Critical Eye: The Lizzie Bennet Diaries

This is the first in my Critical Eye series of posts, in which I'm going to be saying hard things about transmedia projects. This is taking up the gauntlet thrown by Geoffrey Long in his post, How to Ride a Lion.

So The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. I love this project with a pure and unashamed love, as evidenced by the enthusiastic post I wrote about it about a month ago. That's not to say the work is perfect, because nothing is, right? So while I see many things to love about this project -- the casting and wit, most of all -- there are a couple of observations I'd like to make, and pieces of unsolicited advice to give its creators.

First, if your first contact with the work is through YouTube, it's actually somewhat difficult to work out that there even is an extended transmedia component. There is no link directly to what I'd consider the single most important URL in the whole project: Catch up on the story from the beginning. There are links to Twitter, but it's for the actors, not the characters. There are links to Tumblr, Facebook, and Google+... for the project, not for characters, and without clicking around, there is no signal that you can follow and interact with the story someplace that isn't YouTube. Tumblr suffers from the same problem -- links to more information ABOUT the show, but nothing in the main navigation helping you to reach out and touch it.

This is a structual problem with user flow; it's making it slightly more difficult for the audience to find out that there's something more going on here than a series of videos -- and it's possible that if some casual viewers knew, they'd become less casual... and maybe drag in a few more viewers in the process. Enthusiasm and engagement becomes evangelism.

But the first step to engaging is knowing there's something there to engage with. My advice: Add on a line or two in the YouTube liner notes about connecting with the characters on social media -- and maybe links to Darcy, Bing Lee, and Caroline, in particular, who are otherwise completely silent in the YouTube version of the story. Why use the time and resources to create these pieces if you're not driving traffic there? 

That said, I highly approve of the volume of interaction occurring on social media with the characters. It's bite-sized; just enough to give the audience a taste and something to connect with, but not so much that it makes the creators insane trying to keep up. Expectations have been managed here very successfully indeed.

The second observation has to do with pacing. I watched the first twenty videos in one fell swoop. Since then, the story has felt awfully slow to me. Now, this probably has a lot to do with me and my taste than anything else -- it's worth noting that I'm holding off on watching Mad Men until the season is over so we can watch all of the episodes together.

But my personal taste aside, there's an interesting tension here between using up your handful of minutes an episode on moving story versus embroidering on character. You have to do one or the other. Episode No. 24, for example, felt a little flat standing on its own.

Aside from a grace note at the end with Lydia, it doesn't really present anything new about the story or about the characters. We already knew Jane had stayed the night after the party; we already knew about Vidcon. This episode kind of felt like filler. You can get away with that once in a while, but it definitely damages the momentum of the story to have an episode like that.

Which brings me to an interesting question about this adaptation. Given how long it's been playing, and how far into the story it's come, it's safe to say the project is meant to last several months, possibly about a year. If the timeline is true to the original novel, then there will be entire weeks when nothing happens at all. On the one hand, keeping that timeline will imbue the work with more realism and permit the audience to connect with the characters emotionally more like friends than like works of fiction. Lizzie going from meeting to wedding in four months would seem a little weird. On the other hand... the pace of real life is slow and boring, and we cut those things out of our stories most of the time for good reason.

Much can be forgiven if the characters remain witty and fun to watch, so I don't think everyone will abandon the story in droves in a slow patch. But neither will those slow spells serve to bring new audience to the table. It'll be crucial for the writers to make sure that each episode continues to feel relevant, and not like they're just marking time waiting for the next thing to happen.

I'm confident that the creators are flexing the timeline to make sure they won't have weeks and months of videos where nothing much happens; but keeping the audience focused during those times when the story moves along more slowly will be an interesting creative challenge. It'll be interesting to see how they rise to meet it.

And I'm completely confident that they can rise to meet it, too -- this is very clearly a creative, competent, funny, and committed team, and structural criticism aside, I really am enjoying the project. It'll be really fun to see how it continues to play out.

 


 

Want more advice you can bring to your own work? Take a look at my book A Creator's Guide to Transmedia Storytelling, on sale now!