Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Story worlds

Share |

Story worlds: those non-linear, interactive storytelling experiences are the next narrative wave. According to a growing chorus of new media seers, soothsayers and salespersons, transmedia is poised to split the storytelling atom.

Henry Jenkins, the acknowledged and widely-quoted guru of all things transmedia, defines transmedia as “a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels.” That’s academic-speak for saying that transmedia is about taking a linear story and breaking it up into story threads that interconnect. Rather than a simple linear story, now an author can create a whole new story world, populating it with extended interwoven narratives, subplots and fully developed secondary characters. It all sounds terrific on paper.

However, after exploring even just a few of the big commercial media franchises, it becomes clear that a lot of transmedia has more to do with marketing than truly innovative, non-linear storytelling. A good example was the recent Hunger Games, one of the most successful movie franchises of 2012. Instead of enhanced storytelling, transmedia morphed into puzzles, games, blog competitions, toys, nail polish merchandise, treasure hunts, websites and website sponsors – just about anything other than an innovative story world experience. According to Canadian metric research, the use of these so-called transmedia strategies to engage and deliver audiences to sponsors provided a lucrative and cost-effective alternative to the traditional mass marketing promotional campaign. This makes a lot of sense for the corporate bottom line, but what has it got to go with the official definition of transmedia or innovative, interactive, non-linear, cutting-edge storytelling?

The reality is that real transmedia storytelling is expensive and complicated to produce. Currently it has no reliable or clear business model for cost recoupment or ongoing site maintenance. Even as new opportunities in self-publishing and YouTube-style filmmaking have opened up online venues for independent artists, currently, transmedia is about reaching franchise eyeballs—not hearts and minds. For large corporations, transmedia is seen as a lucrative 21st century promotion and marketing tool, not a ground-breaking new aesthetic.

At present, transmedia is a millennial sideshow distraction—a new social pacifier worthy of an Orwellian novel. Digital advertisers promote their media-driven products and services with the help of a public eager to trade privacy for convenience and 24/7 amusement. If there is a broader “story world” to be found, it is in the emerging narrative of distracted consumers and the savvy corporations that exploit them.

In a recent Globe and Mail article, Jimmy Lynn, a sports marketing expert and founder of Virginia-based JLynn Associates, offers some interesting insight when he says: “It used to be people went to watch the games. Now everything is about ego. People want to brag and boast that they are at the game. They post pictures of themselves and send tweets. It’s about self-promotion and self- expression as much as it is about the game.”

Mr. Lynn’s concerns about declining attendance at live sporting events and the need to pander to fans to make them engage is insightful because it speaks to a broader malaise in contemporary entertainment culture. As the popularity of virtual games continues to soar, nailing home run after home run, gaming is becoming a key part of the new corporate narrative, for along with that virtual umbilical cord, the mobile device, online games and ubiquitous apps keep us sidetracked and connected to corporate agendas. Inspired by gaming, interactive story worlds are the basis of an emerging aesthetic designed to offer consumers unlimited visceral experiences and continuous monthly payments, cradle to grave. Seen from this perspective, transmedia begins to feel a lot like old-fashioned branding.

At present, real transmedia storytelling resides in university labs, underfunded government media organizations like the NFB and struggling NGOs. When a truly successful business model is finally developed to capitalize on transmedia’s non-linear, storytelling potential, things may change. But for the moment, perhaps we should remain wary of the transmedia Trojan horse and ask, as a 20th century copywriter once did, “Where’s the beef?”

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

David Tucker

David Tucker is an award-winning television writer, producer and director. His short story collection, One Way Ticket, is published by BookLand Press.

Go to David Tucker’s Author Page