Best-in-Class Digital Storytelling Tools

digital storytellingA digital story is a series of images connected with text and/or a narrated soundtrack — captured by a digital device such as an iPad or smartphone — that tell a story. It can be fiction, non-fiction, narrative, biographic, expository, or even poetry. Think of Ken Burns’ The Civil War, or Colin Low’s City of Gold. Because of its multimedia approach and appealing blend of text, color, movement, sound, and images, it has fast become one of the most popular formats for visual writers.

According to Center for Digital Storytelling, there are seven elements critical to a good digital story:

  1. Point of View — What is the perspective of the author?
  2. Dramatic Question — A key question that keeps the viewer’s attention and will be answered by the end of the story.
  3. Emotional Content — Serious issues that come alive in a personal and powerful way and connects the audience to the story.
  4. Voice — personalize the story with the author’s unique writing style to help the audience understand the context.
  5. Soundtrack — Music or other sounds that support and embellish the story.
  6. Economy — Using just enough content to tell the story without overloading the viewer.
  7. Pacing — The rhythm of the story and how slowly or quickly it progresses.

These elements are conveyed by the vast swath of multimedia tools available in digital storytelling.

Writing a digital story includes five basic steps:

  1. Research the topic so you are clear on presentation.
  2. Write a script, a storyboard, or a timeline of activities.
  3. Collect the required multimedia parts — text, images, audio, video, oral selfies, and more.
  4. Combine everything into an exciting story.
  5. Share and reflect on the completed story.

These five steps are stepping stones for beginners and critical to experienced storytellers.

There are so many online options for digital storytelling, rarely is there a writer who can’t find a web tool that fits their communication style. Here are some of the most popular. Try them all and then pick the one that works best for you:

adobe voiceAdobe Spark Video

Free; iOS

Adobe Spark Video is an easy-to-use digital storytelling app for iPads. It integrates text, images, royalty-free clipart, background music, and your own artwork into a story you tell and then render as a movie to be shared easily through the cloud. As the name implies, the storytelling revolves around your voice. While it lacks many of the bells and whistles of more sophisticated digital storytelling tools, it includes everything necessary to relay exciting, creative stories.

puppet palsPuppet Pals

Freemium; mobile app

With Puppet Pals, you add a voice-over to a selected cast of characters (only one available with the free version) and animate them to tell a story. The paid version provides additional characters and more storytelling options, but the free version allows for a great deal of flexibility in the writing process as well as an authentic expression of ideas.

storybird kindergarten digital storytellingStorybird

Freemium; web and mobile app

Storybird is a gorgeous collection of high-quality artwork that has inspired over 5 million to write. You pick an artistic theme for a story, then add text to as many pages as you’d like. Once finished, the story is saved as a booklet that can be shared via a link, printed, or embedded in blogs or websites.


Free; iOS

Storykit makes it easy to tell stories with photos, text, personal drawings, and audio. Each page is created individually using images from the camera roll, the optional addition of audio, and then curated into a link that can be shared with others or uploaded to the Storykit server and made available to all users.


Freemium; iOS

With Tellagami, you create a thirty-second story using an animated avatar (called a gami) that moves and talks in response to a recording of your own words (added via voice or keyboard).  After customizing the gami’s appearance and emotions, it is placed in a background selected from the camera roll, taken with the device camera, or hand-drawn directly onto the screen. Finally, the audio overlay is added.  When completed, it can be saved to the camera roll or shared via email or a variety of social media options. This app is well-suited for book trailers or anyone who wants to promote their book but doesn’t like a visual recording of themselves. The cartoon character makes it easier to communicate required information without what is–for some–the embarrassment of seeing themselves on video.


Fee; web or iOS

VoiceThread is an interactive, cloud-based slideshow approach to digital storytelling that can share images, documents, videos, voice, and more. It’s intuitive to use, as simple as adding the media you desire with the click of a button and a drag-drop from your digital device. Once published, viewer comments are appended via typing, audio, or video. As others comment, they can draw on the screen and/or add other documents (images, files, and more) to better explain what’s being said. When completed, it’s saved as a video and can be shared in a wide variety of methods.

This is one of the most powerful digital storytelling tools, allowing users to share a wide variety of media in support of their story, narrative, documentary, or argument.


However you start the use of digital storytelling, just start! It will change the way you think of writing.

More about Digital Storytelling

Storyboard That–Digital Storyteller, Graphic Organizer, and more

8 More Digital Storytelling Websites

19 More Digital Storytelling Apps

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy, the Rowe-Delamagente thrillers, and the upcoming Born in a Treacherous Time. She is also the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer,  a columnist for TeachHUB, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. You can find her books at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning.


Once a Writer…

microphoneI haven’t written anything particularly good or creative in a long time.  Between work and life, there just hasn’t been a way to focus the time or energy on my writing.  This has led me to even question whether or not I can say, even in passing, that I am a writer.  I mean, to be a writer, you have to write, don’t you?

I was faced with a challenge these past weeks.  I was the best man at a wedding and therefore had to give a speech during the reception to an audience I largely didn’t know (there were about 10 people I had met  prior to the day before the wedding).  With all the emotions of the wedding, combined with some extra complexities given the nature of our family dynamic, I felt a lot of pressure on this one.  How do I put together a speech that is heartfelt and funny and interesting and exactly the right tone, temperament and style for that environment when I had no idea of the audience’s sense of humor, educational or social background or the level of alcohol that would be consumed by that point in time?

Clearly, I’m not the first best man at a wedding or even the first person who has had to write a speech. But this task seemed pretty tough to me at the time. I thought about it for a long time, always coming up blank with how I wanted to proceed.  I found myself in the emergency room one day, and since the ER is run like a prison and I couldn’t do anything while I waited for them to decide which needles to stick into me, I pulled out my phone and did some research on the history of the role of the best man in weddings, the history of weddings, the history of speeches…anything I could think of.  That led to nothing of substance at the time, seeing as I was constantly interrupted for testing and questioning.

A week or so after I was sprung from the ER, about a week before I needed to give my speech, I still had nothing. S0, I headed to a Starbucks early one morning with a pen and paper, leaving the laptop, the phone and all of their distractions at home.  As I sat there staring at the blank page, trying to keep myself from panicking, I thought to myself, “Okay, Rob, what have you done when you’ve had a creative deadline for a story?”

The answer?

I just started writing.  I wrote for an hour and a half, just scribbling every word I thought of onto the page as fast as I could make my hand scrawl it out.   At that point in time,  quality didn’t matter at all,  it was all about quantity. The more words and ideas, the better.  When I finished, I headed home to type it into my computer and edit it. Which of course meant that I had to figure out how to read it (there’s a reason I type for a living).  What I found was that when I fell back to what I’ve always relied on for creative works, I could actually still put together a story.  And that’s what it was. I used the research I did in the emergency room to pick a starting point (believe it or not, it was swords and shields).  I then wove that together with themes of family and friends, love and happiness and some self-deprecating humor. And finally I pulled the family bits together with the swords and shields to present a toast in which the bride and groom had an army of supporters surrounding them.

The point I’m trying to convey here is that I’m sure we all have stretches where we question whether or not we are “a writer”.   I certainly have been questioning that about myself for quite some time. This speech showed me, though, that if you trust your creative instincts, you can fall back on them when you need to do so.  Sure, I needed to do some major editing on what I scribbled down on the pages at Starbucks, both for content and for time, but when I finally just trusted myself to write it, the words were there.  I gave the speech (without notes!) and afterwards I had people coming up to compliment it. The people who worked in the reception hall came up to me as well and said that they hear three or four of these speeches a week and had never heard a better one than mine.  Was my speech really that great?  I suspect not.  But I think it was not what was expected and that is what made it work.  What I did different from the prototypical best man speech is I wove a single story thread throughout and didn’t just go for cheap one-liners and random, embarrassing stories about the groom.  That was really the key for me to get the speech written in the first place – I needed to not force myself to write a 4 minute standup comedy routine.  They say you have to know your audience, and that’s true, but I’ll add to that concept that it is just as important to know when you don’t know the audience, too. Jokes fall flat if told to the wrong crowd. Personal stories fail if not enough people know the tale. But a well-balanced story can be funny and heartfelt and engaging to a wide variety of people. Having written for so much of my life, I just needed to remember that.

This event helped me see that while I may not have written much in the recent past, I’m still a writer.  So I want to know – have you had any experiences that helped you to see that the phrase, “once a writer, always a writer” is a Truth?  I’d love to hear your experiences here in the comments!

Tell the Story

A few weeks ago, we asked the question each of us has probably been asked many times: Why do we write? We had a few people answer both online and offline and the general theme of the responses was simple:  “I write because I can’t not write.”

This was always my answer in the past, too.  But after a few years of basically not writing, at least not writing in the way I always used to write because I “had to”, I’ve started doubting that answer.  I mean, if I’m being honest here, I’ve successfully not written much of anything for quite some time, so clearly I am actually quite capable of not writing.

Yet, I feel like I am – and should continue to be – a writer.

The reason I say this is because I have stories to tell.  A lot of them.  Stories that are unique to me and only able to be told by me.  Sure, I’ve already told a lot of stories, some really good, some less good. But I know I have a lot more in me because they are all trying to come out in one way or another.

I’ve been reflecting on my creative struggles a lot recently. Most of the struggles are due to outside factors such as work, kids and life.  But some of them are definitely simply related to inertia – now that I’m not writing regularly it is easy to continue to not write regularly.  It’s just like going to the gym every day — when you’re in the habit, you just keep going to the gym each day, even if you don’t feel like it.  But if you skip a day, it is much easier to skip the next day, and the next day, and the next.

And so here I sit, worn out from the daily grind but still full of creative energy.  I’m so tired when I sit down to write that I tend to drift off to sleep almost immediately upon beginning to write, my head nodding slowly down, hovering slightly above the laptop keyboard. It’s not that the stories aren’t there for the telling, it’s that they can’t type themselves!

So what is my answer when I’m asked “Why do you write?”  As I mentioned, it always used to be “I write because I can’t not write.”  But now I’ve got a different answer:

“I write because I have stories to tell.”

Is there really a difference in these answers? I suppose in the grand scheme of things there is not much of a difference in them.  The small detail of actually putting words on the page is there, looming larger than life no matter how I might phrase my answer.  But if you parse those two answers carefully, there is a subtle difference.  One makes writing be almost like a chore – something I must do, something that is required.  The other gives a more rational explanation and a more realistic expectation – the writing is about the story being told, not about the writing being done.  I tell stories all the time, wild and whimsical tales of excitement or woe, epic victories and massive defeats, paper bags and plastic bags.  Stories that make my kids roll their eyes at me and stories that make my kids’ friends laugh at how odd I am.  The stories are there and they come out, whether I get them on paper or not.

And so, I am a writer.  I am a writer because I have stories to tell and I tell them.  The next step is to get back into putting them down on the page so that they can be shared outside of the small circle of people who ride back and forth in my car as we go to baseball games or band events.  Maybe then I can get back to the simpler answer of writing because I can’t not write.  But until then I will keep telling my stories and I hope you will keep telling your stories, too.


Writing with Youngsters

imageThere are few things in life more fulfilling than a nice hot cup of coffee.

One of the things which comes close, for me at least, is helping children to find joy in the art of writing.

When I was a kid, I used to write all the time, lying awake at night with a flashlight, scribbling words into one of several notebooks. I remember sitting around with friends, way back when I was around 10 or 11 years old; we would just sit and write together, the mutual writing providing support, encouragement and a bit of competitiveness in a way that helped us all to write just a little bit more – and just a little bit better – than we might have written alone. I believe that while we certainly didn’t consciously know it at the time, we were helping each other to be comfortable writing – almost as if we were giving each other permission to be creative for some amount of time when we might otherwise be expected to be getting muddy or sweaty or smelly wilding through the streets in the mid-summer heat.  Now, as an adult, I still like writing around other people who are writing, as if the ambiance of creativity around me is infecting me, or boosting my own creativity like aromatherapy might boost my mood. (Of course, since I usually do this writing in a coffee shop, perhaps the aromatherapy of the freshly brewed liquid gold is playing a role as well).

Lately, I’ve been enjoying working with children on a lot of things. Whether it’s coaching little league baseball or working with the marching band or encouraging children to write or do math, I’ve found it refreshing to be sharing my knowledge and experiences with them.  Especially with writing.

When I was a senior in high school, my English class was part of a program where we went to an elementary school in the district and worked with the third graders to write stories.  We were tasked with encouraging the children to develop and tell their stories confidently as well as with helping them to work together. It was one of my favorite experiences in high school, especially when we got to hear the children read the stories we helped them write. I don’t know if that program still occurs today, but I’d love to see school districts encouraging this type of interaction between the older kids and the younger kids, as it can be a learning experience for both groups. I know I learned a lot.  Some things I learned at 17 years old which I still carry with me today.

When working with youngsters:

  • Patience is critical. Kids get distracted. They go of on tangents.  When telling a story they will ramble on and on about one bit of detail but will gloss over other, more important, bits.  This is all part of the process and when you’re working with children to encourage them to write, you need to be patient and let them do their thing.
  • Remember that no idea is a bad idea. We adults with our well-developed inner editors tend to dismiss ideas outright all the time.  But we shouldn’t.  And we should encourage kids to investigate ideas before dismissing them as “stupid”.  If the kid you are writing with says “That’s stupid”, suggest something that is actually even “stupider”, such as:  “Pink, fluffy butterflies dancing the Macarena while drinking decaf coffee and eating moldy cheese – all to save the world.”  I mean how “stupid” is that?  Pink, fluffy butterflies would clearly never drink decaf.
  • Let them add the fun, explody bits.  When my son first started writing, all he wanted to tell was the action scenes.  “He punched the bad guy. The bad guy exploded. The end.”  While we, as experienced writers, know that you need other things between the action sequences, it is these parts that are the fun parts to write.  Why are there so many action movies? Why does every episode of Scooby Doo have a chase sequence in the middle?  It’s because these are the fun parts!  If we bog a young writer down with focusing on the other parts, or worse, tell them that these action parts are not important, we run the risk of them being bored before they even get started.
  • Understand that they are not yet as old and bitter as I am we are.  Many (most?) kids want the stories they read to have a happy ending. As such, they will want to write stories that have happy endings.  So let them – encourage them to—explore ways in which a happily ever after is possible, even from the worst of plot situations.  They have the rest of their lives to learn to be pessimistic or realistic in their writing and storytelling.
  • Ask questions. Lots of questions. When the kid starts to struggle, or the story gets bogged down, ask questions. Kids often relate to things they can touch or taste or feel better than things they can only see.  Ask them “What’s that smell like?” or “What do the oozing warts feel like?” or “Does that strange alien vegetable taste like chicken?”  By encouraging the kids to explore their senses when describing their characters or settings, you will be helping them to build a richer story.
  • Remember—it is their story, not yours.  It is hard to do this, but sometimes, when you are losing patience with the kid’s rambling or lack of important details, it feels like we should “help them” by giving them words and phrases or changing the way a character talks within the story to something more like what we would write.  As much as we might be tempted to do this, we need to keep our distance and stick to encouraging and advice rather than more direct methods of assistance.  We can always write our own version of the story if we really want to do so.

Looking at this list, pretty much all of it can translate to working with adult writers, too.  But we adults tend to be less willing to take advice from others, unfortunately, and so the most important item in this list for adults is probably the last – it’s not your story, so just offer suggestions and edits and feedback.

A couple years ago, my son was struggling with his writing projects at school. Largely, this was due to him being bored and rushing through it, but no matter what his teacher told him, he wouldn’t take the time to flesh out the stories or essays.  When he brought home a ‘D’ on a project, I knew I had to step in.  That’s when the story, Mercury Marshmallow Men came to be. We sat on the couch together and developed the story from the title of an email I had just received. We certainly spent a lot of time asking “What’s that smell like?” And while the story may be nothing all that important in the big scheme of things, it helped my son to see how to flesh out the details of a story and it helped him become a better writer – he got nearly all ‘A’ marks in writing this year and his teacher remarked about how detailed he would get (sometimes too detailed!) in his storytelling.

Have you spent time working with young writers? What tips have you found important to helping them find the joy of storytelling?