Nine steps to great storytelling

How to make a good story sing

It's easy to throw together a story.

But it's not nearly as easy to create the Great American Novel, or an Academy-Award-winning movie, or a top-notch story map. But by keeping a few principles in mind, you can get a pretty good start on the path to greatness.

Here's a handful of tried-and-true techniques that will make your so-so story start to really resonate with your audience. Some of these are universal storytelling principles; others are more particular to story maps. Regardless, if you heed these tips, you'll be well on your way to being a great storyteller.

Ready to roll? Here we go...

Start with a bang.

Don't ease into your story. Grab your readers by the lapels with a strong image—and a strong title.

There's a reason we don't give authors the option of using a map as the title image. As much as we love maps, we feel that images or short videos evoke a more immediate, visceral response. Here's an example:

The Uprooted by the StoryMaps team

For a 2016 story on the refugee crisis, the UN refugee agency gave our team access to its image archive. Within it we found a slow-motion video of refugees traipsing along a rural path. Rather than choosing a descriptive title, we came up with a more evocative headline, and let the subtitle do the work of introducing the story. We think the video and title work together to evoke empathy and emotion. It's not hard to imagine yourself and your family walking into Europe in hope of finding a new and more peaceful life.

Healing our oceans with data by Ocean Health Index

A story map on the Ocean Health Index opens with a striking image and a catchy title. Our classic Story Maps Cascade app places the title in the middle of the image; note how the photo is carefully chosen so that the center of interest isn't obscured by the title panel.

Add a hero.

People love people. They love to look at them, they love to read about them. If you can, find one or more interesting characters to incorporate into your narrative.

Keeng Kumu: Indigenous Cartographer by the Amazon Conservation Team

The Amazon Conservation Team profiled Keeng Kumu, a member of an indigenous group, the Wai Wai, from southern Suriname. Keeng has traveled the region teaching indigenous groups how to map their traditional lands and waters. The story is a vivid lesson in preserving cultural traditions and living sustainably in the rain forest. The story could have been told in a more abstract way, but profiling an interesting individual makes the narrative far more engaging.

Heroes don't necessarily have to be human. The Manomet Observatory described a year in the life of semipalmated sandpiper number "T971" which, the story tells us, "weighs about as much as a AA battery and has flown more than 11,000 miles." The story describes the bird's remarkable journey, highlighting key stopovers and describing the conservation efforts that seek to protect these vital waypoints.

Give your story rhythm.

Not all stories need this, but having a repeating element or theme can lend structure to your story. Rhythm is comforting. Repetition enables your readers to settle in and anticipate a series of new items, new insights.

Sacred Places, Sacred Ways by the StoryMaps team

Our story map on major religious pilgrimages has an internal rhythm. Each chapter depicts a pilgrimage route or destination; each opens with a title panel, an initial sentence, and introductory text with a photo or two. Then comes a large map, followed by additional text and images. The maps are tall; readers have to scroll to see the entire map images. This is intentional—the scroll requires readers to make a sort of mini-pilgrimage.

The StoryMaps team also produced this narrative highlighting stark divides between wealthy and low-income census tracts in several U.S. cities. For each city, a brief introduction precedes a "guided tour" of demographic maps highlighting examples of wealthy enclaves in close proximity to low-income neighborhoods. Users have the option of exploring the maps on their own, but the story is structured so that readers see the patterns without having to interact with the maps.

Create a little world.

You want to immerse your readers into an experience. That means not just writing a good piece of text; it means striving to unify all the elements of your narrative into a harmonious visual and editorial whole. One of the most effective ways to do this is to use color consistently and judiciously. Try choosing a limited color palette, and then deploying it throughout your story—in type treatments, infographics, maps, and images.

The Amazonian Travels of Richard Evans Schultes by the Amazon Conservation Team

The Amazon Conservation Team used this technique to good effect in a fascinating biography of ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes. The team did some modest customizing to the Story Map Series and Story Map Journal apps to unify color treatments, add a textured side panel background, and to employ a custom font. The also added a sepia tone to archival photographs. The result: a consistent, immersive, evocative experience.

The Two Koreas by the StoryMaps team

For a story map on the Korean conflict and its aftermath, our team used a two-tone color palette, with red representing North Korea and blue-gray symbolizing South. A series of static maps showed the ebb and flow of the conflict; the same colors were used for infographics. We also designed the graphics to reflect the split-screen title page, with North on the left and South on the right.

Theme picker in the ArcGIS StoryMaps builder

The brand-new ArcGIS StoryMaps app, now available in beta, assists authors in achieving a consistent, small-world effect. Two themes, "Summit" (featuring a light background) and "Obsidian" (the one you're viewing right now), enable authors to achieve a unified effect with a single click. The theme picker not only changes story fonts and backgrounds, but also automatically switches the style of the express maps within the story. Stay tuned for additional themes.

One size doesn't fit all.

We've worked hard to make sure story maps work on a variety of screen sizes—PC, tablet, mobile. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't be thinking about how your narrative will look in these various contexts.

As you're working on your story, take a look at it now and then in different browser window sizes and proportions. And check it out on tablets and mobile devices. One of the goals of our new storytelliing app is to make your story look just as great no matter what device you're using. Still, it's best to check.

Think big. Think small.

If you're into maps, you know that scale is really, really important. A small-scale map provides an overview; a large-scale map shows local detail. Changing scales also works as a storytelling technique. Starting with a local or individual example, then "zooming out" for the bigger picture, can be an effective way to introduce a general topic or issue. Conversely, you can start with an overview, then come in close.

The Cost of Beef by the StoryMaps team

Our story map on the environmental cost of the beef industry provides overview information in maps and infographics (example: beef production map below). Then text and visuals zero in on local impacts, including giant slaughterhouses and sprawling feedlots, to give a sense of the industrial scale of the beef industry. Incorporating macrocosm and microcosm into your narrative adds variety and helps make broad issues more accessible and understandable.

Overview map of beef production; close-ups of slaughterhouse and feedlot

Use active and passive maps.

Maps can serve lots of purposes within stories. They can play bit parts, such as simply locating where a story takes place. They can play starring roles, showing interrelationships or visualizing complex analyses or datasets. And they can play various supporting roles. For more on this, check out our "Maps in Dramatic Roles" story.

Justice Deferred by the StoryMaps team

We've all used interactive maps, where you can pan, zoom, and click for popups. We love interactivity, but we've come to realize that interactive maps aren't always essential. Sometimes a static map is all that's needed; in fact, creating a custom, static map lets you present to your readers exactly what you want them to see, without risk of distraction. The map above is one of a series within a story depicting the displacement of thousands of Japanese-Americans during World War II. The maps are efficient, beautiful—and static.

The advent of ArcGIS StoryMaps, Esri's second-generation story map product (currently in beta) brings with it a new mapping option: express maps. They enable creation of simple maps showing one or several locations, routes, or areas, as well as labels, leaders, and arrows. Creating basic maps is easy and intuitive—no specialized skills required. Our team's story on giraffes includes web maps displaying range data and other information, as well as express maps such as the one above.

Keep it short and sweet.

We know you love your work, or your hobby, or your cause. And we know you can describe your passions in endless detail. But most of us don't have the patience to dive deep into a lengthy story—especially on the web, a medium that is rife with temptations to click away.

An example of a lengthy narrative is this Story Map Journal featuring wilderness landmarks that were inundated when Glen Canyon Dam formed Lake Powell in the U.S. Southwest. The story has about 100 sections, which is asking a lot from readers.

On the other hand, the story is well-told, the images are beautiful, and the subject matter is compelling. There's no ideal length; if you think your audience shares your passion for your topic, maybe a novel-length narrative is just fine.

Spaceports by the StoryMaps team

Our team's recent "Spaceports" story, on the other hand, is a pretty quick read. There are lots of spaceports these days, but the team chose to feature just seven of the most interesting and historic ones. I'm something of a space nut, and find myself wishing for more. Again, it's a judgment call.

Make a call to action.

Now that you've inspired your audience, don't leave your readers hanging. Give them something to do—even if it's just providing a link to more information. If you're telling a story about a cause or issue, it's doubly important to conclude your narrative with one or more calls to action. A successful story map inspires readers; you want to turn that inspiration into action.

Protect Our Winters is a nonprofit organization that's raising awareness about the threats that climate change is bringing to winter sports. Their story map makes a compelling case for the economic benefits of wintertime outdoor activities. Wisely, they wrapped up their story by presenting several ways individuals can take action. Research shows that storytelling puts people in a receptive state of mind (see Why Tell Stories); you, and your cause, can benefit from that receptivity.

We hope you'll find these tips helpful. We've realized there's a bit of a learning curve involved in mastering the mechanics of building a story map. But the greater challenge, and the more exciting one, is in creating a narrative that captures readers' hearts and inspires them to action. Storytelling is an art. As with all artistic endeavors, success rarely comes without careful planning and repeated polishing.

This story was created with Esri's new ArcGIS StoryMaps app, currently in beta. We urge you to try it, and to give us your feedback. Happy storytelling!