In What Other Ways Can Factual Stories be Told?

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

This lesson explores a variety of interactive and audiovisual media that can be used to tell factual stories. We will learn about nonfiction graphic novel and discover how podcasts and documentary television shows present nonfiction narratives.

Reading Books Isn't the Only Way to Learn

If you think books are the only medium for nonfiction, you might be surprised and excited to learn that there are many ways that authors and artists tell factual stories. The same audiovisual and interactive media that bring you entertainment and information have also been utilized for this purpose. Some of these forms include comic books, museum displays, movies, and sound recordings.

Media that were once considered merely vehicles of light entertainment, like comic books and video games, are steadily becoming recognized for informational and educational purposes. Authors and educators adopt these forms because they can engage the attention of students in ways that traditional print media cannot. Ironically, playing an educational game can be so much fun that students don't realize they are learning.

This lesson explores four kinds of media other than traditional print texts that can be used to tell factual stories: graphic novels, interactive media, documentary film/tv, and podcasts.

Exploring New Media

The notion that students learn to read and communicate through a variety of media including but not limited to text encourages an approach called Multiple literacies. A new and innovative approach to reading, it considers the impact of all sorts of texts, visual, print comma digital, sound, and performance, and the viewer's ability to understand its content and meaning.

It recognizes that all sorts of media, not just printed books, support educational experiences. People 'read' documentary films and television in a similar way that they read books. In order to succeed in a media saturated environment, we now need skills to decode messages and meaning in music and visual art, graphic presentations and moving images.

Graphic Novel

The nonfiction graphic novel offers a form that can introduce readers to the complex ways movies and television tell stories. Think of a graphic novel like a movie in book form. Graphic novels combine the conventions of comic books and novels to tell stories using pictures and dialogue.

The page, called a 'panel', is made up of 'frames', each of which contains a picture. They tell stories across frames, formatting dialogue and sounds in 'bubbles'.

The first person to recognize the power of graphic novels to tell nonfiction stories was probably Art Spiegelman. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for his graphic novel Maus, a creative interpretation of the Holocaust that cast the Nazis as cats and Jews as mice.

Graphic novels tell stories in pictures and sounds
graphic novel panel

Interactive Media

Interactive media like museum displays, websites, and video games can also be used to tell factual stories. These stories do not progress in a strictly linear fashion like books or films. Using an audiovisual interface, interactive games guide users along a path, allowing them to made decisions that change the course of the story as it unfolds.

For example, the National Museum of American History integrates interactive experiences into its American Enterprise exhibit. Located in the museum's Innovation wing, which opened in 2015, the exhibit consists of 2000 objects and 165 interactive activities.

Families interact with cutting edge technology outside of the new American Enterprise Exhibit at the Smithsonian
interactive wall

Audiovisual Media

While books provide a reliable source of information, watching movies can also be educational. The documentary, from the root 'to document', intends to present factual information in audiovisual format. While authors rely on word choice and grammatical structure to convey information to readers, filmmakers use images and sounds to establish an emotional connection with their audience.

Food writer Michael Pollan's book The Botany of Desire, which was adapted into a PBS television mini-series, provides an excellent example to identity the differences and similarities between these formats. While Pollan narrates both book and television series, the added benefit of visuals makes the show an enjoyable as well as informative experience.

The show translates each chapter of the book into four thematic episodes: sweetness (apple), beauty (tulip), intoxication (cannabis), and control (potato). In 'Beauty,' for example, Pollan travels to the Netherlands, visits a flower market, and interviews botanists about the history of the tulip. While the show grabs your attention with rich cinematography, the book provides its evidence in the form of quotations and footnotes.

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