Textual Echoes: Symposium

Transmedial texts and serialized narratives

Maria Lindgren Leavenworth

Department of Language Studies, Umeå University, Umeå, Sweden

[0.1] Abstract—Transmedia storytelling is connected to story worlds, which provide fans and users with different points of entry, as illustrated using the example of The Vampire Diaries (2009–).

[0.2] Keywords—Fan fiction; Storytelling; The Vampire Diaries

Leavenworth, Maria Lindgren. 2011. "Transmedial Texts and Serialized Narratives." In "Textual Echoes," edited by Cyber Echoes, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 8. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2011.0361.

[1] With the emergence of new media in contemporary participatory culture comes an increased focus on modalities such as transmediality: the notion that (parts of) stories are told in or dispersed across several different media. Transmediality is most often discussed in connection with gaming, interactive story worlds, and ergodic hypertexts, where the term text is used in a wide sense (note 1). But what are the affordances of transmedia storytelling when it comes to the as yet fairly traditional text form of fan fiction? In what follows, I will reflect on some of the characteristics of transmedial texts and see these in relation to tendencies in the production of fan fic connected to The Vampire Diaries (2009–; TVD) (note 2). In both its written and visual formats, TVD can be defined as a serialized narrative, a form of storytelling that demands and produces various forms of sustained audience engagement. I will consider ways in which transmediality and seriality at times pull in the same direction, and at other times illustrate differing tendencies.

[2] Several critics have noted the confusion surrounding the concept of transmediality, among them Carlos Alberto Scolari, who adds "cross media," "multimodality," "multiplatform," and "enhanced storytelling" to the mix (2009, 586). When we investigate academic discussions of transmediality, the question of the chicken and the egg comes to mind. What came first: the story or the idea of transmediality? Henry Jenkins, for example, draws attention to "the economics of media consolidation" (2011), arguing that transmediality is the likely result when media conglomerates calculate how to earn the best financial result from a certain narrative. Jenkins exemplifies this by using the Wachowski siblings' Matrix trilogy as an ideal, if "flawed experiment" where snippets of the story told in different media (such as games and animated short films) add pieces to a complex puzzle and, in effect, are necessary for a complete understanding of, particularly, the last film (2006, 97, 93–130). In this case, it can reasonably be argued that the Wachowskis' media savvy combined with the media industry's desire for synergistic effects before the story of the Matrix trilogy was realized (even though it is also thematically eminently suited to be told in different media formats). In a discussion of cyberworld design and ludology, Lisbeth Klastrup and Susana Tosca (2004) discuss the development of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings novels into a complex and transmedial narrative that offers a variety of different interactions. In this case, it can be maintained that Tolkien did not envisage transmediality when writing his novels. Rather, the world he created is highly adaptable to a number of media expressions.

[3] Both examples connect transmedia storytelling to larger ontological structures: story worlds, which provide fans and users with different points of entry. Naturally, story worlds of these kinds are also attractive to writers of fan fiction, as they give ample opportunities for reworkings of various kinds. As Sheenagh Pugh argues, fan fiction "happens in the gaps," and authors of canons and creators of story worlds "must not spell too much out" (2005, 92). Story worlds with complex ontologies and large casts of characters contain numerous gaps, and each instantiation can spell some things out, but not others. Within a fandom, an encyclopedic drive is often triggered to chart all possible outcomes and to fill in all the gaps. Jenkins notes that "consumption has become a collective process…None of us can know everything; each of us knows something; and we can put the pieces together if we pool our resources and combine our skills" (2006, 4). The figurative size of the story world, its narrative complexity and large cast of characters, demands this pulling together of resources, and fan fiction is a good example of fans' desire to contribute pieces to the puzzle.

[4] The story world of The Vampire Diaries started out as a quartet of novels written by L. J. Smith and published in the 1990s: The Awakening, The Struggle, The Fury, and The Reunion. Smith has since continued her narrative in a trilogy with the umbrella title The Return: Nightfall, Shadow Souls, and Midnight, published in 2010–11. She had announced plans for two additional trilogies featuring the central characters, but those plans have been withdrawn because she has been fired by Alloy Entertainment, who owns the intellectual rights to the series, and any new novels will be authored by a ghostwriter (Smith 2011) (note 3). The television series The Vampire Diaries premiered in September 2009; as of September 2011, it is moving into its third season. An additional trilogy of novels, with the umbrella title Stefan's Diaries, focuses on the central vampire character's backstory. The novels in this trilogy, Origins, Bloodlust, and The Craving, feature Smith's name on the covers, along with the names of two of the series's executive producers (Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec), but Smith does not include them in the bibliography on her Web site.

[5] Whereas the original novel quartet arguably started out as story rather than transmedial franchise, the TV series and later novels are more consistent with the drive to tap into an already existing story world and fans' involvement with it. The different instantiations, however, represent very different takes on the story and contribute different pieces of information. The theme of vampires, the characters' names, and, to a point, their basic functions in the narrative are recognizable, but Smith's own novels take plotlines, character development, and the vampires' backstory in very different directions than do the TV series and the Stefan's Diaries novels. According to Jenkins's logic, TVD is not ideally transmedial. The TV series's puzzle cannot be solved by turning to the novels and vice versa; snippets of the story do not necessarily complement each other. Rather, although each novel and each season provides a certain closure, each instantiation contains a number of gaps and presents multilayered stories that can be developed and explored in fan fiction.

[6] The authority of the canon has steadily diminished in today's participatory media climate, and transmediality puts additional layers between the original work and the writing fan. Each story has a plethora of instantiations, and it is increasingly difficult to say who the story's originator is: is it the author of the novel or the producer of the TV series? The answer may depend on which instantiation one encounters first. The many media formats in which each story is told seem to destabilize the boundaries between producers and consumers of fiction, a destabilization that weakens the authority traditionally associated with originality and that gives authors of fan fiction increased license to add to the ever expanding archive.

[7] What happens, then, if we turn to ways in which ways fan fiction may have affinities with the story worlds described by Klastrup and Tosca? They argue that each transmedial world contains three core features. Mythos is "the backstory of all backstories—the central knowledge one needs to have in order to interact with or interpret events in the world accordingly"; topos is "the setting of the world" and "knowing what is to be expected from the physics and navigation in the world"; and ethos is "the explicit and implicit ethics of the world" and "the knowledge required in order to know how to behave in the world" (Klastrup and Tosca 2004). Fan fiction generally shares a number of these features, but it may also veer away from them. The canon sets up all three core features, and studying it gives the fan fic author the necessary knowledge to intertextually position herself in relation to the main narrative, or the main strands of the narrative in the case of TVD. A certain amount of fidelity to the canon is necessary, since readers of the fan fic otherwise will not recognize the mythos and hence will not interpret the story along its lines. Although many fan fic authors are also faithful to the topos, others play with and change the setting. This is particularly apparent in crossover fan fic, which combines two or more canons and is faithful to only one topos, and in fan fiction that utilizes the canon's protagonists but either changes the temporal setting completely or removes some essential elements. An example of the latter is fan fiction based on vampire canons that does away with the vampire element altogether; such stories are categorized as All Human or AU-human. They also abandon the ethos of the canon, since all bets concerning the behavior of both humans and (canonical) vampires are off.

[8] In TVD, the mythos in Smith's original quartet is, as noted, different from the mythos of the TV series, but both texts deal with human/vampire interaction, a central love story between Elena and Stefan, the antagonistic relationship between the vampire brothers Stefan and Damon, and threats to Elena and her friends. But the many narrative details that separate the texts, ranging from vampire mythology and the brothers' background to strengths, weaknesses, and transformations of the human characters, make it difficult to grasp their topos and ethos. It is difficult to know what to expect when moving from one instantiation to another. Their ethics are similarly confused: characters and actions may be evil in one text but not in the other. Collective online fan fic archives such as FanFiction.net and An Archive of Our Own, as well as TVD-specific sites such as Fell's Church Library (http://fanfic.vampire-diaries.net/), allow authors of TVD fan fic to signal whether their stories are set in the TV series's narrative arc or are connected to the novels (note 4). Filing itself, that is, tells the reader what mythos, topos, and ethos to expect, which is necessary within this particular story world.

[9] The mythos, ethos, and topos are also in a state of flux because of TVD's serialized nature and the lack of closure in both written and visual instantiations. Although Smith in each novel introduces some kind of threat to the protagonists, which is then dealt with in the prolonged middle, new threats are always on the horizon, and the books typically end with a cliffhanger. Each season of the TV series charts a battle with a main antagonist, but each episode also includes subplots and minor threats, which are sometimes averted. In a discussion of the appeal of extended story arcs to Buffyverse fan writers, Esther Saxey contends that the boundaries between action and closure are similarly blurred and that there is a "general…interest in the middle of shows over their closure" (2004, 206). That is, fans seize these middles as starting points for their own stories and are either uninterested in the closure of the overall story arc or reluctant to provide closure within their own fictions. Structural repetition within an open-ended story world thus seems conducive to the production of fan fic. TVD has thematic similarities to the Buffyverse, and the TV episodes in particular provide fan writers with a ready-made structure. Writers need provide little or no background or exposition to invent a threat and depict characters dealing with it, since the reader of the story is presumably used to seeing major and minor antagonists continually introduced.

[10] The serialized narrative also has potential for "shifting perspectives and extended middles [that] contribute to the moral complications that surround characters" (Williamson 2005, 48). TVD readers and viewers have ample opportunities to react to the characters' development and the shifts of moral standpoints. The two vampire brothers, Stefan and Damon, are initially depicted as good and evil, respectively. Although both Smith's novels and the TV series humanize Damon as the narrative progresses, the initial division into good and evil is sustained throughout the first four novels and the first two seasons of the TV series, in the suggestion that Damon relishes his vampire existence and the power it gives him over life and death. In Stefan's Diaries, a different image appears, partially mirrored by flashbacks in the TV series. Stefan is shown to have initially embraced the vampire state and forced a reluctant Damon to transform as well. That is, the initial designations of good and evil shift and change both within the larger story arc and in individual episodes, so that a viewer may empathize with either Damon or Stefan, depending on what threat is being dealt with or where the viewer is in the development of the narrative.

[11] The moral complications and character development induced by serialization mean limitless possibilities for fan fic authors to create AUs exploring alternatives without forsaking fidelity to the canon material, but the lack of closure in the serialized narrative may also complicate fan fic authors' drive to fill the gaps. With each new novel published in the series, and with each new episode in the TV series, new gaps are added and new inconsistencies with earlier (published or aired) material may be found. These complications, however, like many others, do not preclude inventive fan fic alternatives. If anything, they show how fluctuating, open texts engage consumers of story worlds and posit new challenges for fan fic authors to negotiate.

[12] Transmediality and seriality push and pull in different directions. Jenkins's main argument is that "redundancy burns up fan interest," which is why each instantiation of the ideal transmedial text should "offer new insights and new experiences" (2006, 96, 105). Transmedia storytelling, then, offers (parts of) a story in different media, and thus the tantalizing prospect of fully understanding the story world by exploring each instantiation. The hope of attaining a coherent grasp of the transmedial story world is undermined by the shifts, changes, and alternatives offered by seriality. Yet the conjunction of content-based and structural repetition, the redundancy of seriality, has proven remarkably conducive to fan activities, with fan fiction as the clearest example. TVD fan fiction evidences, as does fan fiction produced in connection with similarly simultaneously transmedial and serialized story worlds, that fans may become engaged with the story in different media, but they are not willing to sit back and wait until all pieces are in place. Rather, they dive in and take an active part in an ongoing meaning-making process.


1. See, for example, the narratological analyses of transmediality and media specificity in Marie-Laure Ryan's Avatars of Story (2006).

2. Even within a specific fandom, the vast field that is fan fiction does not lend itself well to generalizations of any kind; therefore I will restrict myself to suggestions only.

3. Information about Alloy Entertainment's firing of Smith is gleaned mainly from heated blog posts (see, for example, http://www.vampire-diaries.net/books/regarding-l-j-smiths-alleged-firing) and corroborated by statements on Smith's own Web site.

4. Twilight fandom provides a contrast. On Twilighted (http://twilighted.net/), fan fic authors can file their stories in sections connected to the novels' and films' titles (ranging from pre-Twilight to post–Breaking Dawn), but no distinction is made between the media formats. This may be because the film adaptations are faithful to the books.

Works cited

Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Convergence Culture. New York: New York University Press.

Jenkins, Henry. 2011. "Transmedia Storytelling 101." Confessions of an Aca-Fan, March 22. http://www.henryjenkins.org/2007/03/transmedia_storytelling_101.html.

Klastrup, Lisbeth, and Susana Tosca. 2004. "Transmedial Worlds—Rethinking Cyberworld Design." In Proceedings of the 2004 International Conference on Cyberworlds, 409–16. Los Alamitos, CA: IEEE Computer Society. http://www.itu.dk/people/klastrup/klastruptosca_transworlds.pdf.

Kaveney, Roz, ed. 2004. Reading the Vampire Slayer: The New, Updated, Unofficial Guide to "Buffy" and "Angel." London: Tauris Park.

Pugh, Sheenagh. 2005. The Democratic Genre: Fan Fiction in a Literary Context. Bridgend: Seren.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. 2006. Avatars of Story. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Saxey, Esther. 2004. "Staking a Claim: The Series and Its Slash Fan Fiction." In Reading the Vampire Slayer: The New, Updated, Unofficial Guide to "Buffy" and "Angel," edited by Roz Kaveney, 187–210. London: Tauris Park.

Scolari, Carlos Albero. 2009. "Transmedial Storytelling: Implicit Consumers, Narrative Worlds, and Branding in Contemporary Media Production." International Journal of Communication 3: 586–606.

Smith, L. J. 2011. "Just Some Random Thoughts." L. J. Smith, May 24. http://www.ljanesmith.net/www/blog/354-just-some-random-thoughts.

Williamson, Milly. 2005. The Lure of the Vampire: Gender, Fiction and Fandom from Bram Stoker to "Buffy." London: Wallflower Press.

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