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New Skills for Writers
In the age of iPads, video games and on-demand TV, what is the future for writing and reading? Transmedia storytelling.

Transmedia writing and storytelling

Transmedia storytelling isn't just books read on tablet devices, but a move away from traditional linear narratives altogether, towards digital and interactive forms.

Authors are even becoming known as 'story architects' and 'experience designers' and ad agencies are creating 'storyworlds' for big brands. Rather than a particular narrative being limited to a book, TV episode or graphic novel, storylines are being extended into other platforms.

Should 'traditional' writers be worried? Here are some things to think about:

  • The average annual earnings for a writer are £16,531
  • The top two skills the literature sector think will be vital in the next decade are digital skills and information technology
  • 95 percent of literature businesses don't have access to funding for training.

(research from Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society and Creative & Cultural Skills)

So expanding into new media might be one way to sustain your career into the future. But can you transfer literature skills to different media forms?

We spoke to Alex Fleetwood, the founder and director of Hide & Seek, a pervasive game studio which develops social forms of play that can include mobile applications and live events. They are co-presenting a workshop with The Script Factory on 28 Oct 2010, giving writers the tools to work with the technological and conceptual challenges of transmedia.

Writing skills for cross-platform media

Fleetwood believes writers should be confident about exploring new methods of storytelling and ensure they have these key skills:

  • understanding of platforms
  • collaborative working
  • writing for interaction

"As a company which integrates narrative with games design and traditional forms of content, we need writers with a very flexible approach to their stories."

New thinking in writing

Hide & Seek and AKQA media agency developed 221B, an online game for Warner Bros. PicturesA flexible approach is vital, as more people use their computers and iPads while watching TV. The BBC has already embraced these trends, embedding "multiplatform producers" within TV production teams. They also have scriptwriters work with game developers, like for The Adventure Games, a spinoff of Doctor Who, and E20, a web series tied to Eastenders. 1066, a war-strategy online game accompanying a Channel 4 fictionalised docudrama, has been a big success in the channel's cross-platform strategy.

"There's more of this happening in TV and film writing," explains Fleetwood, citing the transmedia campaign that grew out of Heroes, and the popular Dark Knight Alternate Reality Game. "But Doug Coupland, Stephen King and Geoff Ryman have done transmedia components of published books, although it may not have been called that at the time."

In an interview with Narrative Design, writer and game designer Steve Danuser says, "When I first started building content for the game [Everquest II], I thought I could blow players away with my eloquent writing style. What I learned is that, while writing skills are important, a broader sense of storytelling is even more crucial."

Hide & Seek created an iPhone game for the Tate ModernWhile some might find this type of writing too restricting, creating ideas over multiple platforms can also free up potential in other storytellers.

In another Narrative Design interview, transmedia pioneer Jeff Gomez says "I had no patience for writing novels or directing films. But I knew I wanted to tell stories to huge numbers of people."

Gomez also likes the immediate audience feedback he gets in transmedia projects, which can also be a bonus to writers looking to constantly refine their skills and stories through inspiring suggestions and constructive criticism.

In addition, introducing new characters and plot developments on the web or in a game can be a way of keeping a story alive beyond the limitations of a book or TV show.

The future of writing

So, can traditional careers in literature come to work together with transmedia projects? After all, 'wikis' are a popular collaborative model of creating broad and accurate knowledge bases, and writers often enjoy contributing in their areas of expertise. And in a competitive creative market, being able to contribute skills to a variety of projects is the bread and butter of successful freelancers.

Fleetwood says "Specialisation is still enormously useful, and I'm certain that people will be reading books and watching movies for the whole of my lifetime. Transmedia is still a niche interest, although the commercial and creative opportunities are evolving at an incredible pace.

"Ultimately, each new technology – the printing press, the cine camera, the internet – shifts modes of consumption and therefore production, but it takes a really long time for this to happen."

While transmedia is something writers should be thinking about, there is still room for people with traditional skills to collaborate and be a part of the changing media landscape. Fleetwood says for writers who want to learn more about where storytelling is heading, "the key is to consume a lot, read the key bloggers and thinkers in this area (Jeff Gomez, Lance Weiler, Jane McGonigal, Henry Jenkins and Christy Dena, to name a few) and start making stuff."

Just as traditional print journalists are now being told to also produce video and audio pieces for the web, expanding your writing and storytelling skills into the world of transmedia doesn't have to be frightening – it could be your next exciting career move.