Story, Story, Story – The Heart & Soul of Transmedia

An increasing number of television shows are testing the transmedia waters. If you’ve been watching TV lately, you may have noticed an increase in the number of shows that have some web- or mobile-based interactive element to them. Burn Notice has its graphic novel, Falling Skies has its app, and How I Met Your Mother has Barney’s blog.

Andrea Phillips, author of A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling, notes:

The TV show How I Met Your Mother is increasingly transmedia in its aesthetic, with a lot of little pieces being spun off. They’ll mention a website or a band, and you’ll search for it [to find that] the band has a website and you can hear the song. The character that Neil Patrick Harris plays has actual books that you can buy in stores that aren’t really narrative; they’re essentially great running gags. But none of these is a big piece of the story. They are all just little pieces that add to the whole without being independent narratives, and that’s what makes it more an East Coast style. (Andrea Phillips, July 3, 2012, http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article.cfm?articleid=3039)

Unfortunately, many of these efforts at transmedia fall far short of being effective transmedia stories.

Too often transmedia is seen simply as a marketing approach (the “East Coast style” noted by Phillips) designed to heighten awareness of a television series and drive viewers to it. The storytelling seems to fall by the wayside.

As I noted in a previous blog post, transmedia storytelling needs to move beyond the marketing paradigm if it is to grow as an artform. Story needs to be the focus in a transmedia project. Mark Staufer, a former broadcast journalist, Head of Production at Universal Studios Networks, and creator of the transmedia story The Numinous Place, said that every element in a transmedia project has to be there for a reason.

“Each piece needs to move the narrative forward,” Staufer said.

In a blog post entitled “It’s the Audience, Stupid!”, Nedra Weinrich said.

…story — and the reason for the story — needs to be at the core of a successful transmedia project. Transmedia storytelling is not about the technology or platforms you use, but how each contributes to your audience’s experience of the story. The channels you use are simply a conduit to connect the story to the audience, and the audience to the movement. Build the story architecture to fit the audience, rather than throwing everything plus the kitchen sink in there and hoping something connects. (Nedra Weinreich, February 23, 2012, http://namac.org/node/26145)

The television series Burn Notice appears to be trying to carry the narrative across multiple media with its First Contact graphic novel. Unfortunately, finding the graphic novel requires clicking through a lot of material of the show’s website that takes the audience away from the story. Other elements on the site like the See It Like a Spy game simply don’t add anything to the storyline; they fail to progress the narrative.

A transmedia project should be designed from the beginning as such, rather than having the transmedia component tacked on late in the development process.

Since the dawn of the internet, movie marketers have been attempting to leverage the internet to build excitement around releases and, ultimately, “go viral.” The majority of these efforts have failed because they have been created in isolation from the core creative team, by a siloed agency with no access to talent or authority to add to the story. In many instances, additional content that is not planned in concert with the core creative team ends up explicitly contradictory to the movie — a major frustration for fans and stakeholders alike. (Jeff Gomez & Simon Pulman, March 23, 2012, http://adage.com/article/digitalnext/ridley-scott-s-prometheus-advertising-part-picture/233452/)

Robert McKee, writer of numerous television series and films, said story is a temporal art and “the single most difficult task of the temporal artist is to hook our interest, hold our uninterrupted concentration, and then carry us through time without an awareness of the passage of time.”

The need to carry the audience through time without them being aware of its passage is particularly important in transmedia storytelling. Moving from one medium to another is a significant leap for a transmedia story’s audience; this leap disrupts the flow of the story and interrupts the audience’s concentration. If any elements the reader/viewer jumps are not connected to the overall narrative in a meaningful way, the likelihood of losing that reader/viewer increases significantly.

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