Passive Construction in Transmedia

If you've ever read a book on writing, if you've ever taken a creative writing class, if you've browsed the deeps of writers' forums, you've run into this advice: Use stronger verbs.

This means that you should write 'Penelope galloped to the swings' and not 'Penelope went to the swings.' It also means avoiding passive sentence construction; use 'The seagull dive-bombed Victor,' and not 'Victor was dive-bombed by a seagull.'

But let's assume you're a pro at this already, and talk about my spin on this advice for the net-native social media narrative. That version is...

Let the Player Do It

The basic principle here is to look for places in your story where you (or if you prefer, your characters) are connecting dots, spelling things out, discovering or analyzing or arranging. Once you find those places, rework them so that the player is doing it. You're taking passive pieces of a story and making them active.

Now, I don't mean adding puzzles or minigames or challenges willy-nilly; that's just silly. Here's an example of what I do mean:

Nisha's husband Rinaldo 'works late' an awful lot lately. In a passive-transmedia version of her sad tale, she would post a sobby blog or vlog or series of Tweets about how she discovered that he's having an affair. In a more active version, she might post the receipts she found in Rinaldo's wallet for jewelry, dinners at a romantic restaurant, and a series of 3-hour motel stays.

It's the same information, but in the second version, the audience has an active role in working out what happened, instead of only seeing the reaction shot after the character puts the pieces together for them. This is true whether or not you intend to spin an interactive narrative  -- you can convey the information actively without, say, requiring that the player report in the correct answer before the story can move on.

If you're running a puzzle-driven version of this same story, you might present a challenge in which your players need to gain access to a fictionalized credit card bill, and then hit the URLs of the motel, restaurant, and jewelry store in order to piece together the same old narrative.

Learning Curve

The new-to-transmedia writer typically struggles with including these hooks for world-building and interaction. This is arguably the single most difficult thing to wrap your head around when you move into transmedia storytelling from good old static fiction. In traditional forms of narrative, you have perfect control over all of your characters. You are the god of your story. You know precisely what is going to happen, in what order your audience will read your words, etc., etc.

But in a great transmedia narrative, your audience members become characters in your story, too.  And heaven knows you don't have perfect control over your audience. Their part might be central or peripheral, but if they don't have a role to play, something to do, then you just might be telling a flat story that happens to be hosted online.

As with using active sentence construction, sometimes it's possible to go too far. 'Anja was devastated by the news of her father's death' arguably flows better than 'The news of her father's death devastated Anja.'

Likewise, if the player is so active that your characters never do anything under their own power, your story will suffer; there's an artful balance to it. Remember that your guides and protagonists have to sometimes act as something more than puppets dancing to a player's strings. But it's not really so different from balancing your cast of characters in the first place: everyone needs a role to play.

As always with this series, this is stuff that I've concluded based on my own small window into transmedia storytelling, and you might have a completely different take on it. So what do you think, does this apply to all kinds of transmedia, or just the game-infused variety I make? Any examples or fun anecdotes?

Like my blog? Buy my books!

Get the Serial Box App for iOS | Android