All The World Is A Story

Transmedia storytelling is rapidly becoming the new ‘must have’ in marketing and entertainment.  Its adoption is slowed, however, by the confusion over what exactly it is.  Like most things, there are lots of definitions, but with transmedia storytelling, it’s easy to be distracted by the promise of the wide array of tools and get caught up in the romance of ‘building out a storyworld,’ — and end up overlooking the substance.  Good transmedia storytelling starts with the story. The story doesn’t live in the storyworld.  The story starts with and lives in the brain.  The brain is the vehicle for engagement.  Successful transmedia storytelling provides the brain with multiple vehicles for participation.  Participation creates immersion because we ‘buy in.’ It is a renewable energy source because it creates the motivation for continued engagement.

All the world is a story

All the world is a story

If you mention ‘Transmedia Storytelling’ to aspiring artists, their eyes light up and their minds fill with remarkable pictures of dazzling storyworlds with lushly illustrated environments and deeply developed characters.  Like their lives flashing before their eyes, they see their work sparkling across films, video games, Twitter, comics, t-shirts, anime, Facebook, ARGs, websites, webisodes, skywriting, and…

There’s good reason for big dreams and expansive visions.  There have been some extraordinary campaigns and product introductions, continually pushing boundaries and blending media and real world experience, like Conspiracy for Good or the Why So Serious? campaign for Warner Brothers’ The Dark Knight launch .

The allure of forming a Transmedia storyworld is so powerful and compelling, it is creating a story arc of its own. This storyworld is filled with aspiring storytellers, producers and artists who imagine developing a transmedia project.  They have become the protagonist in their own heroic journey with untold obstacles that must be overcome to achieve their goal of producing an engaging storyworld delivered seamlessly across multiple media channels.  But as appealing as having a complex storyworld is, the Golden Fleece of this hero’s journey is not the beauty of the visuals, the number of media assets and events, or the number of pages in the story bible.  It is the ability of the story to tap into core emotions and universal meanings.  If it does that, the brain will chip in big time.

Shakespeare is often quoted as saying ‘all the world is a stage.’  More useful, however, is all the world is a story.  Without the story, not much happens on the stage.  Everything is a story because stories live, first and foremost, in the brain and that’s where all information and thought starts.

Stories live in the brain

Stories live in the brain

The human brain processes all incoming information into stories.  It can’t help it.  It’s just what it does.  We get information through all five senses, so everything gets is translated into a narrative with full sensory context.  Imbued meanings let us connect what’s new to the existing information we have tucked away in our cranial recesses.  The brain uses stories to give information meaning because that’s the only way we can effectively warehouse the new stuff for later retrieval.  Without meaning, we don’t know where to file things away, so we don’t.  We don’t pay attention. We don’t remember. We don’t care.   Without story, nothing sticks.

Without stories, we have no storage.

Even a simple object has to have a story to make it into core storage.  Sticking with the Shakespeare theme, think of a rose.  It’s not possible to recall a ‘rose’ without experiencing what you have tucked away, linked to ‘rose.’  It might be the color of the rose, maybe the scent, maybe the soft velvety feel of the petals.  You may see the stem, whether the rose is fully-open or merely a bud, and you may feel the emotions surrounding the occasion on which you gave or received it.  Or maybe your stored ‘rose’ encounter was from a children’s book when you were young.  Your ‘rose’ memory may come complete with the page it was printed one, the smell of the book, how Ms. Smith held the book on her lap during reading time while you sat cross-legged on the carpeted floor next to your best friend in kindergarten…counting the minutes to milk and cookies.  Remembering even a single object is like playing a film clip.  Stories transport us with multi-sensory accompaniment, however momentarily, because the brain doesn’t discriminate between real and virtual experience in the neurons it fires.

Powerful stories provide triggers for our memories, emotions, and experience and, in doing so, envelope us.  Our participation creates the immersion.  We bring our own unique experiences and meanings and fill in the gaps.   The storyteller provides the yellow brick road; we bring what hides in the forest along the way.  The most well developed and elaborate storyworld won’t succeed if there is no room for us to connect to universal emotions and themes and become part of the journey.  Good stories not only transport us, they transform us, because they allow us to experience something in a new way.

Good transmedia storytelling takes a good story and makes it additive with multiple vehicles for transportation and participation.  All stories are collaborative in the sense that we transform the story with out own meanings.  But in transmedia storytelling, we knit together different threads across different media experiences to form a new understanding of the narrative.  The more we are able to participate – – whether it’s physical or imagined participation or shared or created content – – the greater the psychological impact.   More participation creates more meaning, more immersion, more engagement, and more motivation to sustain continued participation.

What’s created in the brain is much more important than what’s created with the tools.  That’s not saying that the extraordinary art and orchestration of a well designed Transmedia story campaign doesn’t matter, but the power rests with the story.  When you get them both right, it’s magic.

Cross posted on Psychology Today “Positively Media”
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Special thanks to great conversations with Scott Walker and Gareth Skarka from StoryWorld whose jovial company, along with a little wine, got me to “without story there is no storage.”

About Dr. Pamela Rutledge

Pamela Rutledge is Director of the Media Psychology Research Center. She consults on a variety of media and marketing projects bringing together the ancient art of storytelling and cutting edge science of human behavior.

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