Select and arrange: Why transmedia for fiction might be a mess

Publishing Perspectives this week ran an article by Marc Piesing entitled: Despite promise, transmedia still a mess.

As a novelist, writer of a transmedia-book-in-progress* and a games reviewer, I have a few ideas about why it might be taking some time for transmedia to sit comfortably in the old-timey world of fiction.

Foam Diamond Sword in action by @libby_ol
Foam Diamond Minecraft Sword in the hands of @deepdivesmc

Let’s start with games

I’m going to start by giving some examples of games that have co-opted print and other storytelling media to build the gaming experience.

  • Ghost Trick (I played on a DS) Noir film meets manga meets pop-HelloKittification.
  • LA Noire (I played on Kinect) Noir film meets hard-boiled fiction meets TV cop show.
  • Gunstringer (I played on Kinect) Western film meets theatre meets Ren and Stimpy style cartoon.

The end result is – to my mind – a bit of a dog’s breakfast, but don’t get me wrong: as games, they don’t completely suck. The player experience is pretty fun. It’s just that, as many games do, they suffer from an identity crisis.

Blurring Boundaries

All these games mentioned above blur the boundaries of media and genre. (Is it a graphic novel? Is it a game? Is it a noir film? Is it an advertisement? <last point comes from over-exposure to atrocious use of dialogue, but a separate post on that, perhaps.)

The concept of blurred boundaries in itself is not a problem. One could say that boundary environments are the most interesting because they defy expectation.

  • Coastal areas: sea meets land. Interesting wildlife abounds.
  • Outskirts of town: city meets suburb. Prosthetics and tattoo shops abound. (True. Read sociology studies for proof.)
  • ‘Fringe’ culture: self-evident. (Only ‘fringe’ if one hasn’t discovered it yet, of course. Then it’s interesting for a moment. Then it’s suddenly, magically, ‘mainstream’.)
  • Fiction: genre-benders like The Broken Shore by Peter Temple. (Very interesting, if unsettling, ‘literary genre meets crime genre’.)
  • (Anyone think of more examples?)

In story terms, of course, we want this: the collision of worlds creates conflict or unrest. And conflict leads to a perfect environment for change … or for story.

The science of fiction

In his book The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall references a study by emeritus Professor Keith Oatley, in which he talks about the immersive experience of reading a work of fiction. The article referenced is mainly about how we learn from reading fiction about our environment and selves, sort of ‘preparing’ us for the real world. [This is a line also taken by Jane McGonigal in her book about gaming, Reality is Broken.]

But … Gottschall goes on to say that our brains behave differently, it seems, when we are in the throes of reading an absorbing book than they do when we are, say, gaming or looking at images.

And there’s the rub, because a purist would say that the immersive experience of reading fiction should not be interrupted with flashing lights and augmented text and so-on. Kids’ picture books? Sure. Graphic art? Can work. But Alice Munro? Milan Kundera? I think not.

You could say that the deeper we go (as an immersive experience), and perhaps the harder we have to work as a reader, the less we appreciate being interrupted or side-tracked.

Agency and immersion

In the world of games, blurring boundaries sort of works. Games can borrow from print (book) genres in order to find a readily recognisable container in which to house the journey. Sort of like borrowing the ‘branding’ or ‘flavour’ of a known set of cultural referents in order to create a world for the gamer-protagonist. With games, however, the spine of the experience is *the game*. The protagonist has agency. And that’s the point. All the other stuff is candy.

Fiction is slightly different. It is still a two-way street, to a point: there is the reader (or user) and there is the text (never mind the writer for the moment). But in fiction, the spine of the story is not massaged by the user. The spine is buried beneath the prose – to varying degrees – and the reader brings their own experience to join the dots or, rather, embellish the space between the ideas or words.

Perhaps the denser the world of ideas, the less time there is for wide-ranging plot. (Imagine trying to wade through prose from, say, Salman Rushdie while attempting to get the gist of a James Bond story like Skyfall. “Get on with it, Jim! Did the car explode or didn’t it?! Or was it a metaphor?”)

The more a reader is presented with ‘high-end prose’, complex themes and ideas, the higher the chance that our reader will be investing – and diving deep – into the story. In this case, there’s less chance they will be able to successfully, simultaneously navigate a satisfying transmedia experience. An ‘after the reader’ experience? Perhaps. So it’s probably best not to scatter the text with hyperlinks at critical points in the story arc.

Select and arrange

Getting transmedia storytelling right is apparently not as easy as it sounds. As Dan Franklin of Random House says in Piesing’s article, “My interest is to see what elements can be taken and broken out to a mainstream audience.”

I agree. Like an old-fashioned print story, which involves a process of selecting and arranging elements – such as text (for plot) and metaphor (for context) – when we are dealing with different media platforms, we must select and arrange the ‘right bits’ to act as bigger-picture referents and ‘plot points’ – or, to use marketing speak, ‘touch points’.

This has got to be more tricky for texts that have been designed for the old-school, linear ‘reader experience’.

Risky?

As for risks to new writers, I say: ‘Pants’. If you want to give it a go, give it a go. But be aware that not all stories are gagging to be told across media. (Think about who you’re trying to reach, and why you’re choosing those platforms.)

I don’t have expectations about how many readers Charlotte will get. (My target reader lives under my very roof, so Mission Already Accomplished, in that sense.) I will continue to work as an editor and wordsmith to put chocolate on the table, but when it comes to my transmedia experiment, I’m happy to work on it as and when I can. And I don’t have anything to lose.

The only thing I do need is a few canny collaborators: people who can help me mobilise the Charlotte Aimes world. People who know more about building apps and formatting with HTML5 and ePUB3 than I do. (And, er, a clone of myself to feed the kids and bake Christmas goodies. Anyone?)

And that’s the challenge facing many writers. Writing is a solitary pastime. Which is why talking about your world of ideas with people you don’t know can be interesting. But a post on that another time.

[*including hyperlinking for occasional bursts of context, and additional chapters and blog-style content that build on the story from outside the primary text]

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