Technology and Storytelling Part 2: Transmedia Novels? Still 5 Minutes in the Future

Books Electronics

A book on an iPadA book on an iPad

Photo: Flickr, FHKE

In my first post on transmedia storytelling, I talked about the large cross-media world-building efforts going on at entertainment corporations like Wizards of the Coast and SyFy. I argued that these world-building projects are the low-hanging fruit when it comes to transmedia storytelling. It is quite easy for a media company to see the value of creating multiple access points into an entertainment property such as Dungeons and Dragons. It builds audience and creates a world which is greater than any single medium. It is no surprise to see most of the corporate efforts in using technology to change storytelling going into these projects. They have the clearest financial benefits. Today, I want to talk about one type of transmedia fruit that is high on the tree and which until very recently remained out of reach — the transmedia novel.

Before I get into the obstacles which have held up this type of storytelling and why they may finally be falling, I want to take a minute and establish what I mean by a transmedia novel. Let’s go back to the definition of transmedia from USC professor Henry Jenkins. Transmedia storytelling is a story in which significant storytelling elements take place in two or more different types of media. I would argue that despite the distribution of storytelling across a variety of media platforms, in most transmedia stories one type of media carries the backbone of the storytelling. In this post, I want to talk about the potential for novels — long form fiction, based in text — to serve as the backbone for a transmedia experience.

Cover of R. Crumb's GenesisCover of R. Crumb's GenesisI recognize that a limited but beautiful form of transmedia novel already exists — on paper. In some ways, every graphic novel is a transmedia work, depending on both the illustrations and the text to carry the weight of the storytelling. Yet, despite the name, the text in these works is most often nowhere near novel length. Like comic books, most graphic novels use pictures to do most of the heavy lifting. However, there are artists who have flipped this model on its head and use text to carry the bulk of the storytelling, while giving pictures an equal place within the work. R. Crumb’s The Book of Genesis is a great example of a work in which the text provides the backbone, but the pictures enhance the storytelling experience.

The pinnacle of this combination of text and illustration is clearly Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret — a transmedia work of art which is both groundbreaking in the way it tells its story and breathtaking in its flawless execution. In Cabret, Selznick uses a seamless combination of wordless illustrations and text to tell a single narrative. Neither medium contains the whole of the story. As a clear master of both text and illustration, Selznick recognizes that each medium has advantages in different circumstances. Part of the wonder of Selznick’s masterpiece is his ability to navigate between text and pictures at just the right time for the sake of the story. Selznick lets pictures create a sense of movement in places, and at times the illustrations create a sense of soundless contemplation which words find difficult to convey. Yet he also has words at his disposal, which he uses to give Hugo, Isabelle, and the other characters in the book both personality and depth — something difficult to do without the use of words to provide insights into a character’s point of view. This is one of the masterworks which anyone interested in creating transmedia narratives should study carefully.

Cover of the book The Invention of Hugo CabretCover of the book The Invention of Hugo CabretHowevever, Selznick’s work is decidedly analog, and this series of articles is about the intersection of technology and storytelling. It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to look at information and communication technologies and see their potential for transforming long-form written fiction. The potential of text interacting with video and other electronic storytelling methods goes back a long way.

Perhaps one of the first popular examples of this potential was the Encarta Encyclopedia, produced by Microsoft to demonstrate the power of the CD-ROM drive. The wonder which consumers felt at being able to watch the Moon landing at the click of a button is easily forgotten in our age of instant media. It is only another very short step from Encarta to put video, illustrations, games, and other media together with long-form fiction to create something better than it could be without the combination. Frankly, the electronic transmedia novel is a revolution in storytelling that is late. It should have been here long ago. Its promise is as old as the hyper-text transfer protocol itself. Certainly it ought to have arrived with web 2.0. The blogosphere should have made this happen, but inexplicably it hasn’t. Oh, there have been attempts, I know. People have tried, but mostly the end results have been completely amateurish and unappealing, nothing that should even be in the same conversation with work like Selznick’s.

I believe there are several factors which have held back the creation of high quality digital transmedia novels. Let’s start with the obvious factor first. Until very recently, most people insisted on reading their long-form fiction on paper. The tablet revolution has changed this. Books can now be profitable endeavors even if they are exclusively produced for electronic distribution. That changes the game when it comes to transmedia novels. Other media, besides illustration, are now open to the novelist.

Video in an electronic book.Video in an electronic book.Until very recently, there remained technical difficulties with incorporating other media into the popular book formats used by the Kindle and the iPad. However, a couple of weeks ago, I saw something at Wordstock which showed me that at least for the iPad this is no longer a problem. The Digital Bindery, a company in Wilsonville, Oregon, showed a digital book they helped create on travel in New Zealand. The book, Without Rain There Can Be No Rainbows, incorporated video diaries directly into the text. The book is available in the .ePub format used for the iBook app on the iPad, but cannot not yet be displayed on the Kindle. I spoke with Troy Gomm from Digital Bindery and he said that, at this time, the Kindle Fire hardware could not support video embedded in the .mobi format used for Kindle books. However, he said that Amazon had been making the right noises, and this last technical hurdle was expected to fall soon. The incorporation of other media types into consumer preferred reading devices is a huge leap forward for the ability of novelists to incorporate other media into their work. It really solves the last technical hurdles to seeing transmedia novels go mainstream.

The next hurdle is the financial hurdle. Books which include either games, animations, short films, or other media as part of their reading experience require the investment of upfront capital. This is a huge problem for the current corporate business model in the publishing industry, which depends upon writers to take the risk of creation before the corporation takes any financial risk at all. Without getting into all the reasons why it is so, traditional publishers are highly unlikely to invest money in an untested model, which has a high risk of failure, and most writers outside of the corporate publishing system are not likely to have the capital themselves to develop short films or a small video game to incorporate into their text. On the other hand, Kickstarter and the other indie funding sources have now made it possible to fund indie projects at a level never before possible. That and the shrinking cost of creating an indie film, game, or musical album now allows the impossible to become at least plausible. Transmedia projects have been able to raise money through a variety of sources, and it would not be out of the question for a known company or person to be able to raise the necessary funds on Kickstarter.

The final hurdle to making an incredible transmedia novel is a creative one. It is difficult enough to master one artistic craft, let alone two, like Selznick did, in order to create Hugo Cabret. Directing a movie or creating a story driven game are not exactly top on a writer’s resume. I think it is highly likely that such projects would be collaborations between several artists from different genres. Of course, the danger in collaboration is that each genre could easily dumb down the project rather than lift it up. Often, transmedia collaborations end up settling toward the mediocre instead of becoming something grand. The overall project can feel tacky and lessened rather than improved by the effort. To make a project like this work, each medium has to be used to do what it does best. That is the real challenge for any artist thinking about a transmedia novel. It would take a writer who appreciates the values and complexities of other types of media and who could direct traffic to bring them together into a coherent whole.

But what a vision this kind of collaboration could create! What would happen if Selznick and Scorsese got together to reissue Hugo Cabret as an electronic transmedia experience, an interweaving of text, pictures, and video? What would it be like to open Hugo Cabret, come to the scene in which George Méliès’ film is shown to his wife, and when you turn the page the movie starts? Wouldn’t that be the most wonderful tribute Selznick could offer to Méliès? I know that I would find it incredibly moving and worth purchasing.

There is little left standing in the way of a novel which uses many genres to create a narrative greater than it would be in only one medium. The prize is there for the taking. I’m just waiting for someone with the vision and the storytelling chops necessary to take on such a behemoth and wrestle it to the ground. For now, quality transmedia novels remain five minutes in the future, but they are closer than they ever have been.

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