Usc school of cinematic arts

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CTWR 599 Special Topics: Advanced Storytelling for Interactive Media
2 Units
Prerequisite: CTWR 518
Instructor: Maureen McHugh Yeager 512-547-9061


Class meets: Wed 10:00am-12:50pm

Section: # 19438D

Location: TBA

Office hours: By appointment


• To facilitate the development of artistic technique and imagination.

• To develop ideas for stories and characters that have depth and tension

• To understand the particular issues surrounding balancing interactivity and narrative.

• To develop a fundamental understanding of the dramatic scene and maintain it against the demands of interaction.

• To understand the importance of rewriting and learn practical skills for effective revision.


This is an advanced course in interactive storytelling. The student is expected to have a basic understanding of the classic storytelling techniques of constructing a compelling plot, creating tension and compelling characters, and writing vivid dialogue. This class will examine what happens when you add interactivity, which as has been observed, can work on narrative like acid on metal.

We will explore the issues that interactive storytelling raises regarding the construction of narrative and character.

The course will begin with the most established of the interactive artforms we are going to examine, the video game. The video game developed as a response to the availability of personal computers. The internet has opened up new possibilities in interactive artforms. These new possibilities are still be explored. The video game has a history of less than fifty years: much of the rest of the course will be exploring a space which is being defined even as this course is occuring.

Each class period will have three parts:

  • a workshop where we will read and critique a series of weekly assignments;

  • an in-class exercise exploring technique;

  • a discussion of storytelling and interactive topics.


Each student is required to do weekly written assignments building to a final project. The final project will be a larger assignment in the form of a design document of twenty to thirty pages describing a narrative-based interactive project. The diesign document must show a clear application of techniques practiced in the class. That is, it must emphasise the integration of interaction and story. It can be a video game, an MMO, and ARG, a multi-screen project, an app, a live event or theatrical experience, or it can be some other interactive/story-based project (if cleared with the instructor) but it must be story-centric and interactive. (There are lots of highly effective, interactive projects, but they are not the point nor purpose of this class.)


This is the usual workshop format, you submit your pieces to the instructor by email by Sunday night at 9:00pm, AT THE LATEST.
Each week, we will workshop four of those pieces in depth in class.
You all know the basics, but I’ve thrown them in this syllabus just because.

When people hear ‘critique’, they think ‘criticism.’ You'll be worried about hurting other people's feelings. So when you get a piece of writing that really sucks, what do you do?

First, you are critiquing the writing, not the writer. So comments will be about the writing. Neither ‘you are awesome!’ or ‘you suck!’ is a useful comment.

Second, the more specific you are, the better the critique is. 'This sucks’ is as useless as 'You suck.' Better is 'On page two, where the character jumps out of the helicopter armed only with dental floss, breaks his fall by landing on the bad guy and garrotes him, I just found I didn't believe it. Could you maybe have them land the helicopter?'

Here's a template for how to give a critique. You may not need it, although some people always use it. I find it useful when I don’t know how to articulate how I feel about a piece.
1.) 'This piece is about…' Sum up what you think the piece is about in one line. Some people do headlines.
2.) 'The strongest part of this piece is…'
3.) 'The weakest part of this piece is…'
4.) 'One suggestion for revising this piece is…'
Most of what you learn in this class will come out of the workshop.

Again: E-mail assignments to the instructors are due at 9:00pm the Sunday before class. The instructors will email the four assignments to be workshopped to the class on Sunday night. Print out your comments to give to the person who is being workshopped.


In-class exercises are understood to be written without preparation or opportunity to prepare, revise, or even spend significant amounts of time composing. It is their nature to be rushed and full of errors. You should look at them as chances to experiment, to take risks, to try things you might not otherwise try. Try to enter into the spirit of the exercise.
Each week for the first nine weeks, an in-class exercise will be the seed of the homework assignment. Although you are free to throw out the in-class work and do something completely different, you will always leave class with something on which to build your next assignment.


Discussions will sometimes lead directly into exercises that will then lead directly into assignments. Particularly in the first part of the course, the discussions will often be about storytelling at the most primal level. But as the class continues, the discussions will get more far-ranging and theoretical. Students have said in the past that something said in the discussion will sometimes come back to them a couple of years later, when they are writing, and then, suddenly, they will have this a-ha! moment. They understood it before, but they understand it in their writing in a whole different way now.


In-class exercises 10%

• Students will write 10 in class exercises, each is worth 1% of their final grade.

Assignments 30%

• Students will create 9 assignments as part of the course. Each assignment will be worth 3 1/3% of their final grade.

Final Portfolio (Final Project and four revised asignments) 50%

Students will revise four of these assignments and submit them, along with their final project, as a portfolio of work to be graded.

Participation 10%.

• Class participation includes full involvement in and contribution to all class discussions, as well as reading the assignments of the other students and offering thoughtful, constructive comments. Participation will be heavily weighted towards preparation for the discussion of other student’s assignments.

All grades are letter grades, and calculations will be done on a 4.0 scale with an A equal to a 4.0 and an F equal to a 0.

Writing Division Attendance Policy:
Students are expected be on time and prepared for each class. Two unexcused absences will result in your grade being lowered by one full point (ex: A to a (A-). A third unexcused absence will result in your grade being lowered another full point (ex: B to a (B-). Your grade will be lowered by one point for every absence after. Two late arrivals equates to one full absence.
In order for absence to be excused the student must have approval from the professor and provide documentation at the next attended class session.

Please note that if you are a Writing for Screen and Television major/minor you must receive a grade of a C or better in order to receive degree credit. If you have any

questions about the minimum grade required for credit please check with your home department.

If you have an emergency and must miss class please contact your professor prior to class or contact the Writing Division at 213-740-3303.

Content Warnings

If you include content in the work that you produce which may cause distress to your fellow students, please make a verbal 'content warning' immediately before you present the work in class, and include a written content warning, either at the beginning of a piece of written work, or in the readme file of a project, when you submit the work for grading.

Students who ever feel the need to step outside class during the presentation or discussion of work that warrants a content warning may always do so without academic penalty. (You will, however, be responsible for any material you miss. If you do leave the room for a significant time, please make arrangements to get notes from another student or see me individually.)

Content which requires a content warning includes graphic depictions or descriptions of violence, sexual acts, abuse (especially sexual abuse or torture), self-harming behavior such as suicide, self-inflicted injuries or disordered eating, eating-disordered behavior or body shaming, and depictions, especially lengthy or psychologically realistic ones, of the mental state of someone suffering abuse or engaging in self-harming behavior.

If you have any questions about what warrants a content warning, including visual, auditory or tactile depictions, textual or verbal descriptions, and meaning embodied in game mechanics and interaction patterns, please let me (the class instructor) know.

If you ever wish to discuss your personal reactions to material presented in class, either with the class or with me afterwards, I welcome such discussion as an appropriate part of our coursework.


Laptops may be used in class (for class-related business only!).


By appointment.


Week 1: Interactive Storytelling

New Forms of Art Arise Out of New Technologies.

Discussion: The issues of Interactive Storytelling or Is Hamlet a Better Story if the Audience Gets to Choose the Ending?
A brief history of the successes and failures of interactive storytelling; video gaming, the ARG, interactive theater like Sleep No More, and multi-screen experiences.
Exercise #1: Character in Situation


Assignment 1: complete the scene and end it so that the audience wonders what will happen next. (prose) Read The Second Screen Fallacy: What It All Really Means.

Week 2 Multiscreen Storytelling

Workshop: class workshops ‘Character in Situation’ pieces.
Discussion: Second Screen, or give them a story the way their lives come to them. Mechanisms of interaction, platforms, and what fits what kind of story.
Multi-screen storytelling is the breaking form. Often a marriage of television and gaming technologies, it rises out of the behavior of the audience (which already multitasks—about 80% of the audience currently watches TV with a second screen avaialble.)
The first or primary screen (this is usually on the browser although it could be on a television) must be video, animation, or game. It can’t be static (text for example.)

The second screen can be video, animation, game, audio, text (of any sort--literally texts or emails or webpages or diary entries or imdb entries) images. There are no restrictions on the second screen. But the second screen element should have an internet property—that is it should be multimedia, or social/research, or interactive, the categories of multiscreen we discussed in class.

Write a complete scene and show—in summary or outline—how a second screen scene plays against it. If the complete scene is video, it should look like a video script. There are lots of examples online.
Multi-screen storytelling is the breaking form. Often a marriage of television and gaming technologies, it rises out of the behavior of the audience (which already multitasks—about 80% of the audience currently watches TV with a second screen avaialble.)

Exercise #2 Adaptation


Assignment 2: Write a 3-5 page ‘scene’ showing a conflict between two characters in an interesting setting. Include a second screen mechanism.

Week 3 Don’t Shoot!

Workshop: Adaptation pieces
Discussion: Dramatic Tension, how to use interaction to create it. Interaction is often thought of as an extra, but how could it be used to generate tension in a story?

Exercise #3: Bomb under the Seat


Watch: Dirty Work on Rides.TV
Assignment 3: Write 3-5 pages of script opening with rising dramatic tension. This will have two parts.

Week 4 Apps, Args and Stand Alones

Once smartphones put computers in our pockets, stories could go anywhere. Geo-caching, flashmobs, and ARGs capitalize on live interaction. Not everyone wants a live experience, but the people who want to do it are among the most committed, most hardcore fans of interactive anywhere.

Workshop: Not television

Discussion: New Forms of Art Arise Out of New Technologies. Moving from the art of the computer to the art of the internet: the characteristics of the onine world as a platform for art—multiplatform, community based, interactive—and how that might shape the art that arises out of it.
Exercise #4 ARGs


Assignment 4: Write a two page summary of an ARG. Write two assets, from different platforms that show flow.

Week 5 Branching Narrative

Workshop: Multiscreen
Discussion: Branching Narratives (Multiscreen or Video on App)
The problems with having the audience chose what happens next in the story—

  • Structuring a story is a skill.

  • Audiences want to ‘solve the character’s problem’ when good storytelling requires that conflict get worse.

  • Or audiences will often choose to test the boundaries of the storyworld. In LA Noir, the first thing many players did was try to shoot their partner in the head. (The game won’t let you.)

How do you allow the audience to interact?

Exercise #5 Secrets


Assignment 5: Write the scene to a crisis point where the secret will either be revealed or not and end the scene at that point (a cliffhanger.) This must be a script but does not have to be multiscreen. This assignment will continue in Week 6.

Week 6 Branching Narratives (Cont’d)

Workshop: Secrets

Discussion: How to make branching narratives satisfying.

  • A Branch shouldn’t necessarily lead to to closure.

  • Branches can run in parallel.

  • Examples of branching narratives (The Walking Dead Game and Mass Effect) and how they deal with multiple branches.

Exercise #6 Branches


Watch: Redrum at redrum/
Assignment 6: Write one of the scenarios and give a 300 word sketch of at least one other scenario/branch of the story. The result should be that an audience member has a different but equally strong experience no matter which option they choose.

Week 7 Adaptation Redux

Workshop: Branches
Discussion: Mad Men, Sanditon and experiments in telling stories with Social Media. Soon after Man Men went on the air, the characters from the show started tweeting. The people tweeting as Don Draper, and Roger Sterling, Peggy Olson, and Betty Draper turned out to be ad execs who were fans of the show. Their tweets gained thousands of followers and created alternate storylines when the show was on hiatus.
Now shows lock up their character’s twitter accounts. The Pros and Cons of social media—it’s real time in a world when someone may not want to experience a project when you want to do it—you can’t come back to Twitter six months from now.
Exercise #7: Adapt an existing piece of media


Assignment 7: Create a story in social media (3-5 pp)

Week 8 Dispersed Narratives, Conventional Plots, Innovative Characters

Workshop: Adaptation Redux
Discussion: Tumbler, Instagram, Snapchat. Make a piece.
Exercise #8: Adaption


Assignment 8:

  • Writing: develop a scene from the story using social media—this can be on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Google +, or any combination of social media platforms. (The guy who used Yelp reviews to tell the story of his breakup is an example.) Use either an original idea of your own or an adaptation that is in the common domain.

Week 9 Publishing

Workshop: Adaptation redux
Discussion: Tumbler, Instagram, Snapchat.
Exercise #9: Revision, or if I knew what to write I’d have written it that way the first time.
Homework: This is a continuation of Week 8’s assignment.
Assignment 9: Revise and publish.

  • Publishing: Post the story (on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Google+, or any combination of social media platforms) over the course of the week and either print it out or screen capture it to submit as homework.

Week 10 Recap and Prep for Final Project

Workshop: Characters in Social Media project
Discussion: Requirements of Final Project

  • Overview

  • Description of the audience for the project

  • Characters (1-2 pages of document, total)
  • Settings (1-2 pages of document, total)

  • 10 pages of very specific walkthrough with detailed description and full dialogue.

Exercise: Write a one paragraph ‘elevator pitch’ of your project.
Students get in groups of four and pitch each other their projects—this gives them a chance to see how they feel.

Weeks 11 – 15: the Final Project.

Note: There will be no class the Week of the 26th because of Thanksgiving.

Workshop: Students workshop their Final Project.

Discussion: topics in story and/or interactive as prompted by design docs


Final design doc and portfolio is due.

Fair Use

Fair use is a legal principle that defines certain limitations on the exclusive rights of copyright holders. The Interactive Media & Games Division of USC’s School of the Cinematic Arts seeks to apply a reasonable working definition of fair use that will enable students and instructors to develop multimedia projects without seeking authorization for non-commercial, educational uses. In keeping with section 107 of the Copyright Act we recognize four factors that should be considered when determining whether a use is fair: (1) the purpose and character of use, (2) the nature of the copyrighted work, (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole, and (4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work. In general, we regard the reproduction of copyrighted works for the purposes of analysis or critique in this class to be covered by the principle of fair use.

Citation Guidelines

All projects will need to include academically appropriate citations in the form of a Works Cited section, which covers all sources, in order to receive a passing grade. The Works Cited is either included in the project or as a separate document, as appropriate to your project. The style we use is APA 5th edition and you may refer to these guidelines:

Students with Disabilities

Any student requesting academic accommodations based on a disability is required to register with Disability Services and Programs (DSP) each semester. A letter of verification for approved accommodations can be obtained from DSP. Please be sure the letter is delivered to me (or to TA) as early in the semester as possible. DSP is located in STU 301 and is open 8:30 a.m.–5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. Website and contact information for DSP:, (213) 740-0776 (Phone), (213) 740-6948 (TDD only), (213) 740-8216 (FAX)

Statement on Academic Integrity

USC seeks to maintain an optimal learning environment. General principles of academic honesty include the concept of respect for the intellectual property of others, the expectation that individual work will be submitted unless otherwise allowed by an instructor, and the obligations both to protect one’s own academic work from misuse by others as well as to avoid using another’s work as one’s own. All students are expected to understand and abide by these principles. SCampus, the Student Guidebook, ( or contains the University Student Conduct Code (see University Governance, Section 11.00), while the recommended sanctions are located in Appendix A.

Students will be referred to the Office of Student Judicial Affairs and Community Standards for further review, should there be any suspicion of academic dishonesty. The Review process can be found at: Information on intellectual property at USC is available at:

Emergency Preparedness/Course Continuity in a Crisis

In case of a declared emergency if travel to campus is not feasible, USC executive leadership will announce an electronic way for instructors to teach students in their residence halls or homes using a combination of Blackboard, teleconferencing, and other technologies.

Please activate your course in Blackboard with access to the course syllabus. Whether or not you use Blackboard regularly, these preparations will be crucial in an emergency. USC's Blackboard learning management system and support information is available at

Disruptive Student Behavior

Behavior that persistently or grossly interferes with classroom activities is considered disruptive behavior and may be subject to disciplinary action. Such behavior inhibits other students’ ability to learn and an instructor’s ability to teach. A student responsible fordisruptive behavior may be required to leave class pending discussion and resolution of the problem and may be reported to the Office of Student Judicial Affairs for disciplinary action.


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