Part 1 Constraints in Transmedia or On Being Short

(Maureen McHugh)

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.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, April 14th, 2010 at 10:04 am and is filed under Insights. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

5 Responses to “Part 1 Constraints in Transmedia or On Being Short”

  1. docwho2100

    Thanks for the great article – I look forward to the other parts. The points you bring up very succinctly help to define a transmedia project and what someone creating and experiencing should consider – especially the short bits, that many bits may go undiscovered and that interaction is important – in some ways though, I would say that interaction part also has the possibility of making the experience even “shorter” as many stumble onto a project at the “beginning” or during a launch and the interactive portion is set up that way and then, as the project and time progresses, the interaction dwindles and is soon abandoned (I’ve seen some good projects that used interaction and experience tied to a specific time/event/place and while it was awesome for that moment, that part of the experience became static and something people late to the party stumbled across… Harper’s Globe and some posts I stumbled on at the forum there comes to mind, or the in the moment experiences of KateModern that now I can only read about or watch taped video from…. Head Trauma sounds awesome – but how can I experience the full range of the story, and so on…

  2. maureen

    Docwho2100 You bring up a lot of good points. The issue about beginning a project, and how to allow everyone–those who come at the beginning, and those who come later; or those who attend a live event, and those who don’t–all feel as if they can be part is a big issue for me. I wish I just had answers.

  3. Part 1 Constraints in Transmedia or On Being Short | MimeFeed « Transmedia Camp 101

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  4. Mark

    Great, great post. Added to my bookmarks for stuff to remember.

    One thing I’ve always thought about events is that they should always be taped for this reason. And not taped just to record them for people on the web to see later on. But make the taping a NEW experience, and write a story around that taping. That way, people on the web/after the event can get the information, but you’ve created a new channel as well; a channel fueled by second hand report. Which can be delivered by narrators with varying levels of reliability, or agendas.

    Or, alternately, if you can get the audience to tweet/blog/video the event, you get the same effect. People coming in late get the info, but you have the added bonus of a new narrative on top…

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