“What I as an author feel about this enormous change we’re undergoing? It feels like I’m tied to the front of a runaway train where the driver’s just had a heart attack, that’s what it feels like.”
— Author Philip Pullman, Enhanced Editions, on new ways of distributing stories
When does transmedia make sense?
Following up on “Transmedia and the Publishing Industry,” my previous post here at DBW, I will take a look at when transmediated content actually would make sense. Since author Philip Pullman might feel “tied to the front of a runaway train,” perhaps “never” would be the correct answer, at least while looking at the matter from a publishing point of view. But, Pullman goes on to say that it is a world with many possibilities for an author, so he’s not averse to new ways of thinking, and if there’s anything different about “now,” it’s that new ways of thinking abound.
From my perspective, as a cross- and transmedia format developer with an extensive background in newspaper journalism, radio, and television, I can see many occasions when it would make sense. Definitely not always, as many stories now published do just fine on their own and have no need to glance in a transmedia direction. On the other hand, there are stories, right now being told in print form only, that simply beg to be fleshed out and to give an eager audience the chance to touch the storyworld in a deeper and more engaged fashion.
Last spring Kassia Krozser wrote an excellent post on transmedia and the publishing industry, where she quite correctly argued that transmedia storytelling is not for every story. She also discusses three challenges facing the publishing industry with regards to transmedia – rights, business models, and technology and skills. I strongly suggest you take a look at the post, as it is very much up to date now, more than a year later. These are of course challenges that need to be met and not dismissed, but I believe transmedia and publishing many times are a great match.
A hypothetical example might be in order. Say that a writer has an idea for a great mystery story. It’s set in a small American town, not entirely unlike the Bon Temps of Louisiana where True Blood takes place, only perhaps more Midwestern. It is sprawling with interesting characters; the Geek, the Sporty Guy, the Cheerleader, and so on. The Geek is a central character in the plot, living a great part of his life on social media as well as more obscure forums (think 4chan and the like).
This early in the development, I would seriously consider bringing in people who can develop transmedia content. I would insist on the creator – the author – being in on this part of the process from the beginning, as her/his knowledge would be invaluable when building the world the stories should unfold in. The world and the mythology of the world would be described in great detail – more than would be needed for the novel – and the characters as well, including interesting side characters from the novel and even those that would never appear in the novel.
I’m not saying the author must do all of this. I’m saying the transmedia development team should do all of this, with the creator, the author, having the final say on what goes and what doesn’t. It all needs to fit together seamlessly, otherwise the cracks will show.
Now it’s up to the author, the team, and the story itself to decide what transmedia content would be appropriate to develop and produce. There are, naturally, many possibilities, and I’m sure you can imagine at least a dozen yourself as you read this. Perhaps it’s the story of the Geek’s closest ally in his World of Warcraft clan, told via social media and connecting to the story in the novel? Perhaps it’s the story of the Cheerleader’s sister, the black sheep of the family that moved to LA to make it big and that somehow is connected to the mysterious things happening in the small town, a story told via a third person who videoblogs his road travels on a WWII-era motorcycle, heading towards this small town with a shadow riding on his back.
The possibilities are nearly endless; the story and the storyworld decide which ones fit.
This does go both ways, though, which calls on a bit of courage on the part of the author. It is entirely possible that the way the stories on other media are planned to unfold will call on the novel to be adapted as well. Once again – it all needs to fit seamlessly. Cracks are bad. Illogical twists are even worse. The mirroring of all the parts of the development, the stories and the plots on the storyworld and the mythology is crucial.
Executed correctly, though, this would lead to an audience engaged in a fictional world where all the stories make sense. This world and the stories told there would bridge the gaps between the novels in the series, opening up for new stories, possibly even fan-based stories, encouraging immersion and increasing loyalty… and most likely provide the author with a well of ideas for coming plots and stories.
From my point of view, I love the notion of distant mountains. The notion that there is always something more to explore, something wondrous and exciting. The notion you have when you, with a sigh, put down a just-finished great novel, hoping you could pick up the next one in the series instantly.
What we need now are more examples of successful (and less successful, too) ventures into this field. I would be most eager to hear of examples from the real world, so please feel free to comment below.
Until next time!
Simon Staffans has a background in television, radio and newspapers, and has been working at MediaCity Finland as a developer of cross media and transmedia formats since 2005. He’s passionate about storytelling, family, fishing and football. And single malt whiskey.
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