McKee’s hierarchy of story structure provides a set of breakpoints at which a story can be moved from one media platform to another or one medium to another. While McKee developed his hierarchy of story, act, sequence, scene, and beat (McKee, 1997, pp. 34-42) to describe the story structure of film, it provides a framework of elements that can also be applied to novels, transmedia narratives, and other types of narratives.
The most obvious breakpoint is at the top level, where multiple stories can emerge from the storyworld. Moving down the hierarchy also provides opportunities for break-points at which the story can move to another platform or medium. A transmedia narrative may have one act played out in print, another on video, and a third as a live performance. Further down the hierarchy, a transmedia narrative could play out different scenes on different media, with users migrating from scene to scene, medium to medium to extract meaning from the narrative. However, the transmedia narrative’s author needs to choose carefully the levels the narrative’s breakpoints are at and the incentives provided to encourage the audience to cross platforms or media.
How a narrative is fragmented can determine the cognitive load required for the audience to extract meaning from it. Cognitive science has determined that people have separate channels for processing visual/pictorial and auditory/verbal information, have a limited capacity to process information in each channel, and need to actively engage in cognitive processing of receiving incoming information, mentally organizing it, and integrating it into knowledge from long-term memory (Mayer, 2008). The migration from one media platform to another or one medium to another involves some degree of “friction” that serves as a disincentive for the audience to cross platforms or media. (Pratten, Getting Started with Transmedia Storytelling, 2011, p. 34). The cognitive load imposed by moving across media is an important aspect of the amount of friction the audience experiences.
Meaning builds progressively as the audience moves through a story beat by beat, scene by scene, and act by act. Stories inherently provide the most complete meaning when read, viewed, or heard in their totality. Breaking a story up increases the cognitive load on the audience as it becomes necessary to remember and mentally assemble the various elements of the story, organize it, and integrate it into existing knowledge. The more fragmented a story, the greater the cognitive load. As a result, the lower an element is in McKee’s hierarchy, the more “friction” there is likely to be when crossing platforms and media. The cognitive load required to piece together a story from a series of beats scattered across multiple media will be significantly higher than the cognitive load of piecing together several acts scattered across the same media.