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Transmedia: confusing Style with Story

An old post of mine on the topic of Transmedia Storytelling resurfaced this week and generated a lot of traffic. Certainly the title of “Transmedia Storytelling is Bullshit” was bound to raise eyebrows but I was pleased (if not a little surprised) that most who read it understood the perspective i was trying to offer. 

There was one point that was raised numerous times in the comments that I feel i should clarify - that is regarding the idea that Story Hasn’t Changed. There are two over-arching observations that fuel this idea: the first is that Transmedia is nothing new, nor is it innately digital. Stories told in multiple forms and across mediums are as old as human kind. What is the Judeo-Christian bible but a grand Transmedia narrative told in book, performance, theatre, music and art. In every way and by every definition the Bible is Transmedia. The other observation is that what a Story is, its definition, does not change with either medium or technology.

A Story is a progression of events in a cause and effect chain. That causality is the unchanging core of Story, where an inciting incident triggers further events and each new event has consequences in triggering new and escalating events toward a resolution. Whether this causality is authored or whether it is enacted by a player or particpant within an obliquely authored narrative structure, doesnt change the result or impetus of Story as cause and Effect progression.

From the basis of a cause and effect we can see all the other core elements of Story - characters and archetypes, obstacles and actions, dramatic questions, escalations, inversions and genres. Again these elements are unchanged from medium to medium and each new technology has no impact at all on their presence or important to what we understand a story to be.

The only part that changes as new mediums are added to the long-standing history if multi-platform Transmedia, is not Story but Style. For example - Watercolour and Oil are both Painting and neither changes the notion of what painting is nor the principles of painting - form, composition, colour and representation. However what is different is Style and the techniques to enact that Style. Painting doesn’t change from watercolour to oil but Style changes substantially. Thus the task of the artist is match the Style with the Content - appropriate content and subject for the Style, or exploit the properties of the Style to the benefit of the content.

Story is the same. An causal chain of expressed events containing the traits mentioned above and others, but which then are Stylistically adapted to different mediums. The Story of the bible doesn’t change because it’s painted or sung, it is simply adapted stylistically. What we have in the bible just as we have in Star Wars is a cohesive Storyworld predicated on Cause and Effect progression and then enacted in different styles (aka platforms).  

It’s important to see that this isnt just word semantics - its about what is usful to storytellers. I would suggest it is Not useful or helpful to writers and story creators to exert that Transmedia Storytelling is ‘different’ or even ‘new’. If we cement the notion that Story is Different in Transmedia, not only are we buying into the idea that Transmedia is somehow ‘new’ - which it clearly and historically is not - but we are also setting ourselves on a path to chase the intangible and diminutive  ‘newness’ as opposed to standing on the shoulders of giants - pursuing the Style rather than the Substance. Focus on medium and platform specificity is putting the cart before the proverbial horse.

What we now call Transmedia - the art of storytelling across multiple platforms - is nothing new and the only thing the Digital age has really delivered to us is, to date, a larger diversity of platforms and modes of experience. What this means is not more or new types of Story, but rather more Styles for a story to be expressed. This is not to downplay the importance of individual platform Styles - just as an oil painter moving to watercolours needs to adapt their technique to engage with the possibilities of the watercolour Style, so to do writers and creators need to understand how their story needs to be adapted to take advantage of new platform styles.

But again the notion of Story and what a Story is does not change and has never changed. Indeed there is no compelling argument to suggest that modern transmedia is anywhere close to as big an upheaval as the inception of Radio and Cinema from an oral, theatrical landscape. By comparison transmedia is decidedly subtle. 

Another way to express this perspective is to understand that Transmedia IS, by nature, Adaptation. And in this context the processes of Adapatation are no different in manifesting game and interactive forms as they are adapting a story from book to movie. Once we recognize that Transmedia means the introduction of new story Styles, not new types of Stories, we afford ourselves the opportunity to focus on what really matters rather than be continually distracted by the shiny newness.

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