Transmedia Storytelling: The Art of World Building

Date Posted
March 17, 2008

Get ItIn Jenkins (2006) book, Convergence Culture, there is a broad reaching discussion of transmedia storytelling which he defines as “a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience”. It provides a large array of resources while also discussing the nature of modern media conglomerates, transmedia economics, workable models, collective intelligence and fan fiction. His view of transmedia storytelling is a purist perspective in that he strongly advocates a holistic narrative which is driven by the original authors and conceptualised at the beginning of a project. However he also warns against consumers being made to feel inadequate in this sometimes elaborate and confusing environment.

“Ideally, each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story” (Jenkins, 2006)

In transmedia storytelling there is “no one single source or text where one can turn to gain all of the information” (Jenkins 2007). The term, “additive comprehension,” coined by Enter The Matrix game designer Neil Young, is used to describe how different texts add new pieces to the narrative that build a picture of the fictional world within which these stories lie (ibid). This is a radically different model to that of other recent cross-media efforts.

Jenkins (2006) uses transmedia storytelling as an example of convergence. Flew (2005) notes that transmedia storytelling demonstrates convergence at all three levels; namely in functional convergence, industry convergence and as convergent products and services. For example, the functional convergence of media products plays a significant role in transmedia storytelling as the digitisation of multiple media flows allows the same base content to be capitalised upon through many media channels. Transmedia storytelling is a product of and a benefit to the industry convergence of media conglomerates as well as playing a role in the interactivity and extension of the convergent products and services (ibid).

Jenkins (2006) suggests that the purpose in exploring transmedia storytelling is not to repeat the narrative through multiple media but to extend facets of it across the media spectrum in a way that each can “be experienced separately and still be enjoyable, each component… part of a single unified storytelling experience” (Long 2007). Jenkins (2006) argues that the ideal, perhaps only workable, model for transmedia storytelling is one that is directed by the original authors and planned from the beginning of a franchise.

Transmedia storytelling is particularly attractive to major players in the media industry. Yacob (2006) highlights the relevance of this:

“By 2002, ten transnational conglomerates dominated the United States media landscape… Whether directly or via their various film and television interests, all have direct investment in videogame development, publishing, or franchise licensing; in some cases, such as Sony, Disney, and Vivendi Universal, they have interests in all three.”

Dena (2004) notes that the introduction of digitisation opened up cost-saving opportunities through the ease of reproduction and editing for a broad range of media-specific purposes.

Modern media conglomerates have interests across what would have once been considered significantly different industries. Epstein (2005) claims that the implications of this is that “most Hollywood films are considered a box-office success if they break even on theatrical sales balanced against the cost of distribution and marketing”. A higher budget, better quality film is possible because studios have the expectation that they will make most of their profit through ancillary products (ibid).

The transmedia storytelling of a single piece of intellectual property provides a great platform for extending consumers’ experience of the product as well as opportunity for optimising brand awareness and creating an avenue for publicising the primary intellectual property, be it narrative or fictional world (Yacob 2006). However, there should a careful distinction between transmedia storytelling (unique, valuable and independently viable contributions) and transmedia branding (cereal box promotions, “the making of” documentary and Happy Meal’s) (Long 2007).

One of the primary differences between transmedia storytelling and the approach of producing a primary narrative across several secondary media is that transmedia storytelling equally recognises the events from all of the media involved in the fictional world (Long 2004). For example producers of the television serial, Dawson’s Creek were able to create a secondary media for telling their story, “Dawson’s Desktop,” the personal computer of Dawson Leery. In Dawson’s Desktop the main plot was reaffirmed and extra details were added, but the television show (the primary media) never recognised the occurrences that took place on the website. This is contrasted with the Blair Witch Project that had a very clear independent role for all of its media: the initial website, the mockumentary aired on the Sci-Fi Channel and the feature film marketed as a documentary (Long 2007).

It is quite possible that cross-media storytelling can occur outside the design of the original author. However, this should not be mistaken as transmedia storytelling. For example, when asked about the relationship of fan fiction to the greater narrative of Star Wars, director George Lucas divulged:

“I don’t know anything about that world. That’s a different world than my world…They try to make their universe as consistent with mine as possible, but obviously they get enthusiastic and want to go off in other directions.” George Lucas (2005)

In transmedia storytelling the fictional world of the media texts must be seen as a primary character in its own right (Long 2007). This is due to the scope and depth of most transmedia narratives that go beyond one story or one character. Jenkins (2006) acknowledges the role of fan fiction in the chapter regarding this elaborate framework of transmedia storytelling. An extensive base of fan fiction is bound to arise in these transmedia narratives that have a large fan base, particularly as they seem to leave a “negative capability” for the fans to desire more information.

Long (2007) applies negative capability to storytelling as “the art of building strategic gaps into a narrative to evoke a delicious sense of ‘uncertainty, mystery, or doubt’ in the audience.” Fan fiction can be conceptualised as the unauthorised extension of these intellectual properties in new directions reflecting desires of the reader to “fill in the gaps” that they see in the commercial narrative (Jenkins 2006).

However, it should be noted that other workable models have arisen, for example the “New Studio Model” from Shiny Entertainment that uses of a team of experienced game developers to build the game under the design supervision of a key player (Yacob 2006). This model does not rely entirely on prior planning of the ancillary media orientated around the single intellectual property but rather on the creativity of the designers and quality control from the studios.

Chatman (1978) also offers a good model within which transmedia storytelling can take place. This framework involves separating the narrative (or fictional world) into kernels (pivotal events/knowledge) and satellites (elaborate events, non-essential to understanding the greater narrative). This model demonstrates that the approach of different media should be to exploit satellites of narrative in each media form. Although narratives from the fictional worlds are exploited across different media, Herman (2004) suggest that transmedia narratives are exploited in media-specific ways. For example, a video game will exploit the narrative differently to a book or a movie as well as making different contributions to the fictional world.

Hjort (2005) argues that if different facets of the story are produced for different media it can have a self-defeating effect. Consumers may be antagonised if they hold different expectations of the story and the way it should interact with each medium.

Jenkins (2006) discusses Levy’s (1997) concept of collective intelligence in relation to reality television. However, Yacob (2006) applies this to The Matrix transmedia narrative:

“The Matrix generates knowledge communities, as consumers come together to share elements of the narrative. It has a word of mouth driver built in” (Yacob 2006)

In this chapter of Convergence Culture, Jenkins does not delve deeply into the connection between transmedia storytelling and the marketing achieved through its naturally occurring knowledge communities. For Manovich (2001), new media are those that involve computers in their production, distribution and reception – at some or all points the text is digitised. This opens up opportunities for transmedia stories to be digested, critiqued and understood in ways like never before (Dena 2004). Apparent in these knowledge communities are facets of of convergence ranging from cultural to technological and functional.

Jenkins (2006) neglects to discuss the negative effects of media that are magnified by the proliferation of transmedia storytelling. For example, one impact raised by Buckingham and Sefton Green (2004) is the economic exploitation of children. They give the example of Pokémon, a transmedia narrative that proliferated an imagined world of powerful creatures. Pokémon created a need, the multi-facet nature of this narrative encouraged children to buy countless trading cards, video games, movies and television series so that they could “fill the gaps” (Dana 2004) in this boundless story.

In conclusion, Jenkins (2006) raises the question that consumers may always feel inadequate with the elaborate nature of transmedia narratives. He speaks of the breaking-point where franchises can no longer be stretched. Will a user will always feel inadequate? Or will they adapt? Is this the future of media narratives? Or is it just an experiment? What are the ethical limits of creating an addictive audience? How keenly does an audience really want to engage? There are a lot of questions raised throughout Convergence Culture, Jenkins (ibid) leaves many of the answers open for time to clarify. However, Jenkins (ibid) asserts that transnational media conglomerates are headed in this direction for the clear marketing and financial benefits offered by the transmedia storytelling model.

References

Buckingham, D. and Sefton-Green, J.
2004. Structure, Agency, and Pedagogy in Children’s Media Culture. In Pikachu’s global adventure : the rise and fall of Pokemon . Tobin, J. J., eds. Durham: Duke University Press.

Chatman, S.
1978. Story And Discourse; Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Cornell UP: Ithaca.

Epstein, E. J.
2005. The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood. Random House.

Flew, T.
2005. New Media: an Introduction. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Herman, D.
2004. Toward a Transmedial Narratology. In Narrative Across Media: the languages of storytelling. eds. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Hjort, M.
2005. From Epiphanic Culture to Circulation: The Dynamics of Globalization in Nordic Cinema. Transnational Cinema in a Global North: Nordic Cinema in Transition.Detroit, MI: Wayne State UP.

Jenkins, H.
2007. Transmedia Storytelling 101. Electronic document, http://www.henryjenkins.org/2007/03/transmedia_storytelling_101.html, accessed March 2007.

Jenkins, H.
2006. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York University Press.

Levy, P.
1997. Collective intelligence : mankind’s emerging world in cyberspace. Plenum Trade, New York.

Long, G. A.
2007. On Toys and Transmedia Storytelling. Tip of the Quill. Reproduced at http://www.geoffreylong.com/miscellany/actionfigures.php.

Lucas, G.
2005. New Hopes. Starlog Magazine #355, August 2005.

Manovich, L.
2001. The Language of New Media. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts

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