What is Transmedia Storytelling?

Transmedia storytelling uses multiple media platforms to narrate and expand a story. As digital and social media have expanded in the last decade, transmedia storytelling has become a popular way to enrich television series, movies, works of fiction, and even classic literary texts by creating larger worlds for fans to explore and participate in. Henry Jenkins, the founding scholar of transmedia studies, defines transmedia storytelling as follows:”Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story . . .” The best way to illustrate this idea may be through an example.

What Are Some Examples of Transmedia Storytelling?

The television series LOST (2004-2010) is an early example of transmedia storytelling. Beyond the weekly broadcast of the telvision show on ABC, LOST also offered a podcast by show producer/writers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof. Their podcast often revealed easter eggs from the recent episode, answered fan questions, and dropped hints about the strange, sentient island and its inhabitants. That LOST was primarily a mystery helped generate other kinds of media around the story–the alternate reality game (The LOST Experience) based on Season 2, for example, was a complex puzzle, complete with phony web sites, that eventually revealed the significance of the “numbers” that feature heavily in the show. Other media also emerged to support the show: web episodes (LOST: The Missing Pieces) helped to flesh out characters and fill in story gaps. There was even a work of fiction, The Bad Twin, published when the character Hurley finds its manuscript in the plane wreckage.

Other television series and movies followed a similar pattern–the Harry Potter films, the Dark Knight American Idol, the X-Men films, Sherlock, and others offered additional content and rich encyclopedic worlds via digital media. Today, it any film series or television shows with long-term ambitions must engage in some form of transmedia storytelling or risk losing their audience and their profits.

But transmedia storytelling is not always a commercial venture. Some transmedia stories are independently produced, low-budget operations that are playful or satirical in tone. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, for example, takes a character from a canonic text (Pride and Prejudice) and offers a retelling of her life, set in a modern context and serialized on video blog posts.

What Are the Key Features of Transmedia Stories?

So what features do transmedia stories share? Henry Jenkins, the author of Convergence Culture, suggests that transmedia storytelling has seven defining principles, including the following:

Spreadability is the potential a transmedia story has reach large audiences through the sharing mechanism of social media platforms. Think of a YouTube video “going viral,” or gaining millions of views in a short period of time. A drillable story, on the other hand, refers to the depth of content that transmedia storytelling offers. Web episodes, podcasts, video, and social media should provide viewers with a deep, detailed world. Listening to the LOST podcast for Easter eggs about the show or clues to the alternate reality game (see below), for example, demonstrates the drillability of the LOST transmedia phenomenon.

Continuity is the internal consistency of the rendered world. Many comic books series have continuity editors to makes sure that character and events do not conflict with the timeline established canon. If Ana Lucia kills Shannon on the television series LOST, in other words, a web episode cannot show Shanon surviving. Unless, of course, we are dealing with multiple universes, which brings us to multiplicity. Transmedia stories sometimes offer parallel universes where characters have new and different lives. Fan fiction is perfect example of multiplicity: who didn’t want Harry and Hermione to get married, after all?

Immersion is a familiar term to anyone involved in literature or literacy instruction: it signifies the act of entering and living in a fictional world. Transmedia storytelling deepens our immersion–and this may be especially true if video games are part of the transmedia story. One example is The Walking Dead, which in addition to the original comic, web episodes, and supplemental novels, has also developed a and ground-breaking video game (by TellTale Games), placing players in similar moral conundrums to those faced by characters in the television show. If immersion, like drillability, is a quality that draws us in, then extractability is the quality in the story which allows us to take things from it. Commercially speaking, a transmedia story generates toys, apparel, theme parks, and other commodities.

World Building
This concept is related to immersion and drillability. On world building, Jenkins writes: “Most often, transmedia stories are based not on individual characters or specific plots but rather complex fictional worlds which can sustain multiple interrelated characters and their stories. This process of world-building encourages an encyclopedic impulse in both readers and writers . . . The encyclopedic ambitions of transmedia texts often results in what might be seen as gaps or excesses in the unfolding of the story: that is, they introduce potential plots which can not be fully told or extra details which hint at more than can be revealed.”

Seriality means that the installments of a transmedia story are released over a pre-set period of time (e.g. weekly)–and that sequence may be important to the story. Seriality can also motivate viewers to the supplementary content provided through multiple platforms, with each new installment revising our understanding of the story as whole.

Subjectivity is the idea that transmedia stories often emphasize the subjective perspective of characters. Viewing characters through multiple platforms contributes to subjectivity: we see new sides of them as they reveal more and more about themselves.

By performance,Jenkins means that transmedia stories often cause viewers to generate their own content in response to the story. LOST, for example, prompted its fans to set up web sites and blogs, where they discussed their theories about the show.

How Can Transmedia Storytelling be Used in the English Language Arts?

As the Lizzie Bennet Diaries demonstrate, transmedia storytelling has potential as a teaching tool in literature instruction. But for now, its educational potential remains mostly unexplored. In the study of literature, students can create transmedia stories that enrich the text by deepening its world, filling in plot details, finding new, updated ways to express of its central ideas, giving voice to minor or marginalized characters, and more. The transmedia story also has potential in writing classes, where students can learn important lessons about audience, genre, and the unique interactions between communicative modes (e.g. image, text, moving image, audio) in a multimodal text.

Students in my ENG 311 class are currently creating transmedia trailers for young adult novels. They will use these trailers to engage their own secondary students in a particular text. One early example was created by Haleigh Beasley, Hannah Devecht, Brandy Cumbee, Ariel Davids, and Samantha Huebler. It is based on the YA novel Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon.The video itself illustrates multiplatform storytelling, and there is accompanying social media content at @OliverBright8 (Twitter) and @maddygoesoutside (Instagram).