Transmedia Storytelling – Weaving the Universe

Weaving the Universe

Weaving the universe relates to the fact that any successful transmedia intellectual property is like a tapestry – many threads that are well-woven to create a beautiful pattern. This points to the concept that really successful intellectual properties tell many stories that weave into a larger picture or larger understanding of the story.

The biggest challenge is that no matter how much planning things rarely go as planned. The “big picture” vision we just touched on is typically impacted by both financial and cultural factors. Even building the master plan is a huge undertaking with many factors to sort out. Whether it is a universe from scratch (top-down) or a universe adapted from one that already exists (bottom-up), each has different pressures and different advantages and those need to be taken into account.

Economic Issues

This isn’t about production costs, per se, since we’re talking about raw universe and world building, but the reality is that anyone who is building a universe for a transmedia property has to think about how expensive any of it is to produce. The more alien, or more fantastical the environments the stories play out in, the more it’s going to cost.

How much can you afford to develop? When you look at all the possibilities, the inclination is to think that a complete development process is critical and very expensive. That is of course true to some degree. However, how much of this needs to be done is really a question of how much you need to develop to be able to conceptualize the world.

How much you can afford to make translates into “what do you need to actually make the world work?” Choosing which elements are crucial to weaving a story is a story-based decision as well as a pragmatic one. Where will the first success be? Is that the most important expression that defines the universe?

The economic considerations have a huge impact on how the elements are brought together because they define what elements are in the mix. Few properties and therefore few creators have unlimited resources, so virtually all need to go through a process of prioritization based solely on a sound financial model for the property. This is where creativity meets a pragmatic business approach, and subsequent chapters can help you anticipate some of these issues.

Cultural Impact

The cultural issue is present through the weaving process. Intellectual properties often have a long arc in terms of development and execution. The world we live in always provides a background; properties come in and out of focus, look different than they did ten years ago, for better and worse. Times change, so the setting and even the context and the meaning of the content changes, which can affect how the universe is shaped and structured. In addition, other properties emerge that change the culture’s perspective on certain topics. Harry Potter set the table for supernatural topics, but discouraged another big property about wizards. The Hunger Games is a smorgasbord of teen-on-teen violence, which may have opened the doors on a long delayed property with a similar element, a motion picture version of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game novel (Tor Books, 1985).

Intellectual properties establish what is topical and appropriate on a regular basis. Part of weaving an intellectual property universe is weaving in the culture around us. This is partly why one intellectual property universe makes a connection and becomes a hit while another disappears. The thread of “now” increases the chance of that connection. We’re not striving for “timeless,” but rather what is often referred to as “universal stories” – the irony is that partly what makes stories universal is their specificity. How an intellectual property places itself in the moment using what is available is incredibly important.

Cast of Characters

A distinguishing characteristic of properties is whether they are a single thread or a multithread character arc. Examples of each are Harry Potter and Game of Thrones. Harry Potter, while a rich universe of people, places and events is always clear whose story it is and who is the center of that universe. While Harry might not be present, Harry is always a presence – ultimately he is the thread all the other threads connect to. Game of Thrones is at the other end of the spectrum, a multithread universe where the Stark family is presented as the core of the narrative, with Ned Stark as head of the family and easy to interpret as the protagonist, until his head is chopped off at the end of Season One. (Oh, sorry :::SPOILER ALERT::: )

Outside it being a great plot twist, it is also proof that the story, be it in novel or television form, is the story of the universe that the audience gets to see from multiple perspectives. A multithread universe has more moving parts, so to speak, but on the other hand a misstep with one character could be quickly forgotten if you can effectively move on to the next and the next. Managing a single thread arc, while more challenging from a simple storytelling point of view, is less complex from a transmedia standpoint because we never wonder whose story it is. That is always clear. Keeping a large complex universe together requires that the grand vision is clear and being maintained by a producer with a handle on all the elements of the story. Not an easy task.

Platform Implications

How the media differences impact the weaving is another issue that has to be delineated. Each medium has its own strengths and weaknesses that accentuate different qualities in the universe. It goes back to the same question of what to start with. This time the question is not one of entry point, but instead how a given medium lays the groundwork for the introduction of the next element and the next and the next. Motion pictures provide the big splash, television the big picture and games the profound connection with the audience. Then the question becomes, what next and why? Is the point to focus on character or on universe or on pulling in a new audience or cementing the core? How do you use the unique traits of different media to strengthen the property as a whole? Is it a simple additive process or is it some synergistic process that is challenging to quantify? Add to that, what constitutes a timeline for success? The reality is that when and what order elements are introduced matters greatly. How do they amplify the expectations of the audience without killing momentum? People are used to waiting, but at what point does waiting damage the long-term position of the property? This is why the weaving of the universe is the greatest challenge of the process.

The past has already shown that you can have all the pieces in play and still manage to screw it up. An example of success and failure, and the circumstances surrounding each respective property, will illuminate the challenges of weaving and how they have been dealt with in the past.

Two Weaving Examples

The Matrix is a property ahead of its time and conceptually original. In fact we could argue that it is one of the first intentional transmedia properties. The initial film introduced the story’s universe and because of its huge success, the creators were able to implement their original intentions to create the grand vision they had imagined, telling the story of that universe in animation, video games, web comics and feature films.

What we as an audience experienced, however, was not a grand vision, but instead, pieces that sort of fit together, interrelated, but without real synergy. In hindsight, the issues have to do with the loss of focus by the filmmakers, perhaps caused by trying to do too much, which led to a lack of crispness in the continuation of the mothership in the subsequent features.

In addition, their original vision was stymied by the video game’s development in particular. The vision of a game that truly functioned as part of the transmedia storytelling process was hindered both by the technology of games and maturity of the form, an issue that is only now seemingly to the point where those challenges can be overcome. It was also the first real effort to extend the narrative from a motion picture into a video game, and in a way back again. A major character departs during one sequence and heads off to take care of something, the events of which are depicted in the video game. The character returns later in the motion picture, with minimal explanation as to where she was or what happened. The connections are tenuous, and frankly it creates a significant gap in the movie’s plotting as it seems odd that she was off doing something important, but we don’t (in the film) know what it is. That said, the weaving of The Matrix universe, well executed or not, is an important step in the maturation of the process of transmedia storytelling.

Launched in 1963, Doctor Who is an example of a property where there is a single entity in charge for many years – the BBC – with multiple media expressions and a very popular mothership, the television series. However, the BBC decided abruptly in 1989 that enough was enough (a clear example of how not to bring a property to conclusion) and put the property on “hiatus.”

After that, the image that comes to mind is of a mom leaving her child on the doorstep of an orphanage. In this case an orphanage run by the fans … What occurred (and it is rare) was essentially that the weaving was turned over to the fans, some through more traditional channels like the Doctor Who Magazine and the novels, but eventually through less traditional methods, such as fan generated videos that kept the tapestry going. The fans maintained story momentum when the holders of the intellectual property refused and since the rebirth in 2005, the parents (or BBC) have done as excellent job of doing what they refused to do two decades earlier: weave a rich story universe with multiple successful expressions. The reemergence of this property has been an astonishing turn of events.

These two examples amplify how hard this process of weaving is. While not really helpful, the underlying truth is that how the elements are woven together is truly unique to each property. There are too many factors in play to come up with a simple formula or a single path. These examples make you wonder how The Matrix would look if launched today. Doctor Who in some ways is an example of how you learn from the past and redefine a property for its era. If you look at how the elements are now woven, it speaks to a modern audience and in fact a wider audience than it had in its previous runs.

Weaving the property through multiple expressions is how you establish it in the culture and establish the connections that make one property succeed and another slip into oblivion.

Excerpt from Storytelling Across Worlds: Transmedia for Creatives and Producers by Tom Dowd, Michael Nierderman, Michael Fry, and Josef Steiff © 2013 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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