A Look at Transmedia Storytelling

The rise in popularity of social media platforms and apps has opened the door for storytellers to deliver their content in inventive ways that let them engage with the audience. Transmedia storytelling is becoming a way of life for many who create content, but the definition of the phrase isn’t always clear. Basically, it’s taking a single story and breaking it down into pieces that are delivered via varying and multiple media platforms. Those platforms can include websites, films, YouTube videos, Twitter accounts, apps, paper brochures – you name it. Ideally, each piece of the story should stand on its own while also feeding into a bigger picture.

It might be easier to define what transmedia storytelling isn’t. This is debated, but big entertainment franchises and integrated marketing campaigns aren’t usually what people have in mind when they discuss transmedia storytelling. For example: Captain America stories are told in comics, cartoons, and films. There are different media platforms involved, but they’re not following the same narrative. Reading a Captain America comic doesn’t necessarily tie in to the latest film. Even if you pull comics that inspired Captain America: The Winter Soldier, they weren’t designed to complement the film – they’re the source material.

Integrated marketing also looks like transmedia storytelling on the surface, and though it’s a closer match than entertainment franchises, it’s not quite there. Snickers has been rolling with their “You’re not you when you’re hungry” campaign for over four years. In that time they’ve featured the slogan in commercials, on a website, in print ads, in YouTube videos, and through tweets from celebrities. They’ve leveraged the campaign to partner with other brands; that recently included a tie-in with the Godzilla film. It definitely meets the requirement of multiple platforms, but the tagline is more of a theme instead of a story.

In the case of Snickers, the content is about driving consumers towards a specific product or service. There isn’t an overreaching narrative; the pieces of the puzzle are simply different ways to bring eyes and clicks to the object being marketed. However, if an integrated marketing campaign places importance on the story rather than the product, it could be considered transmedia storytelling.

This flowchart by Steve Peters is a helpful guide to determining whether something is or isn’t transmedia storytelling:

Transmedia storytelling flow chart

What are examples of transmedia storytelling? The first time I truly understood the meaning of it was when I watched The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (LBD). The web series from Pemberley Digital is a modern day retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Lizzie Bennet’s story is told through a series of vlogs, and while it was airing (from April 2012 to March 2013), audiences could get involved and watch the story continue outside YouTube and on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.

The primary characters in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries all had Twitter accounts and interacted with other characters and viewers. If you didn’t follow the feeds you didn’t miss anything but keeping tabs on Bing Lee and William Darcy added more to the story. It was like hanging out with the characters as they went about their everyday lives, and fans ate it up. Each piece here fed into a cohesive arc and enriched the experience. You can download a PDF booklet with all the tweets and photos shared by the characters to get an idea of how it worked.

Other platforms used by the series included a Tumblr and Pinterest for Jane Bennet’s fashion inspiration (she works in fashion in the LBD) and a YouTube spinoff series featuring Lydia Bennet.

Another example of transmedia storytelling is John Watson’s blog. The character from BBC’s Sherlock posts a blog entry to go with each case as well as other ramblings and photos. His writings feature his reactions and thoughts – for example, you can read what was going through his head when he found out Sherlock wasn’t dead – and again, the entries add color to the television series. The blogs feature comments from Sherlock, Molly Hooper, and others from the show.

Even Ridley Scott’s Prometheus counts as transmedia storytelling. They worked with TED to create a fictional talk given by Peter Weyland in 2023. The video released before the film sets up the plot of the Alien prequel and leads viewers into the world. Yes, it’s marketing, but it’s also story driven.

As you can see, defining transmedia storytelling isn’t black and white. Transmedia is a buzzword that’s been thrown about so much its meaning has become diluted. When you’re trying to determine whether it applies to a given story or if you’re trying to incorporate it into a story you’re telling, think about whether the use of different platforms and mediums enhances the story in some way. Does the additional material give you more insight into the characters or plot, or is it only there to serve as an advertisement for your story?

Agree or disagree? Have more examples of transmedia storytelling? Jump to the comments and share!

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