Getting Writers to do Transmedia

A while ago, a friend of mine asked for my thoughts on a question she had, and I thought I'd post my answer here:

How do you explain or convince traditional writers of the value of transmedia writing? For example, if I'm dealing with a comic book writer who is dead set on creating a single narrative and who doesn't want to even remotely consider transmedia, how do I explain the difference and/or even the similarity in what he is doing with the comic and what needs to be considered for transmedia?

It seems to me that everything is rooted in a strong narrative, which is what a traditional writer will also say. So maybe there is no discussion to be had at all, but then again -- there is! Or do comic book writers naturally do what transmedia writers do? By this I mean: they develop characters, plot, and narrative. And that's all they need to do. So if I have such a writer, is it even worth my while to ask him/her to consider transmedia or would I simply hire different kinds of writers to take that particular story/IP across other platforms?

First of all, not every story/property needs to be or deserves to be or should be made a transmedia property. Many—many!—stories are perfectly fine as traditional, mono-media properties, and are in fact better. While John Green's The Fault in Our Stars has spawned tons of fan art and creations, I would never want it to be a transmedia property—I think it would ultimately take away from the experience of the main part, the novel. I've even made the same argument about The Hunger Gamesthat the world is so structured around the story of Katniss that actually creating new stories in that world would feel much less compelling.*

What you're asking is actually a couple different questions: You want to explain to someone the value of transmedia, and you want to know if a traditional writer actually needs to do anything different when writing for transmedia.

The first one is pretty easy to address: it's what all of us are trying to do to the people who have money and contracts—“You want to hire me to do this as a transmedia project because x, y, and z.” The x, y, and z are sometimes trickier to convince people of, but they're there: extending stories can deepen engagement, reward loyal fans, draw in new fans, and ultimately make you more money. I also like the arguments of “finding interesting/different ways to tell stories is awesome,” and “you can elicit emotions in interactive storytelling that you can't in monomedia.”** For a writer, I also love the idea of using transmedia to give the audience all the stuff you love but which doesn't fit into the primary narrative (more background about the world and characters, other side-stories going on, etc.).

The second one is interesting.

As you point out, to some extent, planning for transmedia is something a writer (especially of genre fiction, where world-building is often a huge aspect of the writing process) does already—though she calls it something else. I've had people argue that in fact a “Storyworld Bible” is nothing more than some strange combination of a continuity bible, a setting document, and “ideas you haven't used yet”—nothing that's actually new.

Because when I'm writing a story, a lot of my early planning is developing a world rich enough to carry the story (somewhat structured around the story I'm telling, of course). And a world truly rich enough should be rich enough to carry multiple stories. If I've developed some piece of history—some past event that effects the main story I'm telling—then that past event could be another piece of a transmedia property.***

But, planning for transmedia does ask some new things of the writer. For instance, making sure that there is enough material to go around. But more than that, good transmedia not only demands places to tell stories, but the hooks between them. Something needs to draw me from one story to the next, make me interested enough to seek out the other pieces or interact with the story myself. And those need to be written in to every piece of the property. There should also be space built in for the audience to play in, to explore and make their own, and that shouldn't just be shoehorned in either.

Now, you seem to be asking about property of which you control the IP and could in theory just hire other writers to write other pieces. That suggests that as a sort of “transmedia producer,” if you will, it could be your responsibility to make sure those hooks and holes are in there, rather than the writer's. But, it still falls on the writer to understand why those should be there, and how to include them. And if I'm the creator of an IP, as writer, I'd probably want more control over the world and where all the other pieces go. I'd want to make sure it all fits with the themes I'm writing about, or my vision of the property. But other writers might be much more willing to let it go once they've done their part—which is when it falls to you.

So yes, writing for transmedia requires different skills, even if you're just writing one monomedia piece of a transmedia property. An understanding of transmedia is vital, and you have to know how and where to place the hooks and things that will make the property a unified experience.

And that's just assuming a franchise-like understanding of transmedia. To really get at the guts, the innovative and fun parts of transmedia, you need to go deeper—writing for interaction, writing pieces that tell story through immersion and the environment (in-world websites, messages from characters, diaries and newspapers and songs and legends), etc. All that definitely requires a different kind of writing and world-building**** than “just” writing a comic.

So I guess what I'm saying is, if you're in charge of the IP, and you have a good grasp of transmedia, and you can do some world-building on your own, then maybe you're writer doesn't need to understand transmedia all that much. But it will fall to you to tell her where she needs to add hooks and generally edit and oversee the property, and the result probably won't be as strong. Far better to have everyone involved both understand and love the idea of transmedia storytelling.

Because to really get at the core, to really do the interesting stuff, you need to stretch your ideas beyond just franchising into more stories. Come up with something new and fun. Start with an idea of what the whole property could look like, try new things, and build the story and experience around that.

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*The marketing transmedia for the film, of course, worked because it was building the world and giving the audience a place in it, heightening immersion without telling other stories. So yes, you could do that.

**See Andrea Phillips' A Creator's Guide to Transmedia Storytelling for her bit on Guilt (and for a generally very good introduction to transmedia and why a creator might want to do it).

***It's not necessarily true, though, that it should be. Again, not all stories should be transmedia. Actually telling the past event in another story could take away from the experience of the first/main story.

****Albeit a kind of writing and world-building that some writers will already be good at—such as gamers and tabletop roleplayers.