What The Heck Is Transmedia?
And How I Found Myself In This Strange World
By Mira Zimet
I met my husband on Match.com. I had been divorced a year, and he was the ninth or 10th person I met. We married three years later, and a few years after that, I embarked on a master’s degree in writing. I wanted to find a way to tell the story of the mating dance in the 21st century. I could write it or, having been a documentary writer/producer for almost 20 years, I could film it. But all that had been done. Was there another way to tell this story? Was there a way to bring in both of these skill sets? At this point I stumbled across the new, newfangled term “transmedia.”
In a nutshell, transmedia is telling a story or rather, extending a story across different platforms. It isn’t a book made into a movie, but rather a book or blog or Twitter feed or live event centered around a character or theme that wasn’t fully explored in its original medium and has been extended on other platforms.
To quote University of Southern California Professor Henry Jenkins*, who said, “A story like Heroes or Lost might spread from television into comics, the web, alternate reality or video games, toys, and other commodities picking up new audiences as it goes and allowing the most dedicated fans to drill deeper. The fans, in turn, may translate their interests in the franchise into concordances and Wikipedia entries, fan fiction, vids, cosplay [costume play], game mods and a range of other participatory practices that further extend the story world in new directions.”
My first reaction was, “Wow.” My second reaction was, “I’ve got to try that.”
At The Starting Gate
While some people begin their transmedia project as an add-on to something they’ve already worked on, it seemed simpler to dream up the whole concept at once. Since my master’s at USC was going to be in writing, I knew my project would originate in the written form, then move from there. I was already diving into unfamiliar territory in terms of form, so I chose a storyline based on some of my own experiences.
Thus, Connie Casey was born. She was 42, divorced three years, with two teenaged kids. She worked as a vice principal at a local elementary school and was ready to start dating again. While it wasn’t my story, it was a story I hoped would be relatable to other women. With the basic idea in place, I imagined how I could turn this concept into a transmedia project.
Creating The Bible
The bible is where you dream, where you come up with all the ways in which this scenario can live on different platforms and in different worlds. It’s similar to a treatment or an outline in that it includes the story you are telling and character descriptions, but in addition, you factor in all the other elements you plan to use and how to integrate them.
As I imagined Connie’s character, I also took into consideration which platforms would interest her. She would be on Facebook and Pinterest. She would journal and read blogs. As I created her children, her daughter, Dora, came to life with a cellphone in hand; and her son, Ben, ended up being a computer-game junkie.
One of the interesting aspects of transmedia is that fiction and non-fiction can co-exist. In order to keep everything straight in my head and the minds of my readers, I created three different worlds.
The first world is one of total fiction, and runs about 100 pages long. The story begins when Connie finds out her ex-husband is having a baby. His new wife posted the news on Facebook as soon as she took the test. This becomes the catalyst that pushes Connie to restart her own life, and thus sets the story in motion. In addition to standard third-person prose, I also included texts, emails, Facebook posts, journaling, and transcripts to push the story forward.
The second world I created is one in which these fictitious characters have actual presence on social-media platforms. Connie is on Pinterest, Spotify, and Facebook. I have also created a Facebook page for two of Connie’s fictional friends, Kim and Eva. Readers can choose to follow and interact with Connie on any of these platforms.
The third world I created is non-fiction. Because of my background in documentary filmmaking, I wanted to include a video portion in this story. I videotaped interviews with a group of women ranging in age from 35 to late-50s, talking about issues of post-divorce dating that the fictional character encounters. These videos , 30 seconds to two-minutes in length, are embedded in the book and posted to YouTube.
Other aspects of the non-fiction world revolve around Connie’s interaction with blogs on the Internet. These links are created to extend the story into other people’s worlds. For example, Connie gets a text from a guy after a first date and wonders how long she should wait to respond. She uses Google to find the answer, and included in the book is the site she found that gives her advice. Finally, I included quizzes and polls in the story to test the reader’s reactions to Connie’s decisions, as well as their own readiness to start dating again.
Starting To Write
Once the bible was complete, I wrote the actual story, and at the same time started to build the characters’ lives on Facebook and Pinterest. This process took about six months. One of my early struggles was telling a story using all of these different mediums. I ended up setting up some of the scenes with play-like introductions that helped ground the reader so they wouldn’t get lost in the changing narratives of prose, texts, emails, etc. I waited until the first draft of the book was finished before I started the video component. I wanted to make sure that the questions I asked would mimic the same type of thoughts and issues that were coming up for Connie in her searches. As I looked for other examples of how writers dealt with this situation, I found none that mimicked what I was trying to do. I realized that because of this I was treading new territory, so it gave me a chance to make up my own rules and approach the writing process in an innovative way.
Once the written part and all of the components were developed, the next challenge was to find the best format that would allow the reader to interact with all of the story’s different elements. I wanted it to be as seamless as possible, so I spent weeks researching all my options, and I was surprised by the limited amount of good choices available to build an interactive book. I needed a platform that would allow me to embed videos, add photos, and link to the Internet. I settled on a free program created by Apple called iAuthor. This program would allow me to include all of the interactive features I’d developed. Its only drawback was that it could only be accessible on an iPad. iAuthor had a fairly easy learning curve, and there were a lot of tutorials online to help navigate any questions. The main issue with iAuthor is it was really developed for non-fiction and textbooks, and is set up in such a way that the writer needed to create an introduction section before each chapter. Needless to say, books don’t usually have an introduction, and I was able to find a way to delete it. iAuthor was also filled with lots of cool widgets for adding interactive material. I used quite a few, including a map widget that allows readers to tap on the page to call up a map of where the story takes place. At the same time, I also created a website using WordPress so that readers could access all the other interactive elements, such as Facebook, Pinterest, and Spotify. There is also a link on the page to the YouTube videos.
This was truly an enriching experience on many levels. It allowed me to take advantage of my skills in visual storytelling to combine text, video, and social-media content in order to tell a story in a completely different way.
Additionally, in creating this transmedia project for a distinct audience, my hope is that they discover a new way a story can be told.
*Click here for a look at Henry Jenkins's Transmedia Syllabus