How do you construct a transmedia narrative? Does it differ from stories told in film, books, TV shows, computer games, etc. until today? Yes and no, in my opinion. As a media consumers myself, and having observed and researched several successful and lasting story worlds such as Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Star Trek, Buffy, various mangas/animes, and, of course, classics such as The Illiad and The Odysee, I noticed several important elements that allowed these respective universes to live on for decades (or millenia, in the case of the latter two) and to inspire not only re-tellings of existing stories, but also expansions of the worlds themselves, even years (or, again, millenia) after they were first conceived of.
However, not every form and type of intellectual property lends itself to transmedia dissemination. Sometimes, a story is enough told only through one channel and all by itself. A great example of this are the countless comedies and romantic movies released every year. They are great entertainment in themselves for a few hours, but often they do not possess a narrative depth that would allow their stories to live on at different media platforms. Similarly, even if a drama, thriller, or romance does possess great narrative depth (e.g. Life is Beautiful, Casablanca, The Sixth Sense… this list could go on an on), the story may just convey what it was supposed to in one ‘sitting’, again without the involvement of other platforms. Two hours of film or one book can continue to be extremely meaningful – they are products of art after all.
So, not everything has to be turned into a transmedia project just because we have the possibilities now. If you decide to go transmedia, however, you must make sure that the story (or rather, stories) you are telling can support a cross-platform construct.
1. What is your metanarrative?
The one ingredient that all story worlds mentioned above have in common is a metanarrative, a grand idea that remains relevant over time, throughout all stories within the story world, and that can be narrowed down to one or more universal human values. The metanarrative therefore acts as the connective tissue that keeps a narrative universe together and coherent. In the case of Star Wars, the grand narrative centers on the never-ending struggle between good and evil (i.e. light and dark side of the force) and that no-one is ever truly lost to the dark side. Harry Potter circles around the concept of ‘love conquers all;’ it defeats even the darkest and strongest magic there is, including the most terrible hatred. And both The Odysee and The Illiad explore the struggles between humans and gods, and how irresponsible behavior (often fueled by selfish desire or vanity) can lead to disaster, regardless of one’s existence as a deity or as a human. These grand themes transcend each individual platform to form an over-arching whole out of all the individual stories involved. What is your world’s metanarrative? And how will it manifest itself in each of your sub-stories?
2. What are your values?
This ties in closely with the previous point. In order to let audiences relate to your stories, whether it is the metanarrative itself or its smaller sub-arches, you must present your viewers/users/readers with a certain set of values and morals. Needless to say, values and morals vary from person to person, and from culture to culture. While it is possible to have a very unique ideology embedded in one’s fictional universe, it is definitely safe for the long-run to focus on universal and timeless values such as friendship, love, family, good vs. bad, etc. Regardless of which set of values you pick, the most important part is that your values are strong enough to uphold your entire storyworld’s credibility. Having your story embody a certain ideological position is one of the most fundamental ways in which you give your audience a possibility to to connect with your content and your message.
3. Your World
Your overall content, conveyed through individual stories, must be believable and relatable. No matter how fantastic or futuristic your story world is, it is important that it is governed by certain laws of possibility and impossibility, and that these laws are adhered by. This not only makes for a more complex storytelling, but also makes your word a lot more realistic for your audience.
In addition, you also want to include some gaps in your stories; we don’t know everything in the real world, so leaving certain gaps for viewers will make your fictional world believable as well. Some of these gaps you can explain later or on a different platform – like Georg Lucas’ Clone Wars, which were first mentioned in Star Wars: Episode IV but not fully explained until the release of Episode II. Sometimes, it may be better to not explain certain concepts at all; Star Trek, for example, never really tells us what exactly “optronic relays” are, but according to many episodes from different Star Trek series, they seem to be quite important for space travel (when they’re broken, it’s usually a great hassle – or so it seems, from the distressed ship mechanics’ faces). Very few of us really understand how a car or a plane is propelled in the real world, so not knowing how a space ship works is not really upsetting – as long as the terminology stays the same throughout the fictional universe we’re experiencing. Thus, instead of hindering our entertainment experience, a lack of explanation can add greatly to the integrity and credibility of a narrative world.
Explaining the structure and characters of your story world is generally a very tricky thing. Looking at the narrative universes that did work and those that didn’t, two stylistic devices stand out: Great detail in portraying the world – be it verbally or visually – combined with the least amount of explanation possible. As the creator of your universe, you naturally want your audience to become familiar with it as soon as possible, but explaining each character, their background, and their relationships in great detail can prevent audiences from suspending their disbelief and take away the rewards of a hunting-and-gathering game for information. Just let your audiences dive into your world head-first; they’ll catch on quicker than you think!
4. Your Characters
Needless to say, your characters are your audiences’ points of entry to a story. As a result, your characters’ credibility and relatability is just as important as the integrity of your entire story world. Each characters’ place and relevance in a story must be clear, particularly with regards to his/her motivations, relationships, and background. One-dimensional characters may work in short pieces of fiction like a book or a movie, but when it comes to entire narrative universes, depth and complexity are crucial to maintain audience interest and to make them care about what happens next. If you want your audience to build lasting relationships with the characters in your world, the characters themselves must be just as complex and deep as every other human being.
This doesn’t mean that one or more of your characters have to be included in every single one of the stories in your content world – as long as they are being replaced by equally captivating and relevant characters your audience values. At the same time, one advantage of complex characters is that their relationships with others in their world are an easy bridge to lead your audience from one sub-story to the next, a great tool for transmedia narratives.
Finally, let your characters develop. Let them mature and grow. Just like in the real world, their actions and experiences should influence how they continue to see their world. Let them learn their lessons, and you will again offer your audience a way to connect to your story.
5. Is your story relevant to your audiences’ lives?
As mentioned before, it is important that your audience can relate to and believe in your story world and its characters. Apart from the factors mentioned above, there are a few other ways in which you can make sure that your narrative universe is relevant to audiences and makes them want to re-engage. Just ask yourself these questions: Do the individual audience members see themselves in one or more of the characters I present them with? Do they want to identify with them, be like them? Don’t assume that the answers to these questions is ‘yes’ because you think so. Ask your audience – and its different sub-groups:children, adults, ethnic minorities, men, women etc. (particularly the women; there is a reason why Twilight, Star Wars, Star Trek, The Matrix, X-Men and Buffy are so successful even after years – they have strong male and female characters). If you manage to make your audience genuinely care about your characters and your world, they will come back to check on them again and again.
At the same time, know your audience. Know who you are creating the story for, their daily concerns, their character types, their view of the world, and their media habits. No matter how great your story is, there will always be those that do not like it. You cannot make everyone happy, but you can make sure that those who are interested in your world are as satisfied as they can be.
6. Participation and Interactivity
Great stories inspire other stories. Humans have a natural disposition towards being creative and expressing themselves, so if your audience starts producing and participating in your story world it is a sign that you have done everything right, and that you made them care so much about your stories that watching/reading/listening/playing is no longer enough. Your audience wants to become a part of your world.
In the ideal case, you will have prepared for this and purposely left gaps in your stories for your audience to fill, maybe even in combination with an online platform where your audience can share their creations with each other and with you yourself. Even if you have not prepared for your audience turning into producers, the one thing you should never, ever do is suppress participation. You can ignore it, encourage it, and regulate it on any medium that is controlled by you and your staff, but if you ever start condemning your audience’s attempts to participate, or even worse, if you start to sue them, your fans and audience will turn against you in no time. You would destroy your own creation’s appeal to audiences.
As a result, make sure you plan for participation early. No-one can force you to invite it or to accept it, and you do not have to be happy about it. What you do have to do is define early for yourself what kinds of participation you are comfortable with, and which parts you’d rather ignore. Participation will happen and really is a tribute to your work, so you must be aware of your own position and opinions early to ensure that you don’t alienate your fans inadvertently.
That said, interactivity is a great way to engage your audience before they participate. If you offer your audiences tools with which they can engage with your content on your terms you are once again likely to improve your audiences’ relationship with your story world. But don’t mistake interactivity for participation; even after engaging with your world and characters in the way you offer your audience may still feel the wish or need to participate on their own terms.
>> As with all forms of art, there is no formula for success even in transmedia. However, what stays the same regardless of time and medium, is that if the story is outstanding, audiences care and actively try to re-engage with it. Your story world is far more important than the different platforms you use for your transmedia project. Your audience’s entertainment experience doesn’t derive from watching something on TV, in the cinema, or on their phone – it is the content that counts and what they will pay for.