Screenwriting

Transmedia Storytelling – A Story for All Screens

Transmedia storytelling creatives, or those who develop and make transmedia content, have a unique set of responsibilities to satisfy an inquisitive and insatiable audience. The rising generation of media savvy consumers are adept at using social media tools to find information. They are “seekers” who do not want to be given all of their content in one place, but are willing to be hooked by the primary platform and then asked to seek or search for ever deepening levels of story and character served up via multiple creative and distribution platforms. ABC’s LOST was a tremendous television success, but creators give some of the credit to their savvy transmedia approach, seeding the series online with leaked clips and continuing the online fan relationship with specially designed web based content to deepen the audience’s relationship to the story, the world and the characters.

Seekers want to interact with their content, to comment and “play” within the worlds of their characters. They are active members of what Henry Jenkins has termed “participatory culture,” a culture that does not only want to view media but participate in the media, to have an effect on the story and even to utilize fan fiction to tell their own versions of popular narratives. (Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collides , NYU Press, 2006).The transmedia creative is not making for one audience, i.e. a film audience, but for many audiences over multiple platforms, often times simultaneously.

A Story for All Screens

Because of the need to create across media platforms, the transmedia creative must see their core narrative or story as not being tied to one media platform, i.e. a motion picture, video game or television show, but rather developed to have multiple lives on multiple screens.

As an example, characters developed as the main, or even minor characters of a movie must have deep enough back stories to provide a year’s worth (24 episodes distributed bi-weekly) of a 2–3 minute web series that focuses only on the minor characters and their past, unseen in the film. So it is a deeper way of thinking about character, that you must be able to extend their narrative across multiple creative and distribution platforms.

The need to explore a single segment of a core narrative on multiple media platforms can be determined by an audience’s desire to see more of a character, or to explore a riddle or a mystery within the core narrative. A good example of this was the fan fervor associated with knowing more about LOST’s Dharma Initiative, a strange cult-like scientific faction that occupied the island before the plane crash. These inhabitants, the so called “Others,” took on something of a life of their own online, generating fan fiction, creator-based web content, as well as merchandising opportunities. Was that a planned relationship? Did J. J. Abrahams and the Bad Robot production team seed the story with the Dharma Initiative to start a transmedia strand? Or did fans connect to this part of the narrative first and then Bad Robot fed the excitement?

One World, Many Stories

What is a world? Well, in terms of storytelling, a storyworld is a fictional or constructed setting that may differ dramatically from the real world or may be historically accurate or consistent with the real world except that there are certain elements and/or characters that, being fictional, differ from the real world.

An imagined or constructed fictional world is the context within which stories are told. It provides an all-encompassing backstory without which the story would not make sense. It sets up the history of the world, the geography, the physical rules that govern the natural and elemental aspects, and creates or defines the usually sentient beings, whether human or other, that populate and interact within the world. Within these defined populations exists the cultural, political and intercultural relationships of the world. This includes government, politics and commerce as well as the level of technology and whether or not magic and the supernatural are at play. It establishes the hierarchical rules that allow for the understanding of power differentials amongst individuals and cultures as well as any mythological or religious elements. It will also establish existing conflicts, alliances and important pre-existing personal relationships. The world must contain all that is needed for the story to begin … and to be believable.

The process of crafting worlds is called world building. World building is the act of designing and constructing believable fictional universes. The backstory contained in this world will give a context to the story and aid in the creation of a “suspension of disbelief.” The concept most likely comes from the poet William Taylor Coleridge who is quoted as saying in 1817 in his Bibliographia Literia with regard to poetry, “That willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith” and refers to a reader’s (or audience’s) willingness to accept the author’s vision of a time, place, world, or characters that, were they not in a work of fiction, would be unbelievable. The audience has to be willing to put aside the fantastical, the incongruous, the unlikely and even excuse narrative shortcuts or streamlining in order to accept and be engaged by the story.

The author or creator must literally “play God,” in that he or she must create a “world” and the lives of those who dwell there, whether that world be a story-specific set of characters and situations that exist within our world or that live in a world much like Earth or that function in a world completely different from Earth with its own physical rules geography, ecology, history, cultures and mythologies. From the fertile world crafted by the author, many stories, many lives and their struggles must be able to flow forth.

In the genre of transmedia, a world would be defined as a single intellectual property or concept that extends into multiple creative and distribution iterations or “stories.” The rule being that with each iteration, story and/or characters must change. We see this idea of “one world, many stories” as the pillar of transmedia storytelling. An originally conceived transmedia world must be spacious and detailed, rich and fertile enough to allow for growth over time with the ability to be slightly different in each medium. The world must either be based in our real world with elements and/or characters that differ, or if an entirely fictional world and characters are presented, there must be universal human elements or themes that allow us to connect to and believe the constructed world and allow the audience to be willing receivers of the intended story.

Adaptation vs. Extension vs. Expansion

When working with story material from one medium to another, there are several different strategies, each with its own strengths and challenges. Sometimes people talk about these different strategies as if they were equivalent, but in fact they are quite different. Applying processes of translation, interpolation and inspiration to the same story material results in very different results.

Adaptation

Adaptation retells the story told in one medium in another, with applicable changes depending on the requirements of the new medium. At its core, this is a translation process, much like we might try to translate an English phrase into another language. This is a process of adapting the material to a new form, remaining as faithful to the source material or original story elements as possible. We want to retain the meaning of the original phrase as closely as possible, but each language has its own syntax.

Adaptation transfers the story elements to another medium, creating a derivative work. Many if not most of the films made in Hollywood are based on story material that originated in another medium, whether that was prose ( Fahrenheit 451 , 1953), radio ( The 39 Steps , 1935), plays ( Wait Until Dark , 1966), games ( Silent Hill , 1999) or graphic novels ( From Hell , 1991).

The attraction to adapting material is that there is already a built-in audience, people who already love the intellectual property and are eager to experience it in new ways. The challenge is to somehow be both familiar (so the fans feel that the fidelity of the original material has been kept) and new (so the fans feel there’s a value in seeing the adaptation by discovering new aspects to the original story) at the same time, a tough line to walk. Just think about controversies surrounding the casting or costumes of certain films.

In general, we do not think of adaptation as a transmedia process because it implies that we’re simply taking a story and presenting it in a different medium. The differences between the adaptation (or adapted form of the story) and the source material is solely the result of the fact that each medium has its own storytelling and aesthetic conventions, its own syntax (to extend our earlier analogy).

There may be times, however, when an adaptation contains additional information not present in the original that blurs the line. For example, the 1982 Paramount Pictures film Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan featured a new character named Saavik, played by Kirstie Alley. In the film, Saavik appears to be fully Vulcan, albeit with some interesting mannerisms. The novel adaptation of Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan was written by Vonda N. McIntyre, based on the screenplay by Jack B. Sowards, from the story by Harve Bennet and Jack B. Sowards. The novelization includes the detail that Saavik is in fact half–Vulcan and half–Romulan, which was included in the original screenplay, but cut before production. (If you are not a Star Trek fan, trust us when we say that it’s a notable distinction.) We talk about canon (official elements of the universe) – this is a case where this particular fact was originally part of the official story, but was cut, and because of its inclusion in the novelization – the official adaptation of the motion picture – is viewed by many fans as “canon.”

With that said, there may be times when adapting material may involve just one story within a larger intellectual property universe, so we cannot say that adaptation is never a part of transmedia, just that it cannot be the only approach. If it is, then it does not meet the accepted definition of transmedia storytelling.

Extension

Extension draws from the narrative elements of the original source story. At first glance, it may seem that we’re telling the same story, but unlike adaptation, we do not need to remain as faithful to the original material as possible. An extension includes new narrative elements that build directly on the pre-existing material, but does not extensively introduce new story elements. In some ways, this is akin to interpreting the material, finding nuances and new inferences in the plot and or characters that can be further explored and developed, but in effect, it is interpolation, inserting new material into existing material. As a result, this process creates a richer and more defined text. It could be argued that the Wrath of Khan adaptation just discussed is in fact an extension due to the “new” material in it, but it was intended to be an adaptation.

When we extend the universe, we are deepening the storyworld and our understanding of it. This extension might provide insights into the backstory, such as the original website for The Blair Witch Project ( http://www.blairwitch.com ) which establishes a context for the film crew and events that happen to them, or help us better understand specific characters, such as the deeper portrait of Gaeta in the third web series for Battlestar Galactica (Sci-Fi, 2003–2009), or bridge two iterations of story, such as the Star Trek Ongoing comic book series that connects not just J. J. Abram’s two Star Trek films but also links his films to the original 1966–1969 TV series universe.

Extensions can also build off of the original material’s loyal fan base while making the new iteration of the story exciting because it mines the original material for deeper characterizations, mythology or events. The risk is that audiences may find that the new material contradicts their view or interpretation of the original material.

Expansion

Expansion broadens the story, introducing parallel or companion narratives that often provide new perspectives, insight or clarity to the existing story. As a process, this is developing new story material that’s inspired by the original narrative or universe. We are no longer tied to the specifics of the original story as long as we follow (or at least do not contradict) the established rules of the previous versions of the intellectual property – we draw inspiration from it.

Aliens and Alien 3 are particularly interesting case studies of the ways in which each new writer and director expanded the story mythology of the film(s) that preceded it – not just in terms of themes but in terms of the aliens’ behavior and characteristics – and built upon previous story strategies and aesthetic considerations, such as changing the genres that are hybridized, the characterizations and the visual look in each film. Even the much later Ridley Scott motion picture Prometheus attempts to expand the Alien universe without contradicting the previous films (at least the ones before Predators got involved). Some audiences already familiar with the intellectual property find these new stories exciting ways to experience the original property afresh, while others may be distressed by the fact that their favorite character doesn’t appear in the expansion or events evocatively alluded to are now made more literal.

One of the counterbalances to the challenge of expanding the storyworld is that expansion is where interactive components of transmedia can be most easily introduced, allowing the audience to be more than just viewers but also co-creators, contributing narrative elements or singling out characters for further thought and development.

In all of these cases, these processes are primarily governed not by co-creation but rather licensing, where subsequent iterations of the story material remain faithful and subservient to the original narrative property. The more we want to create complex and co-created worlds, whether with our creative and production teams or with our viewers/users, the more thought we need to give to the universe from the concept’s very inception in order to create a rich, complex world in which to create or facilitate meaningful narrative expressions.

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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