Conveying Action in Transmedia

When you're telling a story, stuff happens. You need to get across the meat of what's going on and how it fits together to your audience, clearly, efficiently, and compellingly.

We know how to convey action in video.


We know how to do it in comics. (I love xkcd so much, don't you?)


We even know how to do it in flat text.

"At that instant the cottage door was opened, and Felix, Safie, and Agatha entered. Who can describe their horror and consternation on beholding me? Agatha fainted, and Safie, unable to attend to her friend, rushed out of the cottage. Felix darted forward, and with supernatural force tore me from his father, to whose knees I clung, in a transport of fury, he dashed me to the ground and struck me violently with a stick. I could have torn him limb from limb, as the lion rends the antelope. But my heart sank within me as with bitter sickness, and I refrained. I saw him on the point of repeating his blow, when, overcome by pain and anguish, I quitted the cottage, and in the general tumult escaped unperceived to my hovel."
--Frankenstein, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

But this trick of conveying action and urgency can be a lot harder to do in transmedia. Harder... but not impossible.

Old Tricks

You can still just use the proven action conventions of single media, of course, provided you structure for it up front. Film your action scene and pop it onto YouTube (or, heck, get it into theaters, if you know how). Publish that comic. Write out your action scene in novelic format. It's all good, right? 

Ah, but purists may ask: how did it get there? Who was holding the camera, who was uploading the video? Who held the hand that penned your third-person-omniscient narrative?

Actually... you, the creator, probably care about this a lot more than your players will. I promise. In Routes, we bent over backwards to create a plausible reason why the characters would cut together a weekly webisode. We needn't have bothered; nobody really cared. 

Last Call Poker included pieces of third-person narrative, and so far as I can tell, the only person who ever remarked on it in much depth was, well, me. Shadow Unit maintains episodic chunks of narrative text and real-time drama unfolding on LiveJournal, and it all comes together beautifully and without audience complaint.

Mixing single-medium elements with real-world platforms feels like the sort of thing that should hinder immersion and weaken your experience. But remember, many of our most cherished transmedia experiences have a big traditional media piece already -- a film, a TV show, a book. There's a definite time and place for it. Heck, the Matrix transmedia galaxy consists entirely of traditional media elements.

So why not create a transmedia experience centering on your web series, your comic, your serial narrative sent out through email? Mix and match, and keep the action where you know how to show it. It's proven to work.

New Problems

But let's say you don't want to do that, because it isn't the kind of story you have to tell, or you don't have the budget for them, or because those single-media anchor elements are focusing on different plot threads. When you try to tell a story that lives primarily in the real world, sometimes filming an action scene and popping it online just isn't going to work. 

You can still get the job done, of course, but you're going to have to dig a little deeper and work a lot harder. For each piece of action you have to convey, you're going to have to answer a few basic questions; once you do that, you'll have a grip on how to choose a medium and how to use it.

1. What is the action I'm trying to convey? It might be a conversation that happens between two characters, or a fistfight, a discovery, whatever. It's an actual thing that happens. What is that thing? If you're not clear on it, you can't hope to convey anything else.

2. Who knows about it, and why would they talk about it? You can only convey information from a character's point of view if that character would know about it.

3. How urgent is this action? The more urgent, the more immediate your coverage should be (in feeling, not necessarily in actual timing.)

Picking and Choosing

From here, you can pick and choose how to go about communicating the action in your story. Note that these options are in no way mutually exclusive; you may even pick multiple methods for a single piece of action, particularly if it's very important to your story.

Live Coverage -- This is the transmedia equivalent of action happening on stage or in front of a camera. Live means 'something close to when it happens.' It can be through a character's eyes, with Tweets and immediately uploaded photos or video clips, or through the eyes of a third party. Creating a fictional news outlet comes in very handy, and if it fits into the kind of story you're trying to tell, I highly recommend it. If your in-story event is "newsworthy", you can convey through breaking news updates.

This technique is great for bringing a sense of urgency, but it has a down side, too. It can demand a high level of volume that might not be sustainable for either the storyteller or the audience, particularly over a long time period; and you can't go very deep in analyzing an event as it happens, so it's possible that you'll lose fine nuances of motivation or emotion. You can backfill this stuff with supplemental coverage later, though. 

If you're going to be doing live coverage of an event, it's a good practice to indicate to your audience that they should be alert at the time you have in mind, so they don't feel they've missed out on anything once your scene (so to speak) has concluded.

Delayed Coverage -- This is more akin to the epistolary novel method of storytelling. You're not showing the actual scene as it happens; you're just showing the reaction shot. You tell this part of your story after the fact, with longer video uploaded by a character once the dust has settled, or written as a blog post; emails sent to your audience explaining what's happened; non-breaking news items on websites. In-character blogs are generally chock full of delayed-coverage action: Conversations, encounters, close calls, suspicions. 

You can leak urgency if you're not careful -- it's less likely that a character is blogging from the pit of a dungeon than sent a TwitPic in the final second before the door clanged shut, after all -- but you gain the ability to provide context and depth that it's a little more difficult to get across when you're live.

And in terms of resources, let's face it, it's a lot easier to blog, "So I just had a GUN waved in my FACE. How was your night?" than it is to shoot video footage of such a scene.

Player Perspective -- Get the audience to convey a part of your story for you. One of the most immersive methods for this is to actually hold an event in the real world, and rely on audience-participants to take photos or video and blog it up during or after the event. Alas, not every player can be relied upon to do this for you. If you're using this method, it's highly advisable to have a backup plan.

There are other ways to do player perspective, too -- holding a live but online event, for example, or engaging in private communication with individual audience members. I'm not generally a fan of this technique. It can be incredibly powerful to individual players, but you're also gambling on how much of your story makes it out to a wider audience, and it really, really doesn't scale well.

Creating Evidence -- Instead of having action take place on stage, provide evidence that it happened offstage, instead. Photographs of the party (or fistfight!) uploaded to Flickr. Police or coroner's reports, email exchanges of the conspiracy in active scheming, news clippings, anecdotes in a dating profile, scans of ticket stubs, the terms of the lawsuit settlement, sky's the limit.

Creating evidence hits a sweet spot of conveying information in an efficient, scalable, and interesting way. It gives your audience something like fiero when they figure out what the evidence means and how it fits into the wider context of your story. But it doesn't always work very well for action that's happening concurrently with your story -- a police report isn't immediately written and online the instant an event happens, for example. I like to use this for conveying elements of backstory, or for revealing parts of the narrative that were hidden at the time that they occurred. 

This kind of evidence-creation can also kick you back to the problem of "But who's telling me this and why?" Generally, it's a nice thing to create these pieces of evidence and put them in as authentic a spot as you can. If you're putting up that lawsuit settlement, then it should be, say, a document retrievable on the law firm's website. You can embed suggestions and information leading to that exact site and that precise document elsewhere in your experience. (Say, an ad for the law firm, and an open keyword search by the surname of one of your characters.) 

And finally, too much reliance on this part of your story makes your story harder to follow. The more pieces your audience has to put together just to understand what's going on, the fewer audience members you're going to have; that's just life. So while this is incredibly effective when you do it right, it's probably also better to use evidence creation sparingly.

Right. What am I missing? I'm sure it's something, if not several somethings! Let's get this party started, shall we?

And please bear with me -- this is something I've done mostly by instinct the last several years, and I'm trying to reverse engineer my process. I'm not sure if I've succeeded, and I'm probably leaving stuff out. Do call me out or add on in comments, please.

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