The New, Old Way to Tell Stories: With Input From the Audience

New "transmedia" works like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries let viewers participate in their stories via Twitter and Facebook, but multi-platform storytelling dates back as far as 1740.

Watching The Lizzie Bennet Diaries—a YouTube show that uses a video diary to retell a contemporary version of Pride and Prejudice—is like opening a bag of potato chips: You can’t stop at just one. The series purports to be the “real” video diary of Lizzie Bennet, a 24-year-old grad student studying mass communication (naturally), living at home with her parents and sisters, and completely caught up in the social media world. At just three to five minutes long, each vlog teases you into the next, and the next, and the next. Then, once you’ve scarfed down half the episodes and discover all the other delights that accompany the show—the Twitter feeds, the Facebook pages, the fan art, the Instagrams and Tumblrs—it’s a full-blown binge.

Ten hours and 100 episodes later, you’ve experienced the perennially adaptable classic like never before. When younger sister Lydia elopes (whoops—in keeping with the times, substitute “unwittingly makes a sex tape” for “elopes”) with Lizzie’s former flame, Wickham, you can trot over to Twitter to witness Lydia’s desperate pleas to Wickham and then tweet her your sympathy. You can post questions to Lizzie in the comments, and have her address them in a later episode. If you make a cool Tumblr for the show, you just might get it tweeted by the official LBD account. The show’s producer, Alexandra Edwards, explained in a recent interview that even though the videos are filmed well in advance, contributions from the fan base are part of the creative process:

If a lot of fans are talking about something, I can and do tailor updates based on that. It's about having characters react in the moment. It works a lot like improv, actually: a character might start the scene, so to speak, with a certain Twitter update. Then fans will respond, and how the conversation goes really depends on that interaction.

This mastery of multiple platforms to cultivate audience engagement garnered The Lizzie Bennet Diaries this year’s Emmy Award for Original Interactive Program. A follow-up, Emma Approved, has just been launched, and it promises even more audience interaction.

LBD is said to have “changed the face of storytelling” because of the way the multiple platforms allow fan interaction to add zigzags and layers to the old linear story, and it’s a shining example of what’s become known in entertainment, tech, and advertising as transmedia. Transmedia integrates story components, multiple platforms (many of them digital), and audience interaction, and the format has been called the “perfect ecosystem of a story world.” It's also one of the latest categories to be added by the Producers Guild of America. But while transmedia may seem to be a new, shiny byproduct of the digital age, it’s actually just a 21st-century update on a centuries-old idea.

Transmedia is not simply re-telling the same story through a different medium, as in adapting a book to film, explains my colleague Norman Mintle, Dean of the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Liberty University where new courses in transmedia are being launched across multiple programs. Nor is it just franchising, Mintle says, which involves merely sequel after sequel. Rather, at the heart of transmedia storytelling is the interactive “storyworld,” which, like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, blurs the lines between fiction and non-fiction, creator and audience, narrative and non-narrative.

Yet, when some industry leaders talk about it, transmedia storytelling can sound like little more than marketing that’s gone to charm school. Depending on which buzz you listen to, transmedia is either the greatest development in storytelling since Homer or the slickest pitch since the Manhattan deal.

For example, one article at Forbes states rather baldly, “Transmedia storytelling is the future of marketing. … There’s a first-mover advantage here. However, it remains to be seen who will grab the ring.” Likewise, Kathy Franklin, head of brand development for Avatar and one of the most recognized leaders in transmedia storytelling, admitted in a recent interview at a transmedia conference that Avatar’s transmedia brand is “a massive entertainment property and we want to continue to be.” Her interviewer also acknowledges that transmedia storytelling is “a way to get into people’s homes and minds and bring children in.” Franklin’s discussion is peppered with references to branding, licensing, consumer products, and merchandise, which makes it difficult to separate the storytelling aspect of transmedia from the marketing, although Franklin tries:

People who love stories want to have a piece of that story that is theirs. They either want to have it in their homes so they can enjoy it on an ongoing basis, or they want to demonstrate to the world—through their T-shirt or their bag or whatever they choose to buy—that they have an affinity for that story. It’s a way of messaging to people that it’s something that they love and are passionate about, and it’s a way of starting a conversation with other people who might be fans, or a way of expressing something about themselves.

Even so, as much as marketing might be at the heart of transmedia storytelling, it has the potential to offer audiences deeper engagement with stories and with the communities built around those stories. As former American Film Institute executive Nick DeMartino wrote for The Huffington Post, transmedia does offer something new and significant in artistic terms: “the idea that storytellers can create deeper experiences for their audiences when they unfold a story,” as well as the opportunity for audiences “to participate meaningfully in that world.” Wired touts the way transmedia democratizes storytelling, eschewing “closed narratives and finite tales” by “fragmenting the stories we already have into a million pieces and sparking the imaginations of our audiences so they want to put them back together in the way that feels right to them.”

This democratization of storytelling, however, isn’t exactly a 21st-century invention (although the digital technologies are certainly new). The shift began in the 18th century when the old patronage system—by which artists were supported by members of the royal court—gave way to the marketplace economy, and artists began being paid by printers and booksellers.

It might be that one of the first examples of transmedia storytelling occurred in 1740 when Samuel Richardson, the “father of the English novel,” published England’s first bestseller, Pamela. Like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, the Pamela sensation was the result of a small investment made by an unknown author and the frenzy of its fan base.

In creating a middlebrow tale of a servant girl who marries her aristocratic master after resisting his unscrupulous advances and thereby reforming him, Richardson intentionally set out to create “a new species of writing.” Richardson didn’t have the technology LBD has at its disposal, but he did have a circle of female friends among whom he circulated his book manuscript to solicit feedback. And that feedback helped shape the story (along with criticisms that followed the first edition and resulted in significant changes in the second). Richardson’s responsiveness to his readers, even sans social media, worked. The Pamela phenomenon included communal readings of the work in at least one village; the ringing of the church bells at one public reading of Pamela’s marriage; the proclamation of the novel’s merits by preachers from the pulpit; the sales of Pamela paraphernalia such as paintings, fans, prints, playing cards, and waxworks; and the publication of various knockoffs, parodies, and sequels (copyright law not yet being in place). Furthermore, Pamela, like many transmedia stories, blurred the distinction between fiction and non-fiction. The idea for the plot came to Richardson from a real-life example of a maid marrying her master, and he presented his fictional tale in the guise of a true story in the form of “edited” letters (not unlike the faux-documentary style of The Blair Witch Project).

Today’s digital technologies open up endless possibilities that weren’t available to Richardson, just as the technologies of Richardson’s time weren’t available to Shakespeare, or before him, Chaucer, or before him, Homer. But long before digital technology existed, audiences have been integral to the fashioning of stories. One imagines, for example, the expressions on the faces of those gathered around a bonfire at night listening to a recitation of the Iliad, reshaping the story over and over until it was finally written. The monk who recorded the traditional tale of the pagan hero Beowulf fused the old story with his own Christian theology, providing the version we have today. Shakespeare’s plays were performed during daylight when actors and audience could see one another and interact in such a way that the drama on the script and the drama as acted became different stories entirely.

So perhaps the most exciting aspect of transmedia storytelling is that it helps fulfill a desire even older than Homer, a desire that has existed as long as there have been human beings. This, Mintle says, is “the desire of every creator to have people as immersed in the story as possible.”