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The Future of Storytelling

10 Nov 2014

The rise of digital media is changing how we consume stories for entertainment. While some of us no longer pick up paper books or magazines, we still love a good, juicy tale. Hence the rise of so-called transmedia storytelling: the weaving of tales via an array of platforms.

We’re not just talking about a book or an e-book being turned into a movie or being supported by a web site. “The core is telling a single ongoing story through fragments,” explains Andrea Phillips, a freelance transmedia writer and author of A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling. The fragments are often told in different mediums, fleshing out characters, side stories, subplots or other aspects on a range of traditional and digital platforms. All the different threads compliment and enrich each other, yet can stand alone and still be entertaining and meaningful.

It’s an approach to storytelling that’s a boon to fans who can’t get enough of their favourite characters and plotlines. For writers, it means a whole new world of opportunity.

What Transmedia Looks Like
Think about Star Wars. The movie franchise tells the main plot points. But Han, Anakin and Yoda have other adventures in dozens of books, comics and in the TV show The Clone Wars (and the soon-to-be-launched Star Wars Rebels). Marvel has also tackled transmedia storytelling with a passion, expanding its multiverse into movies, games and web sites (Phillips says Marvel has plotlines for all its media mapped out for the next 15 years)

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries use vlogs to tell a modern version of Pride and Prejudice. That main storyline has been spun off into vlogs by characters, many of whom have social media identities, and there’s now a book.

Meanwhile, movie companies are using interactive games to promote films before they come out: the 2008 movie The Dark Knight offered fans a chance to help “steal” a bus (digitally, not in the real world) before the opening, and that stolen bus features in early scenes in the movie.

Bands have also experimented with transmedia. Nine Inch Nails’ 2007 concept album Year Zero was complimented by an alternative reality game (the url for which you had to discover via band related properties.)

Big companies are investing in transmedia properties but small, independent writers can use games, blogs, social media and more to expand and promote a book or another creative project. Sometimes, transmedia is promotional. But often it’s just an end in itself — a way of furthering a story and exploring new, creative ideas.

Transmedia Outlets
The different genres you can use to develop fragments of a story are nearly limitless. Many stories may begin traditionally with a book, movie, comic, film, musical recording or visual art, and then expand out. Here’s a list of some of the transmedia mediums you can try:
• Games. Online games can offer an interactive element where fans can influence the storyline and get new information about characters and worlds. Games can be long and involved, or quite simple. They can also have links to the real world and players can go on the hunt for real items in libraries, outdoors, or anywhere.
• Social media. A story’s characters can have a Twitter account and blog about their feelings and adventures.
• Unexpected digital formats. Texts can tell a story. Phillips once did an entire story in a Google calendar. Just about any digital location that employs words or pictures can be used to tell a story, even if it’s a limited one.
• Videos. Monologues, mini dramatizations or animated videos can further a story.
• Concrete items. The medium doesn’t have to be digital. A grocery list, a gift, a diary, a letter or another object can act as a story artifact. You can hide this item to be found by fans, or photograph it and post it. If you have an item you can duplicate, it can even be transformed into merchandise.
• Visual formats such as videos, digital art, comics.

Benefits for Writers
Screenwriters, authors, bloggers, journalists and content marketers can delve into transmedia storytelling. Since the story appears in multiple formats, the different fragments can act as promotional tools for each other.

But Phillips says the biggest benefit is the inherent interactivity in many of the digital formats. “It’s not about money, it’s about art and it’s about feedback.” When a fictional character has a social media presence, you can tell from online conversations from fans what arc and characters are having an impact. In fact, large media organizations such as Marvel have used fan feedback to find out which characters and storylines are popular and have created new content to fill that demand.

Another plus: when you tell a story via a blog or with a small online game, you don’t have to wait for a publisher to put the product out. The product is out there faster, helping you get inspired to create the next storyline or imagined world.

What Makes it Good
So many formats, so many ideas. While transmedia is all around us, not all of it is good quality. Phillips says good transmedia storytelling must not just be well written or executed, but it must place the right content in the right place. “Part of the creativity is finding the structure. You have to figure out how to present it, and how to tie it together and guide readers from one step to the next.” She warns against a checklist-style approach: if you think you should have a fictional character blog to promote your book, question that impulse and be sure that character truly would blog and have something to say.

But for her, the true test of top-notch transmedia is audience reaction. “If you can evoke an emotional response, you’re doing something right.”

Andrea Phillips - The Future of StorytellingWant to know how to create transmedia stories? Andrea Phillips offers concrete guidance on how to execute these projects, and tackle the technology too, in Writing for Transmedia, a course offered as part of Sheridan’s Continuing and Professional Studies new Digital Media Series.

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