Reconciling The Tension Between Code and Story


“Our appetite for story is a reflection of the profound human need to grasp the patterns of living, not merely as an intellectual exercise but within a very personal emotional experience.”

Robert McKee

“The nature of form in the digital age is trapped in the invisible realm of code”

John Maeda

The tension between story and code

The body of academic, popular, and practical literature on the nature and role of storytelling in culture is beyond fulsome. Nobody in their right mind would argue that storytelling as a cultural practice is dead.  

But it is clear that we are all struggling with a bit of a problem. Namely the tension between code and story.

At last year’s CAT Conference, Iain Tait spoke about the conflict of working cultures and practices that exists between the storytellers and coders of our industry. Yet I think the issue may run even deeper.

Aristotle's ideas of narrative construction still dominate - consciously or not - much of our thinking. As he argued in his Poetics, a plot is constructed out of a fixed sequence of events; it has a definite beginning and end, is characterized by a sense of wholeness and unity, and a ‘certain definite magnitude’.

The problem is that code allows us to create a vast and ever-evolving wealth of experiences that simply do not play by any of these Aristotelean rules. 

Code allows us to create stuff that’s non-linear, rather than having a fixed sequence of events.  It allows us to create experiences that are open-ended, rather than finite. It allows us to create worlds in which we are actors and principles. And so on.

If we take the standard writer's definition of story as: 'An engaging character overcomes tremendous obstacles to reach a desired goal', then it’s clear that code allows us to make stuff that just isn’t story.

And so we find ‘coders’ and ‘storytellers’ at best unable to understand each other’s profoundly differing starting points. And worst, we find them glaring at each other over some invisible divide, muttering darkly that They “just don’t get it.”

This tension between code and story is unfortunate because it encourages the belief that somehow we must choose between Big content or Small content, Doing or Saying, Push or Pull, Publicity or Participation... and so on, as if they were somehow irreconcilable articles of faith.

And when the prize for many an agency is to be master of both code and story, reconciling the tension, and seeing both as legitimate starting points for solutions is a pressing matter.

Letting go

We’ve become mired in an executional debate, and we will not resolve the tension if we don’t lift our sights. 

For we’re squabbling over means with not enough consideration for the ends. We’re risking overlooking how work - whether code or story - builds vivid, salient and meaningful brands. And we’re in danger of overlooking how people respond and make sense of our work. 

If we’re going to get out of this and resolve the tension between code and story, then we are going to have to let go of the assumption that what we do works like this:

Telling stories vs building brand stories.001

Shift #1: From telling stories to creating material for stories

It helps I think to recall that a story is constructed out of many smaller individual parts. McKee deconstructs story into its constituent parts, beats, scenes, sequences, acts and story:

The smallest element of structure is the beat - “an exchange of behaviour in action/reaction”.  

In turn, beats build scenes - “scenes cause relatively minor, yet significant change”.

Scenes build sequences - “a series of scenes... that culminates with greater impact than any previous scene”. 

Sequences builds acts - “a series of sequences that peaks in a climactic scene, which causes a major reversal of values”.  

And acts build stories - “the largest structure of all... a story is simply one huge master event”.

Stories then are built out of actions and interactions.  Thus McKee distinguishes between what he calls characterization and character:

“CHARACTERIZATION is the sum of all observable qualities of a human being, everything knowable through careful scrutiny: age and IQ; sex and sexuality; style of speech and gesture; choices of home, car, and dress; education and occupation; personality and nervosity; values and attitudes – all aspects of humanity we could know by taking notes on someone day in and day out. The totality of these traits makes each person unique because each of us is a one-of-a-kind combination of genetic givens and accumulated experience. This singular assemblage of traits is CHARACTERIZATION. . . but it is not CHARACTER.  True CHARACTER is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure - the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character's essential nature.

Or as the Hollywood adage - pilfered from Aristotle - puts it, there is “no character without action”.

Looking to marketingland, John Grant’s depiction of a brand being constructed out of many molecules of activity feels like a good mental model to have in our minds as we approach the business of making stuff:


So rather than always think of ourselves as the grand storytellers, it might help if we thought of ourselves as creating the individual molecules (or beats, scenes, sequences, and acts) that ultimately add up to a story  - a brand story - in the consumer’s mind.

Stories are not necessarily the input - they're not necessarily our product. Rather they’re the  consequence of all our activities. 

And if this is the case, what we do looks much more like this:

Telling stories vs building brand stories.002

Shift #2: From execution as story to brand as story

The story we contribute to therefore, is that of the brand. 

The essence of story is someone overcoming tremendous obstacles (internal or external) to reach a desired goal. Since overcoming obstacles and reaching desired goals cannot but leave us changed in some way, it should be evident that personal transformation is in some way at the heart of every story. No protagonist passes through the arc of a story unchanged and the notion of transformation and storytelling is ancient indeed. “I want to speak about bodies changed into new forms” wrote Ovid in the opening lines to Metamorphoses, his account of how the heroes and heroines of myth underwent transformation.

Change and transformation is not limited of course to work of Greek and Roman myth. Christopher Booker in his account of the common plots and archetypes across humanity’s stories, argues that all the basic plots found in storytelling are about personal transformation: “When stories are rooted in the archetypes, they are about personal transformation.”

As accounts of transformation then, stories are not neutral. They cannot be. Stories are points of view on which transformations are good, right, desirable, worth struggling for, sacrificing for, and achieving. They provide us with material about and guidance on the transformations open to us as human beings, and how to achieve them. They offer us hope that such change is in fact possible. When we go to the movies or the theatre we are  - at some level - paying to see the emotionally satisfying transformation of other human beings. 

In as much as brands are agents of change, resolving tensions and contradictions, providing material for personal transformations, and satisfying needs, wants or desires, they get us from one state to another. And in that sense, brands are stories.

Thinking of ourselves as storytellers has arguably encouraged us to think of stories as being in our work.  But the most important place for a brand’s story to reside in is not in what we make, but in the mind of the consumer.

If we want any hope of progress, we need to get out of the default assumption that stories build brands, and embrace the liberating principle that stuff builds brand stories

Thinking of ourselves as contributing to the development of brand stories in people’s minds rather than necessarily telling them may encourage us to think differently. 

It may encourage us to stop trying to tell the whole story in our work, and start thinking more about how the individual beats, scenes, sequences, and acts we can create add up to something, and help the consumer build a coherent brand story in their mind. 

Shift #3: From advertiser as storyteller to consumer as story assembler

And herein lies the other shift in perspective required. We need to start remembering that ultimately it is the consumer who assembles the final story - the ‘master event’ in McKee’s words - not ourselves. 

We are after all, born story constructors. 

Indeed, as Nassim Taleb has shown, we are so hungry for narrative and causality, that if we cannot find it, we will impose it where none actually exists. We reorder not only the facts of the present to create structure, pattern and sense, but we reorder the facts of our own pasts in order to creative an emotionally satisfying narrative. The whole exercise of therapy is - whatever the specific technique or methodology involved - one of revisiting and restructuring one’s personal narrative. 

Such then is our need for pattern and narrative that sometimes to our cost, we are unable to look at sequences of facts without imposing an explanation on them, and imposing a relationship between them. 

People are the ultimate makers of story. And most important place for a brand’s story to reside is not in what we make, but in the mind of the consumer.

Starting with the end in mind

The apparent tension between code and story is born to some degree, I suspect, of a fixation on execution. Perhaps that is understandable. After all, the executional possibilities at our disposal are blooming like never before.

But execution is but a means to an end.

It’s time we got back to some basics. Namely the consumer’s response. Because the apparent tension between code and story is only resolved by asking - “to what end are we making this stuff?”

It’s time we started thinking not merely about what we want to make, but about the  mental associations (i.e. the brand) we want this stuff to create in the minds of people.

So rather than rush in and start telling stories (or indeed writing code), perhaps we should begin by asking what our brand’s story is: Who is our brand?  What need, want or desire does it help us achieve?  What gets in the way of us achieving this goal? And how does our brand help us overcome this to achieve what they want?

Once we’ve a view of this, we can then ask ourselves “What should we do that lets people know about this, remember this, or experience this?”

Sometimes the answer might be code.   Sometimes the answer might be story.   Sometimes the answer will be both. 

Code and story - a rapprochement

So back to the coder and storyteller glaring at each other. Or struggling to understand each other.

If we could get them to agree to the following principles, I suggest we might all just start getting along a little better: 

  1. Our appetite for story is ancient and insatiable

  2. Vivid brand stories matter more than executions that tell stories

  3. Stories in the mind must be the outcome, but stories don’t have to be the input

  4. Our content doesn’t have to tell a story in order to contribute to one

  5. People are natural assemblers of stories - they just need the raw material

I wouldn’t for a moment want to downplay the very real differences between the creation of code and story. 

Nor would I want to downplay the power of brilliant storytelling. There is no evidence that “it doesn’t work anymore.” The fact that the environment for mediocrity has got harsher does not invalidate the demonstrable value-building ability of genuinely great stories. However uncommon they might be.

And there will be times when telling the complete story is the best, most relevant, most effective thing to do.

But having a clear sense of what the shared purpose is would I’d wager, make code and story easier bedfellows.  

And thinking of ourselves as contributing to the brand stories that live in people’s minds, rather than necessarily always being the tellers of stories, may encourage us to be more ambidextrous in our creative inclinations, and more open-minded as to where we begin to look for creative solutions.

So let’s shift our perspective:

Telling versus building.003


Aristotle, Poetics

Christopher Booker, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories 

John Grant, The Brand Innovation Manifesto: How To Build Brands, Redefine Markets And Defy Conventions

Richard Krevolin, How To Adapt Anything Into A Screenplay

Robert McKee, Story, Substance, Structure Style and the Principles of Screenwriting

Casey Reas & Chandler McWilliams, Form And Code In Design, Art, And Architecture

Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact Of The Highly Improbable