Story-based elearning: top tips for believable characters and a captivating story

Have you ever seen someone’s shoulders slump just after logging on to an elearning course? If you have, you’ll know that motivation is a key point  in effective learning design. When you lose your learners interest early in your course, it’s incredibly difficult to win back their belief in the content. You quickly end up with a “page-turner” course, with zero buy in from your learners. Even the flashiest elearning technology in the world can’t help you then.

Focus on better writing, not the bells and whistles

In my experience, the best elearning courses have one thing in common: a strong narrative message. Something compelling that motivates the learner to care about the content of the course. One of my favourite (and simplest) ways to establish this trust with the learner is through the use of story-based learning. However, a good story-based course is only as good as the writer's skills.

City & Guilds Kineo is blessed with an amazing team of professional writers, including several published authors. We collated our top best practices for creating engaging, story-based elearning.

Ten top tips for a strong narrative

  1. Seeing, hearing, touching, smelling brings your words to life.

    When writing descriptions of places, make them come to life by describing what the character's senses show them.

    Is your character in an army desert kitchen? "The stink of perspiration and cooking fat in the air mixed with the fumes from the diesel generator clattering away outside."

    A library?  ‘It’s hushed and cool, with a musty smell from the stacked shelves.'


  2. Show, don't tell.

    This is a bit of Gestalt psychology. Let the reader fill in the blanks for themselves. It makes for a much more engaging read.

    Instead of saying, ’The emergency safe room was very small and the temperature inside was more than 45°,’ you can intrigue the learner by saying, ’She squeezed into the rig's emergency safe room, and tried in vain to wipe the sweat out of her eyes.’

  3. Build empathy through believable characters.

    A learner will feel much more invested in a character if they have empathy for them. Think of the human consequences, not just the learning points. Use your story development to do this.

    Take the following as an example: ’There was a salesman. The client didn't like his proposal. The salesman didn't handle the client’s objection well. He lost the sale and didn't make the commission.’ Not very engaging is it?

    However by slightly exaggerating the scenario, you can make the learner care a little more about the guy’s sales skills: ’Morgan and his wife have been saving for a weekend in Paris, their first holiday in years. Morgan needs just one more big sale to get his bonus and buy the tickets. His client was a bit unsure whether the product was quite right for her. Morgan got nervous and mucked it up, trying only to compete on price. He lost the client and missed out on his bonus. His Paris trip was cancelled; his wife was devastated. It was the final straw.’

  4. Keep something secret.
    In real life, people make mistakes for a reason. The motivation may be unclear from the outside, but there usually is one. Maybe they forget a vital safety check because they're worrying about their ill mum; perhaps they’re withdrawn at work because their relationship is going down the plughole. When you're writing a character, think of a secret they're hiding which influences their actions. This will make the character more believable to you and your readers. You can choose to reveal this secret later in the story, or not, depending on how you want the story to build.


  5. Follow the three-act structure.

    This is a model used in screenwriting that chops up a story into three parts: the setup, the confrontation and the resolution.

    Setup your story. Who’s the protagonist? Why should we care about them? What do they hunger for?

    A story's nothing without confrontation. What goes wrong? What threatens to derail your character's dreams? Who's blocking their path?

    The resolution gives you a chance to say how the character learnt from the experience. How were they changed? What were the consequences to the character and those dear to them?  Why and how will they act differently in the future? This Story 101 is a great set of quick and dirty tutorials if you want to take this a little further.

  6. Guess the secret.
    Give your characters a secret, but leave clues to it in your writing.  Your reader will feel smart if they manage to guess the main character's secret. In most murder mysteries readers really want to guess whodunit. Build some of this tension into your elearning stories. Oh - and don't make the secret too obvious, either!


  7. Exaggerate, exaggerate, EXAGGERATE.

    Everyday issues don't capture people's attention as much as a big disaster does.

    The broken safety valve was replaced two days later than scheduled? Aw shucks, that sucks.

    'The broken valve was left untouched for months, a spill occurred, the chemicals ignited, nobody could turn the flow off, because the valve was stuck. The whole business burnt down, everyone lost their job, their houses were repossessed…' You get the idea.

  8. Stop the soliloquies.
    When writing dialogue, include some hesitation. In the real word people need to think about what they're going to say. Pauses, umms, stumbling over words, becoming tongue tied all add to the realism of your dialogue.


  9. Read it out loud.
    When you've finished writing your dialogue, read it aloud. There's no better way to test whether your dialogue sounds right.


  10. Start at the end.
    Think of the dramatic climax to your story first. Authors like JK Rowling think of the peak moments of tension and conflict first, then work out later how they were caused and how they're resolved. You don't even need to give the whole story in your elearning course, just make sure you know in the back of your mind where your bit of the action fits into the bigger picture.

So next time you’re planning a course, think captivating story and believable characters first, bright lights and shiny technology last. Your learners will be sure to thank you for it. Have you got any other tips that you use when drafting stories for your courses? Let us know in the comments below.

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Randi | 2nd March, 2016

Loved the article, Seth. Just about everything that you wrote is true for ANY story writing. Thank you!