Dear Faithful Readers and Students:

I have been preparing for the last few weeks to teach an intensive one-week course on stories and story-telling, DSGN 90,  at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). I will using this blog to post information relevant to that course. Non-student readers are also welcome to peruse this material. Next week, I will return to general blogging further about stories and storytelling. The mythical translators and archaeologists who are working on The Myths of the Veritas assure me that within a month or two, there will be sufficient material unearthed and analyzed to begin recounting more of their tales.

Meanwhile, here is a link to the class.

And here are is the class outline for Monday, January 28th.

Course Outline: DSGN 90 (Instructor: John Thomas)

Day One: Introduction, What Makes a Story? What Makes a Story Good? Uses of Stories, Storytelling, and Story Elements in Design.  

Hand out sheet: Name, E-Mail, Major, career goals if known, course goals, comments

Introductions and solicitations for reasons people are taking the course. Terse: One interesting thing about your background + goals. Ditto.  20 minutes

The “Story of Story” (How I got interested). Knowledge Management & Dr. Maciw. – 5 minutes


Overview of Course Content: 30 minutes; 

Two main goals: 

Learn some of the ways stories can be used in design, development, and other areas of life & work. 

Learn something about how to create or elicit stories more effectively. 

Focus on What a story is; why stories? – memorable and motivating; can be good for tacit as well as explicit knowledge. Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book. Here are the opening lines from various novel length stories. Read over these and see whether they “hook” you to want to find out more. Also think about what you have already learned about: 

The Story Genre or structure.

The character.

The setting.
The writer. 

The intended audience.


Common stories allow a group or community to easily reference a situation: Robin Williams in Aladdin and the robot in The Nutty Professor.  

Stories may be viewed in many ways. Each of them is useful. And all of them together are more useful than any of them singly. 

Stories can be seen as setting up a resonance on an emotionally charged roller coaster. Real Roller coasters have a property defined by gravity. The biggest changes occur at the beginning. Stories have properties defined by imagination. The biggest changes occur at the end.

roller coaster ride

Photo by Angie on


Stories explore the edges of human experience. What is true of our temporal and spatial sharpening across all our senses….putting more resource into processing those stimuli that change in space or time; true of sight, sound, touch, smell, taste, kinesthesia. We are also interested in the limits of things: what is the largest animal that ever lived on earth? What is the tiniest mammal? What is the age of the oldest person alive? How tall is the tallest mountain? And, just as our senses are influenced by expectation, so are our emotions. 

 {Anecdote about new cassette tape player that replaced AM radio in car.}

So too, an experience related in a story can be at the edge due to expectations set up for the reader by the writer. 

Because story looks at the edges of human experience, this has implications for character. We want our typical heroes to be out there in some way and be willing to go to the end of the line to achieve their goal. We want them to really care about their goal. 


Because story is supposed to explore the edges, it means that stories often tend to have something unusual in their setting too; Roman times, Medieval times, on Mt. Everest, on a space ship, during a war, in a magical world, in a world of monsters, etc. 

Good stories *can* be set in more normal situations, but then to get to the edges, the author will need to be put more emphasis on constructing the plot and giving characters a burning desire. The “edges of human experience” don’t always have to be the edges of all human experience. The “edges” can be of the edges, not of all human experience, but of that particular person’s experience. It’s not so much a way to learn what’s at the edge. After all, that will always be changing and is more the province of science than story. 

The dilemma of how we might respond to cruelty; to lost love; to overwhelming odds; what we will do about it — those are questions that are timeless. Those are the ones that allow us to identify with Odysseus, or Lady McBeth, or Bambi, or Frodo Baggins, or Jane Eyre. We have to feel how “on the edge” their decisions are for them in their world, not what they would be viewed as in our world. 

There is an important asymmetry to the knowledge exchange that’s possible in stories. We can learn from stories how we can deal better emotionally in some extremely bad circumstances. We hope we are never in such dire straights, but if we are, we are more emotionally prepared. For that reason, and because it’s more emotionally arousing, we the readers or viewers want the hero to “take it to the limit” — to risk everything to save…


In real life, we should avoid abandoned warehouses, wait for back up, and not yell out to the scores of hidden villains.  If you are the villain in real life, you don’t bother to “explain yourself” to the hero until help arrives! You would shoot them immediately! If a story is being used as a training manual for procedure, maybe you want the story to model the correct behavior. But the correct behavior is almost always more boring. Generally, the writer should put their heroes in pain, bad luck streaks, etc. This can be a sticking point for people who write. They identify with the hero and like their hero so they find they “can’t stand” having the hero they created lose their best friend, suffer an amputation, give in to an evil impulse, etc. 

Using Stories throughout problem finding, problem formulation, generating design ideas, user stories for coherence and to motivate, stories for sales and marketing, stories from users and service people. 

sunset beach people sunrise

Photo by Pixabay on

Creating a story outside in. Take any interesting object, person, fact, and dive into it. Expand historically, geographically. Immerse yourself in details and let the story come. (If Only; JFK). Of course, you can use this method to recount one of your personal experiences. But you can also elaborate on one of those, making sure to label it as fiction.  

Creating a story inside out. Look for strong feelings of anger, surprise, humiliation, or fear; e.g., what gave rise. Can change or alter circumstances to make for a better story. 

Exercise: Use one of these two methods (Outside In or Inside Out)  to generate a short short story (@250 words) ideally, but not necessarily, one that might be relevant to design potential (which isn’t all that restrictive really). 

Read your story to a partner. (If you didn’t finish writing, you can read the first part and create the rest on the fly). After reading/telling your story, have a short FB session. 

The author of the story should tell their partner one thing they liked about the story and THEN say one thing that they were not satisfied with or wanted to improve. 

Then, the listener should say one thing that they liked about the story and one suggestion for improvement. 

For feedback to be effective, it should be as specific as possible and as actionable as possible. 


For example, if you say, “Wow, that was a really good story.” it isn’t all that helpful. If you say, “Really good story. What I especially liked was your detailed description of the morgue” that’s better. If you say, “That’s a really good story. I liked that detailed description of the morgue, especially the way you used tactile imagery, smell, and the sound of the place.” That’s quite good. Similarly, if you say, “I don’t know. I didn’t really like that story.” it’s not very useful.  

Of course, feedback generally works best when it’s accurate as well. And all three of these guidelines apply equally well to the feedback you provide users in almost any system (games & CAI can have exceptions). FB needs to be:




Explain Writing & FB Exercise: 5 minutes

Explain Rules for FB on exercise: 10 minutes

The Formula for critiquing. FB should be specific and actionable. 

FB in therapy session. 

FB in OOPSLA Pattern Workshops. 

Actually Performing the Writing and Feedback Exercise: 30-40 minutes.

Review, summary, and preview: 5 minutes. 

Questions: 5 minutes.

Writing Assignment: Bring in four copies of a written story of your own (250-1000 words) to class for Tuesday. 

It could be fiction, anecdote, a user story illustrating a problem, or a solution. 

Main criterion is that it’s something you’d like feedback on.  

Author Page on Amazon.