(Wherein I continue my attempt to resurrect old ideas and notes of mine for discussion, derision, and non-profit.)

Scribbled in my notes: “Crafted interactive experiences should have a dramatic arc.”

There are generally two types of interactive experience: sandbox and crafted. The former provides the means for a user to play unguided and form their own narrative. It is open-ended and generally nonlinear. A crafted experience’s intent, however, is to communicate a story. It can be about a character, a product, history, or fiction. It doesn’t particularly matter. All that matters is that the story is trying to direct you to a conclusion, be it whimsical, commercial, or philanthropic.

I’m a firm believer in the power of storytelling, for intentions good and ill. No disrespect to the masses of social media experts who think it’s passe to do anything but hand over the keys to your tweeting consumers, but if there is one thing history can teach us, it’s that we (as a whole) are dying to be sold a good story. Sometimes it’s global domination. On occasion it’s a Furby. But usually it’s an Apple product. Stories can be deadly serious.

And because I’m often deadly serious, I look to the traditional storytelling structure when tasked with crafting a new interactive experience. Observe:

The dramatic arc in five parts.

The dramatic arc is the foundation of storytelling. Any story worth telling or listening to follows the same basic pattern. It’s my opinion that engaging online interactive follow the same rules and the same rhythm, be it a game, an interactive story, an interactive product demo, or even the online purchasing funnel. The rise and fall may be of different proportions, the exposition and denouement shorter or longer, but for an enjoyable user experience, all elements will be present.

Consider an interactive movie experience: A mobile phone company launches a site about a hero who must navigate dangerous events around them using their phone to make it to the big game.

Arc for an interactive video

All of these elements would be expected: a hook and explanation of the situation (maybe instructions on how to play), a series of increasingly dramatic events that require user interaction, a climactic payoff where the hero finally lands at the big game, then a quick ratcheting down of the action showing the hero enjoying himself, and finally the concluding product sales pitch or maybe even a follow-up email. When broken down this way, it appears stale and predictable, but the devil is in the details. After all, there are only seven original plots in the world, but that didn’t stop Ryoki Inoue.

And here’s one more: the arc of a purchase:

The sad story of an Apple addict

In this case, reading about a gadget’s features, perusing a photo gallery of product shots, reading reviews, are events ratcheting up the tension to make a purchase—the climactic moment. After that, a proper user experience slowly brings the user back down, first with an affirmation that the experience happened (“Thank you for your purchase!”) and providing the obligatory confirmation email denouement with subtle nudging to come again.

When people are deciding whether to interact with something, they generally want to know the size of the commitment and what the payoff will be. How many steps is it? How long will it take? They weigh this against what they think the payoff is. This is why games have levels leading to a big boss, and why sign-up forms have steps. Structuring around the dramatic arc puts foreign or difficult things into a familiar and predictable context. Short story: pay heed to the number of interactions that are required to get to the climax. No one will fill out a 7 step form for an email newsletter.

Finally, an advantage to online experiences is that the conclusion does not have to be the end. In fact, the most effective online experiences will be ones that can bridge one conclusion to another hook. This is, in part, the goal of many integrated campaigns. A successful integrated campaign creates a community that generates its own stories, creating one long unbroken chain from one online property to another. Right now, those seem to be the exception and not the rule, and are built with a mixture of crafted and sandbox experiences.

Maybe some day I’ll post about sandbox, but not yet.

How do you visualize or structure interactive?