Aesop Story Engine: An Open Source WordPress Plugin For Storytelling

The Aesop Story Engine is one of the most beautiful tools for WordPress that I’ve seen in a long time. Named for Aesop, the master story teller whose fables are woven into our cultural consciousness, this engine provides a powerful suite of multimedia storytelling tools. The Aesop Story Engine plugin was created to be a foundation for building feature-rich, interactive, long-form storytelling themes for WordPress.

The engine powers the Aesop Hosted Storytelling site where users can create stories for free. The Aesop development team has released it as an open source WordPress plugin, making it possible for you to add the same storytelling capabilities to your own website.

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12 Interactive Storytelling Components:

Aesop Story Engine includes 12 Story Telling components for adding interactive elements to your content:

  • Audio – Display an audio player with support for MP3
  • Video – Fullscreen video with support for Kickstarter, Viddler, YouTube, Vimeo, Daily Motion, and Blip.TV
  • Content – Display a background image, background color, or can split the content into multiple magazine type columns
  • Character – Display a character avatar, title, and small bio to help remind readers of key story characters
  • Galleries – Create and manage unlimited story galleries displayed as a grid, a thumbnail gallery, or a stacked type gallery, with caption support
  • Image – Displays an image and caption, with optional lightbox and optional offset so it hangs outside of the content column
  • Locations – Showcase character travels with a map, add markers with custom messages
  • Parallax – A fullwidth image component with caption and lightbox
  • Quote – Display a fullwidth quote with large text, control the color and background
  • Timeline – Create a story with a timeline that sticks to the bottom, works a bit like chapters
  • Collections – Upload a PDF or image, that is shown to the user once they click the component
  • Document Viewer – Meant to be used on a page of your site, and allows you to display stories from a specific collection (category)

Each story is unique. Therefore, these components can be used multiple times and configured differently for each element. Check out the demo page for multiple examples of the storytelling components in action.

How Aesop Story Engine Works:

The story engine plugin loads two files, a CSS file for basic styles and a JS file to power the interactive components. These two files are the core of the plugin and have a combined weight of just 33kb. Once you install the plugin, you’ll find a new “Add Component” button in the WordPress post editor. This launches a modal window where you can select and configure each component.

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Configuration options continue further down the page for each element, all of which have a vast array of customization options such as text color, background color or image, alignment, width, height, captions and more.

This video demo gives a brief overview of the engine:

A Beautiful Way to Tell a Story with WordPress

As a child, your experience of reading fables was more probably more colorful and visceral than it likely is today. The Aesop Story Engine helps you to recreate a more vibrant story reading experience for your readers by enabling you to quickly build a captivating story with visual and multimedia components. Instead of one long block of text, your story can be brought to life with fullscreen backgrounds, colorful images, characters, audio clips, maps and more. Essentially, the story telling engine gives you the ability to write with all of your senses.

Aesop Story Engine can be implemented with any WordPress theme. However, please be advised that your theme will dictate much of how these story elements are displayed. The plugin provides the functionality that adds and formats the basic components within your current theme. The story engine looks best when the theme has been designed with the components in mind. That said, there are probably very few themes that could match up with the demos. The team plans to make a sample WordPress child theme available soon, which will make working with the story engine a reality for more users.

Nick Haskins, the engine’s creator, was formerly the lead developer of ModernFarmer.com where he integrated storytelling features to create big, visual posts. He created Aesop Story Engine to make it easy for anyone to build beautiful stories without having to know any code. The plugin is a fully functional beta and Haskins wants to know if there is any interest.

I think he’s on right track for providing an exciting new tool that will become indispensible for publishers. The New York Times recently showcased a beautiful collection of this trend in 2013: The Year in Interactive Storytelling. Do you think it’s likely to continue in 2014? Would you be interested to use Aesop Story Engine on your own site or in a client project?

27 Comments


  1. I can imagine that this will also be a great tool for schools on their websites. They could make great lessons with this.

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  2. Sites like NYT and pitchfork.com have really been pioneering this approach and ultimately it’s about getting long form to work online. Telling real stories in a length they deserve and really engaging audiences.

    Making the techniques available to the WP community is a game changer because it puts these techniques in the hands of millions of content creators.

    This is a potentially seismic shift in content creation and the biggest thing to hit WP for ages.

    Exciting stuff.

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  3. Nick Haskins, got me into the beta two weeks ago and it’s awesome! I can’t wait to show you guys the long form piece I am working on :)

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      1. Aleksander, I went to look at your site, and, eh, I’m guessing it’s still a work in progress. Would love to see Aesop in action on someone’s site!

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  4. Really nice peace of work. I`m wondering what impact this could have for novelist and fiction writers and how they could publish their works: Here you can make a truly multi media novel and let customers get a sneak peak before getting full access! And another nail in the coffin for the publishing houses?

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    1. Absolutely! The more nails in this particular coffin the better!

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      1. I have tried the plugin with some themes and it does not look good. I have seen that the developer sells the theme seen in the description of the plugin. I am wondering if someone has tested the theme and can provide a review about it, looks pretty good.

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      2. Rafeal what’s the name of the theme?? I can’t seem to find it in the description. If it is cheap, I’ll try it and tell you what I think.

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      3. Before the story engine came into play, the original idea was in a theme called Aesop that’s sold on my theme/plugin shop. It’s a theme with the functionality built in. Since that time, the functionality was ported out and expounded on, thus the plugin was born. This way the functionality now isn’t locked to the theme.

        There aren’t currently any themes built for the story engine, however that’s going to change pretty quickly, as that has been the most requested item.

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      4. Thanks for the quick reply Nick! So, in theory, I could install your child theme, make some modifications and then use the plugin to make a static landing page long form story?? I’m playing around with it here: countingthedead.com (though nothing is actually live). I’ll be porting in a large part of my iBook “Counting the Dead” (you can find it on iTunes), so I have a lot of content that is already ready to go. Hopefully, I’ll have something live within the next to days or so…

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      5. Cody – just went to have a look at your site – and yes, love what you’ve done so far. Did you create or use a paid for theme? And just so you know, I went to iTunes and bought the book. Thanks for writing it. :D

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  5. This story engine is freaking awesome. We’ve been talking about how there are no easy ways to tell stories like the New York Times or Washington post where they add distinct elements to the post such as map or other interactive elements. This story engine changes that and thankfully, it’s not all bundled into a theme but in a plugin instead opening the door for more people to use it.

    Can’t wait to see live examples of people telling stories using the engine. This story engine is something that would rock the world of WordPress.com users. Tons of people using the service for longform content and this is exactly what they need.

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  6. So now I’m super tempted to buy the Aesop theme, but I want the flexibility to do other non long-form posts. Love the theme, really want to try it out, but…anyone know of anyone who’s managed to implement this? Read Nick’s notes on his site about how it would be super easy to implement, but I’m admittedly not that tech savvy to pull this off.

    I know I should wait patiently until some Aesop-specific themes get released, but if anyone knows anyone who could make this work on my own site (sunnyinkabul.com), please let me know.

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  7. I tried to intstall the plugin on the new WordPress Twelve Fourteen theme and others. I can edit the storys by using the “Add Component Button” in the editor but it has no effect to the storys. They aren’t published in a full width. So I’m really looking forward to the final plugin.

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  8. I really don’t get it. I’m honestly confused about what all the fuss is about.

    For the most part the plugin gives you a way to insert blocks of content within a post or a page. That’s all. Some of the components are features (images, video) that are already in the wordpress editor by default anyway. Some components (chapters, maps) simply don’t work very well.

    I can see this maybe becoming useful in some future iteration. But for the moment it’s simply easier to customize page templates.

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