Digital storytelling for youth script writing and the seven elements

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Overview for Teachers

The following guide to scriptwriting and the seven elements of digital storytelling is presented in a manner appropriate for middle school and high school age youth. Elements 1 through 4 are directly related to story writing and are woven into an agenda for writing a digital storytelling script in four 50 minute periods. The final three elements are presented prior to recording the voiceover. You will find that the elements in this overview are presented in a slightly different order than in the Digital Storytelling Cookbook that can be downloaded from the Center for Digital Storytelling website.

In depth information about Digital Storytelling is available from the following publications:
The Digital Storytelling Cookbook

(available as a PDF download at

Digital Storytelling: Capturing Lives, Creating Community.

(available for purchase at

Suggested Schedule for Script Writing

Learning Goal: Identify a story to tell


Introduction to the Project (mini-lecture and discussion)

Element 1: Point of View (mini-lecture and discussion)

Activity: Ten Things I Like/Ten Things I Hate

50 minutes

Learning Goal: Develop content for story and initiate writing


Element 2: Dramatic Question (mini-lecture and discussion)

Element 3: Emotional Content (mini-lecture and discussion)

Activity: Story Star and initiate writing

HW: Complete rough draft of script

50 minutes

Learning Goal: Complete script and identify images for story


Element 4: Economy (mini-lecture and discussion)

Writers Workshops I and II: Writing, Editing, Storyboarding

100 minutes

Introducing the Project to Students

Digital storytelling will focus on each person in the class telling a very short personal story. There will be a number of steps in the process that will take you from writing the story to recording it and then creating a short video out of it. The video won’t require any moving images – all the visuals can be created from still images. However, the most important aspect of a digital story is the actual story. So we will start by discussing the elements of a good story.

Introductory Discussion Questions

What kinds of stories do you like? Think of stories that you have read, heard from friends and family or watched on TV or at the movies.

Some common answers: stories that contain action, drama, suspense, fantasy. Stories about real people. Stories that are not boring.
Why do you like those types of stories?

The most common answer is usually – because they keep me interested. Also, because they make me think of how other people live, because what they talk about reflects reality.

What makes a story a good story?

Some common answers: A good story makes you want to listen to it, it relates to your life, it shows real situations.
These are all important ideas to weave into the discussion of what is a digital story. A good time to reminds students of the personal narrative aspect of the assignment, and have a discussion about the difference between fantasy stories and stories about personal experience, is when this subject comes up in the initial discussion of digital storytelling.
The rest of the answers mentioned above are all encouraged in digital stories. Drama, suspense, the “realness” of a story and action are all part of writing a compelling script. Point of view and dramatic questions will give the story a sense of drama and suspense. The most believable “real” stories are written when careful consideration is given to emotional content. Finally, action is important to all three of the first elements. It is established by writing scenes, rather than writing explanations for what happened.
A note on the length of the stories: You will probably want to give students a maximum number of words for their digital stories. We suggest keeping the stories very short the first time you teach digital storytelling – 150 words is probably long enough. It will minimize the amount of time needed for recording and producing the stories, and it will reduce the number of digital files generated by the students thereby making it easier to keep track of all of them.

The Script Writing Elements

Below, you will find a description of the elements that support script writing. They are presented in a manner appropriate for middle school and high school students. It is important to accompany these stories with examples that illustrate each one of the elements. We do not provide stories with the seven elements, but several websites have stories that can be used. CDS recommends looking at stories on

Element 1: Point of View

Stories will be written from the first person perspective. They will be about you and by you. When you think of point of view you also want to think about what kind of message you are communicating. What is the moral of your story? Why do you want to make a digital story about this life experience, rather than a different life experience?

The answers to these questions help shape the story. Being clear about your message also allows you to keep your story short. When you are editing, and need to decide what to leave out of the story, and what to add to the story, it is a good idea to make your decision by thinking about the most important message of the story.
Student Activity: Ten things I love / Ten things I hate
Have students create these two lists one at a time. First instruct them to make a list of things they love (objects, activities, events, etc.). When they have finished with the first list ask them to make a list of 10 things they absolutely hate. They should be aware that they will have to share their lists.
When they have finished their lists students should gather in groups of two or three. Each person in the group reads their “hate” list slowly to their classmate(s). The rest of the group identifies the most interesting item on the list. The exercise focuses on what the students hate because that is generally where the most interesting and original stories lie.

If there is time, ask students to write a short explanation (3 to 5 sentences) about why they hate that particular item, and share the explanation with their group. This activity could be used as a simple exercise in finding an interesting story to tell, or it could be used to jump-start ideas that will be developed into digital stories.

Element 2: Dramatic Question
The dramatic question establishes suspense and creates a story arc. It is usually a statement at the beginning of the story – often the first sentence. This sentence creates a question in the mind of the people who are listening to the story. An example of a statement that generates dramatic question is the following:
“When I was younger I confused friendship with popularity.”
The statement can be thought of as a hook, it draws in the listener and creates a question in the listener’s mind. The listener wants to know more about the situation – what does it mean that she confused friendship with popularity? What happened to clarify the difference between friendship and popularity? Does she feel like she currently has true friends?
Teachers can also use examples from the language used by the young people in their classroom to illustrate dramatic question. How do they start telling a story? Common examples include:
I couldn’t believe it when Joey told me he was moving to Oregon.

I had the worst weekend...

My Mom is going to kill me when I get home.

She/he was so beautiful!

The dramatic question creates suspense – it grabs you and makes you want to stick around to hear the rest of the story.
Element 3: Emotional Content
Young people are often most attracted to stories that are “real.” Stories that are real, don’t try to sugar-coat or over-dramatize our life experiences. They are about situations that are affecting our friends, neighbors and even our own lives.

However, to make a story real, close attention needs to be paid to the truth of the story. The events and emotions that are described in the story have to come from the heart for the story to ring true. Nobody is touched emotionally by something that they think is false. A good way of writing a story that is very compelling, and that makes people want to pay close attention, is to write something truly genuine.

Please note: It’s good to remind students that the story needs to come from the heart and that it’s important to be truthful in telling it. However, it is not necessary that the story be about their deepest darkest secret. The storyteller needs to choose a topic about which they can feel comfortable talking about in public, especially with their classmates. If students start writing a story, and find themselves bending the facts or not writing quite what they feel, they may need to consider writing an emotionally “safer” story.

Student Activity: Story Star Writing Prompt

Note: You will find a blank story star on p. 9 of this document.

If students have already identified their story, the brainstorming part of the activity should be skipped.
Give students at handout with the word BRAINSTORM on one side a picture of a five pointed star on the other. On the BRAINSTORM side of the paper they should list 5 story ideas in three minutes. After finishing the list, turn the paper over, choose the topic you are most likely to turn into your digital story, and respond to the following questions:
Write one answer in each point of the star, starting at the top:

  1. Who are the main characters of the story? Include yourself.

  2. Where is the story set? It could be in more than one place.

  3. Think of your story as a mini-movie running in your head. How do you feel at the beginning of the story?

  4. What happens during the most important moment of the story?

  5. How does this event (or realization) change your life, or the way you feel about the world?

In the center of the star, write the answer to:

  1. Why do you want to tell this particular story?

Underneath the star:

  1. Write the first paragraph of the story

Continue writing as time permits.

Element 4: Economy
This element should be explained in the context of the editing process.
Digital stories are short; great stories are often just 200 words long. The writing form has a poetic sensibility in that the most effective digital stories are very thoughtful about the use of every word, phrase and pause. The editing process almost always consists of pruning away ideas that are redundant, or don’t contribute to the central focus of the story.
The editing can also be informed by the visual narrative. Sometimes descriptive language can be deleted altogether because an image will convey the information in a much more richly detailed fashion. For example, a picture of workers laboring in a field or of a student running across a field after a soccer ball will communicate much more clearly than a long-winded description.
Student Activity: Writing Workshop I - Small Story Circles and Individual Writing

Students arrive with a finished rough draft of their script. They assemble in groups of 2 or 3 to create small story circles (or story pairs) and read their scripts to each other. Guidelines for participating in a story circle include the following:

  • The storyteller is allowed to tell or read their complete story without any interruption.

  • Feedback should always begin with a specific affirmation about the story.

  • Suggestions are couched by saying “If it were my story, I ...”

If your students need more structure, you can give them specific aspects of the digital story on which to comment such as:

  • What I liked about your story...

  • What stood out about the story...

  • What I didn’t understand about the story...

  • The feeling I got from the story...

  • Your story makes me think of these pictures/images...

Following the group work students incorporate feedback into the story.

Student Activity: Writing Workshop II – Individual Writing and Storyboarding
By the end of the second workshops students should have completed scripts and storyboards. After they have completed their script they can start storyboarding.
Storyboarding can be as simple as formatting the script so that the text appears on the left side of the page leaving room for identifying images that correspond to the different pieces of the story on the right. Storyboards can also be drawn – with line drawings representing images drawn in the right column along with the text. They can even be created through more elaborate processes that involve cutting out the text of the script and taping it to one side of a piece of flip chart paper, and drawing the corresponding images next to the text.
Elements for Producing the Digital Story

Element 5: Voice

The voice is the element that gives life to the script. Each person’s voice is unique; it is a gift that is used to connect with our friends, families and communities. When we use our voice to record our story, we are reaching out to all those people who will watch our digital story. The words of the script will communicate some of the information we want our audience to know, but we also communicate our feelings through the sound of our voice. We let the audience see a small part of our personality, and because of that the audience connects with us and what we have to say more easily.

A lot of people don’t like the way their voice sounds when it’s recorded. However, one of the requirements of a digital story is to use the gift of your voice to connect with people that will view the story. When recording the story, it’s helpful to remember that your story, your message and your perspective is really important for other people to understand your world.
You can also think of the images and music as part of your voice. The audience of the story will learn about your experiences by hearing what you have to say. The audience will also learn about your experiences by watching the images in the digital story and by listening to the music. It’s important to select images and music that add to the meaning of your story and send the message you want your story to send. Be careful about selecting images and music that contradict your message.
Element 6: Soundtrack

Music is often used to tell stories, and it can be an important element of a digital story. However, it is not absolutely essential. A good digital story does not have to have music. There are a few things to keep in mind when selecting music.

One the music should fade into the background as the voiceover plays. Avoid choosing music with a lot of volume changes. Also, lyrics can interfere with listening to the voiceover. It is usually easiest to avoid music with lyrics.

The music should complement the story. It constitutes another layer of the narrative that is helping to communicate the message of the story. It can help convey the sense of time and place in a story, as well as set the emotional tone. For example, many people (both youth and adults) have used music from their homeland when telling immigration stories. Also, make sure that the music is not interfering with the emotional tone of the story; a story about loss should not incorporate festive music. When the music does have lyrics, make sure that they do not undermine the overall message of the story.

Finally, special effects can also be part of the soundtrack. Many video editing programs include special audio effects. Sounds such as horns beeping, children on a playground, crickets at night, alarm clocks, can be successfully incorporated into a digital story.
Element 7: Pacing

Pacing the voiceover and the visual narrative of a digital story is part of creating a clear and evocative voice. It’s important to speak as normally as possible when recording the script – with all the natural variations of a regular speaking voice. This can be particularly challenging for anybody who feels self conscious of their voice or intimidated by the recording process. The objective is to create a voice recording that is varied in tempo and tone – it should speed up and slow down at appropriate moments and contain the inflections that reflect the emotional tone of the story.

A few simple techniques can encourage a natural sounding voiceover. First, it is helpful to use a headset, rather than a tabletop microphone. A tabletop microphone, or one you hold in your hand, can be more intimidating for the person recording the voiceover. Also, the distance from the speaker’s mouth to the microphone stays more consistent with a headset microphone.
Also, when recording the story it is helpful to sit up straight and keep your shoulders back to make sure that there is good airflow into your diaphragm. It’s important to remind your students how important it is for other people to hear their story. Finally, one good voiceover recording trick is to imagine that you are telling the story to a particular person you know and care about. Create an image of that person in your mind as you start the recording and pretend you are talking to them from across the kitchen table.


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