Transmedia Storytelling – What’s it all about?

A repost of my piece for FUTUReBOOK – a digital blog from Europe in association with The Bookseller

Transmedia Storytelling – What’s it all about?

Transmedia. It started as an academic term, coined by Henry Jenkins in his book Convergence Culture who said, “transmedia represents the integration of entertainment experiences across a range of different media platforms,” Jenkins defines transmedia as storytelling that “immerses an audience in a story’s universe through a number of dispersed entry points, providing a comprehensive and coordinated experience of a complex story.”

As a storytelling mode transmedia is exciting, dynamic and the ultimate 360 approach to storytelling –360content, 360platforms and with the potential for the full 360experience. The basic premise of transmedia is that rather than using different media channels to simply retell the same story, you utilise these channels, their communities and functions to communicate different elements of the story. Its success relies on fragmenting a narrative and making each platform do what it does best which, in turn, extends the life and longevity of the story.  Contrary to some thinking, this practice isn’t device-driven (Kindle, Nook, iPad), but is platform driven as it is the platform that subtly dictates and influences audience reactions, social & behavioural trends and user experiences.  The bottom line is that with a solid transmedia strategy in place everything remains connected by the same central narrative and theme, but each channel excels at what it does best, rather than bending to fit a central idea that’s being repurposed for multi platforms.

Sounds great, right?  So how can it work for publishers? What might it mean for books?  I can tell you what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean Vook.   (Although to use Vook as an element of a full 360 transmedia novel is definitely viable).  It doesn’t mean Enhanced Editions (although once again, these guys offer a legion of expertise and solid, exciting platforms and concepts in adding elements to a larger transmedia strategy).  It doesn’t mean Lulu, Blurb or CompletelyNovel (but they offer options – which is what transmedia likes)!  Transmedia isn’t DailyLit or Keitai.  It isn’t YouTube, Babelgum or even SecondLife.  The truth is, transmedia isn’t any one of these, but at the same time, can embrace and utilise all of them.

The fact remains that successful and credible transmedia novels must focus primarily on story and, without that focus, will be in danger of shifting from a viable ‘immersive experience’ to one of those transparent ‘cross-media marketing initiatives and/or brand extensions’.  The exciting bit is that storytelling and the entertainment industry is on the cusp of something new and exciting and it isn’t only about 3D special effects as in ‘Avatar’.  Transmedia storytelling is about immersion, participation & experiences in an authored environment which will not only attract existing readers, but bring new audiences and modes of fragmentation.

So, what can publishers do now?  Publishers have already begun to embrace the notion of transmedia by casting off those expectations we’ve grown up with – that a story is… text on a page, actors on the stage, special effects on the screen or a narrator reading.  In our digital and connected world it’s now a natural step to dictate how we want our stories; whether we want to read, listen, watch or ‘do’.   Publishers are so close to sitting at that ‘sweet spot’ – they have the legacy of storytelling abilities (not so much in the creation of, but certainly in the professional ‘filtering’ system, publishing, marketing and distribution) alongside the potential expertise of all things ‘digital’.  HarperStudio, Penguin, Fourth Story Media and Perseus, are amongst those that are beginning to seed audiences and engage across a series of platforms. I believe that book as the primary platform is a fabulous means of introducing transmedia to genres that aren’t so tech centric – such as chick lit, self help and ‘how to’ guides perhaps.  ‘Book’ is an age-old familiar, tactile product and if the primary story is well written, transmedia elements can be woven in as part of the text narrative and readers will be compelled to engage with fragments.  Publishers are renowned story gatekeepers but now exist in a time where ad agencies are using the concept of ‘story’, along with branded content, to sell – and doing so extremely well. Publishing can develop as a multi-modal broadcast media by gatekeeping the ‘story’ and not the ‘page’ – by releasing this focus on ‘page’ and adopting a transmedia approach can still keep book as the primary product whilst working with media partners to cast a wide net and offer a series of options for receiving, interacting and engaging with these stories.

No other place exists in the entertainment industry where ‘story’ is deemed as ‘publishing’ – cinemas screen movies, radios broadcast plays, audio downloads are podcast and television broadcast sit-coms and dramas – all of which can make the leap to computer screen, but traditional print publishers are also competing with a host of new online broadcast options – audio stories are appearing on YouTube and AudioBoo, text novels are available on our mobile devices and we can consume Shakespeare in a series of 140 word bursts via Twitter. Only in the last 500 years or so did a distinction arise that cut the musical society in two, forming separate classes of music performers and music listeners. Throughout most of the world music making was a natural activity where everybody participated. Our culture now makes a distinction between a class of performers – the ‘experts’ and the rest of us who pay to listen. This is in marked reversal to what is happening with publishers – publishers were the ‘experts’; the gatekeepers of professional and quality writing and now everybody can publish online. And for free…

Publishers are excited about delivering stories in new ways, but there is also some caution and resistance to change from both publishers and readers, as moving the action from one device to another mid-story raises the risk of distraction. While transmedia storytelling can be an effective way of providing options and adding value, successful implementation requires care and sensitivity. Whether the links between media are cyber bridges, GPS games, QR codes or audio clues, moving a reader from book to device relies on the transition being relevant to the new platform, so that each medium excels at what it does best. Publishers are aware that it could be a few years before the full effects are seen, with new narratives developing organically and finding a receptive audience.  It all goes back to relevance.  Andrew Savikas coined this on the TOC blog, “The bigger issue I see is that thinking of the problem as “how do we get a textbook onto an iPhone” is framing it wrong. The challenge is “how do we use a medium that already shares 3 of our 5 senses — eyes, ears, and a mouth — along with geolocation, color video, and a nearly-always-on Web connection to accomplish the ‘job’ of educating a student.” That’s a much more interesting problem to me than “how do we port 2-page book layouts to a small screen.”

Not every storyworld will work as a transmedia novel, but as accessibility opens doors and presents new options, transmedia will open the gates for enhanced experiences, deeper levels of immersion and a host of options for those lean-back and lean-forward moments. In a nutshell, to receive your stories in the way that you want them!  The bottom line is that some readers and writers are changing their habits and fans are becoming actively engaged in stories. The value of a good story remains and is vital; the question is will you prefer to read, listen, watch, or do?

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4 thoughts on “Transmedia Storytelling – What’s it all about?

  1. A great article and well informed. But I have a few contrary views to stir up some discussion 🙂
    I think that any and every storywork will work as a transmedia experience – it just depends on implementation and execution. Different stories play to different readers/audiences and hence we ought to expect different implementations that best suit the story and the audience.
    Also I’m not sure that readers are changing their habits so much as combining or extending their habits. I think this is an important when trying to get your transmedia experience widely adopted: it ought to fit with the many of the audience’s habits rather than require them to develop new ones.

    For example, my project Lowlifes (www.lowlifes.tv) is a novella, a series of videos and a blog from the point of view of three different characters. There’s no change of habit required to enjoy any or all – read the novella in paperback in the bath; watch the videos online, on TV or on your mobile… and no requirement to switch between the two at any time; read or watch any media in any order. No “story bridges” or hidden chapters. The only criteria with all the media is to start at the beginning – because we have a typical 3-act structure with beginning, middle and end.

    There will also be an additional online game component that will reveal hidden clues unseen by the story protagonists – placing the reader in a privileged position and hopefully increasing the suspense! But again, this is entirely optional.

    As more transmedia examples get read/watched/experienced the definition of what is and is not “transmedia” will broaden and so will the genres. I think we’ve only just scratched the surface of it’s potential.

    • Hey Zen –thanks for your comments and discussion is always welcome!
      I think one of the reasons that transmedia is so exciting and fresh is because it pushes the boundaries of what we, as consumers/readers/audience/gamers, expect. If (when) we come to a time when every storyworld adopts a transmedia rollout we’ll have killed the magic that makes the experience! Some stories/content are made to be bite-sized, stand-alone, consumed and forgotten, which is why I believe that every storyworld won’t work as a transmedia. Every movie isn’t a Hollywood blockbuster, every novel isn’t a bestseller and every ARG isn’t a MMORPG!
      There’s no doubt that it will be challenging to appeal to readers who are rooted firmly in the concept of book – for them to even consider enjoying fragmented elements of a story through video content or as gaming WILL require that they read/interact in different ways, but then again we are increasingly connected, which is why experimentation is vital. I do believe that some stories are made for book – and solely book. Take for example film/book adaptations – it is rare that you enjoy both equally – one always excels and some stories are perfect because they are simply…. book.
      I think you’re right that we should expect different implementations that suit the story and audience, and as transmedia storytellers/architects we must continue to excite/engage and push the boundaries for genre readers so as not to expect the same old roll out. This could burn out the potential of transmedia before it’s even taken off! Where genre works with transmedia though, is your point about not expecting readers to change their habits, rather to fit in with their existing ones – this is why crime, sci fi and thrillers have been the genres to launch transmedia, by their very nature they conjure inquisitiveness, the ‘whodunnit’ question marks and the psyche to dig in and find out more. This is why, as I write my rom com transmedia (the first, so I believe) it is vital that I am tuned in to audience/reader behaviours. I found through my MA degree project, fictional blog ‘Staying Single’, that rom com readers don’t want to impact on the storyline or even find out facts in advance – they very much want to be told the story – they want to discover it naturally, they want it to unfold. Which in itself requires a very different transmedia strategy.
      Lowlifes sounds intriguing and I’m going for a look right now – what genre is it, who is your audience? And also, how will the online game be linked to the novella? Keep me posted (storycentraldigital@yahoo.co.uk)!
      But Zen, you definitely hit the nail on the head – we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface, but must continue to strive forward together to make sure that transmedia doesn’t simply implode and be remembered as the new kid in town until something better comes along – we need to keep surprising!
      Many thanks once again – please stay in touch!
      Alison

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