The Super Narrative (and how to create it)
By John Derevlany
A Super Narrative is a term coined by me (John Derevlany) to describe a story that is designed from the very beginning to be told over multiple platforms (TV, film, games, web, apps, books, toys, events, theme parks, etc.).
It is similar to Transmedia Storytelling but with one significant difference – the process in which the narrative is developed.
Typically, a film or TV project is produced (or in production), and THEN a Transmedia strategy is added on. Compelling storylines and characters that don't necessarily exist in the original production are created in the transmedia/multimedia space to flesh out the world of the original project. Transmedia creates a much richer bonus world of 360-degree content for the original production.
Transmedia strategies are fantastic – I love doing them and experiencing them. But no matter how brilliant they are, they are often developed as an afterthought to the original production.
A Super Narrative, on the other hand, is a type of story creation process in which ALL the transmedia and multimedia narratives are created right from the start. One doesn't JUST create a story for a film or a TV project. The Super Narrative is developed with the entire multiplatform spectrum in mind from the outset. And the story is designed in such a way as to not only encompass multiple platforms, but also to require engagement with these multiple platforms to fully understand the narrative. This is a Super Narrative.
You can't just watch a single TV or film in a Super Narrative. You MUST engage with at least one or more other elements (such as the game or the toy) to fully comprehend and experience the Super Narrative. This not only increases fan and brand engagement, but it opens up multiple profit centers that may not have been available or properly exploited before.
EXAMPLES: Star Wars, Legends of Chima
Star Wars is an amazing Super Narrative that evolved organically over several decades, functioning in every media imaginable. LEGO Legends of Chima, which I worked on, is a Super Narrative engineered over a few short years. The project started out with a very basic story -- animal tribes in a magical world fighting over a resource named Chi.
There are now more than 100 LEGO building toys based on Chima, more than 40 TV episodes, five different video games (different ones for web, consoles, and PC, including the massive multiplayer ChimaOnline game), several social/card games, 100-plus original webisodes, dozens of chapter books and comic books, a 4-D film that plays in theme parks around the world, and two major theme park attractions (a China boat ride at Legoland Florida, and a three-acre Chima waterpark at Legoland California). Plus, all the usual licensing and merchandising (bedding, apparel, lunchboxes, etc.). The stories on all platforms complement and connect to each other to create a total Super Narrative experience. From all indications, the project appears to be a massive financial and creative success.
So How Do I Do A Super Narrative?
I have created my own proprietary formula for creating Super Narratives.
For starters, all successful narratives need great characters and great stories. This is essential, But a Super Narrative needs even more. Along with great characters and great stories, I believe it also needs a "super-structure" that allows for those stories to work effectively and seamlessly across multiple platforms.
I find that play patterns and game mechanics are some of the more “inflexible” parts of a Super Narrative. Kids are going to play with a toy in a certain way, regardless of what you tell them in a story. You can't force a play pattern on a child. But you can adjust a story to mirror or enhance that play pattern.
Game and videogame mechanics are also highly-specific and difficult to adjust for a specific property. In fact, most projects don't even bother "personalizing" their game mechanics -- they just slap their new characters on some existing game engine and hope for the best. We've all seen how these videogames (and board or card games) turn out. They are crap. I have several kids and they almost NEVER play a videogame based on an existing book or movie for more than a few minutes.
That's why I typically start my Super Narratives with the toy/play pattern and the game mechanic. It's easy to build a great story and character on top of this structure, then to rebuild the most inflexible parts of the multi-platform puzzle.
Next, the characters and story. There has to be a strong story and lovable/relatable core characters (that should be obvious). But a Super Narrative also requires an ample amount of strong, secondary characters. These secondary characters are not explored fully in the main project, but have the potential to carry their own storylines. For instance, Chima has more than 100 characters, living in eight main “animal” tribes. Nearly all of these characters appear as toys or as elements somewhere in the Chima universe. However, less than a dozen or so have speaking parts in the TV show. And the main story typically focuses on only three or four of these characters (Laval the Lion, Cragger the Crocodile, and Eris the Eagle).
The expansive collection of peripheral characters and elements in a Super Narrative is needed to provide transmedia and play pattern spin-offs. One character may be the star of one platform project, but barely exist in another one. We've seen how Star Wars has created entire comic book and videogame series out of very minor characters. A Super Narrative builds these elements in from the start.
A good Super Narrative document goes into a lot of depth on these characters and their world -- not just basic "bible" stuff, like personalities and settings. The Super Narrative document will also provide very specific details on the world's social and political structure, local/global economies, conflicts, history, mythology. minutia on peripheral characters and tribes, and each of the characters' spiritual beliefs.and motivations (this "spiritual" element is very important in adventure epics, which always feature some kind of mystical power -- like The Force in Star Wars, the Ring in The Lord of the Rings, and the Chi in Chima).
These Super Narrative documents can be several hundred pages long. A lot of these details will end up in the many produced projects based on the Super Narrative, while others simply serve as backstory to inform creators of the platform projects.
Right from the start, a Super Narrative is designed to work as a broad story across all media, while allowing customization for individual platforms.
But even more importantly, Super Narrative projects should be designed in such a way that the end-user (kids who play with these toys and games) can make up their own “spin offs” when they play. Projects like Chima or Star Wars, for instance, have very specific narratives, but they also include a lot of open-ended elements and triggers for future “fan fiction”-style play.Despite the detailed rules and narrative in a Super Narrative document, I still try to keep a lot of elements free for interpretation and expansion by the end user.
When a Super Narrative project fully succeeds, kids take these elements and then make up their own stories and worlds. I have seen this firsthand with my own kids, and with creative kids on youtube who take the world of Chima in all kinds of new and surprising directions. The play-pattern is itself a type of “spin-off” of the original show and storyline.
That's the other thing about Super Narratives – if they are working properly, they are no longer seen as just the “property” of the creator/IP holder. They "belong" to the world of fans who enjoy and expand on them. Super Narratives belong to us all.
The Challenges of the Super Narrative
Super Narratives are not easy to do. They take a lot of thought, and a lot more work than a traditional narrative that “simply” has great characters and a great story. But the creative and financial rewards are multiplied over the many platforms where an Intellectual Property is exploited. It doesn't pay any more to JUST do a TV show, or JUST create a toy. That IP needs to appear in at least half a dozen different platforms to maximize brand engagement, and to be both financially and creatively successful.
However, Super Narratives are challenging to create because they involve participation from producers of multiple media, from TV to games to consumer products. These producers are often in different companies, or if they are in the same company, they work in different divisions that compete with each other. It is not the easiest thing for everyone in these different divisions or companies to get along, but it is not impossible (as I've proven). Hopefully, by explaining and exploring the Super Narrative concept further, cooperation can be enhanced, and everyone will more fully understand the need to work towards a Super Narrative goal that makes everyone happy – both creators, IP owners, and, of course, the fans that will purchase and immerse themselves in these IPs.
If you are or your company are thinking of creating your own Super Narrative and would like assistance please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org