Go Ahead and Jump: Transmedia Storytelling

A Leaf, in flight

A Leaf, in flight (Image by Kevin Hodgson)

By Kevin Hodgson

If you have been following Digital Writing Month the past few weeks, you may have noticed a progression of themes. We began our first week exploring the concept of writing itself, and of what it means to be a digital writer. We then moved into the use of images as literacy moments, of meaning buried within pixels. Last week, we explored sounds and silence. This coming week, we shift into transmedia for this last full week of November.

It’s OK to scratch your head right now and wonder: Transmedia? What are they talking about now?

Wikipedia describes transmedia this way:

… the technique of telling a single story or story experience across multiple platforms and formats including, but not limited to, games, books, events, cinema and television.”  

Or, if you don’t trust Wikipedia, you might turn to the ever-insightful Henry Jenkins:

Transmedia storytelling represents 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. Ideally, each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.

Or, perhaps this TED talk by Elaine Raybourne will help:

In simple terms, I like to think of transmedia as storytelling with few if any boundaries, and as we continue to explore digital writing this month and beyond, this idea of taking a story for a walk across platforms seems to be right in tune with the possibilities of writing in a digital age.  We should probably clarify: Transmedia storytelling does not require technology. An opera troupe in Los Angeles, for example, is doing an interesting performance called Hopscotch by moving scenes of the opera into the fabric of the real city, coordinating scenes across the urban landscape, with the audience following the dancers.

Closer to home, our impromptu Storyjumpers Project at Digital Writing Month has been a lesson in transmedia collaboration, as more than 25 writers from all parts of the world are passing a story from blog to blog as November rolls on. What strikes me is how much media is being used by the bloggers. We are hearing sounds, watching associated videos, viewing images … all in the name of the story that is always in the midst of transition, even as participants write and pass it along to the next person. That transmedia project has enriched the collaborative nature of this month’s digital writing experiences.

Storyjumpers Map

A collaboration across time and space for DigiWriMo

Unfortunately, in some ways, book publishing companies are at the forefront of much of the transmedia story experiences (as are now many other businesses) we encounter in the wider world. I say “unfortunately” because the books that I see being marketed at my own children and my sixth grade students as transmedia (they don’t often call them that but that is what they are) begin with a book in text that links to a publisher’s website with a game experience of some sort, all in the hope of selling more books and products.

I guess this strategy of “hook the kids” must work because I do see more and more of these book series being offered. In my opinion, the writer for young adult readers that I have seen pull this off with any level of real success is the talented Patrick Carmen, whose Skeleton Creek series, with video links, are creepy and mysterious and go deep when the media elements are connected to the reading experience.

I don’t blame the publishers for co-opting transmedia. Their job is to sell books, and make profits. For them, transmedia is a way to capture eyeballs and open pocketbooks. But my role as a teacher, and as a writer, is very different from that. As a teacher, my passion is bring my young writers into the world of writing, now and into the future, and I think one of my jobs is to get them composing their own interactive, digital texts. As an educator who writes, and one who writes digitally in order to explore the way composition is changing with technology (or not, as is sometimes the case), I also task myself with trying out different kinds of writing to push myself, and to consider possibilities for my students, and transmedia writing is no different.

No different, but certainly more complicated. I’ll give you that.

It’s one thing to write a blog post, with links and maybe even added embedded media on a page. That takes time and thought, but it is not overly complicated. Consider, though, the planning you have to do in order to move a story off the blog, into another medium, such as a podcast, and then into yet another medium, such as a game, and then maybe even into another … and another …

At each juncture, you have to juggle more than the story itself. You have to consider the affordances of the shifting platforms. What works as a video won’t work as a piece of writing. What works as an image might not work as an audio project. You have to weigh the pros and cons of the experience, and wonder, does it help or hinder the story? Always, it is important to remember that the story is at the heart of the matter, not the technology. If your story doesn’t hold together, no amount of transmedia hopscotching here and there and everywhere will save the reader/viewer from the dreaded state of boredom or confusion.

A weak story will remain so, no matter the platform. A good story has the potential to transcend the technology in interesting ways.

There may yet be a day when our technology applications and websites and devices work in seamless concert with each other — where writing a story across platforms is not hindered by the differences of technology, but complemented by the common pathways. It may be easy to write this way. We’re not there yet, are we? Maybe, we’re not even close. So it takes careful planning and writing when attempting transmedia composition.

But when it works? Wow. The experience is incredibly engaging, in ways that can’t quite be replicated off the screen. Composing a transmedia piece is at the heart of writing in a digital age, with all of its limitations and all of its potential. And the only way to understand it is to experience it. So, what do you say?

Are you ready to begin?

(Pssst. That was an invitation.)