25 Things You Should Know About Transmedia Storytelling
Let’s get this out of the way, now — this, like many/most of my other lists, could easily be called “25 Things I Think About Transmedia.” It does not attempt to purport concrete truths but rather, the things I believe about the subject at hand. I am something of an acolyte and practitioner in the transmedia cult, and sometimes give talks on the subject (as I will be doing next week in Los Angeles).
So, here I am, putting my transmedia ducks in a row.
Please to enjoy.
1. The Current Definition
The current and straightest-forwardest (not a word) definition of transmedia is when you take a single story or storyworld and break it apart like hard toffee so that each of its pieces can live across multiple formats. This definition features little nuance, but hey, fuck it. That’s why this list exists — to gather up the foamy bubbles of nuance and slurp them into our greedy info-hungry mouths.
2. The B-Word
Transmedia is, admittedly, kind of a buzz-word. And it’s not entirely new, though the Internet helped this flower bloom. But it’s a very charming buzzword, innit? It makes me feel like I’m from the future. “I have arrived in my temporal pod to uplift your species with the pop culture genetics of — I’ll say it slowly so you can absorb it — traaaansmeeeeedia. Stop shaking that femur around, monkey. Time to learn.” In the end, though, whether you call it transmedia or cross-media or new media or hybridized-story-pollination (HSP), it’s still just storytelling. Though it’s storytelling in a bigger, sometimes weirder, way.
3. Reality Coalesces Into A Story Carapace Around Our Soft Human Brains
The rise of any new or altered media form sees an awkward transitional period where everyone wants to define it. And that’s good, to a point — hell, what do you think I’m doing right now? Rules are starting to appear. Hard definitions. “Well, transmedia needs to be on X screens and across Y platforms and you need at least one robot.” (I just made the thing up about the robot, relax. Though, to be clear: ROBOTS IMPROVE ALL STORIES.) Part of me likes the Wild West nature of the thing, though, where transmedia exists in this state of flux, this uncertain haze where the rules are weak and the practitioners are hungry and the experiments come flying fast and frenzied. Also worth mentioning: the rules are not precisely agreed upon by all practitioners. My writing partner and I worked on a digital storytelling thing called Collapsus, and I have been told that it’s not strictly transmedia. (To which I shake my fist and say, “Fie, fie.”)
4. Still Gotta Give Good Story
Good storytelling is still good storytelling. Doesn’t matter how the story is being told. And this is where transmedia stops being a buzzword, ceases to be a gimmick — no matter what you call it, no matter how many screens you slap it on, no matter how experimental you choose to get, you still have to know the ins and outs of strong storytelling. You cannot and should not lean on the crutch of transmedia.
5. To My Woe, Strongly Marketing-Centric
Transmedia these days is strongly marketing-centric. Which, to me, as a storyteller, goes against the power of this thing. I want to tell stories, not sell widgets and dongles.
6. True Heart, False Face
I find that a lot of what people call “transmedia” fits the technical definition (as noted at the fore of the post) but fails to take into account what for me is more important: the philosophical definition. For me, what makes true transmedia unique and beyond the buzzword, past the gimmick, is when it carries two corollaries to that earlier definition: first, it offers audience investment and lets them act as collaborators; two, the story was intended to be a transmedia experiment from the very beginning.
7. Tree Versus The Forest
Stories are generally a single tree, sometimes grown by a single practitioner. But for me, the transmedia storyworld is far more fertile and compelling when seen as an entire forest growing up together at the same time. The forest for me is the perfect metaphor for transmedia — I live in the woods and I see how all these trees grow together, how some find light and others fail, how it’s all one big organic collision of life that thrives on organized chaos. You can certainly admire the forest for its individual pieces (“What a lovely elm,” or, “Those two squirrels seem to be having crazy methamphetamine sex on top of that turtle-shaped rock”), but you can also gaze out and see a much larger picture: the ecosystem. Therein lies the beauty and elegance — and yes, squirrel-banging chaos — of transmedia storytelling.
8. The Crass Retrofit
A lot of what I see bandied about as transmedia really isn’t. Not for me. It’s not taking one successful property and then staple-gunning other stories — or worse, a re-hash of the original story, where someone makes a video game out of a film or a film out of a comic book or a best-selling erotic novel out of a Denny’s menu — to the original. What Marvel is doing with their film series? Ehh. Not transmedia. It smells of transmedia. And it’s very cool stuff. But Marvel didn’t start out building a universe that was intended to thrive across multiple formats. They built one bulk comic book universe and then shopped it out so that the stories could be re-told across films and books and whatever. Further, the audience investment is minimal, if not zero. The audience has no hand in shaping the Marvel Universe.
9. Sometimes, You Gotta Let The Audience Drive The Dune Buggy
Here’s why transmedia storytellers need to put their auteur egos off to the side — because the audience needs to control a chunk of the action. This can be overt, where the audience is literally allowed control (or even provenance) over the narrative, and their input changes the entire experience. This can be covert, where audience investment helps to shape the output if not directly change it. But the audience must be part of the feedback loop — and in this increasing age of interactivity, the audience wants their slice.
10. Yes, Blah Blah Blah, Star Wars
I dig Star Wars and in transmedia you won’t be able to easily get away from it. The Star Wars Universe is generally transmedia-flavored. Lucas and his phalanx of creators built together a strongly-connected and well-defended universe that crossed a metric jizz-load of media properties. You could argue for audience investment across games and toys (though there I’d argue it’s weak on the transmedia front). As to why this is more transmedia and the Marvel Universe is less transmedia, well, that’s a whole other post.
11. Your God Is My Alternate Reality
You want to look farther back than Star Wars, well, look no further than religion. Like, any of it. Multiple stories and characters across a storyworld that crosses multiple platforms (books, oral tradition, friezes, scrawled on the backs of temple eunuchs) and is profoundly affects and is in turn affected by its audience? George Lucas ain’t got shit on the entire breadth and depth of religion. Religion is transmedia.
12. The Ejaculation Of Game DNA
Shine that UV light over these transmedia bedsheets, and you’ll find many stains shaped like space invaders or puzzle ciphers — that’s because transmedia often absorbs DNA from games. That’s not to say transmedia requires a game-based component, only that games offer philosophical components that other stories do not. Games are active, not passive. Games demand something from the audience. Games are fun, exploratory, experiential. Most traditional narratives do not offer these things: reading a book is passive. Watching a movie demands nothing of me and my input doesn’t do dick. There’s little that’s exploratory or experiential about watching TV. But that changes with transmedia storytelling. The game-ist DNA runs rampant — a virulent thread of chaotic delight. (Some of this comes from the fact that ARGs — Alternate Reality Games — serve as a springboard for transmedia endeavors.)
13. But Please Don’t Say The Word “Gamification”
This probably doesn’t deserve its own list item but fuck it, it’s my list and I’ll rant if I want to. I hate that word: “gamification.” I like games. I like to play. I like putting game elements into play where appropriate. But gamification often relies on shoddy collection mechanics to beef up an already un-fun idea. “We just gamified your gynecology appointment! You just got seven cervical coins! Ding. You’re now mayor of vagina-town! You just collected the Speculum Is Colder Than An Ice Cube In A Yeti’s Mouth badge!”
14. The Word I Like: “Emergence”
I’m starting to feel that the success of a given transmedia project lives or dies on how much emergence it affords — emergent gameplay being unexpected or unintended game interaction, and emergent narrative being stories growing out of the experience that you did not plan for or anticipate (and note that both are strongly driven by audience). You cannot demand or force emergence, but I think you can cultivate it by leaving room for it, by designing aspects that cede authorial control (or some portion of it) to those who are participating in your story. It also may work if you just hand out buckets of hallucinogens.
15. You Can Lead A Horse To Water But Can’t Make Him Tweet About It
More to the point, you can’t ever force participation. A portion of the audience — perhaps a large portion — will never want to engage with a property beyond a cursorily active (or entirely passive) experience. They just don’t operate that way. Games change this to a point, in that audiences are getting used to feeling handsy with narrative (hello, Bioware). What this means is, you leave room for collaboration, but let the audience walk through the door. They won’t all walk through, because some are just here for the show.
16. The Perfect World Scenario
My perfect world scenario for any transmedia experience is that my path =/= your path. What I experience in the storyworld is not precisely the same as what anybody else experiences. I want to be telling someone about the story and I want them to be surprised that I was able to interact with the T-Rex, or that the painting on the wall of the Hyperborean Castle was one I actually painted.
17. Faster, Transmediacat, Kill, Kill!
It’s probably worth a note that pacing in transmedia is a different animal. Everything moves a little more quickly — the oxygen that the novel or even screenplay format allow is now potentially provided by the audience and by the gaps in their experience. I don’t think this is universal, and I think you could still tell a slower, more relaxed story through transmedia, but I suspect it’ll be trickier. I also suspect that my neighbor is transmitting hate speech into my brain using a super-tweaked Flowbee. So. Um. Yeaaaah.
18. Bridges And Holes, Bridges And Holes
Transmedia relies on strong transitional elements — how do you move the audience across the many spaces? How do you remove obstacles? How do you get them to want to overcome the obstacles you’re incapable of removing? Story bridges and rabbit holes — places they can cross knowingly or spots they can fall into the narrative unexpectedly — are necessary components to the infrastructure.
19. Writer As Swiss Army Knife
The transmedia writer must be like the Swiss Army Knife. You are a many-tooled motherfucker. Screenwriting, game design, flash fiction, belt punch, compass, crack pipe, wakizashi, and so on.
20. Cheap As Free
The perception of transmedia storytelling is that it’s expensive. And it can be. But it doesn’t have to be. The Internet has made content delivery easy as Sunday morning. A great many tools are free — ask Jay Bushman how an entire story can be told over Twitter. Many tools you already possess — like, say, your phone — have content creation tools already built into them. (We’ve long passed the time when a phone is just a phone. Mine is made of nano-bots. It knits sweaters!) It’s getting cheaper, and maybe even easier.
21. Break Me Off A Piece
Audience investment needn’t be directly related to or buried in the actual narrative. Transmedia storytelling is a great place to break out the individual components of storytelling — idea, motif, theme, mood, plot, character — and highlight them in different ways across different platforms. This Is How You Die, related to my novel Blackbirds, explores the themes and ideas of the novel without changing the novel.
22. The Cast Is All Here
Transmedia is like any grotto carved out of pop culture — you have visionaries, cult leaders (and their cultists), craftsmen, auteurs, skeptics, critics, haters, weirdos, shamans, fixers, and so on, and so forth. Worth realizing, though: it’s a fairly small community. And a lot of really awesome work is being produced at all levels. (If you’re so inclined, recommend some in the comments.)
23. The Hoax Is Over
Hoaxing has been a way into transmedia: tricking people into believing something is real or genuine when in reality it’s, er, not in reality at all. I kinda feel like maybe the “hoax” component is done, kaput, pbbbt. This is also a good time to mention you should be checking out Andrea Phillips. Behold: “Cautionary Tales in Transmedia Storytelling.” She’s also got a book out soon: “A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling.”
24. Not Every Story Requires It
Transmedia isn’t a big pop culture Snuggie. It is not one size fits all. Some stories just don’t demand that kind of treatment. They’re better off as single-serving entities — book, film, show, comic, deranged hallucination, Scientology pamphlet, whatever. But on the other end of the coin, transmedia isn’t a genre-only thing. I mean, it often is in practice. But it shouldn’t be. And it doesn’t have to be.
25. You Won’t Know Until You Try It
Go. Splash around in the transmedia pool. Look at what’s been done. Find transmedia creators and pick their brains (they’re a surprisingly accessible group and the community aspect is strong right now). Think about the stories you’re planning on telling — could any of them be told this way?
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