virtual reality storytelling

Navigating the Maze of VR Scriptwriting & Storytelling for New Writers

Where Do I Begin?

Virtual Reality is an immersive computer technology allowing its participants the opportunity to partake in a simulated environment. The chance to immerse ourselves in a uniquely alternate reality certainly is enticing — but how do you construct the skeleton of a story for the meaty VR body to hang on, and hold your audiences’ attention?

A lot of the same principles of storytelling apply to VR storytelling and scriptwriting, as they do to its conventional counterpart. Yet in VR storytelling you must consider your audience as an immersed participant. What pitfalls do you need to look out for? That is the right question!

Storytelling Checklist

Pacing

The pace by which you reveal your VR world to your audience is crucial. For the vast majority, VR will be an entirely new experience — and at first, an uneasy one. You need to allow them time to adapt, ease them in gently so to speak. Oculus Story Studio suggest a 30-second settling in period, as most viewers will be more familiar with flat screen viewing. This time period is enough for the participant to relax into the new VR environment.

A slower, introductory pace at the beginning will allow the narrative to shine at the more important, later stages. If you rush your audience into the narrative immediately, the unfamiliarity with their VR surroundings will give them a sensory overload, causing many audience members to just walk away.

The Audience

VR is the medium for audience autonomy and freedom. Instead of writing your script with a confined narrative, your storytelling should embrace the space and explore the world you’ve built.

“There are, of course, plenty of tricks to use to navigate this pitfall  and their use depends on the autonomy you as a creator wish to relinquish to your audience,” explains Andy Hays, a Game Writer at UK Top Writers and Study Demic contributor. “Lighting cues, sound cues, the character’s POV, and especially the arc of additional characters can all aid in directing the attention of your audience along the path of the narrative.”

First Person POV

One of the more challenging aspects involves writing a narrative that a participant can lose themselves in, remembering that we still naturally assume ownership of the virtual environment with which we’re engaged. First person POV is certainly the more difficult choice, but has the advantage of looking through an active participant’s eyes.

The Reality of VR

This is not just important in navigating the pitfalls of POV, but we cannot forget that the participant must actively believe the environment they are immersed in. The reality of their Virtual Reality must be engaging.

Writing a story where supporting characters break the fourth wall, engaging directly with the participant, adds a sense of realism to the participant’s experience. The intimacy of these moments is more likely to leave a lasting impact on your audience.

Player Decision-Making

Nowadays, giving autonomy to your audience in terms of story is common practice — particularly in the gaming industry. VR should be no different.

If your audience desires freedom and autonomy of the world, give it to them. Ensure the character arc is engaging and the narrative is constructed with arc-altering decisions. Not only do these decisions develop a believable reality by giving your participant personified responsibility, but it also allows you to retain control over the story and direct your audience once more.

Spatial Storytelling

The key thing to remember here is that the VR space is not just background, or filler. It is an active component in your immersive environment. The world must shift around the participant. Use it to drag their attention in the direction the narrative desires; this again relates to the cues we mentioned earlier.

It is important to note the reverse sensory action of behaviours: How does entering a café, library, or school, affect you on a sensory level, and what then do you add to it to make it distinguishable?

Formatting

Regardless of the media you’re writing for, formatting should always be top of your list. If you wish to write in POV, you can add it to your scene heading. Others choose to write with a more theatrical freedom. Whatever your preference, there are some great tools to assist new writers in polishing off your VR script:

What Next?

Following these tips will set you on the right path to successfully navigating the pitfalls of VR scriptwriting and storytelling. The reality of VR is essential to your audience. And though they seek autonomy and freedom within the world, using the outlined tricks and skills above allow you to retain this power via the narrative, dynamic spatial design, and immersive character arcs you’ve written.

NYFA guest author Freddie Tubbs is a script writer at Paper Fellows. He regularly takes part in film conferences and writes posts and guides for Big Assignments and Write my Australia.

How To Tell Compelling Stories in Virtual Reality (VR)

With improvements to virtual reality technology, many creative industries are opening up to seemingly unlimited new possibilities as we discover unprecedented ways to tell compelling stories through the medium of Virtual Reality (VR). Experimentation and opportunity are the name of the game in this thrilling new medium, which is why the New York Film Academy is launching three distinct  new VR programs this year.

Because VR allows for participatory experiences, it has pros like being able to establish empathy and allowing viewers to be engaged as more than passive observers. Yet VR also has its drawback, such as no longer being able to fully direct where the viewer looks and the details they choose to focus on. In many ways, these are the challenges the gaming industry has faced with first-person POV games where players’ decisions throughout gameplay lead to different outcomes. However, in most games that are structured this way, there is also an “ideal” storyline where players who make the intended decisions get the best experience from the game, and there are cues to get players to make different decisions in order to maintain the story. Cut scenes also help stitch together the narrative and keep players moving in the “right” direction.

Some of the decisions visual storytellers need to make include how to make sure the audience will stumble upon the right objects and details to make sense of the story. Unlike “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, which had set paths and a limited number of choices, VR potentially opens up a simulation of real life where 10 different people in any given situation will make 10 different decisions. This means storytellers still need to find a way to guide the narrative, whether that is staging the environment so that only truly key objects attract attention or creating compelling interactions with the characters.

How can filmmakers and other creative storytellers use VR in their own projects? Let’s look at a couple of examples that show how filmmakers are tackling these issues.

Henry” is a short film by Oculus Story Studio that centers on character interaction. In “Henry,” one thing that keeps the story unfolding in the intended direction is the interaction with the character. When he makes eye contact and recognizes the viewer with a little smile, it draws the viewer into his story and establishes empathy. There is also very little in the environment to distract the viewer.

Katy Newton and Karin Soukup describe their decisions for creating the narrative in “Taro’s World” as “influencing” rather than “directing” the storytelling. In their article on Medium, they write about how camera angles, the objects in the scene, the actions of other characters can be set up to guide the viewer’s interaction with the environment.

News outlets are also using VR to help take viewers on location. USA Today recently featured a 360° look at Joshua Tree National Park, which gives viewers a chance to “ride” on a zip-line through the park and have a face-to-fur encounter with a grizzly bear.

Perhaps documentary filmmakers will lead the way in making the most of VR as they put the viewer in a specific environment, allowing them to explore the world as the documentary subjects experience it. As Sir David Attenborough explains, one of the great advantages of VR technology is being able to immerse the viewer in the experience with audio and visuals in a way that can’t be done in traditional film. This piece from StoryUp about the lack of mobility options for the disabled in Zambia lets the viewer see how hard it would be to have to crawl everywhere and be dependent upon others for one’s most basic needs.

How can you get started? While this article from the NYFA’s student resources is about VR in game design, it will help you think about the possibilities VR offers. Charlotte Raymen also offers some advice on equipment and camera usage on the Raindance blog. Jesse Damiani has several tips for VR storytelling in this article for the Huffington Post.

How do you imagine VR will impact storytelling? Let us know in the comments below!