All great VR stories still begin with words in your head.
In August, VRScout & VR Playhouse partnered with YouTube Space LA to put on the “VR Creator Lab,” a 3-month intensive for a select group of YouTube content creators looking to enhance their VR/360° output. An overview and guide to immersive writing and storytelling was included as a part of this lab.
The participants included accomplished creators who already had experience producing immersive video (program requirements stipulated they needed to have at least 10,000 subscribers and two 360° videos under their belts) and so, while many of these kinds of guides are geared toward beginners, we wanted to use this opportunity to explore concepts in greater depth than we’d seen elsewhere.
Though it’s geared toward 360° filmmaking, we also wanted to get creators thinking about conceiving and composing VR experiences with an eye toward the medium’s future. We’re guessing many readers fall into a similar camp, so we decided to make this resource available to the public—think of it as something like, “VR Writing and Storytelling 201.”
Our look at VR storytelling ought to begin with presence. It’s the heart of what makes an immersive experience like VR special and unique. Simply put, presence in VR is the sensation of being in the space of a given experience, of sharing that space with characters, of being there. That sensation in turn leads to the need to be active, to have intentions, to play a role.
One article we love that addresses this notion is Katy Newton & Karin Soukup’s “The Storyteller’s Guide to the Virtual Reality Audience.” One gem to include here:
There is no such thing as a neutral observer.
In other words, your audience will feel an increased sense of responsibility—these questions of Why am I here? and What should I do? This is why games and genre stories that focus on intentions (rescuing something; capturing something; escaping something; solving something) work particularly well.
Working with that sense of presence and taking advantage of its features is a unique and essential part of your job as an immersive storyteller. On the simplest level, this means giving the viewers things to learn, things to discover, things to reveal. What will they discover simply by looking around this space? (We’ll address this in more detail in the “Set & Setting” section later). The very nature of VR/360° video means viewers are not passive—so your storytelling has to help invite them to be active.
The nuts-and-bolts part of presence is point of view (POV). In 360° storytelling, you must directly address the question of which specific POV you will utilize in your story. Will your audience see things through a specific character’s eyes (first-person POV) or will you simply take on an “objective,” detached perspective (third-person POV)?
There are obviously pluses and minuses and additional questions that come with both. The primary thing to keep in mind is that, no matter what specific POV you go with, you want that choice to be in service of generating and maintaining presence for the audience.
If you are going to go with the first-person POV, the next question to ask is: Will the viewers’ avatar have a body? In other words, if I look down, will I see a body? In simple 360° video, you are not going to have full motion-control so there is no way to control the virtual body in any realistic way. So, opting to have a body may actually run the risk of disrupting that sense of presence and immersion. Furthermore, filming in 360° with a body poses more challenges in production and post-production (and it’s no cakewalk to begin with).
The same thing goes for directly engaging with other characters. In standard 360° video, you may not be able to respond when another character speaks to you, and this limitation is something you’ll then have to account for in your storytelling if you don’t want that presence broken. It’s not impossible—Catatonic uses this idea to great effect—we just want you to be fully aware what you’re getting into.
For these reasons, first-person POV has the higher degree of difficulty, though, of course, that sense of presence can increase dramatically when it’s grounded in an actual character and you are actually seeing things through someone’s eyes. At the same time, third-person POV is very often the easier choice to work with.
With third-person POV, the major idea to remember is that we’re still hardwired as humans to presume our participation in a virtual space (more on this in the article linked above). This means that, even when we don’t have a virtual body to call our own, we start to claim ownership of the space in terms of how we interact with it. Say you have created a crime scene that participants experience in 3rd person. They will still “take ownership” of their participation in the space by putting together clues to create a narrative about what might have happened here—even if they’re not playing the role of detective (in 1st-person).
When creating VR stories in third person, these are the kind of considerations you’ll need to take.
If you’re using the traditional screenplay format, we find it’s helpful to include the POV in the Scene Heading after time, for example:
INT. YOUTUBE SPACE LA – CONFERENCE ROOM – DAY – 3RD
INT. YOUTUBE SPACE LA – CONFERENCE ROOM – DAY – 1ST – JASON
However, that’s only one way of handling it. Others prefer to ditch that format and take a more freeform, theatrical style. In this case, simply include the information in the description of the setting (see the examples in the next section).
Set & Setting
Compare the following examples of opening setting descriptions from two plays. Think about what each is able to evoke and how; how each begins to tell a story:
Fever/Dream by Sheila Callaghan
The basement. Darkness.
Sounds: dripping water. Rumbling boiler. A fluorescent light struggling to buzz on, no light. An ancient fax machine. Maybe the room is lit (very vaguely) by the little green “ON” switches on all the old machines.
We’re here for quite a while, taking in the sounds. Then:
The sound of an old-fashioned office phone ring. Once.
A voice in the darkness, the voice of SEGIS
O Lovely Glowworm by Glen Berger
Time and Place:
Being blind, deaf, alone, and insensate for an unknown number of years, the Goat has no idea where he is or what year it might be, However, as the Goat spent nearly all of his more-robust life tethered to a post near a rubbish heap by a cottage outside Dublin between 1910 and 1924, his memories and the inspirations for his “scenes of great beauty” should be confined to that period…
The set should rely heavily on scraps of paper and bits of string, which, in the Goat’s mind’s eye, become the most fantastic of landscapes – shimmering lakes, cityscapes, battlegrounds, etc.. The set may also contain enlarged swatches of words, images from product packaging, and photographs, all suggesting contents of a rubbish heap in Ireland circa 1908-1923.
Setting = Story
In VR, the space is the story. Spaces are pregnant with sensory detail, ideas, behaviors, and narrative possibility—your job is to put that all to use. We encourage you to think less about generalized “realism” and more about specificity of vision, manifested in space. We can’t express this enough: the space is as (if not more) important than your plot and characters. While composing your story, think about the ways you can build environments capable of making the viewer imagine stories of their own—even without any other human beings in the picture.
A good reference point for this is theme parks and how much meaning is embedded in the actual physical space there. For instance, Disneyland uses a lot of forced perspective to make structures like Cinderella’s Castle seem larger than it is and, by extension, for you to seem smaller; childlike. The space itself is designed to create a sense of nostalgia. Before anything even happens, the story has begun.
Space is Dynamic
The important thing to remember here is that set and setting are not just background or the vessel in which action takes place. In order for it to feel dynamic, it has to be dynamic. It has to be engaged in the process. Many have compared the potency of immersive storytelling to hallucinogenic experiences. What happens in hallucinogenic experiences? The world warps and shifts around you, driving new impressions from spaces you may have encountered countless times before. This is the power at your fingertips as an immersive storyteller.
Part of your job in writing these stories is to learn how to reverse engineer narrative from space, as every space (in VR and IRL) implies narrative. Take the example of a library. When you walk into a library, what is communicated to you? There’s lots of carpeting that muffles sound. Bright lighting and ample desks imply that this is a place for focus and learning. These embedded details drive us to make automatic assumptions about how to behave and what to expect—the “narrative” of that space in time.
So, when writing your story for immersive, you must take these ideas into consideration. If you’re interested in using a library for your 360 film, go back and deconstruct all the elements and the assumptions they generate in you. This will allow you to build a story that will either align or conflict with those feelings. Maybe you want to upend those assumptions by setting a murder in the library, or a tense conversation among old friends that threatens to spill into a shouting match. By understanding assumptions people make about space, you’ll be able to craft dynamic environments that in themselves do narrative work for you. Often, this process is the ideal starting point for brainstorming and writing your story.
Write to communicate set & setting from the get-go. If you’re directing/producing your own piece, this will help you fully conceptualize what you’ll ultimately create. If you’re handing the script off to other collaborators, this will do wonders in helping them bring your story to life.
Drawing from Theatre
Finally, as a practical matter that dips into the production end, this is why classically trained theatrical actors are often better equipped with the kind of embodiment it takes to pull off 360° scenes. Embodiment is more than how you stand—it’s how you use space. These kinds of actors will often do the work of the camera, using their bodies and voices and expressions to create new perspectives and new relationships to the audience’s POV.
Don’t be scared to write toward your set/setting in more poetic ways than you might normally think to in a screenplay. Your job in describing space is not only to literally depict it, but to emotionally evoke its essence so that it comes to life. This will benefit you even if you’re also the director of the piece.
Plot in 360°
By plot, we mean the actions and events of the story that we actually see. Contemporary popular storytelling is most often plot-driven; a classic model going all the way back to ancient Greece. In this model, the story moves forward based on the linear cause-and-effect relationship of these actions and events and our appreciation of the story very often hinges on our understanding of these relationships.
Where to Start
This model is challenged in 360° because we as the storytellers cannot be certain that the audience will see any of these actions or events. We cannot steer and manipulate their attention in the same way we can in other filmed mediums, where we will rely on camera placements and editing. In 360°, you will have significantly fewer set-ups and cuts, so you will have fewer opportunities to direct their attention in very specific places. We cannot be certain we’ll be able to give them the tools they’ll need to understand the causality of our plot.
The point is that 360° is not a plot-driven medium. That’s not to say your stories shouldn’t have plot. You just shouldn’t make plot your sole foundation. Maybe don’t start with plot.
(Read that last line one more time for good measure.)
Instead, go back to what we mentioned above about discoveries inside this world. Your responsibility is creating a world that an audience can get inside and take from it what they want; to lay out a bunch of ingredients from which they can make a story.
Begin with questions like: Why is this world worth visiting? What is it about this place, at this moment, that makes it a world you must see? And then, how can the action and events playing out inside this space be in service to this? Ultimately, all you can do is imbue your story environments with robust detail—including plot—and then put faith in your audience’s ability to create a meaningful story in their minds.
You want to be able to stand behind the exact moment in space and time that you situated this story. If you could have put it a year later in the person’s life, or in a different room of the house, you haven’t fully done your work. Every choice needs to be intentional; you must write with urgency. As you’re well aware, you’re competing with millions of other stories for attention. So your story needs to carry with it a sense of importance and momentum—it must demand audiences stay and participate with it.
That said, we want to be clear that we’re not advocating that you explain all of this to the audience, as nothing is quite so irritating as feeling condescended to as a participant in a story. And, as we’ve said, 360° is not plot-driven, which means it’s not information-driven, which means it’s not exposition-driven. Remember, as with all narrative mediums but especially here in 360°, your job is to tell us as little as possible and show us as much as possible.
Plot is Still Important, but in a Different Way
Remember too that story, at its most fundamental level, is about change. Of course, “change” can mean many things. Where immersive storytelling diverges with the pre-existing storytelling paradigm is that now, instead of being the primary driver of this change, plot is one component designed to work in tandem with other storytelling elements to realize the full vision of the story.
Character & Dialogue
One thing to remember as you write is that contemporary audiences are extremely evolved when it comes to narrative and storytelling. We are all inundated with story from practically the moment we open our eyes in the morning to the moment we close them at the end of the day. And so we, as storytellers, can leave a lot of work to the audience.
For example, if we see a person crying in one corner of a room and another person standing in the other corner, his arms crossed and his back to the first person, we’re all going to know that they’ve just been in a fight. We don’t need to tell them that, especially not through dialogue-as-exposition. Trust your audience. They’re smarter than you think, pinky promise.
In more traditional mediums, an audience’s interest in the above scenario might be on how this fight came to happen; the cause-and-effect of it. And our interest in these characters is a reflection of this; how do their internal motivations play a part in these events? How will this event then play a part in future internal motivations? But as we’ve discussed above, 360° video is not a medium of causality.
Situation & Environment Drive Characters & Interactions
When it comes to characters in 360° stories, an audience is more interested in what it feels like to be this person in this environment. They are more interested in the character’s internal life; their emotional condition. And, as we discussed, the subjective nature of 360° video sets us up well to capture these elements.
You can really play into that subjective quality as it applies to a character’s internal life through the use of dreams and flashbacks. That unique sense of presence in 360°—of being present in a space but being unable to interact with those around you—feels remarkably like being inside a dream or memory. Like you’re there but also somehow not there. And these kinds of scenes can do a lot of the work when it comes to depicting emotional conditions and an internal life.
You Can’t Just Rely on Dialogue
These types of scenes are a good alternative to those dependent on dialogue, which is not something to rely on heavily in 360°. It’s not a medium that’s very conducive to long, static conversations. This has to do with the sheer volume of sensory information audiences are taking in. You ever tried to focus on a conversation in a busy environment? A lot harder than when you’re watching a movie in a dark room.
So how can you think about effective dialogue in 360°? Subtext, baby. The things characters mean but that, usually, they’re not saying. Whether we’ve pushed our stakes and urgency to the point where subtext is now actually being spoken or we’re definitively writing to the mystery of those unspoken things, you want to be focused on the communication of subtext.
Why Subtext Matters
Because subtext is emotional and expressive, it invites participation. It’s not so definitive that it squashes alternate understandings. For instance, in the above example, let’s say the crying character jabs the arms-folded character with: “Don’t you have anything to say for yourself?”
And folded-arms fires back with: “Oh, so now it means something to you?”
We can read a lot of things into this discussion, as well as start to conduct guesswork about the nature of this fight. There’s a power play, reference to existing problems in the relationship, and also a veiled desire to get to the bottom of the fight. We’re learning about the situation and the people all at once, borne of the speculative work we do to make narrative sense (which our brains will do automatically).
This also creates a more open, fluid style of dialogue that isn’t necessarily driving toward one takeaway or a big moment—because again, there’s always a danger that any individual moment will be missed (at the expense of the larger “picture”).
Because of the ease of editing and VFX in framed stories, a lot of us assume it’s the same in 360° and we’ll be able to change things as we need after production. But this is actually extremely difficult and taxing in immersive. So understanding how this stuff works and how it’s created will help you write stories with a style that truly plays to the medium’s strengths. Your job as a writer is to become a student of this craft.
By nature, immersive stories are more naturalistic. As we discussed above, our brains are conditioned to believe we are fully in this space. Therefore, cuts—a moment in which we are suddenly moved to a completely new space—are going to inherently feel physically and intellectually disorienting. Anytime you make a cut, you have to give the audience a moment to recalibrate their own, internal settings.
Cuts are an integral part of the storytelling language of framed media, but you’ll find that it’s not something you want to do often in immersive. An important and related note is that immersive stories demand a moment for audiences to acclimate to a space before the story starts.
Specifically as it relates to POV and setting, another element of style to remember is that the world you present is a subjective one. Whether it’s first- or third-person, the freedom of 360° means no one’s experience is like anyone else’s. And if this world is subjective and the viewer is seeing it through someone’s eyes, then their perception of the world is colored by things like emotions. Stylistically, how can you write to reflect that shift in perception?
360’s unprecedented ability to present a subjective perspective means we can create Impressionist narratives, and so a good point of reference here is Impressionist art. There is that same, monumental shift going on now as there was more than a hundred years ago: from objectively depicting something as it is to subjectively depicting it as it looks to you.
Your goal is to create an experience that is rewarding for the most passive viewers as well as the most active. Your audience should be able to just sit and not move and still be able to appreciate what’s going on, simply by being present inside this space, with this perspective.
You’re inviting (not coercing) audiences to engage with your story, so you need to consider a broad array of possible participants. If you want to get crazy with Easter eggs and additional details, fantastic! You’re thinking like a craftsman. Just make sure you don’t generate FOMO for the more casual viewers. This will make the “hunt” more rewarding for the more literate viewers anyway.
And you’ve inevitably heard this (and discovered it in your own work), but it’s still true: the rules are still being written. Anything in this document is based on several years of practice and research. There’s lots more to discover and establish. We hope you don’t see this guide as a manifesto against experimentation; we’d rather you see it along the lines of needing to know the rules before you break them. And in breaking them, you might just establish some new ones.
Now get to writing!