Granthika Blog

Writer of the Month: Q&A with Peter von Stackelberg

Peter von Stackelberg is an award-winning investigative journalist, a futurist and a lecturer in transmedia storytelling at Alfred University. Transmedia is defined as the development of fiction and non-fiction stories across multiple forms of media.

How did you become interested in transmedia – is there a link between what you were doing as a journalist and your transmedia research?

In fact they are the common thread throughout my career. I graduated from Ryerson in Toronto in the 70s with a degree in Journalism. I spent a number of years as a reporter chasing stories and I got interested in computer technology when home computers were first emerging as a thing. At one point I was burning out on daily newspapers and ended up in a job developing interactive training systems that integrated video, audio, and computer text. It was a form of interactive transmedia, if you will, as early as the mid- to late 1980s. Then I took another turn completely and got a Master’s degree in studies of the future, which launched my 25-year career as a professional futurist. In 2009 I decided to go back to school for a second Master’s degree in information design and it was there I formally became interested in transmedia, which was only then emerging.

Did you write fiction at the time?

Not a lot. I have some published poetry. Tons and tons of non-fiction. Five years ago I decided I wanted to get back to what I started my career doing, which was being a writer. Fiction writing was a good place to go.

Can any narrative be transmedia material, so to speak, or are there story arcs that are more amenable to transcend different platforms?

Yeah, I think so—any story can become transmedia, but some stories more easily than others. Certain stories might be best told using text, others film and so forth. There is an element of looking for what is the best platform based on the nature of the story and how it is best told. But I have come to the view that any story can be expanded into a transmedia project. The key is in the whole concept of the storyworld—the universe in which one or more stories exist. From a commercial perspective the Marvel universe is an example of a massive universe with many characters. Star Wars is another example. You may start with one story and you can expand outward—either through fiction or non-fiction.

In your published research you outline four types of transmedia design tasks: story, storyworld, scene/sequence and project. You state that the story is the most important element. But from your thesis I got the impression that the storyworld might be the primary element. Is this a chicken or egg type of discussion?

I want to caution you about my Master’s thesis—a lot has evolved over the last decade. The thesis was published in 2010 or 2011. The notion of the story being primary is still the case based on my research. But the storyworld is quite important, particularly in getting a better understanding of the characters, of the systems, of the broad conflicts that occur. Take The Expanse—Amazon picked it up and they streamed the 4th season recently—what they have done is created this massive storyworld that gives you a broad range of conflicts—at the level of the entire solar system, and it is overlaid with conflicts within factions, and interpersonal conflicts. So it lets you look at conflicts at multiple levels, which I find fascinating. With that kind of an approach the storyworld is essential, perhaps more so than the individual story itself.

It almost seems like a transmedia project is by default a group project. But is there a possibility for individual creatives to set up a transmedia project on their own? Say in your classes—do students have to work in groups?

All the students actually conduct an individual project. Group dynamics with students can sometimes become problematic and this is a complex enough project. It is possible for one individual to be successful, but transmedia requires a broad set of skills. My background is a journalist, a magazine writer, but I also had a pretty good understanding of still photography and over the years I worked on my skills on 3D graphics. I can create my own characters and my own settings. To take it to the next level I taught myself motion graphics as well, but I am not a writer of screenplays, nor have I professionally shot video. The short answer is: yes, people can create their own transmedia projects as a single author, but they need to carefully select what platforms they are going to be presenting on.

If an individual writer were to experiment with a transmedia project, what would that entail in terms of their creative process?

One of the things that makes it technically feasible for someone to do a transmedia project on their own is the availability of Adobe Creative Suite for example—you can create images and motion graphics in Adobe, you can create audio too. So the tools themselves have made it technically feasible to do some sophisticated stuff. There is open source software to do similar things. You are asking about the “workflow”—the biggest challenge with my students and perhaps with other writers is “I don’t know where to start.” My suggestion is to start anywhere and fill in the blanks later. If you’ve got a character in mind start there, lay out the character; if you have a scene in mind, lay that out. Then extend your story, and ultimately your storyworld from there. It’s an iterative process that requires multiple revisions.

I tend to single out a couple of steps and they correspond to the four levels we mentioned earlier (story, storyworld, event/scene and project). If you start with an individual story—what is the controlling idea and the dramatic question and so on, a lot of the stuff that comes out of McKee’s Story. The next step is to lay out the framework—just write down a bunch of events that happen and you can rearrange them just like the cards on a pinpush board. Then you start to look at structures like the key plot points, the hook, the inciting events. You build outwards from there in a fairly non-linear fashion. There may be writers working in a linear fashion—but I think most writers are used to the idea of revising, cutting things out and so on.

People might equate transmedia with the entertainment industry. Has the entertainment industry co-opted the term and movement of transmedia?  Is there non-fiction transmedia out there?

There is.  I do know for a fact there are transmedia journalism projects that span multiple platforms. I would agree with part of your assessment. Marvel and its universe are worth a huge fortune; the same with Star Wars. That being said, there is no reason why an individual writer or a small group of writers cannot do a highly effective transmedia project. And some of the real breakout projects—Blair Witch for example—was done on a shoestring and was quite phenomenal in both its commercial and creative impact. So yes—transmedia storytelling, I wouldn’t use the term “co-opted,” but has certainly been commercialized. That doesn’t mean we can’t use it for other purposes. The individual writer should not be put off that it could cost a million dollars to put together a transmedia product. The best way to approach it is from the bottom up—you start with a very focused point and you grow it organically. The sense I get with transmedia is that actually growth from the bottom is probably more important.

How can a tool like Granthika make a narrative transmedia-ready?

I found Granthika very interesting because of its object-oriented approach to stories: the fact that you can identify existents—characters, events, locations, and objects, and also the notion that events can be nested (which is different than what I have seen in most tools). There needs to be a component for developing a storyworld. Most of the underlying technology is already there, it is probably a matter of adapting it to a different level of scale.

Do you mean that there might be a use case for templates that would help add attributes to characters, locations etc.? How do you see such a tool help writers build storyworlds?

Certainly templates can be useful. But what I am thinking about is that right now with Granthika the top level element is a manuscript, or a story. My perspective when it comes to transmedia development is that there is another upper level—the storyworld—and the stories emerge from that. There needs to be a way of tying multiple stories together. Taking the example of The Expanse: you have groups of characters—Earthers, Martians, Belters and so on. There is a crew consisting of two Earthers, a Martian and a Belter, running around in a stolen spaceship, and bringing those higher-level conflicts between Earth, Mars and the Belt with them into the story colors their interpersonal relationships. Without the explicit connection of the story to the storyworld it becomes difficult to make such links.

What about application features for team collaboration?

That could work in a couple of different ways—a multitalented team where some are adept at video production, or a member doing podcasts, a writer, and illustrator good at doing comics, i.e. a multidisciplinary team like that working on a single project. Another kind of team could be a team of a storytellers who are using the storyworld as a foundation for the stories they create. To give you an example, a storyworld I have been moving along in fits and starts is set roughly 40 years into the future. Climate change has taken hold. Certain technologies have gone from the lab to initial production. I can create a bunch of stories from that, but I am here in western New York and what do I know about what the weather and technology and social conditions would be like in Africa in 2040 or 2050 or in Europe or in Asia?! So I can invite different authors to work together using the storyworld as a basis. Using the community aspect of a tool will be able to ensure things from a quality perspective—that the stories are consistent.

What is your next research interest? What are you looking into now?

The bottom line is still researching story structure. There are some interesting things around visual storytelling that takes things down a level below the scene—in one frame, a single image and so on. I want to poke around at that. Another area I am fascinated/frustrated with comes from my career as a futurist—why is it that we have very sound, good forecasts, or predictions even warnings about pending events, but as human beings we are very resistant to acting proactively? What is it about the human psyche that makes it difficult for us to deal with long term futures events? That question goes back to my experience working in organizations where we had great data and developed great scenarios. Everyone says “That’s nice” and then these scenarios go and “sit on a shelf.” How is it that humans can ignore warnings about what is coming and how can we use storytelling to better anticipate what is coming in the future?

Jeff Gomez has been talking about a shift from the hero’s journey to the collective journey—I want to see how that might work from a futures perspective and how it can work as a form of storytelling. The challenge with transmedia is it tends to be non-linear, but stories themselves tend to be quite linear, at least in the sense of how the reader goes through them, and there are more examples of linear as opposed to non-linear narrative out there.

Back when I was going through the University of Houston for my degree in future studies I got interested in systems dynamics modeling. I find that this kind of thinking works its way into the storytelling aspect—e.g. storyworlds are interesting examples of dynamic systems models with their inter-entity relationships and feedback loops. The concepts of chaos and complexity theory of fractals (structures that are similar but not identical at different levels of depth) are applicable too and stories have a similar structure that starts with a setup, works its way higher and higher, and has a resolution. Storyworlds I think are fractal in nature. What exactly that means is an interesting question!

Thank you, Peter!

We welcome you all to explore some of Peter's publications on transmedia and storyworlds and post your ideas and opinions on the Granthika forums.