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Published: Oct 23, 2018
Updated: Apr 16, 2019

Definitive Guide to Transmedia Storytelling

Author: Christy Roland

overhead photo of highway interchange at night
Stories are an innate human need. We crave it. The best movies, multimedia projects, and brands employ excellent storytelling. The variety of devices and platforms now available mean that people also crave innovative uses of these platforms to extend story and garner immersive and memorable experiences. This is the world of transmedia storytelling.

But it’s more than just action figures, comics, and immersive worlds for game-loving teens. While the most well-known examples of transmedia storytelling involve the science fiction franchises Star Trek and Star Wars, with action figures, comics, and games, transmedia or multiplatform storytelling now has a place in education, in branding, and in journalistic, non-fiction applications. According to Transmedia Producer Houston Howard, it is the way of the future. “My little girl is four years old. She will never have lived a day on this earth where she didn’t have access to every movie ever made, every TV show ever made, every song ever produced, every book ever written, and 10 million YouTube videos at the touch of a finger. She will never understand another world. Which means in 10, 12, and 15 years when her generation is driving the economy, content creators have to know how to adapt.”

What Is Transmedia Storytelling?

Houston HowardHouston Howard

Transmedia storytelling is an approach to content that delivers an encompassing narrative, storyline, message, or theme through multiple media platforms. Transmedia storytelling includes different points of entry to encourage engagement across a range of demographics and interest levels. “It’s simply telling a story across multiple mediums in way that creates an entirely new experience for the audience,” explains Howard, a Principal at One 3 Creative and the author of You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Story.

In transmedia, each platform makes its own contribution to the narrative. The platforms that transmedia storytelling uses are varied and may include digital media, story components, audience interaction, TV, radio, social media, comics, games, books, collectible items, and in particular, alternate reality games (ARG) a type of game that blurs the line between in-game and out-of-game experiences. The many channels allow for the development of layers, sharp changes, and plot turns. Story content is developed through different techniques to engage different people. The interactive nature and depth of the story’s world works to create strong audience connections. Multiple viewpoints and possibilities which slake our human imagination and curiosity, while open-ended allows us to work out the puzzle and draw our own conclusions.

Also known as multiplatform or enhanced storytelling, or transmedial narrative, the nature of transmedia is evolving and is subject to some academic debate with differing definitions. Some practitioners think of transmedia strictly as the channels used for distribution and marketing and prefer the term digital storytelling. However, transmedia doesn’t need to focus on digital or online technologies. “Transmedia is more of a philosophy of design or a strategy where you approach storytelling in a different way,” explains Howard. “That can either be using all new media platforms, analog platforms, or a mix of both. At the core is a mindset and storytelling strategy to use all the tools in the toolbox that are available to a storyteller.”

The biggest misconception about transmedia storytelling may be that it’s best use is for advertising. “You can have cool advertising or really cool immersive marketing that doesn’t narratively do much. You may have an interesting virtual reality (VR) installation or a pop-up on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard but it doesn’t actually extend the story.”

Howard offers the immersive replica of Penny Wise’s house set up in Hollywood in anticipation of the cinematic movie release of the Stephen King novel, It, as an example. “I thought it was very cool, but it didn’t actually extend the story of It for me,” he laments. “The house didn’t tell me anything about Penny Wise and it didn’t extend the narrative for me. That’s not transmedia. That’s a really cool marketing gimmick.”

Indeed, transmedia storytelling offers efficacies beyond popular entertainment and advertising. With its multiple entry points for different users and strong emotional appeals, transmedia has applications in education and training, and now even in journalism.

According to Howard, “When I talk about transmedia, it’s not necessarily all the new media platforms, it’s not immersive interactivity, I zero in on the core of what transmedia is, and how it is extending the story in a valuable way for the audience so you increase their incentive to participate. If you can wrap that up in a great experience, or an emergent tool or immersive platform, that’s the icing on the cake.”

Why Transmedia Storytelling Succeeds

The mechanics of storytelling work because of the emotional connection generated by the characters or storyline. The human brain processes emotional responses to rational content slightly faster than it processes logical responses to the same information. For non-fiction and educational purposes, the emotional connection helps the reader or trainee to retain information and knowledge better. The disparate information rationed out in transmedia stories also nourishes the human interest in analyzing and making sense of things. It’s a more interesting process than having story and meaning offered in a predigested format. The ability to explore across platforms adds dimensionality and piques a desire for more information. As an audience, we gain a connection and long to continue it through further stories, and to share it with others in a community of fans. Transmedia stories are not closed, meaning that the audience, or fandom, can contribute to the extension of the narrative. For producers of all types of transmedia material, the extensive nature means that the return on investment can itself be extended.

Transmedia Storytelling Techniques

So, what must the transmedia storyteller consider? First, the platforms have to be appropriate to the narrative, just extending the story is not enough. Second, despite being expounded through multiple channels, the story must have a consistent message and an overall storyline. Third, content must be accessible to audiences at different levels of engagement—the detached viewer, the prosumer, and the complete fan. Fourth, a property must provide multiple entry points for different audiences or demographics.

For people who are familiar already with good storytelling, Howard says they should research the many tools now available for exploring narrative—apps, augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), voice with podcasts, and smart speakers like Google Home and Alexa. Howard continues, “When I talk to very traditionally-minded Hollywood people who obviously know how to tell stories that make you cry, scared, and can manipulate the soul via storytelling—I’m always encouraging them to look at all the new tech platforms and understand all the tools that can be used to extend the story and effectively engage the audience.”

But transmedia isn’t just about the technology. “You have to understand, the thing that fans want more than anything is more of the story that they love,” says Howard. He explains how he recently binge-watched all six seasons of Game of Thrones (GoT) over a month. “At the end of a 60-hour, one-month Game of Thrones binge, the thing that I wanted most was more GoT. Especially as American audiences, we don’t ever want these things to end. People on the technical end have to really understand how to effectively tell and extend a story. You can have the coolest technology, the coolest interactive website, the coolest experience; But if you don’t understand how to connect with the soul to fill that void in humans that makes us wired for a good story, it doesn’t matter how fancy your tech is. The best advice for tech people is to become better storytellers is the best advice for tech people.”

Nicholas KlassenNicholas Klassen

Nicholas Klassen, an Interactive Producer with the National Film Board (NFB) of Canada’s Digital Studio, also notes how quickly the platforms, apps, and expectations have changed from when the NFB Digital Studio started 10 years and how even some five-year-old properties, for example, those that are based in Adobe Flash, simply don’t work because systems and settings have changed. “That’s an interesting subject unto its own—just how ephemeral everything is and how quickly the tech is changing and tastes are changing,” he reflects.

The lifespan of technology also brings up questions about the preservation of digital properties. “What does archiving look like in this day and age?” Klassen asks. “As a film institution that has rolls and rolls in the vault in our headquarters in Montreal, a lot of those reels have been digitized. But for the work Digital Studio is doing, there isn’t an equivalent way of archiving those pieces. We do benefit from the fact that there’s not an expectation to preserve digital assets. In the past, people would have been mortified that you hadn’t preserved something. Now people just expect that, yeah, I got a new phone, I got a new browser update, I got a new app, so the previous work just won’t work on the new tech.”

He also notes that, although upgrades may be easy, they may not be the best use of the institution’s resources—except perhaps for well-known pieces such as Bear 71, which was originally created in Flash in 2012 and has recently been converted to a VR platform.

Characteristics of Transmedia Storytelling

Now that you have an understanding of transmedia storytelling and how it works, let’s look at some of its more recognizable characteristics:

  • Cross media platforms may include film, online video, games, social media, email messages, voicemail messages, traditional books, comic books, murals, photographs, audio, action figures, t-shirts, and whatever other conceivable platforms exist.
  • Transmedia intellectual properties often take the form of an ARG, which uses the real world as a platform and players (single or multiple) that may change the narrative and story outcome. Multimedia tools allow players to interact with characters in the story that game designers created. ARGs are often free, as in the Lost Experience that accompanied the TV show.
  • Transmedia stories offer a rich, encyclopedic storyworld, which is a detailed construction of context or universe in which a narrative is set. The presence of a storyworld requires more learning and can be mined for further story development.
  • Backstory, side stories, and prequels of the main property may be explored through other platforms and offers opportunities for the development of secondary characters and events, as well as non-linear exposition.
  • Transmedia storytelling builds worlds for, but also with, fans. Fans may play games, watch movies, and buy action figures, but they may also contribute original stories based on the storyworld to fanzines and other outlets.

Transmedia storytelling defined by duplets:

  • Spreadability: The knowledge of and interest in the property is spread through social media and the web, particularly by ardent fans.
  • Drillability: The story also reaches through layers of audience interest to the core group of fans who will promote and spread the story through different platforms. Intrigue is created from complex plot twists and open-endedness as in Lost.
  • Continuity: Uniformity and coherence of language and character across all platforms.
  • Multiplicity: Incoherence across platforms, such as settings in parallel universes, retellings of stories, or original views of characters.
  • Immersion: Good transmedia properties allow the audience to lose themselves in a rich and intriguing storyworld.
  • Extractability: Having immersed themselves in the story, audiences can take some thing or thought into the real world. Examples for movies and games include t-shirts and toys. In journalism, this includes games or other transmedia properties, such as special editions, which allow the news story to live beyond the news cycle and continue to impact the lives of readers.
  • Worldbuilding: The depth of detail that makes a narrative world seem more three dimensional.
  • Seriality: The method for conveying a large amount of information in an interesting way. Seriality does not need to be linear.
  • Subjectivity: Transmedia properties often tell a story from several character perspectives.
  • Performance: Some fans of transmedia efforts become prosumers (producers and consumers), with costumes or crafting their own short-stories for fanzines to extend their vision of the narrative, as exemplified to the maximum by Trekkies. Transmedia storytelling is geared towards user generated content (UGC).

The History of Transmedia

Although transmedia storytelling and franchises are most commonly associated with the digital era and narratives around science fiction and the future, some believe the first transmedia storytelling property existed as far back as 1740 with what some also consider the first English novel, Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded. Recounted as an epistolary or a series of letters, Pamela generated an active fan base, who read the novel in groups, and supposedly on one occasion, as when the heroine of the novel gets married, the readers actually proceeded to the village church to ring the bells. Items were even produced in the Pamela “franchise” including fans and playing cards.

More recent antecedents of transmedia storytelling include the media mix used in 1960s Japan to broaden the market for anime and the explorations in the 1970s and 1980s of telematic art, broadly described as installations mediated by telecommunications to signify the connection between art and technology and the importance of audience interactivity in the creation of art. By the 1990s, ARGs used the real-world as a platform for finding clues to solving puzzles through phone calls, email messages, instant messages, and more. A popular example includes the I Love Bees ARG developed to promote the first-person shooter video game HALO 2. Other seminal works of transmedia narrative from the 2000s include the collaborative conspiracy fiction Ong’s Hat, the Blair Witch Project movie, FreakyLinks, and the video game Majestic.

Canadian philosopher Marshall Mcluhan is often cited as the first academic to explore the interchange between platform and audience in his 1964 book Understanding Media.

In 2003, media professor Henry Jenkins coined the term transmedia storytelling in the article of the same name, Transmedia Storytelling: Moving characters from books to films to video games can make them stronger and more compelling. This article is considered the first work to detail how different platforms allow different aspects of character and narrative development in a way that multimedia does not. The article also discussed the roles of fandom in elaborating the narrative. Jenkins subsequent book, Convergence Culture, focuses on the increasing amount of fan and audience participation. The book Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers discusses how audiences add to the creation of intellectual properties or IP, and the implications that it has for ownership at all levels. And the medium is garnering even more attention. In 2010, the role of transmedia producer was recognized by the Producers Guild of American.

Transmedia Storytelling in Education

Transmedia lessons are immersive, and therefore compelling and memorable. Transmedia storytelling, including in games, leverages the emotional connections built through experiences. The emotional response to a story, situations, characters, and personal reactions to scenarios provokes an emotional response that builds a connection, fosters memories, and reinforces the learning experience. Applications of transmedia can include individual and self-paced training but may also include a means for trainees to obtain on-the-job experiences in future lessons.

The power of transmedia storytelling in education is that it appeals to new generations of digital natives, but who also are not devoted to any one platform. Training projects may use Twitter, Reddit, or other channels to expand on a curriculum. Transmedia can also reach beyond primary school, high-school, and college-level students to a range of demographics as analog training materials can lead to online and interactive properties for other demographics.

Howard provides an organic example of how different demographics can be drawn into any property. His young nephew, an avid video gamer, received Assassin’s Creed: American Revolution for Christmas. As he was playing, Howard’s father, a history buff, whom he describes as a “very blue collar guy with 40 years in the railroad and is a pastor from Kentucky,” recognized one of the characters in the game as an historical figure. “He took my nephew and I into his study, pulled out this old musty history book, and found a passage about this character in the game. The next day my nephew who doesn’t read at all, came over and found the book and was reading this old history book.”

To the nephew, the book’s anecdotes offered in effect, cheat codes for the game. On the other side, Howard’s father, intrigued by the historical characters and settings of the Assassin’s Creed, started exploring the game. “I realized that they were both operating in the same story world, which was revolutionary war Boston and they entered into the story world in very different ways: My nephew by way of a very violent video game and my dad by way of an old musty history book. But they were both in that world,” concludes Howard.

Furthermore, multimedia can replicate many, if not all, life-like scenarios on a desktop or device for a fraction of what a real-life enactment would cost. A version of transmedia storytelling appears in corporate adult learning and is known as serious games. Here are some examples:

  • Inanimate Alice, a digital story about a young girl and future game designer, growing up in the early part of the 21st century and her imaginary digital friend, Brad, who accompanies her on her adventures around the world. Through games, the story teaches a variety of problem solving skills, in global cultures and geographical settings.
  • Curious George, by PBS Kids, teaches math skills and enhances vocabulary through a suite of online games using the characters from the eponymous 80-year-old book and children’s television series as guides.
  • Additional PBS Kids apps, such as Peg + Cat, which is based on the TV show of the same name, guides children to learn about math, science, nature, create their own comics, and just have fun.

Transmedia Storytelling in Marketing

Transmedia storytelling is often erroneously considered to be purely marketing. Although transmedia offers more, the multiplatform approach can serve to build and maintain interest in a property. Marketing people frequently talk about the importance of story, but often forget why a good story works—because it evokes human emotions and generates interest. The movie Prometheus is often cited as an example of how games, voicemail clues, and other collateral created excitement for the movie. Radio plays bridged production of the Dr. Who TV series, keeping the property on the radar of fans and slaking their thirst for more story.

Likewise, a clever tagline or marketing event is not a transmedia narrative. Marketing that is completely different for each platform rather than working from a unified approach defeats the benefits of a multiplatform approach. When used for pure marketing of non-media products, transmedia storytelling leverages multiple entry points to bring a message into a consumer’s daily life. Some transmedia experts consider transmedia storytelling as the marketing vehicle of the future as consumers strenuously block ads on internet-enabled devices and increasingly avoid media such as television where advertising traditionally bombarded viewers with a one-way message. Successful marketing of the future will bring prosumers in as co-creators who will spread the message, a process that generates social currency for the product and the consumer.

While collaboration may lend itself more naturally to non-profit efforts, where social media denizens share partly out of a desire to appear magnanimous, transmedia prosumers have a role in competitive B2C niches such as fashion, entertainment, and travel. Here are some examples of transmedia storytelling in marketing:

  • REI 1440 Project: Outdoor suppliers, REI, initiated the 1440 project to allow “the outdoor community” to share photos of their outdoor experiences as they filled the 1440 minutes of one day. The upload site read the timestamp from each photo and displayed the photos in order for each minute. The site is searchable by location and activities, for an interactive timeline of outdoor adventures.
  • Wall and Chain: This 2014 AirBnB campaign centered on a true story of a former West German border guard, stationed on the Berlin Wall, who continued to be troubled by his experience even after he had retired and moved away. His daughter arranged for both of them to visit post Reunification Berlin, so he could see the advances in the city. By chance, their AirBnB host was an East German border guard who the father recognized from his time of service on the Wall. The viral animated ad was bolstered by an economic study on the benefits of home share to communities, and video and text background on the principle characters in the ad.
  • Art of the Heist: This 2005 campaign blended experiential marketing with an alternate reality game to launch the new Audi A3, starting with an actual staged theft of the first A3 in the United States which included smashed windows, security guards passing out flyers, and a film of the heist. The theme was explored when Audi purported to hire a high-end art recovery company, Last Resort Retrieval, with its own website, including principal characters. The website included detailed information about the car and suspected whereabouts. Spots in newspapers, magazines, and in cryptic 30 second ads sought the public’s help in recovering the car. As a result, several fan websites started around the game.

Transmedia Storytelling in Journalism and Non-Fiction

Originally an entertainment vehicle, transmedia storytelling has now also a become a staple of journalism. ln transmedia stories, the content creator is not so much dictating to the reader as co-creating the non-linear aspects and side stories that allow the reader to choose what they want to learn from different approaches—photos, words, letters, maps, diagrams, videos. The audience also has a role in “broadcasting” news as even traditional web-based journalism is designed to be shared, with every story equipped with email and social media buttons.

Although debated, the killing of Osama bin Laden is considered by some to be the first instance of a transmedia news story, unfurling worldwide on Twitter in 2009. President Obama announced the news later, but many people around the world had already heard through social media. A more convincing example may be the Twitter Revolution in Egypt, captured in 18 Days in Egypt. Other examples of transmedia storytelling in journalism span topics and methods:

  • The Snow Fall at Tunnel Creek: The New York Times’ investigation through interviews, phone recordings, animations, maps, and text, of an avalanche in Washington State that killed several experience backcountry skiers.
  • Bear 71: Renowned exploration of the consequences of human intrusion into the natural world through the life story of Bear 71 in Banff National Park. The site included animation, video from field cameras, and narration, produced by the National Film Board of Canada.
  • Inequality is Real: A web-based interactive demonstration of how and why income inequality exists in the US.
  • A Swing of Beauty: Created by the Washington Post, this piece analyzes Bryce Harper’s baseball batting style in words, pictures, infographics, Scalable Vector Graphics, and video.
  • New Orleans After the Deluge: Journalism as an online graphic novel about the 2005 Hurricane Katrina with graphics created around stories of real survivors. The piece also links to podcasts and other collateral for additional background on the event.
  • Welcome to Pine Point: An interactive, web-based documentary about place and people and how they both change, now also available as an e-book from HarperCollins.

Transmedia Fiction and Science Fiction Case Studies

Perhaps the most well-known and transparently accessible examples of transmedia storytelling exist in fiction and popular entertainment. Here are a few:

  • Star Wars: The prototype and an enduring example of transmedia marketing and storytelling began with the wildly successful release of the original Star Wars “space opera” movie in 1977. The franchise spawned not only sequels in the 1980s, but prequel feature films starting in the late 1990s. In addition to a franchise of action figures, toys, clothing, children’s books and more, the Star Wars storyworld expanded to books, video games, and multiple animated series, including The Clone Wars, and standalone TV movies.
  • Star Trek: Beginning with the original TV series in 1965, the property produced Space Checkers and other board games, and comics. Novels and animated series followed in the 1970s along with movies, four subsequent TV series, and electronic games.
  • Majestic Video Game: Released in the summer of 2001 by Electronic Arts, this science fiction conspiracy ARG played out through email messages, faxes, phone calls, AOL Instant Messenger, and websites with clues in real time. Daily play time was limited to prevent players from jumping ahead.
  • Coronation Street: The world’s longest running TV soap opera, which first aired in 1960, featured web shorts called Gary’s Army Diaries as videos taken by the character Gary Windass as he joins the British army and deploys to Afghanistan. The web shorts were then woven into the regular storyline when his girlfriend Izzie discovers the videos and by watching them, gains new empathy for Gary.
  • Skins: This British TV series about the real lives of older adolescents was notable for featuring actors of the same age as the characters they were portraying instead of the usual practice of slightly older actors playing mid-teens. The multiplatform portfolio included a web-based mini-series, videos exploring characters in-depth, and MySpace accounts for the main characters. Similar to the Australian teenage series SLiDE.
  • Lizzie Bennet Diaries: A modern riff on Pride and Prejudice is told through the vlog entries of Lizzie. Additional properties included a book, the Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet, and a DVD.
  • Superman and Spiderman: With a rich library of transmedia properties and a strong fan base, these two comic series and then movies have added animations, costumes, models, and toys.
  • Prometheus Movies to Support the Main Movie: A marketing campaign featuring a TEDx talk from the year 2023 began before the movie premiere. The web video of the talk concluded with a link to the Weyland Industries version of the movie, which allowed viewers to “invest” in the company. Other supporting efforts included handing out business cards to WonderCon attendees wherein when people called the phone number on the card, they were texted information to access the “unboxing” of the latest technology. Website included games which were “tests” and added the backstory to the movie.

Transmedia Courses

Transmedia courses offered at universities often form an intersection of other departments. Curricula is targeted not only at Bachelor of Arts level students but also at industry professionals. Here’s a list of where you can take transmedia courses:

What Is Cross Media?

The term cross media is often used interchangeably now, but originally it was a designation that the same story promulgated through multiple platforms, rather than multiple narratives on multiple platforms that extends a single-story world. Transmedia is also not the same as cross-platform media franchises, like an adaptation of a work, such as a book into a film or creating sequels, which continue an existing storyline and characters, or adaptations.

What Is Additive Comprehension?

Additive comprehension describes how each media element in a narrative, such as text, photos, audio, and more, can contribute to the building of the larger narrative and to the understanding of character and story. Game developer and Electronic Arts General Manager Neil Young coined the term. In his role at Electronic Arts, Young midwifed the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) Ultima, one of the first alternate reality games (ARG) Majestic, and the Lord of the Rings games.

What Is a Franchise in Media?

A media franchise, also known as a multimedia franchise, describes derivatives of an intellectual property, published through different channels. Examples include adaptations of the original radio serial The Lone Ranger, which included movie serials, comic books, novels, and a TV series, along with pictures and toys. A modern example of a multimedia franchise is the movie adaptations of the Twilight novels. In fiction, franchises often adhere strictly to given characters and the plot from the original work. Other media franchises examples include For Dummies or James Bond book series.

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