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Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Open call: Bringing short story form into the 21st century

Nesta has launched Alternarratives, a new £15,000 prize for short story told in an innovative format. In its pilot year, Nesta wants to explore whether new forms of storytelling might encourage and inspire young people to read for pleasure.

Storytelling forms an integral part of our understanding of the world and has held an important role in our evolution as humans. Historically, traditional literary forms saw us submit entirely to the storyteller as a submissive listener, but with the rise of technology and an ever-growing experience economy we are leaning more and more towards active consumption. Theatre, traditionally seen as a passive experience, is rapidly embracing more experiential and personalised forms, whilst gaming is seeing record growth. Immersive events, such as Secret Cinema, have pushed the boundaries of cinematic interaction. This emerging market means we increasingly expect to have more agency and interaction in our experiences - with the recent Olafur Eliasson exhibit at Tate Modern being a strong example of this.

How could this type of interaction benefit readers and augment stories?

At Nesta, we are also keen to explore other ways in which widely-accessible technologies can help stories jump out of the page.

In October, we launched the Alternarratives prize to search for writers that already work in this way, as well as stimulating exploration from writers that don’t. So what sort of ideas are we looking for? There are brilliant examples out there of writers creating innovative stories. Breathe, created by Kate Pullinger in collaboration with Editions at Play and Ambient Literature, is a ghost story that personalises itself for every reader through APIs (application programming interfaces) that pull data from your phone, including place, weather and time, into the narrative. Back in 2011 the writers of The Thick of It created Malcolm Tucker: The Missing iPhone. The idea was that Malcolm Tucker had lost his phone, you’ve now found it and can hack into his emails, messages and voicemail to unravel a scandal. It became the first app to be nominated for a BAFTA, showing the true potential of this emerging platform. Ultimately, we believe writers hold the key to good stories.

Whilst demand for experiences is rapidly increasing, research from the National Literacy Trust has shown that reading for pleasure dramatically decreases in young people after they leave primary school. In this transfer to secondary education, the gap between students’ reading ability and their age grows wider each year and reading enjoyment levels in children and young people decreased in 2018. At the same time, findings from The Centre for Longitudinal Studies showed that reading for pleasure has a four times greater impact on academic success than one parent having a degree, as well as finding a link to young readers being more likely to succeed after education and have more robust mental health. What is the potential for short-form narrative and how can storytellers innovate the format to create captivating content for readers?

Nesta is keen to explore this potential link more, working across our priorities to bring the expertise and resources of our Arts & Culture, Education and Explorations teams to pilot this initiative. To ensure the projects are seen by the right people, we are compiling a youth panel and expert panel who will work together to support and inform the selection process. We have also convened a fantastic Steering Group with vast experience of storytelling, creating experiences, engaging young people and delivering prizes, who have supported us to shape this idea into an open call opportunity:

We’re looking for bold ideas that push the boundaries of writing to find the most exciting examples of short-form narrative that can help inspire young people to read for pleasure. The focus of Alternarratives is written word, but we’re asking writers to consider what tools they could use to elevate the experience. Could a reader access stories online at the site of the scene? Could multiple contributors help change the ending for a character? We want to hear your ideas. Entries do not have to be digital, but any technology used should be easily accessible and distributable - think phones and computers, not VR and headsets!

As this is a pilot programme, we’re planning to publish open blogs throughout this initial imagining of the prize to share our findings, discuss what’s going well and explain how we’re changing the programme depending on what we learn or discover along the way. You’ll be able to follow the posts right here on the Nesta website.

Interested in applying or want to know more? Find out more details and submit your proposal before 13 January 2020. You can also follow the conversation @nesta_uk #Alternarratives

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Rachael Bull

Rachael Bull

Rachael Bull

Programme Manager

Rachael was the Programme Manager for Arts & Culture Finance.

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