Part 1 Constraints in Transmedia or On Being Short
This is part one of a six part post based on a talk I gave at Duke University. Check back on Wednesdays for subsequent posts.
I write transmedia. Or crossmedia. Or ARGs. As transmedia/crossmedia/ARG producers, we take narratives and spread them in pieces across multiple platforms. We tell part of the story as a movie, part as a website, part as an email.
This creates a number of storytelling constraints.
• First, most things on the internet need to be short. For a novelist, that was a very difficult lesson but while there is a large class of people who will read a lot on the internet—people who read The New York Times, The Daily Kos, and the Huffington Post every morning for example, most people prefer twitter. 750 words, or five minutes of video is a lot. Probably too much. I know, there are caveats to this. There will always be exceptions. But as a rule of thumb, this one is really useful.
• Second, any single piece of a story may be the only piece an audience member stumbles across, so ideally, that piece should be an experience all in itself. Hopefully it’s evocative enough that the audience wants to find more, but if not, it should still convey a mood, a feeling, an aesthetic, however light.
• Ideally, any piece, and especially any piece directly connected to the rabbithole—that is, any gateway into the work—should be like that moment when you walk through the room, glance at the television, and if you don’t know the program, you know what it is and where you are. There is room in tv for things like Mad Men, which breaks down conventions and explores new ways to convey story. But the fragmented character and utter strangeness of transmedia works for the average person means that they are disorienting, and anything within that that can give the audience a sense of familiarity, a sense of expectation, is probably a good thing. In a sense, at this very nascent stage of the art form, the transmedia presentation itself is the art. To explain that a little, someone once told me that the plot to most of the classic operas could be written on a postcard. The art of the opera isn’t the structure of the plot, it’s the transmission of the emotion through performance. So it is with this medium, the art of transmedia is the way that the transition between different platforms heightens the experience. The pieces evoke the emotion that make that experience rewarding.
• The work should be interactive. This, probably more than any other single thing, is the characteristic that most marks transmedia work. The audience should feel as if they can touch the story.
To me, the two most difficult aspects of the new story telling are those last two points. The way that transmedia work uses conventions, and the issue of interactivity—how much, how free or how restricted.
Next time, I will talk about conventions, revealing great truths like, But it is neither a truth nor a universal convention that a car, flying off a cliff, explodes spontaneously and cataclysmically in midair. That convention is one of American TV and movies.