An if:book Australia Essay by Christy Dena Can I write across media? Yes and no. No, I can’t begin writing a sentence with a pen on paper and then use that pen to write on a screen. I have to change my tools. But, I can use those different tools write a story that begins in paper and ends on the screen. At it most fundamental level, this is transmedia. Transmedia is not synonymous with digital media, as it often involves both digital and non-digital media. A transmedia writer is also not synonymous with writers who write both screenplays and novels. Instead, transmedia often involves the continuation of a story across media.
Right, now that these crucial details out of the way we can proceed. I lie. There is another important point to make. This article is not about how transmedia affects the publishing industry. There are plenty of discussions about that, and some of these are footnoted at the end of this essay. The focus of this essay (finally!), is about writing transmedia projects. For, without understanding the skills involved in this area, no industry will be affected. No amount of commissions or funding will support this area without the talent to execute it.
This essay addresses four of the key approaches that have emerged so far in transmedia writing. They represent areas of expertise and therefore opportunities for writers. The first two approaches are types of transmedia projects. Transmedia always involves multiple distinct media (such as a film, TV show, book, play, and so on), but how they are combined is what sets them apart from each other. The first transmedia type is a collection of mono-medium stories. The most common example of this is a “franchise,” where a book, film and perhaps a console game all contribute distinct stories to one overarching “storyworld”. A pre-transmedia paradigm could describe such projects or “franchises” as involving a writer team working on a screenplay for instance, and another working on the novel; with one medium usually being the most important and the others tertiary; and the stories were often adaptations not continuations. An important difference to note now is that stories are continued across media, can involve the same writer teams, and undergo careful continuity controls. In the transmedia context, all of the stories in each medium are seen as equal contributors to the meaning of the overall storyworld. Writers that are in demand at this level, therefore, are able to work in more than one medium and are equally on par with each other.
The second transmedia type is a collection of media that tells one story. For instance, a two-screen entertainment project where the audience is meant to shift their attention between a TV show and a website. Another example is a story distributed across the Internet, where characters have multiple websites, social media accounts, interact through email and may even publish a newsletter. While the first transmedia type is often designed to have a self-contained story per medium, without the necessity to engage with all of them; the second transmedia type is usually designed to have a reader, audience member or player consume all of the media to understand a single story. These types of projects require a writer to not only be adept at the media being utilised above their understanding of storytelling in general, but also how to guide their audience from one media point to the next. This is where an understanding of interactivity — the province of first-generation hypertext and CD-Rom writers and contemporary game writers — is an essential skill.
The text two approaches to transmedia storytelling, can be described as the timing of a transmedia project: when it becomes a transmedia storyworld. The most common skill writers (or editors) are employed to do in type one transmedia projects (multiple self-contained stories on multiple media) is an expansion analysis. This occurs when someone has already created a novel, film, TV show, game or play, and they subsequently want to expand it…to make it transmedia. It is an extending of an existing mono-medium story. An expansion analysis involves establishing the entire history of the characters and settings presented already; determining what is essential to the storyworld and what is secondary; what areas haven’t been explored yet (such as a sub-character, possible prequel or sequel, and so on). These tasks culminate in the creation of a transmedia bible. Like a TV show bible, the document outlines all the essential elements that make up the world – such as characters, plots, style, themes, design, props, settings. Writers then draw on this continuity guide to ensure any expansion perpetuates rather than contradicts the rules of the world.
The expansion of an existing mono-medium story has it pitfalls. The obvious reason being that the original story was designed to be self-contained and often conclusive. An example of this is Steven Spielberg’s film A.I. Artificial Intelligence. It had an apocalyptic ending that did not lend itself to the games that Microsoft wanted to put out after the film. Why would someone feel the desire to play in a world that had just seen end tragically? To address this problem, the producers engaged the services of a team to create a distributed media experience (an alternate reality game) that brought the story alive in the world of players. The digital games did not happen, but the problem and attempt highlight issues associated with expanding mono-medium stories.
The second type of timing therefore refers to projects that are designed to be transmedia from the beginning. It is here that a writer’s creativity and understanding of transmedia is tested. Will all characters exist in all the media? What sort of characters and settings would suit both linear and interactive media? What story will be told or experienced in what media? In what order will they be released? How shall the release of each story in each media be paced? How will audiences be moved between media? What elements will be essential and what tertiary (if at all)? Once again, a transmedia bible is often created, to outline all of the elements to be told across media. This bible can be used as a development document (and it is therefore often changed), pitch document, and continuity document.
As you can imagine, a writer working in transmedia needs to have an intimate understanding of the media they’re working in, and an understanding of how they will work together. In my experience, I’ve found the bare minimum for writers entering this area is an understanding of interactivity and thematics. Interactivity is important because transmedia writers working with any type of transmedia project need to understand how (among other things) to compel action in their audience, and how different points of entry affect plot. Thematics is important because a writer needs to understand how meaning can be communicated in many ways. They need to know how to communicate central messages beyond words, often with images, sound, framing, props and game mechanics. Almost a century ago, poet Guillaume Apollinaire gave a lecture, L’Esprit Nouveau et les Poetès, on what he described as the “visible and unfolded book of the future”. He wrote that writers in the future will, “like conductors of an orchestra of unbelievable scope,” have at “their disposal the entire world, its noises and its appearances, the thought and language of man, song, dance, all the arts and all the artifices.” This is the future, and an unbelievable scope is here. It is time for the conductors to step forward with their batons.
Christy Dena’s speech to ‘Publishing the Story of the Future’, Australia Council for the Arts:
Video of talk: http://www.viddler.com/explore/christydena/videos/1
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