come with iMovie already included, and this is one of the most accessible movie-editing programs out there, so that is usually the easiest choice if you use a Mac.
Blender is an open-source program that was mainly designed for 3d animation, and it has a high learning curve and minimal support for the video-editing tools, but it is free and you don’t have to worry about having material in a proprietary format. It would be an especially good choice if you expect to incorporate animation anyway. Shotcut and OpenShot are also free and open source, and are easier to use but have more limited options.
You should also consider whether you are using any other media editing software; for example, if you are already using design tools in the Adobe Creative Suite to create graphics, diagrams, or edit photos, you may find it useful to use Adobe’s video editing software, Premiere.
Video software can be very expensive, so check to see whether your institution already has a license for it (and video programs can stress your computer to run, so going to a computer lab that has high-performance computers might be a good idea anyway!).
If you are expecting to do a lot of movie editing and make this a specialty skill, it may be worth exploring higher-end movie editing programs, but for most people, any of the following choices will be suitable and the methods and tricks you learn from one program will translate readily to others.
When you create a 3d model, like an architectural reconstruction or object model, you may wish to create a walkthrough or guided tour, often incorporating additional information as text or audio. In many cases, you can work with built-in animation or movie making tools, and this is often the easiest path. Blender, Sketchup, Revit (and other Autodesk products), and most other tools you would be likely to use to build models or capture 3d views photogrammetrically all have some form of built in animation and recording feature. In many cases, however, these are limited, especially with the easier to use tools like Sketchup. It is quite likely that you will instead want to make short clips or export a series of still images and splice them together in one of the tools that is designed for making movies.
In these cases, your most important consideration is the way that your modeling program exports content. See what the built in animation or video tools can do and what they export, and then pick a program that allows you to use that input format.
For narratives that are audience-driven or have multiple related narratives, you have a variety of web platforms, many of which are often seen first as archival, exhibition, or blogging platforms. However, they often allow you to set up guided paths through content, or to organize a narrative on a single page or linked pages. Most support multimedia, though sometimes limit the allowed types of content.
When picking a tool for this, start by considering what you are already using. If you have a WordPress site, see whether linking pages or one of the tour-builder plugins will meet your needs. Similarly, if you have an Omeka site, see whether you can do what you want to do with an exhibit. Learning a new facet of a platform you already use is much easier than learning a new platform or program entirely, and you are likely to have some of the material you will use already available. Many of these tools can do more than you think they can!
You also want to consider the kinds of media you want to use and how large or detailed your media files are. Almost every platform will allow you to use static images, though they may limit the size or layout options. Video is also widely supported, though again, there may be size or resolution limits. Your choices become somewhat more limited if you want to embed zoomable maps or manipulable 3d models (where the audience can turn or reorient your model). Look at the platform documentation to see what media formats they support, but you should also look at some examples to get a sense of how each platform tends to display media. You don’t want to find out that you can’t use an image that fills the full width of the screen when your project relies on strong images!
Scalar is relatively new, but is excellent for working with a variety of types of media. In addition to linking to media or embedding it within pages, you can have pieces of media link to other media easily -- so you can link a particular point in a video to a certain point in another video. This can be a good way to experiment with different narrative pathways through the same content without needing to upload things several times.
If you want a lot of control over your content, your best bet may be a custom website. Small-business-oriented website builders like Wix and Squarespace can be a good balance, because they are easy to use, but their commercial audience favors mobile-friendly media-intensive formats. These can make it easier to produce an engaging, public-oriented look than an academic-focused site builder.
Finally, if your tour will not change frequently and you don’t need to allow much audience interaction, consider just using a slide builder or presentation tool like PowerPoint, Google Slides, Prezi, or Keynote. Most of these tools allow you to create a version that can be hosted on a website if you need to make it visible to a larger audience (Google Slides makes this particularly easy). They can all be set to have automatic transitions, so you can control the timing (Keynote has very professional-looking transitions and timing options), and they increasingly support media beyond images and video. Many support embedding custom maps from Google, and both PowerPoint and Prezi support embedding 3d models, though they limit the types of 3d files they allow.
If you are interested in creating a narrative that leads someone through an external environment (like a walking tour or other site-based tour), there are many apps that can help you with that, most designed to produce a result that plays on an end user’s phone. This means that you should prioritize your audience’s available resources and needs, even if that limits your ability to construct your narrative exactly as you want. In particular, consider whether your audience will have access to a good signal or whether they will need to download the tour before beginning it, how much data the tour might use on someone’s device, whether they will need to download a special app, and other factors that might prevent someone from experiencing your narrative as you would like.
There are two broad categories of tools for this kind of tour. The first are tools designed for tourism, special events, or other outreach programs, including Tour Builder, VoiceMap, and TourBuddy. These often have a cost associated with them. Sometimes this cost is absorbed by you as the creator; other times you can charge end users to download the tour. In both cases, these costs will be ongoing, whether they are calculated by individual tour downloads or as a monthly fee. One benefit to these tools is that they have easy-to-use interfaces for the creators and end users of the tours, and generally provide a lot of support for making the tours. Most prioritize audio to guide users through the tour, but almost all allow embedding text, images, and video.
The other category includes tools that aren’t quite as slick, but are free and less commercially-oriented. Some of these can be run as virtual tours, so that they can be run in a browser, and act more like a story map but with a stronger locational emphasis. These often work better as part of a class assignment as well, as different users can create content for each location and then those moments can be linked together into an overarching narrative.
If you are already using Omeka or have good support for it at your institution, you might want to explore CurateScape, an Omeka theme designed for location-based storytelling, including creating tours. Historypin was built for the general public and educational groups to share local history, including text, images, and video tied to specific locations as well as to general communities. These individual pins can be gathered into collections to create a larger narrative. If your narrative is very closely tied to specific longitude/latitude locations, you can use Google MyMaps or Google Earth to create guided tours. MyMaps is a bit easier to use, but has more limited capabilities, especially for creating routes or itineraries through places, while Google Earth is very polished and allows more types of visualization (including VR), as well as recording narration and sound effects, as well as exporting the result. There is a beta-version tool out for Google Earth called Tour Builder that works in a browser instead of requiring a downloaded application, and that is a little easier to use.
One of the most important things you can do is search for existing resources about storytelling or narrative design for your platform or type of storytelling. There are best practices for telling compelling stories in different media, and other people’s expertise in these areas will help you a lot, especially if you haven’t used a narrative type before. Search “storytelling” (or narrative) + your narrative type (e.g., movies, geography, virtual reality . . .) in your browser and in library catalogues.
You also may need to build additional support elements for your project, things that tell parts of a story: animations, data visualizations like charts, infographics of various sorts, or digital sketches. Online tools, many of them free, exist online, and many of them have libraries of free or cheap resources you can use as templates or stock images.
Continue reading: Budgets & Funding for Narrative Projects