Writing for Transmedia

Thematic Resonance & Wrecking Ball

I talk a lot about thematic resonance — the idea that all of the parts of a transmedia work should feel fundamentally the same in mood and tone, if not in content. If your project is a moody, serious documentary about the aftermath of a natural disaster (just for example) then adding in a cheerful web comic with an animal mascot teaching you safety and survival tips probably isn't the best approach. 

Thematic resonance is crucial. It serves to tie the pieces of your project together, to make everything feel connected. If the different elements of your work are substantially different in feeling, then the final result is going to be jarring to the audience. And it might actively work against whatever you're trying to accomplish.

The best way to illustrate this is the video for Wrecking Ball, by Miley Cyrus. Yes, I'm serious. Take a look.

Let's engage with this on a serious artistic level, all right? There's a lot going on here.  On the level of lyrics and vocal performance, this is a powerful song about heartbreak. But the impact of the song is dampened by the performer's need or desire to appear sexual in the video. On the shallowest layer, it still works — the metaphor of the sledgehammer and wrecking ball destroying a relationship is a little heavy-handed, but that's fine. Lying in the ruins of the thing you destroyed? Great imagery.

But then there's the part with the licking a sledgehammer while making eyes at the camera. The nudity could still work; there could be a metaphor there about underlying vulnerability, but it's diminished or eliminated by the, well, the writhing.

Now, I have nothing against anyone in general or Miley in specific being sexy. I'm not engaging in moral panic here. If Miley wants to be sexy, more power to her; she's an adult now. But on the level of art, the sexy stuff dilutes this specific work on an artistic level, because this song and metaphor are fundamentally not about seduction.  This results in a mixed message, with Miley singing tearfully about regret and sorrow, and then behaving visually in ways that would imply she enjoys and desires that kind of destruction. 

There is no thematic resonance between the song itself and the visual performance. The pieces simply don't fit together as if they are parts of the same work, or the opinions of the same person, and as a result, the final video is much weaker on the level of art than it should have been.

By way of comparison, Robin Skouteris has done a mashup of Wrecking Ball and Sinead O'Connor's Nothing Compares 2 U. 

Even ignoring the changes in the music and the addition of Sinead — this version works visually much better than the official Wrecking Ball video does, because it focuses sharply on the raw feeling of loss and despair. You know, what the song is actually about. You're not distracted from the emotion by thematic dissonance.  

And this, kids, is why thematic resonance is important. Every detail of everything you make for a single project has to support the same emotional payload. Doing otherwise makes for worse art.

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A Creator's Guide: A Short Update

It's been just a bit over a year since the launch of A Creator's Guide to Transmedia Storytelling. Naturally time and technology have moved on, so I thought I'd take a minute to think about what's happened since then, and whether I have anything new to say.

As it turns out, I do.

Tumblr is Amazing and Facebook is Terrible

I didn't give a lot of time to specific platforms in the Guide, preferring mostly to talk about general rules for how to use a social tool. They're always changing; better to know how to critically examine a platform and decide how to use it for yourself.

But the social media landscape has changed in some very particular ways, and I'd like to address that a bit.

First: Tumblr is amazing. I wasn't very familiar with it yet when I wrote the Guide -- you could argue I'm still not -- but the way that fan communities develop and propagate on Tumblr is absolutely phenomenal. Tumblr is where people go to love things. And you want people to love you, right?

To a creator, I would say: Make yourself as Tumblr-friendly as possible. Make an account. Post art in various stages of completion. Share fan art and fanfic and inside jokes. Engage with the community -- not necessarily inside of your fictional world, but as the creator of your fictional world. You can put characters and in-story elements on Tumblr, but it takes a light touch and isn't the best use of the platform; it's fundamentally not in tune with how people interact with Tumblr.

On the other hand: Facebook has become a less and less useful tool to a creator. At this point I'd say it's close to worthless. Various policies have long made Facebook an iffy proposition... but in recent months it's become clear that even if someone likes or friends you, they may never see the bulk of what you post unless you pony up some steep cash. If your audience isn't likely to see what you put on Facebook, you're just wasting time, energy, and money by having a presence there at all. Don't bother.

Social Media is Not for Plot

There was a time when I felt that advancing plot through live action on social media was a good idea. I no longer believe this. The reason: volume.

As social media platforms has been more and more widely adopted, the average number of people any given person has friended of followed has climbed ever higher. That means the stream of updates going by is faster and faster. Which means it's very easy for any one update to be lost in the shuffle. And that means your fantastic, tight, tense action sequence may vanish into the ether, never viewed by man, woman, or child.

You don't want that. Better to stick to social media for what it does best... extras. Social media is still brilliant for characterization and for interaction. Use it to add depth and complexity to your characters. Use it as a place to let your audience and characters talk to each other. Use it for your non-load-bearing story elements; the decoration, not the stuff that holds the roof up.

The exception to this is if you know for a fact you already have a very highly engaged and attentive audience, and you've told them exactly when to be paying attention (or you can count on them to update one another later on.) But this is very strictly an advanced and late-stages move, not something you can get away with out of the gate. Be cautious. Be realistic.

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries

I've long been predicting the onset of a transmedia "web series++," as I've been calling it: a web series with light transmedia elements that deepen the experience at a fairly low cost, and requiring a fairly low engagement. That project finally arrived in the guise of a modern-day adapatation of Pride & Prejudice, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.

I urge all of you to become familiar with the project -- I wish I could've written it up in the Guide. It's one of the landmark new structures of our day, and I expect a lot more along the same general lines, though likely with only varying degrees of success. And it won an Emmy, so that's nice, too.

Going Forward with A Creator's Guide

It's back-to-school season which means I'm seeing a spike in sales of the Guide -- thanks bunches! I really appreciate it! Please do reach out and let me know how you're using it; I'm absolutely tickled at the variety of schools and courses who have found it a useful resource.

I'm also starting to get back-to-school invitations to Skype into classes to speak. I did a lot of that last year and was flattered to be asked, but it played havoc on my schedule. And this year, on top of client work, I'm juggling production of Lucy Smokeheart while trying to break into genre print publishing... so my schedule is a little intense.

So... go ahead and ask if you'd like me to pop into your class on Skype? But please don't be mad if I say no. I don't love you any less, I promise.

I've also been asked if I'm planning on writing a new edition or companion to the Guide. The answer is no. I think I've said about all I have to say in the Guide. I could probably produce a companion volume with worksheets and what-have-you. But honestly I think it would encourage a formulaic result for people who use it, it would inhibit creativity in the space, and I'd only be doing it for the money and not because I thought it would be a contribution to the art.

I do not want to be That Girl. There may one day be a new edition of the Guide... but as this post shows, I don't have a lot of new stuff to say. So for now, we're cool.

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Zen and the Art of Transmedia Storytelling

Several months ago, an indie film director approached me. He was searching for funding for his film, and he wanted me to "make a transmedia plan" for him, because he thought that would make the project an easier sell to investors. His business logic was sound; he wanted a way to create fans ahead of time, because it's naturally easier to get funding and distribution for a film that has a robust fan base already waiting to buy tickets. We have Blair Witch Project and dozens of comic book movies to prove that point.

What this particular gentleman was missing, though, was a crucial pillar to any transmedia project. He wanted transmedia as a mysterious, separate black box to add on to the movie… but he didn't much care what it was, much less have a creative purpose in mind. I had questions. What experience did he want to provide? What story information did he want to expand or reveal? What subplot did he want to play out? He was unprepared to answer, because he didn't know those questions were coming.

Now, I have deep sympathy, because heaven knows I've been there myself. This echoes my own introduction to scriptwriting -- sideways and accidental. At the time, I was working on a big-budget film's marketing campaign, mostly writing blog entries, Tweets, and emails from various characters. One of these characters was meant to begin posting videos, so I dutifully wrote a few short scripts and sent them off to be shot.

The production team came back to me with their questions. So very many questions! What time of day was it? What was he wearing? What did the room look like? Should there be anything in the background? This was a revelation to me. I came from writing prose first, where you highlight only the most important details and allow the imagination of the audience to fill in the rest. Before that moment, I had never truly understood that every visual element in a film is there because somebody made a creative decision to put it there. I now call this the practice of mindful design: being present and aware of every creative choice.

This won't be a new concept to any filmmaker, of course. It's one of the fundamentals of film. Every line, every scene, every shot and prop and article of costuming serves a creative purpose, be it furthering plot, characterization, theme. Ultimately, each one of these small creative decisions affects the quality of the whole work, so every last one of them matters.

So it shouldn't be a shock when I tell you that extending your film into a transmedia narrative is exactly the same. No website, no Tweet, no social media profile or tie-in graphic novel or webisode should exist unless you know what it's adding to the experience of your story for your audience -- because once you send it into the world, it becomes a part of your story, and it will inevitably color the audience's perception of your film.

It's easy to miss this simple fact. Transmedia has achieved super-hype buzzword status, and as my experience with that director shows, there's an idea floating around out there that "having transmedia" will help you with funding, distribution, or marketing… but lagging behind is the understanding that creating a transmedia narrative is fundamentally different from hiring a marketing team or cutting a licensing deal.

That pivotal difference is that transmedia elements are received as a part of the same creative work as the film itself, and so need to be produced with the same creative vision behind the wheel -- if not the same creators.

The evidence for this is manifold. Even a decade ago, the experience of watching movies like Blair Witch Project or A.I. were deepened by understanding parts of the story world revealed only on their web footprints. More recently, web components like the fictional TED talk deployed for Prometheus shed light on the history, character, and motivations of CEO Peter Weyland, and affected the viewer's perception of him in the film. If those elements hadn't been resonant in tone, quality, and content, the totality of the experience would have suffered.

That means you need to bring to your transmedia components the same kind of mindful design that you bring to your film. This is true at any scale, from the broad sweep of the big picture (when you're first choosing to, for example, create a blog or web video meant to convey a subplot cut from the film) all the way down to tiny details (like choosing fonts or putting a character on Pinterest vs. Tumblr). Because at the end of the day, for your audience, it's not just an add-on. It's another facet of the same story.

This doesn't mean you have to do it all yourself, of course. There is a growing industry of transmedia professionals experienced at reading a script or watching a rough cut and understanding the creative vision well enough to expand it across media. And it's not new to transmedia, either. It's simply continuing the tradition of film as a collaborative art.

But it also means you definitely don't need to hire an expert to do black magic and hand you "some transmedia" that you can then point investors toward. Indeed, outsourcing that responsibility could turn out very poorly indeed. Removing your guiding creative hand from the equation risks something much worse than wasting time and money. A tone-deaf and badly executed transmedia extension might damage the experience of your story and degrade the experience of your film for your audience, just the way a tone-deaf and badly targeted marketing campaign can hurt your film.

Does that sound a little scary? Relax, it shouldn't be. Absolutely hire on a team to build websites, draw graphic novels, or manage a social media footprint if you don't have the time and skills to do it yourself. Just keep yourself in the loop. As a filmmaker, you already have the single most important ingredient for a great transmedia narrative: a vision for the story you want to tell. All you have to do to use the transmedia toolbox is take a step back and imagine that story -- your story -- behind and beyond the frame… and mind the details. 

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A Creator's Guide is Launched!

It's here, it's here, the day is here! A Creator's Guide to Transmedia Storytelling is on sale at an internet retailer or even a physical bookstore near you! (Unless you don't live in North America, in which case you have another six weeks to wait on the physical bookstore part. Sorry?)

Buy it on Amazon! Or Barnes & Noble! At Powell's! Or Chapters! Or any other bookseller you like, because, you know, I'm not picky. I'd also appreciate it very much if you could leave reviews -- honest ones, mind -- once you've read it. (I love praise as much as the next girl, but saying it's better than it is doesn't do me any favors in writing a better book next time!)

A Creator's Guide is my effort to spread to the world everything I know about the art and craft of telling transmedia stories. The effort here was to make something 100% useful from the moment you pick it up, no matter if you're a transmedia novice or a skilled practitioner in your own right. Emphasis here on practical.

It includes everything from suggestions on how to choose your media to what kinds of prior art you should learn from and even how much a transmedia professional should charge. Yes, with real numbers. I've done everything I could to make it the best and most useful book I could, and I really hope you get a lot out of it.

And here I'd like to stop and note that this book is the culmination of a lot of good fortune, and more than that, the generosity of many, many people. I am awash in gratitude. I've gone on about it at great an specific length in my acknowledgements, but let me say a briefer version here: I could never have written this book without all of the people I have learned from and leaned on these last ten years. Thank you, all of you. You should be as proud today as I am.

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Making Isn't Enough

You've probably heard a common refrain in the transmedia scene: "Just make something." It's the wisdom of centuries of artists before us -- you can talk forever, but you never become a creator if you don't actually apply all that theory. Writers write. 

There's also a honing-your-craft angle to it; we writers say you have to write a million words of crap before you start writing anything good. Practice makes perfect: You have to try and fail a few times just to get the hang of most things, much less to make anything you're proud to hang your name on.

But a conversation with Transmedia Talk's own Nick Braccia a few days ago has me realizing that a lot more goes into climbing the skill ladder than just milling out content. There are writers who churn out millions of words of manuscripts in a year, each worse than the last; there are transmedia creators who likewise make disjointed and unfocused projects that never quite hang together into a cohesive whole. So here are five things that an ambitious creator will do, even above and beyond that old standby, "Make something."

1. Learn from work like yours. One of the most common ways of breaking into transmedia is inventing it. But when you do work in a vacuum, you're doing a huge disservice to yourself, your project, and your audience, because you aren't climbing onto the shoulders of those who have gone before you so you can see a little further. There's no sense reinventing the wheel. When you're wishing there were an easier or better way to do something, check to make sure someone hasn't already found one.

2. Talk to other creators. Sometimes learning from public examples isn't enough; become friendly with others doing similar projects, and trade information about roads not taken, close calls, war stories that might change how you do something. Sometimes a project that looked OK on the surface was a nightmare behind the scenes, and that's important to know if you don't want a nightmare on your hands, too. 

3. Make every decision mindfully. Make sure you very clearly understand all of the parts of your project and how they fit together. At every step know what work is being done -- characterization, exposition, furthering the plot, making the user experience better. That applies to written and video content, to design and interface elements, to challenges, everything. If you can't explain why you're making the choices you have for everything from platform distribution to font choices, then you haven't yet thought it through well enough.

4. Seek out criticism of your work. This one is hard. Really, really hard. Partly that's because it's difficult to hear criticism of something you love; it can feel weirdly personal and put you on the defensive. (You have to get over that, sunshine, if you want to go pro.) But the other reason is that honest and robust criticism is rare in the transmedia space. There's snark between friends in private, to be sure, but very little moves into the public sphere. Try to get your hands on that honest criticism, be it from your audience, from other creators, from your dev team, or anywhere else you can find it. Feedback is valuable above jewels, and you should make it a priority if you want to actually get better at this stuff.

5. Own your failures. This one's hard, too, but mainly because of pride: Don't buy your own hype. Don't believe your press releases. Know when you've totally screwed up, and admit it to yourself. That's the first step to working out why and preventing a repeat. Even when you haven't totally screwed up, though, even for magnificent and award-winning work, turn your analytic eye to every part of a project once it's done to see what could've been done better. And then make something else -- better.

Of course, it's true that none of this applies if you haven't taken that first step, that step where you actually make something. But there's a lot more to doing good work than putting together any old inspiration and tossing it in front of an unwitting public. I can't guarantee that these five steps will turn you into a rockstar transmedia creator overnight, of course. But I promise you if you aren't doing these things, your path to the top will take a whole lot longer -- and you may never get there at all.

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