Experimenting With Stories: Check In to The Chatsfield with Transmedia Producer Alison Norrington

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alisonOne of the things I enjoy about the transmedia community is that it is still relatively small. Everyone that I have met (from both coasts and around the world) is genuinely interested in hearing about new projects others are working on or discussing ideas, theories, and opinions on the state of the entertainment industry. It was through Transmedia Los Angeles that I was able to meet Alison Norrington.

Alison is a Transmedia Storyteller, TEDx Transmedia speaker, PhD researcher, novelist, and playwright.

Her latest project, The Chatsfield, creates a world based on a series of romance novels by the Harlequin UK imprint Mills & Boon. This new transmedia series welcomes you into the world of The Chatsfield and asks you to interact with the characters, dive into the stories, and even contribute your own storylines. You start by “checking in” and then join in the conversation at The Lounge. There is also a webseries that follows the adventures of Chatsfield employee Jessie Low called “The Lowdown”.

Enjoy the transmedia insights she offers below.

Angelique: How did you become interested in transmedia?

Alison: It was a curiosity that slowly built up quite organically over a few years as I wanted to add sensory elements of audio, video and visuals to my books. I had written 3 bestseller novels in the chick-lit genre that was beginning to suffer from over-saturation. I was determined to add dimensions to my storytelling that broke a stigma of ‘light, fluffy’ work by making sure that each of my books had pillars and cornerstones by including a European country, a musical genre and an art form, amongst other rich themes and weighty topics. As I infused my stories with these I began to look for ways to amplify and extend the themes beyond the book, but this was 2004 and my options were limited to ‘multimedia’ extensions (DVD, postcards, etc). At the same time I begun playwriting and this was a pivotal moment – standing backstage and watching an audiences reaction in real time to your work was the ultimate ‘ah-ha’ moment when I wanted a direct dialogue with my audience and to dig deeper in to who they really were. I began a Masters Program in 2006 and, under the guidance of Christy Dena, released what was intended as my 4th novel ‘Staying Single’ as the first interactive/cross platform RomCom. The audience behaviors and press & publicity around this type of storytelling were exciting and seemed to be pushing some boundaries – I hadn’t realized this had a name (transmedia), but I knew it would be a ‘thing’.

Angelique: What do you think is the most compelling thing about cross-platform (transmedia) storytelling?

Alison: For a creator, I find this approach to storytelling is both compelling and challenging at the same time. It’s compelling to build a storyworld and a strategy that puts the audience first and with story at the heart of that approach. There’s a huge value for storytellers in real time interactions with audience, relevant story extensions that activate and engage fans but there is a huge challenge in determining and finding that audience and then, once engaged with, a huge commitment in continuing the conversation and the engagement.

From an audience perspective it’s exciting to be presented with options for passive or active, collaborative piecing together of a larger tapestry versus stand-alone bite-sized narrative chunks. It’s more of a natural replication of how we function outside of story/entertainment – a journey of discovery, opinion and sharing.

Angelique: Why is Transmedia important for content creators to think about? What additional impact can it have on their audience and story?

Alison: It’s important for content creators to consider whether their stories are rich enough to build story worlds and whether they have the potential to connect with an audience. Considerations of meaningful conversation and dialogue with fans can have a huge impact on audiences and story. Leveling fans up from passive to active, from fans to super fans, from consumers to co-creators is impactful if done with relevance and a credibility to story, audience and platforms.

Basically, why create one story when you can create a host of stories from one larger storyworld?

Why engage with an audience on a single level when you can engage on multiple levels with options for immersion and interaction? Why tell a story from one perspective when you can play with the rashomon effect and pacing and timing?

Angelique: Can you tell us about your writing process when you are working on a new project?

Alison: If it’s a client project, in a nutshell I begin by looking for opportunities and themes within a story that are strong enough to amplify to resonate with key communities or ‘people groups’. I look to identify the core theme and look for ways to bring that out through experiential ideas and this is one of the most exciting brainstorming moments. I often liken transmedia storytelling to plate-spinning as you’re keeping one eye on the core story, another on the audience, another on the behaviors & experiential opportunities and then of course another on the client budget!

If it’s my own project it’s much easier to bake this all in right at the concept phase, but the processes are much the same – high concept storytelling, mythology of storyworld, opportunities for extension all with a firm eye on audience.

Angelique: What do you find are the differences (and perhaps challenges) between working on your own projects and working with a company, such as Disney?

Alison: Where do I start? Working on my own projects brings with it a sense of freedom, but also a lack of accountability – which isn’t always a good thing. Working with large entertainment studios bring with it a fresh set of rules, measurements of corporate ‘success’, pre-determined audiences, goals, objectives and of course legalities, contracts, insurances, red tape, protocol, and a degree of fear and uncertainty. Then on the plus side you have the weight of a corporation behind your vision and an engaged team all striving toward the same (or similar!) goals.

Angelique: How would you make the argument for a larger, storytelling promotion for a new movie, as opposed to a marketing campaign?

Alison: I feel we are all being ‘sold to’ 24/7 and we’re tired of the ‘sale’. We’re bombarded everywhere with billboard ads, banner ads, television, even Spotify interrupts our listening unless you upgrade to Premium. To an extent we’re deaf and blind to marketing campaigns. I would argue that genuine and relevant story themes that are strategically integrated as triggers/rabbitholes/opportunities within a storytelling promotion will resonate with a credibility – especially if it’s responsive and ‘listens’ as well as tells a series of stories. As humans (what else would we be!) we measure ourselves against stories, it helps to make sense of our lives, our decisions and puts us temporarily in situations that we might never be in. To frame a new movie around a strong story as opposed to a marketing campaign has the potential to grasp people’s emotions and interests on a deeper level.

Angelique: What current (or upcoming) projects are you excited about and would suggest my audience check out?

Alison: To be honest I’ve been so buried beneath The Chatsfield project for Harlequin Mills & Boon that I’ve had little chance to really take a breath and look around at what’s been going on but I am loving what Ken Eklund is doing with Future Coast and what Mike Knowlton has done with Futurestates.tv.

Angelique: What is the best advice you would give to creator who are interested in developing their own project?

Alison: Firstly be sure that your story warrants being developed into a storyworld – not all stories are or need to be. Then take some time to build a core theme or heartbeat to your story, build out your storyworld domain, the high concept, the special elements that punch up your basic plot – sometimes sliding your storyworld along a timeline makes a huge difference. For example a storyworld that you’re creating to be told in the modern day can suddenly be hugely more exciting if slid back 50 years to the 1960’s (Mad Men, anyone?), further back to medieval times or scooted forward into the future. Then take a look at your audience – are they typically players or gamers, are they passive, could they collaborate remotely or are you looking for location-based opportunities? Once you’ve nailed your story and audience you can begin to consider platforms and formats. I’m a strong believer in story and audience/conversation first. Then you’ll look at distribution, timing, pacing, and monetization.

There are a lot of things to consider and whilst the processes are similar for each project, audiences are evolving and changing, platforms are gaining/losing popularity and it’s the behaviors that you need to address.

Most of all – rapidly prototype sections of your work. Adopt a ‘top down/bottom up’ approach where you connect with communities and audiences with a voice of authority and then also as a grass-roots creator and a member of the community. It’s those small steps that help you to determine viability and feasibility as you go.

I can’t wait to check into The Chatsfield myself! What parts of the story would you want to explore more? Let us know in the comments below!

More of my articles on transmedia storytelling can be found here.

About Angelique Toschi

Angelique Toschi is a social media professional who is active in multiple social media communities. She uses her BA in English from UCLA and MA in Mass Communications, Advertising from Cal State Fullerton to help her create strategies and write social media content for various clients across multiple industries. Some of her current and former clients in the entertainment industry have included The International Academy of Web Television, web series “Lenox Avenue”, and Transmedia LA. She also currently handles social media and corporate communications for Shakey’s USA, Inc. (57 locations across the US).