Transmedia Storytelling is a concept introduced by Henry Jenkins (2006) that is used to explain the distribution of media content across multiple media platforms. In the context of a multi-layered media landscape, transmediality works from the observation that content is no longer confined to one medium, but rather works across media boundaries. Transmedia storytelling focuses on “the tightly connected systems of stories and fictional events” (Tosca & Klastrup, 2020, p. 16). These systems can include novels, comics, TV shows, games, as well as events or amusement parks. Although the concept is often used in relation to digital content, this is not a necessary component.
Transmedia in the past and present
Marsha Kinder (1991) was one of the first researchers who used the term transmedia to look at commercial strategies of franchises. Kinder describes transmedia processes as the continuous expansion of multimodal media content across platforms in relation to the marketing of children's media. Transmedia is related to 'supersystems', that are “network[s] of intertextuality constructed around a figure or group of figures from pop culture who are either fictional […] or 'real'” (Kinder, 1991, p. 122). These franchise systems teach children to become consumers while allowing them to explore a fictional world. According to Kinder, transmediality is used as a commercial strategy. Mary Celeste Kearney (2004) follows the same argument when talking about 'transmedia exploitation'.
However, increased digitalization at the beginning of the 21st century allowed for a different perspective on transmediality. The internet started to enable a continuous exchange between fans and the creators of fiction, as well as facilitate the merging of media. This shaped a culture of convergence and participation and has led to an increasing number of narrative universes created across media platforms. In Jenkins' book Convergence Culture (2006) he distinguishes his concept of transmedia storytelling by giving a detailed definition:
“A transmedia story unfolds across multiple media platforms, with each new text making a distinctive and valuable contribution to the whole. In the ideal form of transmedia storytelling, each medium does what it does best – so that a story might be introduced in a film, expanded through television, novels, and comics; its world might be explored through game play or experienced as an amusement park attraction. Each franchise entry needs to be self-contained so you don’t need to have seen the film to enjoy the game, and vice versa. Any given product is a point of entry into the franchise as a whole. Reading across the media sustains a depth of experience that motivates more consumption.” (pp.95-96)
Like Kinder, Jenkins recognizes the commercial strategy behind transmedia storytelling. However, in the developing transmedia landscape the boundaries between text and paratext, between work and surrounding marketing, become blurred or even invisible. While Jenkins acknowledges the economic motives behind this process, he focusses primarily on the artistic vision and ambition of the producers.
Characteristics of transmedia storytelling
With the rising complexity of transmedia storytelling processes, it becomes more difficult to pinpoint one single authorial source. Instead of one media company selling the rights to another, “companies collaborate from the beginning to create content they know plays well in their sectors” (Jenkins, 2006, p. 105). Furthermore, the roles of the platforms involved become increasingly equal in importance. The dispersion of information in transmedia storytelling has become a “hyperbolic version of the serial” (Jenkins, 2009): instead of distributing the segments within one medium, they are scattered across media platforms. To experience the full story, the audience therefore needs to search for pieces of the narrative and exchange information they have found.
This enables an active participation of the audience and indicates that the relationship between producer and audience is more complex than it has been in the past. Fans are no longer passive, but “noisy and public consumers” (Jenkins, 2006, p. 19). Because redundancy makes fans lose interest, transmedia elements need to give the audience new insight to the story. Tosca and Klastrup (2020) discuss how topics such as canonicity and the exploitation of fans create tension between producers and audience. At the same time, this relationship can work as inspiration and a place of creativity, as well as lead to a co-creation of the story.
“Each medium does what it does best.”
When Jenkins states that in transmedia storytelling “each medium does what it does best”, he refers to the specific affordances of each medium. Although this sounds similar to the process of adaptation, Evans (2011) emphasizes that there is a difference: “Transmedia elements do not involve the telling of the same events on different platforms; they involve the telling of new events from the same storyworld” (27). Dena (2009), however, argues that adaptations should be recognized as transmedia stories. For her, they can work as ‘points of entry’ to the storyworld. This “resonates with the spirit of transmedia, in which each medium is seen as an equally viable expression of a fictional world” (158). To avoid repetition for the audience, the story elements must be expressed in new and diverse ways.
Different media take on different roles in a transmedia story: movies and TV shows might work best to introduce the audience to the atmosphere of the story world, while games enable the players to further immerse themselves by providing avatars for identification. This way the various types of media are able to attract different market niches and audiences. When asking if a story is transmedial, the number of involved media does not matter. Instead, it is important to look at the relationship between them: How do the media elements interact? How do they refer to each other?
Evans, E. (2011). Transmedia Television: Audiences, New Media, and Daily Life. Routledge.
Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York University Press.
Kearney, M.C. (2004.) Recycling Judy and Corliss: Transmedia Exploitation and the First Teen‐Girl Production Trend. Feminist Media Studies, 4(3), 265-295.
Kinder, M. (1991). Playing with Power in Movies, Television, and Video Games: From Muppet Babies to Ninja Turtles. University of California Press.
Tosca, S., & Klastrup, L. (2020). Transmedial Worlds in Everyday Life. Networked Reception, Social Media and Fictional Worlds. Routledge.