The Challenges of Transmedia Narrative Design

I’ve been a writer in one form or another for all of my working career, starting out as an “ink-stained wretch” in the daily newspaper business. I’ve written lengthy feature articles for magazines, scripts for interactive video projects when the video was still played on 12-inch analog laser discs, and worked my way through a wide variety of web-based projects as we went from Notepad being a state-of-the-art HTML editor to the latest generation of Adobe publishing tools.

Writing in each of those areas presented its own unique challenges, but none of them compare to what the writer(s) of a transmedia narrative face. The nature of transmedia narratives brings with it a host of information design challenges. The individual elements of a transmedia narrative – text, images, audio, video, and other forms of media – present their individual opportunities and challenges.

“Each medium has its own affordances, its own systems of representation, its own strategies for producing and organizing knowledge. Participants in the new media landscape learn to navigate these different and sometimes conflicting modes of representation and to make meaningful choices about the best ways to express their ideas in each context.” (Jenkins, Purushotma, Weigel, Clintion & Robison, 2009, pp. 87-88)

The creation of transmedia narrative involves not just figuring out how to work with different media, but also working with the production cultures associated with those media. For example, there are significant production culture differences between film, TV and theater production, digital media production, and book production (Jeffery-Poulter, 2001, p. 155).

“In transmedia projects that involve distinct media which are part of existing creative production cultures, a practitioner needs to not only understand the affordances of the medium, but be able to negotiate the associated industries.” (Dena, Transmedia Practice: Theorizing the Practice of Expressing a Fictional World Across Distinct Media and Environments, 2009, p. 64)

In addition to the affordances of the individual media in a transmedia narrative, a whole new set of challenges occur when trying to integrate several different media into a cohesive and coherent overall narrative. The diverse set of knowledge and skills required to author a transmedia narrative is a major challenge.

“These works require a different kind of knowledge and skill. A creator may be well versed in writing novels and screenplays, but not necessarily skilled in writing stories that begin in a novel and continue in a film, in the rhetoric necessary to guide their reader to become a player, and even in understanding the combined effort these media platforms have on experience.” (Dena, Transmedia Practice: Theorizing the Practice of Expressing a Fictional World Across Distinct Media and Environments, 2009, p. 5)

Much is still unknown about the process of creating effective transmedia narratives. The current stage of transmedia narrative has been compared to the silent film era when new creative approaches for moving pictures were being developed (Kohn, 2011). From a creative perspective, transmedia narrative projects will require changing how storytelling is done and transform the art of storytelling (Hoefs, 2011). The aesthetic criteria for evaluating transmedia works are still poorly defined (Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, 2006, pp. 96-97), presenting another challenge as the field develops.

The diverse media used in a transmedia narrative also challenges the ability of individual readers/viewers to understand the meaning of the narrative. For example, a person familiar with reading a booking and using a computer may not be familiar with using both in a way that enables them to effectively engage the work in its entirety (Dena, Transmedia Practice: Theorizing the Practice of Expressing a Fictional World Across Distinct Media and Environments, 2009, p. 5). How to keep readers/viewers interested in a narrative scattered across multiple media is a critical concern for transmedia designers and developers.

“There is still a lot we don’t know about what will motivate consumers to seek out those other bits of information about the unfolding story…and we still know little about how much explicit information they need to know those other elements exist or where to look for them.” (Jenkins, The Revenge of the Origami Unicorn: Seven Principles of Transmedia Storytelling, 2009)

The process of creating a coherent story or set of stories across multiple media is significant.

“One very large and persistent problem has always been creating authentic transmedia stories – natural story arcs and bridges that lead you onward through a long format, multi platform experience.” (Hayes, 2010)

The purpose of my master’s thesis was to address the question of how to create stories that are effectively communicated via transmedia narratives. Answering this question required:

  • Identifying key theories, methodologies, concepts, techniques and tools that can be applied to the creation of transmedia narratives.
  • Developing an ontology that represents the key concepts within the field of transmedia narrative design and identifying the properties of and relationships between those concepts.
  • Developing a theoretical framework that can be used to design and develop the narrative, the interconnections between elements of the narrative, and the interfaces that facilitate users’ navigation through the transmedia narrative.

The study of transmedia narratives should examine the relationship between narrative and media (Ryan, Introduction, 2004, p. 35). Doing so raises a number of secondary research questions, including:

  • How are effective transmedia narratives structured?
  • How can specific concepts and theories from information design theory be applied to narratives that integrate multiple media?
  • How do the intrinsic properties of a particular medium shape the form of the narrative and affect the narrative experience?
  • What properties of a particular medium are favorable or detrimental to the creation of a narrative?
  • What can one medium do that another can’t when used to create a narrative?
  • What narrative genres, approaches, and techniques are unique to a particular medium?

When I got into this project, I knew I was trying to get my head around some big questions. But it wasn’t until I was so far in that I couldn’t back out that I began to understand just how complex a form of communication transmedia narratives are.

It’s my hope that addressing some of these questions will begin to set out a framework that lets us understand what is needed to create effective transmedia narratives and how to do it.

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