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  • Transmedia StorytellingIndustry Buzzword or New Narrative Experience?
  • Marie-Laure Ryan (bio)

Is there such a thing as transmedia storytelling? In a sense I am playing the devil’s advocate. The culture of the past twenty years has produced a vast number of “cult” narratives that have generated adaptations in many different media, inspired tens of thousands of texts of fan fiction, and were continually expanded through action figures, toys, T-shirts, mugs, and other gimmicks. Narrative systems such as George Lucas’s Star Wars, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, or Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games keep sprouting up and suggest that transmedia storytelling is the most important narrative mode of our time. There are even manuals that tell us how to write for transmedia (see Bernardo 2011; Phillips 2012), though their advice does not instantly turn readers into masters of the art. The advocates of transmedia want us to believe that, thanks to the recent proliferation of new media, storytelling will never be the same. But while we cannot deny the existence of a cultural phenomenon known as [End Page 1] transmedia storytelling, we can ask whether it is a form of storytelling or primarily a marketing strategy, whether it is really new, what its various forms are, and what narratology can do about it beyond acknowledging its existence. As a criterion for deciding whether this cultural phenomenon deserves the labels transmedia and storytelling, I will use Henry Jenkins’s well-known definition: “Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story” (2007: n. pag.).

What Transmedia Storytelling Is Not (Or Rather, Should Not Be)

If transmedia storytelling is going to be a truly new narrative experience, it will be useful to take a look at other, mostly older phenomena that bear a certain resemblance with it, but from which it should differ.

First, transmedia storytelling should not be conceived of as mere adaptation or illustration, two forms of transmedial activity that have been with us for centuries if not millennia, as one can see from the dissemination of Greek myth through various artistic media—sculpture, architecture, drama, epic—or, closer to us, the multiple modes of distribution of biblical stories in the Middle Ages. The multiple medial incarnations of biblical stories or of Greek myth are not the result of a deliberate decision by an authority to distribute narrative content across different media; rather, they are the result of a bottom-up, grassroots phenomenon that I call the “snowball effect.” In the snowball effect, certain stories enjoy so much popularity, or become culturally so prominent, that they spontaneously generate a variety of either same-medium retellings or crossmedia illustrations and adaptations. According to Jenkins’s definition, by contrast, transmedia storytelling is a deliberate attempt to make media converge around a shared narrative content. Another difference between adaptation and transmedia storytelling, according to Jenkins, lies in the fact that adaptation tries (with greater or lesser success) to tell the same story in a different medium, while transmedia storytelling tells different stories about a given storyworld: “And for many of us, a simple adaptation [End Page 2] may be ‘transmedia,’ but it is not ‘transmedia storytelling’ because it is simply re-presenting an existing story rather than expanding and annotating the fictional world” (2009a: n. pag.).

Second, transmedia storytelling involves, but cannot be reduced to, what Richard Saint-Gelais (2011) has called transfictionality, namely, the migration of fictional entities across different texts. Transfictionality can be traced back to the rise of the Western novel, which means to the invention of print. One of its first known instances is the new adventures of Don Quixote published in 1614 by Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda. Another early example is the multiple imitations that were inspired by Robinson Crusoe. Transfictionality can consist of three operations (see Ryan 2008, 2013): expansion (such as prequels and sequels), modification (such as...


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