Writing in Fragments

This is a guest post from Lucas Johnson, an up and coming creator who is doing all of us a favor by getting out there and trying to make stuff... and then critically examining his work and sharing what he's learned. We should all be as brave and as generous of spirit.


Azrael’s Stop is the story of a mystical tavern where people are supposedly drawn when they’re ready to die, the story of the teenage bartender who has had so many people in his life die around him that he’s no longer sure what it is to really live. He must find a way to move on from his past, something that will only happen if he lets himself really listen to the stories around him -- from a minstrel, a ghost, and the regulars at the watering hole of the Angel of Death.

It’s also a very experimental storytelling project I started early this year.

Transmedia writing is, by and large, about telling a story through fragments -- one piece here, one piece there; one piece on a blog, one piece in a Twitter stream, one piece on a TV show. An immersive experience is attained when those pieces fit together seamlessly, when the content is deep enough that you want to seek out the next piece to find out more.

At the beginning of the year, I had the idea to take that kind of fragmentation to a new, or at least slightly different, level. I wanted to tell a narrative piece of fiction split into daily serialized pieces -- each no longer than a tweet or two. I thought I would make it easy for people to get into -- after all, I wasn’t asking for a lot of their time -- and I would offer some bonus stuff on top of that for those who wanted a more immersive experience: in-character music, an audio experience, perhaps a comic.

Thus was born Azrael’s Stop, which I launched in February -- daily serialized microfiction delivered over Twitter.

I think the story itself was compelling enough -- people seem to like the concept. And the theory around the structure seemed sound -- it drew on a lot of what I had learned so far about transmedia storytelling. But, as four months and still very little audience proved, the plan had flaws.

A big piece of that was in the structure of the writing. The problem with writing in a way that doesn’t require my audience to spend a lot of time on my project is that my audience then doesn’t spend a lot of time on my project. The benefits of microfiction or flash fiction -- allowing the audience to piece together what’s going on from minimal detail, to tease out the story in these fragments -- is that if they have no foundation, no sense of the story to start with, they have nowhere to stand and build from. A snatch of dialogue is only useful for setting up a character if you know who the character is.

It’s like putting together a puzzle. First you find the corners, then the edges, so you have something to build from. But I hadn’t provided the edges -- or even the picture on the box to let you know what you were making.

But I am nothing if not resilient and driven. I wanted Azrael’s Stop to come back. I just needed to fix it. 

There are certainly a number of ways I could have fixed this problem. As Andrea suggested when I first put Azrael’s Stop on hiatus and deconstructed it, I could have given each character their own Twitter feed and done them in-character -- that way I could give a foundation for them in the form of avatars and bios and maybe a website. But that was becoming theatre, and I wanted to stick with prose -- after all, a lot of what I was writing was descriptive, and depended on a third-person view.

But I still needed a foundation. What I decided on, in addition to fixing a number of other problems with the project, was to create a prologue, a longer form story written in much the same style as the microfiction (minimalist language, for instance) but which would serve as an introduction to the story. Here’s the setting. Here are the characters. Here’s the tone, and here’s the theme. It will hopefully give people a good place to start, to ground themselves before they’re left to the “gutters” of the microfiction, the space between fragments where they must piece things together.

I’m also providing archives of all the content, and making them as easy to access as I can. Some art will help establish the setting and characters. A dedicated website will establish tone, as well as providing easy access to all the content (and an RSS feed), away from the slightly-too-restrictive constraints of Twitter.

Finally, I’ll be providing a much-needed service that arguably every transmedia project should have -- an updated summary of what’s happened so far. An open-arms welcome to people coming to the story in the middle, to say “If you don’t want to read through an entire archive, you don’t have to; here’s what’s going on. Jump right in.” Too few projects in my experience have that.

Fragmenting a story in interesting ways to let the audience piece it together can be fun for both sides. But it can also fail spectacularly, if there’s nowhere to start, if the audience isn’t engaged with anything in the first place. You need those edge pieces.

Azrael’s Stop was an experiment -- and it still is. I hope I’ve fixed the problems I found. I hope you will enjoy what I’ve put together, and enjoy piecing together the story as it goes. But I’m always re-evaluating myself, and always trying to find what works and what doesn’t -- as I think we all must. 

Azrael’s Stop gets going again on November 1st, at azraelsstop.com. I hope you’ll join me -- and let me know what else I can improve!

 


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