How Transmedia Storytelling Shapes New Narrative Worlds - Social Week


By Rebecca Seidel

Photo courtesy of Robert Pratten.

For a year, Lizzie Bennet’s YouTube followers kept up with every twist and turn of her life. Through her biweekly video diary updates, they got to meet her two sisters, her best friend, and her overdramatic mother (Lizzie’s impersonation of her, anyway). They witnessed the moment when William Darcy, an uptight rich guy she openly despised, confessed his love for her. And that was only a fraction of the drama that unfolded.

Between vlog entries, people could also follow Lizzie on Tumblr, follow her sister Jane’s fashion blog on Pinterest, and keep up with the whole crew on Twitter. With such a huge window into their lives, it became easy to forget that Lizzie was a fictional character–one that was originally penned by Jane Austen in the 1800s.

Such is the power of a storyworld: it reels you in and surrounds you from all sides, taking on a reality of its own.

Crafting a “storyworld” is a key focus of transmedia storytelling, a quickly expanding field that’s rearing its head in projects like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. Rather than telling a single story in a single medium, transmedia storytelling involves creating a network of narratives across multiple forms of media, all of which contribute to a wider and more immersive story experience.

A transmedia storyworld might incorporate video, text, and audio elements–but it can also go far beyond that, expanding into social media, interactive games, and live events. For content creators who are struggling to engage their audiences, transmedia offers exciting prospects.

“Creators have discovered that expanding their story universes to include these other components is feeding a core hunger of their truest fans: to have more, richer, deeper stories,” wrote Andrea Phillips, a transmedia writer and game designer, in her 2012 book A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling. “Fans who love your creation are going to want to see more of it. They want to be a part of it.”

In the case of Pemberley Digital, the production company that produced The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, social media is a vital transmedia tool. All of Pemberley Digital’s projects so far–including Emma Approved, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma; and the upcoming Frankenstein M.D., a reworking of Frankenstein, that will premiere this fall–frame their characters not only as YouTube personalities but as active Twitter presences.

Jay Bushman, the transmedia producer for The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and its follow-up series Welcome to Sanditon, explains that social media did more than just immerse the story’s audience. It also gave fans the freedom to shape their own story experience. The power of Twitter, he says, is the way it compels people to add their own context to what they read.

“The famous comics writer Scott McCloud talks about how in comic books, you have a static panel and a space, and then another static panel; all the movement and the change, and the meaning of what happens, is created in the mind of the reader,” Bushman tells BTR. “And I think Twitter and social transmedia works in the same way. It’s the space in between the individual updates where an audience member can insert themselves, whether or not by actually posting something—or even just the way they understand it, the way they contextualize those two things together. That’s where the power is.”

But social media isn’t the only possible interactive dimension of transmedia storytelling. More than a decade ago, transmedia took hold in a much different form of storytelling, one that involved much more intense audience involvement: alternate reality games (ARGs).

An early alternate reality game was The Beast, created by a team at Microsoft in 2001 to promote Steven Spielberg’s film A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Set in the year 2142, The Beast compelled more than 3 million participants to be their own sleuths, hunting for hints buried on the internet, in phone calls and fax messages, even in skywriting.

The Beast was one of the earliest and most influential alternate reality games; it showed the potential of spreading a story across a slew of media platforms and of creating a storyworld into which participants could jump. Bushman says that The Beast was what originally tuned him into the field of transmedia.

“I got involved as a participant, as a player in that game, and I had never seen anything like it before,” he recalls. “I had gone to film school, I was living in New York, I was writing scripts, I was producing indie films, and this really knocked me for a loop as far as what you could do.”

Bushman became interested in how transmedia could be used in a way where the stories produced were ends in themselves–rather than promotion vehicles for something else, as was the case with The Beast and A.I.

This idea of producing transmedia stories for the sake of the stories themselves began to fuel his work as a writer and producer.

Bushman experimented with social media as a storytelling tool, leading him to projects like South by Star Wars, the interactive dark comedy series Dirty Work, and a steampunk reimagining of Dracula created in conjunction with Fourth Wall Studios.

When Bushman began working with producers Bernie Su and Hank Green on The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, they didn’t know just how well it would catch on with viewers. But the series gained a huge audience across all of its platforms.

“We found ourselves in a situation where the audience pushed us to raise our game,” Bushman says. “[They] kept pushing us to see, well, how much more can we do? How much bigger can we get? How much larger can we make this world?”

The success of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries proved that transmedia content could be not only popular but also marketable: a book titled The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet, based on the online series, just went on sale. A DVD box set of the series has also been available for some time. Recognizing the success of Pemberley Digital’s multiplatform approach, PBS approached the company with the premise for Frankenstein M.D.

With a fictional premise like Pride and Prejudice at its core, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries has a lot of room for fabrication in setting its parameters. Transmedia works a little differently, though, when the storyworld in play is not fictional.

Kevin Moloney, a photojournalist and PhD candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder, is interested in transporting transmedia storytelling beyond entertainment and into the realm of journalism. He says that given the proliferation of ways people get their information now, journalists need to rethink the way they tell stories in order to capture people’s interest.

“Journalism really hasn’t changed anything about the way it tells stories to better fit the way the environment works now,” Moloney says. “And most of the other media industries are figuring that out.”

Moloney outlines ways that journalists could use different forms of media to their advantage in producing more comprehensive stories.

“Video, for example, is good for building characters, and text is really good for providing context,” he says. “Games are fabulous, too–they describe systems really well.” He pointed to Cutthroat Capitalism, a game produced by Wired in 2009 to accompany its feature story on Somali pirates, as a key example.

A savvy journalist could coordinate a network of stories using different forms of media to surround a single issue and, in this way, could captivate a broader spectrum of readers and viewers. The stories wouldn’t be as participant-driven as an alternate reality game, or as socially oriented as The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, but they would still be more immersive and comprehensive than a single news article.

Whether fiction or nonfiction, more and more creative professionals are getting interested in this method of storytelling. People will gather from all over the world for the 2014 TEDx Transmedia conference that will take place this year in Geneva. Transmedia LA holds educational events, panels, and monthly meetups for creators. Quite a few creative professionals have published guides to transmedia storytelling, and there’s a proliferation of diagrams online outlining how transmedia works.

With every step that technology and social media take to reshape our world, transmedia storytellers are keeping pace with new ideas for content creation and sharing. If the success of Pemberley Digital and the onslaught of creative interest are any indication, there’s a whole universe of storyworlds waiting to be born.