I’ve been doing a bunch of of over-thinking lately about the evolution of story and the future of narrative entertainment, so rather than continue that navel-gazing, here’s the short form (the short story, so to speak), and I’ll have more to say about this later. Not that all of this thinking is original to me; I’m just doing what I always do: scanning the landscape, picking out the relevant pieces, putting them together in a way that makes sense to me, and adding my own contributions as I go. So…

In the future, books will behave more TV shows. And not just TV shows, but interactive TV shows you can play like a game on your mobile device between reading installments of a parallel story unfolding at the same time. They’ll be released in episodes, there will be more than one thread to them, they’ll be interactive / participatory / responsive in some way, and we’ll take them with us wherever we go. And this won’t happen in the distant future, but within the next five years or so, and perhaps sooner (like now). Not to all books (or films, or games, or what-have-yous), but certainly some, most likely many, and possibly — eventually — most. At some point, in fact, it will become difficult to tell a book apart from a television show, and we’ll need a new name for this kind of narrative entertainment experience. We have the word “transmedia,” but that’s an adjective, not a noun (and it’s a term of art, in any case, rather than a consumer-friendly word). I’m not going to propose a new noun here (though I’m interested to hear ideas), but I do want to take a minute and describe what this experience will look like.

Here are four broad bullet points (not all of which will apply to every work):

  • Serial: Content will be released over time, in bite-sized chunks that can be consumed in a single sitting. Most narrative art — whether it be text, video, audio, or otherwise — will take the form of episodes. Long-form content won’t go away, but serialized narratives will be the default. You might get a bit every week, or a bit every day, you might get a number of text messages daily, or the pace of the story might vary according to how often you interact with whatever’s framing the experience — perhaps a framework like a game.
  • Multichannel: A work will feature multiple story threads, or “channels,” each of which will add its own unique content to the overall experience. These may be in the same or different media, and they may be narrative or merely descriptive (e.g., the fictional Web site of a scientific institution featured in a work). We will need new paradigms of linkage in order to navigate all of the fragments; an episode in one channel may point to an episode in another, which may in turn loop back; sequence may be important, or it may not. Narrative experiences will need to develop the signals which indicate these things to us, both technologically and in terms of the narrative itself.
  • Participatory: At least part of the form, distribution, sequencing, and/or other elements of the content (including, in some cases, portions of the content itself) will be shaped or created based on the participation of the audience. Rarely will a narrative be the same set experience for all who consume it. You may enter and leave it at different points, your choices may alter the sequence in which you experience it, the collective choices of the readership may alter what everyone sees, you may write a portion of it even as you consume some other element, or one of too many alternatives to list here may also be the case. Some of this may happen incidentally, merely as a result of following linkages, some may happen more consciously, some may happen as a result of a game, etc. But the monolithic story-object will become largely a thing of the past, and the shape of the experience will come to be determined at least in part by the actions of the audience.
  • Ubiquitous: Content will, at a minimum, be portable via mobile devices, and may also encompass platforms that reach all areas of a consumer’s daily life. That is to say, you may take your experience with you on a mobile device, or you may find that the experience follows you around across many devices and many contexts, despite the choices you make. As we become more connected, not just to the Internet but to the environment around us, narrative will take advantage of those connections and come to saturate them with story wherever it can.

Read the above as a draft at more organized thinking. Just wanted to get something down. The way I see it, there are exciting days ahead for the craft of story. This description just scratches the surface.

Of course, we’re already starting to see works that hit all the notes above, but these so far remain a relatively small portion of the entertainment landscape; not too many people (at least, as compared to the number that watch TV, go to the movies, or buy Stephenie Meyer books) read serial novels or take part in alternate reality games. But they will. As current technology and consumption trends continue (a topic for another post), narrative entertainment will increasingly line up with the four points I’ve mentioned above.

As mentioned, much of this is in line with current thinking and practice in transmedia circles, including great thinking and projects coming from people like Henry Jenkins, Christy Dena, Jeff Gomez and Lance Weiler, to name only a few. But I’ve yet to see an over-arching vision of how all these pieces are going to fit together in the media landscape to come. This particular post isn’t mean to be that manifesto either. But it just may lay the groundwork. Stay tuned…