At Time's Up we use the term Physical Narrative (PN) to mean a physical space that, as it is explored, reveals a form of narrative, whether as an exploration of a character or a series of events. There are several elements that we use as the “defining” elements of a PN. A PN is interactive, physical, character based, authored, mechanical and explorable.

We have attempted to explore many of the subtleties in the PARN book. One of the canonical examples is the snoopiness of looking into the private drawers, rubbish bins and other surroundings of other people. Like a detective, we can put together the story of a person or a space by investigating what we find, collecting the evidence, connecting the dots and building a narrative that explains what we find.

One of our strong motivations in using physical narratives to explore future scenarios is to allow the feeling of embedding the visitor in a world that is subtly but significantly different from the current everyday, allowing them to feel the everyday of a possible future.

We will sketch some ideas here about how we have gone about developing physical narratives previously as well as including some speculations based upon what we have learnt from this process. We presume that a scenario has been developed and that there is some desire to look at how to build a physical narrative to allow it to be explored.

One of the design ideas that we have tried to use is that the best model of something is that thing itself. With technology we can change the behaviour of a thing, to slip it into the scenario, while maintaining the physicality of the thing.

People are remarkable story tellers. Given enough noncontradictory evidence, a narrative will be constructed to explain what is going on. People like to sit in chairs, flick through magazines, open files on computers, lie on beds, listen to sounds through windows, follow diagrams, open drawers, read letters, look at photos, listen to radios and be in a space.

Physical narratives are not a mass audience thing. People handle things. It is very close to one-on-one performance, but without a performer. Encourage and reward exploration. Have a sign asking people to put things back where they found them. Physical narratives are a game, people will play by the rules, they know that it is not a real person's room they are exploring.

We would love to be able to offer a simple step-by-step process for building PNs, but for now we ask you to make do with the following notes. These are perhaps best seen as a collection of questions to ask in the stages of designing a physical narrative.

Start with a scenario, a general collection of more or less detailed aspects of the world you would like to build.

Break this down to a group of characters or a single character in a space within which they can be at least partially private. Allowing privacy allows the character to leave more incidental things than are permitted in a public / presentation space.

Now develop the back story for the character(s) in the space. Why are they there, what are they doing, why are they not there right now? Are they close by? Can the visitors hear them through a door?

What do they have with them, what have they left here. Gosling talks about three classes of things that we have:

  • The public things, chosen by us to represent ourselves to people who enter that space.
  • The private things that we put in the space to make ourselves feel good.
  • The detritus that we create in the space without intention.

Of course these are not hard categories, but they can help choose what your characters need in the space. The sign on an office door, a photograph with a famous person, a model aeroplane are all examples of things that people use to explicitly communicate their understanding of themselves. Photographs of family, flowers, plants, books are examples of things that we bring into a semipublic space for our own reasons. A used pregnancy test, a torn up letter, junk food, uncleaned wine glasses with lipstick are examples of things that have accumulated as detritus that let a snooper discover something unexpected.

There are several levels of involvement that an audience may have. What level of involvement will you demand? What will you allow?

  • A brief encounter, the opening shot or framing shot to use film language. This is an overview, it should inform generally and invite a visitor in.
  • The first examination. An object that attracts attention and invites the visitor to zoom in. A strange picture, a handwritten letter, a dramatic video looping are all examples. Having more such entry points is valuable, as it will allow different initial interests to be used as on-ramps.
  • Connections. From the first object examined, set up links that encourage the visitor to look at something else. A key on a key ring might encourage the visitor to look for the lock, a fake radio broadcast might explain why a diagram is worth looking at.
  • Rabbit holes. Entry points into deeper, detailed parts of the story. Perhaps longer texts, details hidden in books, elements of the backstory that will only be of interest to those who pull up a chair to really examine something; listening to a longer spoken text, watching emails arrive, waiting for the murderer to appear on screen.

Physical timelining. In an exhibition space, there is often a single point of entrance. This can be used to structure the sequence of information and ideas that are passed on to the visitor. By seeing one object first and only receiving a “correct” perspective after passing through a doorway, surprise can be created. It is however difficult to enforce such spatial orderings; people will walk around and explore freely. Because we are generally aware of exhibitions, an visitor will often take a suggested route through an exhibition, finding the curve that takes in all the pieces as they pass through. In this case you may be able to leave a specific idea, object or action until the end of this parcours through the physical narration.

Even if the space is not linearly ordered, forcing a sequence of stations to be visited, there is still an initial view. This must invite the audience in.