Transmedia Storytelling: Getting Started

By robert pratten, July 7th, 2010

Having decided that you want to get into transmedia and write a transmedia story, where do you start?

Well, I’d recommend that you start with what you know and branch out from there. But knowing where and how to branch out means considering the type of experience you want to create.

There are five questions to ask yourself (shown in Figure 1):

What is the story I want to tell?
How will I deliver the story?
What kind of audience participation do I want or need?
How will audience participation affect the story over time?
How much is based in the real world vs a fictional world?
Transmedia Storytelling: Getting Started
Figure 1: Transmedia Storytelling: Getting Started

The more audience participation you want or need, the more you’ll tend towards writing the storyworld before the story. Figure 2 illustrates what I mean by story and storyworld.

Think of a “story” as one implementation of the world of the story among many potential implementations. I guess you might think of story as one plot line and associated characters from a world of many plots, subplots, and characters and so on – I’ve called this a single “narrative space”. Figure 3 illustrates how an author might take a single narrative space (one story) and develop it into additional narrative spaces (new stories).

Story vs Storyworld
Figure 2: Story vs Storyworld

Figure 3: Narrative Spaces

When thinking about delivering the story, put aside the specifics of particular platforms (just for now) and think about the experience in terms of:

the narrative spaces you want to cover (location, characters, time – see above)
the number and relative timing of the platforms (sequential, parallel, simultaneous, non-linear)
the extent and type of audience involvement (passive, active, interactive, collaborative) .
There’s a lot to consider here so let’s tackle it as a two-stage process:

Step 1: decide the narrative space, number of platforms and their timing
Step 2: decide the extent of audience involvement.

Step 1: Narrative Space and Relative Timing of Platforms

Figure 4 shows a “typical” Hollywood transmedia project. It’s a series of single-platform deliverables – a book, a movie, a game. In many ways the platforms are independent except that they often cover different narrative spaces: prequel, sequel, flashback which may dictate a release order or schedule. In any case there’s no apparent audience interactivity between the platforms.

Figure 4: Transmedia Franchise

By contrast, an Alternate Reality Game (ARG) might cover a single narrative space across multiple platforms – each alone insufficient to carry the complete story but like jigsaw puzzle pieces they must be assembled to complete the picture (well… you know… story).

Portmanteau Transmedia
Figure 5: Portmanteau Transmedia

These different types to transmedia can be represented by the diagram in Figure 6. Of course it’s also possible to combine different types of transmedia as shown in Figure 7.

Types of Transmedia
Figure 6: Types of Transmedia

Mixed Transmedia Types
Figure 7: Mixed Transmedia Types

Step 2: Audience Involvement

Audience involvement in the story often bothers indie filmmakers. It’s not just that the indie wants to tell his story without interference; it’s also the fear that amateur involvement will sully the final result. And for those who have tried involving audiences there’s concerns about the effort of “community management” – the time and trouble to guide, motivate, appeal and appease.

It’s not only indie filmmakers that worry about how to tell their story and yet still find room for audience participation. Talk to game designers about audience (i.e. player) interaction and story and they’ll tell you that the more control you give to players (audiences), the less control is retained by the author. In fact the problem is even more pronounced in MMOs where virtual world guru Richard Bartle says “Virtual world designers can’t add story, they can only add content. Content provides experiences that can be made by those who come through or observe them into story.” So at its most open-ended, the virtual world (or transmedia experience) creates a world with lots of actionable content and choices but no plot?

This player-author struggle is tackled by games like Fallout3 and Red Dead Redemption (which are console games, not MMOs) by offering players the choice to explore (create their own stories) or tackle quests (follow the author’s story). Cut-scenes of course offer the most extreme authorial control.

It’s clear that transmedia experiences can borrow from the lessons of games and virtual worlds – creating a storyworld into which the author places a mix of story and content with opportunities for sit-forward and sit-back participation.

Looking further into audience participation I discovered the “storytelling cube” (Figure 8 ) first presented at the 2002 Game Developers Conference by Raph Koster and Rich Vogel to describe how narrative is explored in online virtual worlds. It applies particularly well to ARGs. The three axes are control, impact and context:

Control: How much freedom does the audience have to create their own experience and how much control will you have as the author?
Impact: What long-lasting impact will the audience have on the evolution of the experience?
Context: How much of the experience is based in a fictional world and how much exists in “real life”?
Figure 8 Storytelling Cube (Raph Koster & Rich Vogel)

There’s no right or wrong position to be inside this cube: it’s up to you to decide based on experience, preference and resources. At one extreme you might have an entirely fictional world, tightly controlled by the author with no audience interaction and at the other you could have an experience based around real-world places & events in which the audience is free to completely change how the story evolves and is experienced. And of course the two can be mixed and there’s a lot of space in between.

To be continued….


Posted in ARG audience-building cross-media social media storytelling transmedia

robert pratten is a transmedia consultant and content creator. He’s also a critically acclaimed award-winning feature film director, writer & producer. In a previous life he worked as a marketing consultant to the telecoms industry and was an internationally recognized expert in the field of Intelligent Networks. Past clients include Nokia, Ericsson, Lucent, Telia and Telmex. Follow at