Sofia’s Diary was a real inspiration to me when planning and creating the transmedia strategy for my Decision Book Series, so I was DELIGHTED when the show’s creator Nuno Bernardo approached me to write a guest post for B2W! This is a real treat for you Bang2writers on using the power of transmedia to engage your audiences, so enjoy!
When I sat down to write Sofia’s Diary, my first Web series, back in 2003, I had no real scriptwriting experience, let alone transmedia writing experience. So, for me, it was always going to be a process of trial and error. As if this wasn’t daunting enough, I was learning the basics of scriptwriting at a time when there were no rules for writing for digital media. Looking back now, I can say that I was lucky because I had a lot of freedom in the process; a lot of freedom to learn, but freedom also to write what I thought would work on this new media.
It’s fair to say, I suppose, I was literally making it up as we were going along. Because Sofia’s Diary had a large interactive element, we were day by day discovering what worked in transmedia writing, based on the users’ feedback. If something didn’t work, the audience either complained or, worse, was unresponsive. Strong audience engagement and positive feedback were also, of course, helpful for us on this steep learning curve. As my Web series and TV projects become bigger and bigger, this immediate response was becoming less and less part of the process, but here are some of the things I learned in the last decade writing and producing hundreds of hours of Web, TV and Transmedia series.
1. Every transmedia project needs a showrunner
In order to realise your vision, you have to be pretty clear about who exactly is running the show. I discovered early on that, because of all the collaborative elements of creating a show, you need ultimately one person to unify all the elements and push forward your plan. The showrunner in a US television series literally runs the show – he is the head writer, the big director who leads the writing team and controls the output.
The showrunner in transmedia does pretty much the same thing, only more. Practically speaking, the showrunner needs to know what they want to achieve throughout the different platforms (not just television) and also unite a team of blog writers, game writers, or scriptwriters to achieve a unified voice. He is the arbiter of the voice, the person who creates the consistency of the show in terms of storyline and across all the media platforms. This is an especially difficult task for transmedia, where you have to create a voice that is consistent among a group of people that often work in different places and who have never even met! The challenge is never greater than when there is a big turnover of people on that team. The showrunner has to ensure that, though writers come and go, the voice has to remain consistent. MORE: How To Become A TV Showrunner By Neil Landau
2. Characters are the host of the Transmedia Experience
What was different about Sofia’s Diary was that, as there is so much drama in the life of a typical teenage girl, all of Sofia’s dramas and crises seemed normal and credible no matter how frequently they occurred. Along with all the drama, she also had to be like the girl next door, someone that you could conceivably be friends with. It was vital that it felt real without, of course, pretending to actually be real.
We found as we developed Sofia’s Diary that by mixing reality with fiction we could underscore the character’s connection with the viewer’s life. I discovered if the character lives in a parallel world with the viewer, certain events should be in sync between the story world and the real world. For instance, if there is a public holiday in the real world, the viewer will expect to see some reference to it in the character’s world.
You can take this a step further, as we did on Flatmates, when we removed the normal walls between reality and the story. In this show, we had one character who worked as a barmaid in a trendy Lisbon bar. Accordingly, once a month we set up a shoot where the character went and worked in the real bar in town and we filmed the episode there inviting audience members and fans to be part of the experience. MORE: 9 Ways To Write Great Characters
3. Audience participation needs to be carefully managed
As we unfolded our story, we were conscious that we would closely mimic how people actually used and communicated on the Internet. For example, if Sofia had a dilemma – for example, she was torn between having to comfort a friend or go out with her boyfriend – she would ask the audience for advice. The way she did this was also important, as she asked them as any friend would ask another. Accordingly, Sofia used chat, text and email to communicate with her audience and the audience would then reply back with advice. As this two-way communication evolved, we would always make Sofia mail her audience and ask for help. Then, the audience would give their opinion. But it was then that we were presented with a problem – what do we do with their advice?
We realised after a while, however, that if you give your audience power over the story they will get rid of your antagonist, solve all the major problems and erase all the drama. If the audience connects with your hero they will do everything to protect their hero and solve all their problems. We found if you allow the audience to decide the basics of your story you would be in trouble; after a month, your hero will be wealthy, have the most romantic love-life in the world, best friends in the world, best parents, go on the best holidays and nothing bad will ever, ever happen to them. And then story becomes too boring and audiences move away. MORE: 6 Ways To Build An Audience By Dave Turner
4. Pick the best media to tell parts of your story
When you are writing a story for transmedia, the first thing you do is write the entire story with all the elements, twists, character reactions etc. The next stage can be a revelation for some writers. For instance, when we were producing Sofia’s Diary in the UK, we initially hired television screenwriters who had no experience of transmedia. So, after they had written the storyline they were a little shocked when we took their scripts and literally tore them apart, divvying up the different story elements between the different media available.
Where particular material is used, essentially content is best suited to a particular medium. For example, a conversation that perhaps included a bit of comedy would go to radio. An action scene would go to television. A monologue containing some private thoughts would go to a blog. For you to do this, you have to make sure you choose the media best suited towards the content of your show. The question ‘what media should I choose?’ is closely linked to ‘how often should I use it?’ Ideally, there should be a sense that the content is always updating, that the story and your characters’ lives are constantly moving in parallel with the viewer’s life. In Sofia’s Diary, we wrote one episode per weekday, but there was always this sense created through blogs and social media sites that the characters were always there to update the audience with their perspective. Through all the different tools available, you can create an on-going conversation and engagement with the viewer. MORE: 5 Reasons Writers Should Consider A Transmedia Project By Dylan Spicer
5. Experience design is key in a Transmedia series
The Internet and social media enable producers and writers to bring characters into the daily or hourly lives of the viewer in exactly the same way that they would interact with their friends. We can now further enhance this real-time experience by running the interactions in sync with the audience’s life. What is critical to the success of this involvement is that it has imitated exactly what the audience expect when they go on the Internet. Typically, Internet users have a lot of distractions, a lot of other activities running side by side. I realised that it is vital to keep your audience communicating back with you, because if you don’t engage with them they’ll quickly get busy with the billion other distractions.
Beating the distractions is just one element of this interaction; the other is keeping the tone of your engagement consistent with the tone of normal communications between friends on social media, blogs, etc. We knew our show had to be more than a video episode – there can often be a video element, but that wasn’t enough to really connect with our audience. The irony was, in order to make our product successful and exceptional, we had to mimic all the normal, everyday things friends do. We realised that, if this was to be successful, it had to be about more than just telling a story; it had to be about creating a compelling experience. MORE: What Is Transmedia? (The Blake Friedmann Literary Agency blog)
Conclusion – Transmedia tricks and pitfalls
Something worthwhile to note is that, by using different story elements on different media, there are endless opportunities for the writer to move the story forward. One successful technique that writers for cop and detective shows on television have been using for years is to encourage the audience to problem-solve before the characters have themselves discovered the answer to whatever puzzle is at hand. In most television detective shows, the audience is given sight of key clues that allow them to come to a conclusion that is usually about the identity of the person who committed a crime.
This way, the audience watching the programme is encouraged to engage with the programme to do some problem solving and draw their own conclusion before the characters finally reveal the answer. This sort of teasing can be played out in a myriad of ways using transmedia. I recall we used a similar technique in one episode of Sofia’s Diary when a character posted on her blog a YouTube video of Sofia’s boyfriend with another girl in a club.
The blog post happened hours before the broadcast of the daily episode, but of course Sofia doesn’t know about it. The audience knows about the incident in advance and can predict that Sofia will find the video in the episode that issue will be raised. The video clip is like a ticking time bomb under the entire episode, teasing the audience who will want to watch the consequences. We got a huge reaction to this by providing the audience with knowledge beyond what the characters know about an issue. I think it is worth bearing in mind as a general technique to drop clues and hints to the audience, to give them a wider perspective and use that to engage them with the show.
Cliffhangers and teasers also provide opportunities to remind you of your hero’s mission and keep you involved. A writer seeking to engage the audience for the next episode of the show may deploy the cliffhanger device in a number of ways. The device can be used simply to get the audience to return for the next episode to see how a problem gets resolved. Alternatively, it may allow you to reiterate the conflict between the hero and the antagonist who is forever trying to frustrate the hero’s mission. In transmedia, you can of course use your various platforms to heighten tension and even to give the audience clues as to how the problem may eventually be sorted.
In the Internet jungle, no audience is guaranteed, as you need to fight for, attract, engage, pull, draw you audience in through a dense tangle of distractions. The good news is you can create reasons for them to come to you. Just creating compelling stories isn’t enough, though. You have to do more to fight through all the demands on your audience’s attention. You have to create something that the audience likes and will make time for; crucially, you have to constantly remind your audience that they like to watch it. Digital media offers you the tools to really engage the audience.
BIO: Nuno Bernardo is an award-winning and Emmy-nominated writer and producer and using his unique approach, Nuno has created and produced several Web properties that have successfully crossed to TV. He has just released a new book, Transmedia 2.0. Find him on Twitter and Facebook.