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Book Review: A Guidebook for Transmedia Storytellers

Interactive Narratives and Transmedia Storytelling by Kelly McErlean

A Book Review of Interactive Narratives and Transmedia Storytelling:

Creating Immersive Stories Across New Media Platforms

by Kelly McErlean


What have I learned from this book? It was hard to follow and requires a dedicated mind. Although transmedia seems like it is perfect for the younger, ADD, or hyper-minded who’s constantly on to the next thing, this book is written for the older, more patient mind who likes to dig into thick text. There were so many nuggets of wisdom in this book, but I found this a better reference guide than a narrative. Kelly McErlean illuminated past and current mediums for storytelling, and I made many notes in my book as I read through it. However, the more I try to recall what I read, the fuzzier my memories become. Rather than a traditional synopsis, I’ll instead share the notes I wrote in the margins, and passages I underlined and/or starred.

Daniel Meadows seems to be the pioneer of talking photos which he started working on in the 70’s or 80’s. I’ve since found a modern day photographer, Marcus Lyon, who’s work (Sonos Brasil) is similar but with the use of an app that allows the photos to “talk”.

Fabula is the chronological order of events contained in a story, and also the raw materials of a story (or the content). Syuzhet is the way the story is organized, it is also the form. These two Russian terms came up throughout the text and I found myself writing out the definitions each time.

Edits in film are acceptable to viewers because they act like our eyes when we naturally blink (which filters out movement that would otherwise make us dizzy or sick to our stomachs, because our bodies move faster than our eyes can process). Cuts can affect the audience’s mood or impression of a scene/film, e.x. an incoherent visual sequence creates an uneasy atmosphere.

Sound can help us locate things in space, even if that space is a 2D film. A random object being dropped in the depths of a set can help us understand the volume of the space and the type of space it is, e.x. a marsh vs a cathedral. Sound also has coloration which may not match the visual color. Mismatched color can make the sound feel disjointed and may even fragment the narrative.

Film = Sculpting in time

“The black-and-white ‘image’ is not replicating the truth of the real world. For the view it is very much a memory of what has happened. Therefore, black-and-white images allow the viewer to suspend real life and enter the narrative’s own reality” (page 39).

“Before the introduction of sound, film was a global art. Sound made films culturally specific and promoted the commercialization of the product” (page 41).

“The great challenge in the development of interactive titles is that the interaction will create new edits not decided on or controlled by the director” (page 43).

The attentional blink is when the brain stops taking in new information while it process the previous significant information. This is why it’s hard for people to follow information dumps.

“‘…every photograph leaves a motionless trace of what has been’ (Chiarmonte & Tarkovsky, 2006 P.123).”

Color psychology has a definite effect on the audience, whether it is in pigment or light form. The meanings of color changes culturally, too.

“Sounds trigger a series of memories in the audience which allow complex interpretations of scenes. The emotional impact of sound is greater than the visual. Therefore what cannot be achieved by performance or writing can be achieved through music” (page 69).

“When we take part in music, or listen to an absorbing performance, we are temporarily protected from the input of other external stimuli. We enter a special secluded world…(Storr, 1993 p. 105).”

Diegesis = the style of fictional storytelling that presents an interior view of a world in which details about the world itself and the experiences of its characters are revealed explicitly through narrative. The story is told or recounted, versus enacted or shown. It's most common in first person narratives.

“Music can organize and control emotions, allowing a viewer to experience a single story with multiple perspectives” (page 85).

“While each shot has its own content and meaning, it is the ‘montage’ or sequencing and placing of shots that creates meaning to the viewer” (page 87).

The length of transitions between story elements can influence the reflection time of the audience and pacing of the story. Shorter transitions move the story along quickly, but allow for almost no reflection. Longer transitions slow the story down, but allow room for reflection.

“Interactive titles will require some user knowledge prior to viewing. For the user to make informed interaction decisions, they must know something about the text already” (page 96-97).

“Spatially developed stories will ensure that users will be given multiple perspectives of the narrative; too many for one person to view in a single setting but enough for a group to discuss the various permutations in a post-viewing discussion” (page 97).

Narratology is the branch of knowledge or literary criticism that deals with the structure and function of narrative and its themes, conventions and symbols.

“Implicit qualifications are open to reader interpretation and can be used within the text to uncover secrets; the reader has to search for the truth. An explicit qualification is more absolute and less open to interpretation; a character that commits a murder is explicitly qualified as a murder” (page 102).

“Interactive narratives are known for their attention to detail in creating a world outside reality, not for their ability to verbalize complex reasoning and emotive experience” (page 107). This is one of the reasons I’ve never felt fulfilled playing video games, as opposed to reading books.

The aura or feeling you get about a physical space can never be replicated with augmented and virtual reality. You may come close, but it will never be the same as the real, physical space.

“Associative linkage, like hypertext, is how the mind works. Memories are connected by related elements; story elements in an interactive narrative are related by content” (page 115).

“Adding story elements to the database increases the potential complexity of the narrative, and gives greater choice to the reader. However, the increase in complexity may lead to a directly proportional breakdown in narrative cohesion. Navigation pathways through the database elements should make sense to the reader and follow the rules of semantics and logic” (page 116).

“…technology must be defined as a social function as well as a technical system and the social does not always follow the technical as a matter of effect… technology [is] an extension of man; the medium is the message… ‘ways of seeing’ are shaped by ideas, institutions and technologies at different times… new and old technologies exist together, not all are replaced or become obsolete” (page 121).

“All the viewer sees is the media, not the technology. The techno centric focus is gradually being replaced with a customer-centered usability” (page 124). Which is why a good UX/UI design is imperative.

“Like good plots, good virtual reality systems should offer the element of surprise” (page 125).

Impositional narratives have strict rules and allow for few ‘reader’ decisions. Expressive narratives are like open world games where the ‘reader’ can roam freely but the plot loose.

Lighting isn’t just important for film or performance art, it is necessary in virtual realities where you can highlight what you want the audience to focus on by lighting it up, and making everything else dull or grey.

A story is always aimed at a specified audience and we must consider how the audience will receive and interpret the story when we construct a narrative” (page 164).

What I understood from McErlean is this: the mediums now being used in transmedia storytelling already exist (in varying degrees of success), how we choose to put the mediums together in the future is yet unknown. McErlean seemed to make the point that there are good and bad ways to make work, but it’s mostly about the perception you want your audience to have, and in the end it is all about what the audience takes away that makes it sink or swim.

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