Telling a story inside the box

After writing feature screenplays almost exclusively for ten years, I’ve branched out. I recently took a stab at writing a one-act play and was very happy with the results. Writing a middle-grade novel had been next on my agenda, but I took a detour and wrote a kids TV series pilot. I might be writing an interactive novel soon.

I’m currently working on something I’m calling a story box. A story box is a collection of related artifacts that imply a narrative. The story is constructed, interpreted, by the recipient of the box who weaves a tale that incorporates and illuminates each of the artifacts.

While the curator of the box might have had a specific storyline in mind while gathering or creating artifacts, different recipients will obviously conjure different stories. This is participatory storytelling, where the “audience” is perhaps more responsible for creating the tale than the “author” is. Ultimately, it’s an open-ended game that encourages creative thinking and imagination.

If that all seems a bit abstract, let’s try a specific example. Let’s say you wanted to create a story box about a world-weary cynical American who runs a bar in war-time Casablanca. Your “box” might be a courier satchel containing letters of transit, a gun, a newspaper article, sheet music for piano, a lease agreement for a night club, postcards from Paris, an empty gin bottle and so forth. The story of how these objects are connected is up to the receiver to interpret.

The story box idea is a culmination of several influences over time.


I am particularly fascinated by nearly everything on the Propnomicon blog, and especially this project to create a collection of artifacts from the doomed Antarctic expedition of H.P. Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness”.

The fun for this kind of project, of course, is in creating the collection. What I love about this particular project and others like it is the attention to craft, detail, and authenticity.

These are qualities I want for a story box — it’s verisimilitude that allows immersion in the story and suspension of disbelief.

Coraline Mystery Box

Another ancestor of the story box — the clever Coraline mystery boxes. Laika animation studio sent out 50 mystery boxes to bloggers as a promotion for their movie Coraline. Each of the boxes were unique and featured exquisite detail and craft.

They are apparently doing something similar for Paranorman.

Harry Potter Mystery Box

The first box I noticed that brought everything together with it’s own story was a Harry Potter themed box created by Bruce White as a gift for his wife.

The box contained a message from Albus Dumbledore to Harry, as well as the collected effects and writings of Nicolas Flamel, the alchemist who discovered the Philosopher’s Stone.

Unfortnately, the original website detailing this box is now gone, but you can read about it at Superpunch.

Wright explains that the box came with two letters:

The letters expressed that this box had been in the custody of the Ministry of Magic’s Department of Mysteries in the intervening years since the passing of Albus Dumbledore, and he had indicated that the items were intended for Harry. Now the Department was insisting that Harry come ‘round to collect it or it would be sent by Owl or disposed of. Also no-one at the Ministry could manage to open the box, or knew what it contained.

The Story Box

Prop boxes and promotions are fine, but I found myself wanting something more interactive. Thus was born the idea of the story box — something more open-ended that invited participation.

I’ve only just begun to think about this project and I have questions for myself I have yet to answer. Can traditional story structure apply to a story told through artifacts? How does one represent conflict and characters with props? How much “guidance” does the interpreter need? How much is too little or too much? Is it a cheat to use letters or diary pages to explicitly tell part of the story? There are many more considerations.

My first story box is intended for my preschool class. I’ll be documenting the process and the results here on the blog. For now, as far as I’ve gotten, all I can tell you is how the story starts.

It starts with a box.

In this case — a treasure chest.


  1. That’s a brilliant idea. I’m going to make one as inspiration for my various roleplaying games to keep me inspired and possibly bring it out for the players at some point.


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