Photo by Florian Klauer on Unsplash

Story as Prototype

Ari Mostov

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I have always been fascinated with how an idea becomes reality. My freshman year of high school I joined the engineering club. I had this idea of building a wheelchair that could handle rough terrains. I couldn’t stop thinking about an incident where I watched a wheelchair user try to visit the beach, but the sand was too deep for their wheels. I wanted to do something about it. So I convinced two of my friends to build it with me, and managed to convince our school to give us money to build it. But I didn’t know anything about building. I just had an idea and I wanted to see it become real. I had the story — people who used wheelchairs can’t visit the beach because the sand is too deep. Let’s build a wheelchair that can handle the sand, or any terrain.

Sure enough, that story started to take hold. An idea became a design. A CAD drawing became materials. We experimented, we failed, we tried again. We eventually partnered with some college students who were also designing mobility devices. We had a semi-functional wheelchair with rugged tires. The idea was now tangible. And it all started with the story.

A lot of people think of storytelling as key to buy-in — getting the people and resources you need to create something. And that’s true. But I think story goes beyond that. Story is the malleable thought material that allows us to imagine new possibilities. It gives shape to thoughts, momentum to an idea, and feeling to something that doesn’t yet exist. When we use storytelling as the first step of the creation process, we’re giving ourselves space to experiment. And as we find our way through that story, we see the next steps take shape. It’s a low risk but high return way to find feasibility. If your story is compelling enough, nothing will stop it from becoming reality.

Here are three ways I use storytelling to prototype an idea:

One Page

When pitching TV shows or game concepts, I used to always start with a one page. Sometimes it was very schematic, detailing the main story arch, the characters and future storylines. But the most effective of my one pagers was an immersive story. It wasn’t obvious that this was a pitch. It wasn’t even obvious that this was a proposal of some sort. It was simply a fictional story, rich with sensory details and character driven perspectives. And it was irresistible. When I write one pagers, I’m writing as if the story is already true. It’s already happened. It’s not just a thought experiment, but a detailed account of what it’s like living that story. When working with innovation teams, I often will start with a one page to help ground our minds in the future possible.

Story Meditation

Meditation is not just for well being and mastery of self. I love using meditation to embody a new story. Similar to guided meditations that lead you through imagery and somatic sensations, we can use storytelling to experience something that has yet to occur. For instance, I have a story meditation that focuses on what it feels like when my clients and I successfully complete an ambitious project. Rather than simply thinking about success, we tune into the bodily sensations of what it feels like to reach the desired result. For innovation teams, the story meditation helps give shape and feeling to an abstraction, which allows them to move forward in the innovation process.

Character Monologues

Back when I wrote plays, I would always start out writing a monologue for each of my characters. It helped me understand their voice, their desires and what really mattered most to them. When doing user research, I invite researchers and designers to craft monologues for their subjects. When you write a monologue, you will have to get deeper into the mindset of the user, find the words that express how they feel, and embrace their experience as your own. Their story becomes real to you through that monologue. For the more adventurous of researchers, practice performing the monologue. You don’t need to be an actor to find the fun and visceral release of a good monologue.

While I don’t build wheelchairs anymore, I continue to use story to transform ideas into reality. Sometimes those ideas have become TV shows or movies, but now those ideas range from deploying emerging technologies to building new policies. Story is the first step of creation. See what happens when you experiment with storytelling in your design, innovation or creative practices. What new realities will you create?

Ari Mostov is a narrative strategist. For 10+ years she turned words on the page into award winning entertainment. Now she partners with innovators to build the future. Learn more at www.wellplay.world

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Ari Mostov

Narrative Strategist | Navigating Disruption through Storytelling