Time and Transmedia

Transmedia narratives have a distinct problem with chronology, and the more fragments you break a story into, the harder it becomes to manage. The problem is on two fronts: How you expect your audience to consume the narrative, and the timeline for your actual story. I've been mulling over the passage of time and its implications for transmedia a lot lately, and thought I'd share where I am so far.

Expected Vectors

West Coast Hollywood-style transmedia tends to exist as a series of inter-related snapshots, each existing at a single point in a story universe's chronology and presented to the audience in single, finished pieces -- often a single tentpole piece of media that spawns a sequel, and then another, and then spins out from there.

One begins the Star Wars experience by watching Star Wars, the movie. Right? One can safely assume that anyone reading any Star Wars novels or comic books, or playing any video games, has already seen the films. That means that as a creator, you can use a sort of shorthand for knowledge you can reasonably expect a reader to have -- you don't need to explain what a Jedi is in every book, or who Darth Vader is, or the fact that Coruscant is where the senators all hang out. Your audience will remember.

Except that there is a generation of kids whose first contact with Star Wars comes from Clone Wars, the animated series. Which means their path into the universe could be completely different, and if a Clone Wars viewer were to pick up a copy of Tatooine Ghost... they might be a little lost. Context is everything.

The solution for this is to signal to your audience what era of the story universe each piece belongs to, either subtly (by putting one character vs. another on a cover, for example) or overtly (by tagging the title with 'The Clone Wars.') It's as good as a label saying "This is for YOU." Audiences are accustomed to series conventions, so they can reasonably be expected to seek out a natural starting point for beginning their journey into your narrative; the first movie, the first episode, the first book.

A clever creator would make sure to have many, many viable entry points, so watching Star Wars: A New Hope, watching the first episode of Clone Wars, or playing Lego Star Wars would ideally all give you adequate context to wade further and deeper into the story universe. Beyond that, the careful creator will keep an eye on likely paths through the story and story world and make sure to always provide information in a comprehensible sequence.

As an alternative, there's always Nancy Drew storytelling: Every Nancy Drew book provides you the same key facts about her titian blonde hair, attorney father, and her two best friends: the girly-and-plump friend Bess, and the thin-tomboy George. It's OK if you've never read any other book, they get you up to speed in no time. ...But that's not much of a way to build a deep, rich narrative, if you ask me. Change over time adds depth and immersion to the audience experience.

The most difficult task would be making sure to keep your story straight on who was where doing what and why as the universe grows. Making sure a character's home planet isn't different in the book and the game. Making sure that an off-handed reference to the greedy species from Goobleblot isn't in direct conflict with another reference to Goobleblot, the holy planet of sacred contemplation, where money is forbidden. This is not easy. This is why IP owners hire companies like Starlight Runner.

Living Stories

The question of timeline gets more complicated, though, when you're talking about narrative that evolves over time. This could be the alternate reality game that plays out in real time; but it could also be a weekly TV show or web series, a video game that releases monthly episodes (a la Telltale Games), a monthly or bimonthly comic book, or really any web presence (even for transmedia narratives otherwise told in completely self-contained capsules).

Consider Mad Men and Twitter. The characters exist on Twitter (as fan creations) and as the series progresses, those characters and their relationships change over time to reflect the events of the show. This is gorgeous. This is that performance art that makes my creative motor rev up: Spinning a narrative in multiple media in real time. And from the creator's point of view, you already have a master timeline to synchronize the pieces of the transmedia narrative: the structure of TV airdates and seasons, unfolding over weeks and years.

But it's not always possible to do precisely that -- particularly for bigger and more sprawling projects, or those based on cinema. If you're making a social media presence for Luke Skywalker, is he the innocent dreamer of A New Hope, the surly teenager of Empire Strikes Back, or the calm, confident Jedi of Return of the Jedi? You could have him evolve over time... but what happens when he reaches the end of his character arc? Do you start over? Stop entirely? And how fast do you play it out?

The simplest and most satisfying answer might well be to consider past canon as over and done, and make sure that any living components tie into the most-recently-released elements, and lead directly onto the upcoming-soonest elements. It's elegant and avoids the problem entirely. It also helps make it easier to incorporate those components into an ongoing and comprehensive marketing campaign, natch.

But I would like to tentatively propose that you don't need to bow out of making social media elements for done-and-past parts of your story as a blanket rule. In the Luke Skywalker example, my take would be to take a single iconic moment and run with it in perpetuity. In this case, I might pick the period between Empire and Jedi. (YMMV.) In Romeo and Juliet, you'd pick the couple pining for each other for all eternity.

The trick would be to keep the content fresh enough to not stagnate; nobody is interested in reading three years of archives of the characters in your film living boring lives before the film starts and anything interesting ever happens to them. The social media element still has to be a vehicle for compelling story... or nobody will care about it.

And then again, in some cases, you might also just plain ignore the problem of chronology and consistency entirely. After all, audiences are more used to muddled or outright fractured chronology than we might at first recognize -- look at the many comic book reboots, crossovers, and retcons out there. I increasingly feel like the desire for completely consistent canon is a current storytelling fashion and not an objectively correct way to do it; after all, how many Batman-and-Joker origin stories do we have?

So yeah. That's where my head is right now: All about when. Have anything to add or correct or argue on how to manage timing in a transmedia narrative? My comments are open as always, and I'd love to hear what you have to say.