Hello, hello! Welcome to my first quarterly (March/June/September/December) guest post. For the inaugural edition, please welcome my friend and fellow Stonecoast alum, Derek Hoffman!
How Transmedia Storytelling Can Kickstart Your Stagnant Writing Project
By Derek B. Hoffman
You have a story. Yes, that one. It’s the one you know you’re supposed to write, but you can’t seem to crack it (or regain inspiration to continue) and you cringe each time a friend asks how it’s going.
Yet it still calls to you. Whatever else you try to fill your time with, creative or otherwise, it’s the thing that won’t let go and won’t move forward. So what do you do?
Think outside of the screen, the pen, the shuffled stack of drafts you’ve shoved in a half-crushed Amazon box. Think transmedia.
I know, what does that really mean? To put it simply, it is a way of telling a story across multiple media. But it’s more than that, it’s also using multiple types of media purposefully because “each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story” (from “Transmedia Storytelling 101” by Henry Jenkins). You can find the wiki here, a couple great resources here and here, and a slew of academic articles here and here. It’s a lot to take in, but what it boils down to is a call to think in 4D about the story you need to tell.
Transmedia storytelling uses technology and media to broaden the story and engage a greater audience. In House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, the main book is a series of nested narratives that tell a story about a story, about an event. As a family unpacks in their new house, they discover it contains a mysteriously expanding labyrinth that holds more than a few secrets of its own. The narratives mimic the labyrinth, with text twisting and winding through the pages. Footnotes are peppered throughout, giving it a more academic and researched feel, though only 25% of the references are legitimate.
To give the story credibility, Danielewski published a website before the book release. The Internet was still capitalized back then, and the website played to the interests of an audience seeking hidden truths, long before the doubts of Fake News and strategic disinformation. There were also rumors Danielewski helped the manuscript go viral by dropping it at tattoo parlors and bars as a loose collection of papers tied with a string. The musician Poe (Danielewski’s sister) released an album of songs alongside the novel. Suddenly, readers could actually hear the echoes down the five and a half minute hallway.
More simply and more recently, transmedia storytelling can be seen in the 2017 show Thirteen Reasons Why, about a set of cassette tapes left by a girl who committed suicide. Jay Asher published the book in 2007 with hints to lead readers to, you guessed it, a set of audio tapes he had posted on a website.
So, how does this make your writing easier?
Well, maybe the reason your book isn’t writing itself is that it is more than just a book. Are there:
- different entry points into your story?
- multiple audiences you want to engage?
- different perspectives, voices, or subplots that lend themselves to audio, video, blog, or website?
- supplemental facts, graphics, maps, or historical details that could add dimension
Let go of the pencil and pick up the keyboard, microphone, brush, or camera to give your story new life.
Set yourself up for success
First, take a moment to set achievable goals. Unless you have an amazing amount of free time, and/or resources, be real with yourself and your story.
- Spend a weekend breaking down your story to see what areas could benefit (or not) from a transmedia approach and our thinking sideways experiment.
- Then think about your creative resources (e.g. your own talents, friends and family, and local schools and artists).
- Take account of how much time and money you may be willing to put toward this endeavor (consider crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter as well).
- Lastly, remember to think about any ethical impacts your project may have during execution. Don’t worry, I’ll talk more about this in a couple sections.
It’s time to break your story. What’s left inside when you peel back everything else? What is it that made you want to write it in the first place? A character’s tale that had to be told? An image that haunts you? An intimate, whispered conversation? A political or religious allegory? Or are you determined to buck every trope in a given genre? Whatever it is, find it (or remember it).
Anatomy of a breakdown
Since everyone’s results from this will vary, I’ll throw down first.
A girl stands in the shallows off the rocky coast of Maine. Her long nightgown is soaked up to the frilled collar. She walks forward into the ocean, grim and at peace.
Seventy years later, a reporter on hiatus because of a major screwup at her job visits her friend in Maine. Out of her morning newspaper drops a microfiche news story about the girl’s disappearance.
That’s all I had, but it bugged me for a year and a half while I attended my graduate program (in Maine). Every time I watched waves crash against the rocks under a foggy sky, I saw the girl. Six months left in my MFA. It was time to get this going. I thought about:
- What was in the news story for the girl on the microfiche?
- What did the reporter’s online newspaper look like? What stories had she written before?
- Did the girl have a diary? What was her story? Why did she likely kill herself?
- Maybe the girl had letters from a secret love???
- Did the reporter have a personal blog?
Alright, that’s a good start for different ways to approach or enhance the story. What else? Since I was in this program with other creatives, could I directly engage them? During the winter, we stayed at a cool, old inn. A ghost story, perhaps?
- Maybe “accidental” audio or video of the girl from the reporter’s cellphone/camera.
- Find out the history of the inn. Would it fit with the girl’s story?
- An evidence bag from the old missing person’s case left at the front desk or someone’s room?
Whoa. Hold on, now we are moving into ARG territory. ARG? Alternate Reality Gaming. It can totally be done. Check out some cool stuff from Lance Weiler here, but there are some major ethical considerations in going down this path:
- What if someone believes your story is real? What kind of emotional/psychological impact could it have? Could they miss work or school? Could they report findings to the police? I know this sounds extreme, but you need to consider all of this.
- Is there a way for people to opt-in/opt-out?
- If you are performing research while executing your story (e.g. by using analytics on websites) are you obtaining permission? Is there a notice on the site that clearly states what is being collected?
Again, the above isn’t to scare you out of incorporating some really cool ARG into your transmedia project, but you need to be conscious of its potential effects and the rights of those involved behind and in front of the story.
Speaking of those behind the story…
Creative Role Call
Now you have an idea of what can be done. How do you do it? Well, there are several options depending on your social and financial resources.
- You can form a creative collaboration with one or more trusted creative friends. These should be people whose work you know is solid, even if they aren’t professionals. You don’t want to have to manage people’s egos or confidence. Depending on what the work is, if it will be profitable, what kind of friendship you have, and more will determine how you might be able to compensate your team. Personally, even though I have some friends working with me on a transmedia project, and some have offered their services for free, or at a great discount, I want to pay them what their work deserves. It’s not that I have the financial resources, but I don’t want my creative friends to get burned or short-changed just because they are my friends. How will I pay them? We’ll get to that in a moment.
- You can go it alone. If you have the skills to perform/create in multiple media, good for you! Make sure you have the time, and that it is worth the “life cost.” And whatever you plan for time, double it.
- You can find creative resources online and locally. Do you need photos? Check Unsplash. It’s a great resource for free, hi-res photos that can be used however you like. They don’t even require attribution (though I highly recommend it). There is Fiverr for freelance design, translation, video, and more. Check out Artstation for inspiration and some freelance conceptual, environmental, and 3D artists. If you want to build a website for your project, check out Squarespace, Hugo, and WordPress/Themeforest. Also, contact your local community colleges and universities to see if they have a way for you to post what you’re looking for to students who might want some more real world project experience (and please pay them).
- If there are self-publishing components to your project, check out Lulu and Blurb.
Now that you are finalizing your project plan and team, how are you going to pay for it all?
Show me the money
Short of your own financial resources, or those of a publishing/media company, you need to crowdfund. And for this type of project, the only option really suitable to the task is Kickstarter. If you have to go this route, you need to look at their tips for creating a successful campaign, and you need to do some math to make sure that your project funding goal includes fees for using Kickstarter, shipping, production, taxes, etc. It’s not just about paying your creatives. And whether you use a crowdfunding site or not, you need to prep your mind for selling your project. Whether it is to people who have cash they are looking to invest in a cool enough story, or people you want to pick up your book, think of how to pitch it, how to package it, and how to sell it. This is the story that won’t let go. Now’s the time to push it out there. You got this.
Which brings us to the why…
Maybe you’ve read though this anxiously waiting for the secret to reveal itself on how to move forward with your project. Maybe you found it, but more than likely you are half-pumped, half-scared, half-apathetic, but fully convinced I can’t do math. No, this is about thinking sideways to move forward. It doesn’t matter if you create the most amazing project plan and gather the most talented team of artists, if you can’t finish the story, you’ve got nothing.
You are a writer. Transmedia, whatever you may think of its use to you and your project, is just a tool. One you can put in your rusty, blue, metal box with the squeaky hinges. Put it beside the Passive Voice Detector and whichever Manual of Style you despise the least. But put it in there.
Transmedia can refine how you pitch and define your story by forcing you to communicate with a creative team, and the world at large. It is a storytelling tool as much as it is a marketing tool. And this alternative thinking allows you to more easily evolve your narrative regardless of whether you continue down the transmedia path or simply use bits and pieces of the methodology from your toolkit.
Now, get back to writing.
Derek B. Hoffman is a writer, designer, technologist, husband to a scientific wonder woman, and dad to two awesome boys. He can be found online at https://derekbhoffman.com and is happy to respond to your transmedia-project-induced cries for help at https://veracitybydesign.com.
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