Back to IndieWire

Before Jumping on the Transmedia Bandwagon: The Four Ways to Approach Transmedia Storytelling

Before Jumping on the Transmedia Bandwagon: The Four Ways to Approach Transmedia Storytelling

The digital revolution has spurred a revolution in storytelling, and filmmakers have been exploring ways to host, extend, amplify and augment their audio-visual narratives online since the Internet became a popular communication device.  Transmedia is now the buzz word; the Tribeca Film Institute has a Transmedia Fund; Mozilla is heading up a coalition of film organizations to make sure creatively told documentaries find their home online; and a whole slew of branding experts are excited about the cheap possibilities of hosting their own advertising without having to pay for TV and print ads.  In the new book, “A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling,” by Andrea Phillips (“The Maester’s Path” for HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and the Facebook game “America 2049” for human rights nonprofit Breakthrough) and published by McGraw-Hill, Phillips guides creators through the process of telling their stories on multiple media.

Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 5 of the book (“The Four Creative Purposes for Transmedia Storytelling”), including excerpts from each of the four sections devoted to the four reasons for doing transmedia projects.  The rest of the book advises filmmakers and other storytellers on how to make sure their transmedia projects come off flawlessly and to great fanfare. 

Phillips will talk about the book Tuesday, June 26, at a special conversation with Film Society Convergence, the new transmedia initiative of the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

The book is now available for purchase at booksellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.


Let’s forget all about buzz, all about definitions, and all about what’s been done, and finally turn our attention to the juicy affair of why and how to use transmedia tools to tell your story. There are several compelling reasons to go transmedia, and these primarily fall into two basic camps: the business case and your creative vision.

For media companies, the business case is actually quite simple. Transmedia storytelling can provide more engagement and more potential points of sale for any given story, and when it’s done well, each piece can effectively become a promotional tool pointing toward every other piece of the whole.

But the business case isn’t enough. Audiences don’t like entertainment that feels like nothing but a grab for their hard-earned cash; they need to feel like there is an equitable transaction in place. It’s the same thing with transmedia. If you want to succeed, you shouldn’t just be bolting on a few components because they’re what the industry thinks is sexy right now. You need to have a creative purpose for each piece, and you have to be acutely aware of how all the pieces fit together to make a whole that is bigger than the sum of its parts.
Let me say that again for emphasis: every single element of a transmedia story has to be fulfilling a narrative purpose, without exception.

If you don’t also have an underlying creative function for each piece, then the project you make will fall flat, fans will complain, and all those riches to be earned through building a transmedia empire with a robust fan base will not be yours after all.

Following are the most common creative purposes and methods for expanding a single-medium story, either by using transmedia tools or by transforming it into a full-blown, natively transmedia world.

Worldbuilding (Example:  “Humans Only” campaign for “District 9”)

If you’re just beginning to wade into transmedia storytelling, you might want to start out in the shallow end of the pool, so to speak. Assuming that you’re creating a single-platform story and thinking about building out just one or two transmedia pieces, the place to begin is with simple worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is all about efficiently conveying information about the time, place, and mood of your story. In cinema, the equivalent might be an establishing shot: the quick sweep over the grounds of the high school before a scene starts in a classroom, for example, or the flyover of the Eiffel Tower to convey that the characters are in Paris.

In a text-only work of fiction, like a novel, you would use descriptive language and telling details, perhaps describing the clothes people are wearing, the architecture and building materials of a town, the weather or lighting, or the smells and sounds, to make a setting come to life in the mind’s eye.

In transmedia storytelling, though, the most effective tool is to actually create a small piece of your world and give it to your audience to play with.

The second compelling artistic purpose for using transmedia tools in your story is to shed light on a character’s personality and motivations. This allows the audience to develop knowledge of and connections to your characters in a context that doesn’t necessarily need to extend to the action in the main story.

Characterization (Example:  The Old Spice Guy)

Be forewarned: there are some serious logistical problems to grapple with when you’re doing characterization work in an interactive medium as an extension of a static story. It comes down to time and linearity.

A common rookie mistake, especially for projects creating a companion character blog for a film, is to place a character’s online presence in an unchanging state. The character is frozen at some point before the story begins, and the blog gives absolutely no information that is relevant to the big-picture narrative. In theory, this might seem to be a good idea—after all, you aren’t weakening the impact of your story any by giving the plot away—but the result is generally really boring. Much of the interest a character generates comes from how he dynamically changes over time in response to conflict.

Backstory and Exposition (Example: “The Drunk and On Drugs Happy Funtime Hour” web content)

Stepping up your game just a little bit more, you can also use a transmedia extension for telling pieces of the story that don’t fit into your main narrative, or that shed more and deeper light on the events that happen in your story.

This is where the big fun gets started, and where the line into “definitely transmedia” gets a lot less blurry.

If you stop to think about it, we ask an awful lot from our single-medium stories. They have to carry the entire payload all alone—introduce you to the characters, explain any necessary context and history, and, of course, convey the plot itself. But breaking up your story to put in that context can feel intrusive, especially if it’s handled badly.

Good news: there is no longer any reason for compelling material to vanish forever onto the cutting-room floor, or to disappear in edits, just because it made the work too long or you couldn’t find a place to fit it into the flow of the story. Explain, expand, and extend by using that bonus material.

Even if you don’t have extra material already lying around, there is often still a role for transmedia in smoothing transitions between films, shows, and books (or any combination thereof). There’s still a role for using transmedia tools to explain how and why your world works the way it does.

Native Transmedia (Example:  Lance Weiler’s “Pandemic”)

If one is searching for an artistic and narrative function for using transmedia storytelling, there is the ultimate purpose: creating a work that is meant to be entirely and natively transmedia from start to finish, and not a single-medium work at all—an experience that you give to your audience, not just a story you are telling them.

In this scenario, you aren’t creating supplemental pieces for a performance, film, or written work. Instead, you’re creating a story that is fractured into pieces and conveyed through multiple media, often as though the events were really occurring. The project may sometimes have major single-media components, but they won’t give you the whole story on their own.

This is master-class, advanced-level transmedia storytelling. It is complex, chaotic, and performative—and if you do a good job, deeply satisfying for both the audience and the creator.

Andrea Phillips, A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling, ©2012, McGraw-Hill Professional; reprinted with permission of the publisher.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Toolkit and tagged ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox