Obligations to ARG Audiences? (also outlines)

Not long ago I blogged about one of the important differences between transmedia storytelling and traditional storytelling. The main idea was that transmedia (or alternate reality game) writers are team players with not just their creative group, but also with their audience.

This collaboration between writer and audience requires a different type of plotting than most traditional writers may be used to.

I grew up in a family of writers. I’ve studied creative writing for several years. I’ve been writing fiction for longer. One thing that always comes up in discussions about works in progress is the outline.

Do you outline? Do you not outline?

I do. Outlines keep me on track; without them, I’m likely to veer off into no man’s land without noticing for several chapters that I’m horribly lost, and then it’s a real mess trying to get back.

Depending on the project, my outlines are sometimes fluid and organic, stating only that, “By the end of this chapter, the character will discover that he is actually a dinosaur.” (I’ve never written that. 🙂 ) For other projects I require more rigid outlines, where I list character activities and even jot down lines of dialogue that I expect to use.

In short, outlines show me where I’m going.

However, with transmedia stories, I feel it is important for the audience to have some level of ownership. In fact, I feel that part of my job as a transmedia storyteller is to engage the audience in the process of telling the story itself. This makes outlining a bit difficult.

It is possible to outline an alternate reality game. My team certainly devotes a lot of pre-launch time to organizing our plans for how our stories will work. But there’s a chaos element that can be difficult for some writers to accept.

One major challenge is that audiences will occasionally make it through “sections” of a story much more quickly or slowly than expected. With storytelling experiences that only last so long in real time, this can become a major issue.

Another potential roadblock comes when audiences think of plot outcomes that the writers haven’t considered. The question then becomes, Is it fair to ignore those ideas simply because they don’t fit into the original plan? Or is it the duty of the puppet masters (the writers and designers) to deliver what the audience wants?

To prepare for these inevitable issues, puppet masters can take any number of approaches, including…

  • They can limit communication with characters so that only certain options are open at any given time.
  • They can leave audience interaction for only the unimportant situations, so that, say, the protagonist doesn’t have to die when the audience fails to solve a puzzle.
  • They can leave all communication open and allow the audience to participate in major plot points, but only accept audience actions and suggestions that “work” within the original outline — in essence ignoring a large portion of the audience.
  • They can meet as team around the clock, holding writing sessions to give the players exactly what they want when unexpected situations occur.

There are many possibilities.

I can’t even imagine what most novelists would do if their super-cool twist endings relied heavily upon reader interaction. Most of us who write traditional stories are used to having a beginning, a middle, and an end. We tell readers what happened, and the readers sit back politely and enjoy.

What is an appropriate level of planning for a transmedia story or an alternate reality game? Should the writers appeal to every wish the audience has, or are there limits? Should the writers restrict audience participation so that it is surface level at best, or does that destroy the experience?


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