Twain on Transmedia

Ideally a book would have no order to it, and the reader would have to discover his own.
– Mark Twain

Through the wonderful world of Twitter, I was pointed in the direction of a post on Mark Twain and social media from last summer. Twain had, some 120-odd years ago, written a piece on how to tell a story. It’s a good and true read, and in many ways instantly transferrable to any transmedia project being considered or developed today. In his text Twain refers to the two ways to tell a story – the humorous way and the witty way. Says Twain –

The humorous story depends for its effect upon the manner of the telling; the comic story and the witty story upon the matter.
The humorous story may be spun out to great length, and may wander around as much as it pleases, and arrive nowhere in particular; but the comic and witty stories must be brief and end with a point. The humorous story bubbles gently along, the others burst.


The humorous story, Twain argues, needs an artist to tell it right. The witty story, on the other hand, is a story that could be told by a machine.

This is, I feel, a kind of crossroads where transmedia is today, as more and more people are beginning to see the uses of a transmedia approach to telling a story, as producers and companies can point to increasing revenues from transmedia projects and as technical and sociological means and practices open up newer, quicker and deeper ways of telling stories over different media.

Some will be – are, already, actually – going the ”comic/witty” way of developing and creating transmedia. To, again, quote Twain:

[…] the teller of the comic story does not slur the nub; he shouts it at you–every time. And when he prints it, in England, France, Germany, and Italy, he italicizes it, puts some whooping exclamation-points after it, and sometimes explains it in a parenthesis. All of which is very depressing, and makes one want to renounce joking and lead a better life.


I see that as a great pointer to what NOT to do with a transmedia story. There is no magic and no fun – and most of all, nothing to discover – in a story that someone is banging you over the head with, no matter how the story unfolds over different media platforms and/or turns out hundreds of different merchandize possibilities. On the other hand, as the quote on top says, an ideal transmedia story could also have ”no order to it, and the reader (user) would have to discover his own.” …which is an approach that tickles the imagination a lot more vigorously.

As Bill Wren, who wrote the post on Twain and social media, translates Twain’s musings, there are two ways to tell a story; the right way and the wrong way. It all depends on your ulterior motives:

As Twain describes it, telling stories is manipulative. However, the reason for the manipulation is what makes it a good or bad thing. Doing it to delight your audience is good; doing it to bamboozle them into doing something that profits you, is bad.

So, with the possibility of transmedia as a term being connected to a lot of not-so-beautiful projects in the near future – and with Steve Peters’ tweet from yesterday, which I believe was a reaction to the massive transmedia hype at the NY Toys Fair (which actually was mostly franchising in the traditional sense), in mind – we might be wanting to take care of the term transmedia a bit more. For me, transmedia has been – and still is – a term that tells of possibilities and excitement, not necessarily revenue streams and franchising. If too many projects labels “transmedia” are told in Twains comic/witty way, we might be looking for a new term in the not so distant future.

On the other hand, terms are terms, and should not be taken too seriously. It’s what we create, why we create it, how we create it and how we execute it that matters. However, to round off with a final quote from the great Mark Twain, I think transmedia, in all of it’s momentum forward, might want to rein in a bit and reassess:

Let us make a special effort to stop communicating with each other, so we can have some conversation. – Mark Twain

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3 thoughts on “Twain on Transmedia

  1. Would be great to have your opinion on what stories you think are told well? Some real-life examples of well told stories would be sweetastic 🙂

  2. Chris,sorry, hadn't seen your comment (a major Sin for anyone who's blogging…)Off the top of my head (and this is REALLY off the top of my head), an example would be National Film Board of Canada who do amazing stuff most often. The latest think I stumbled over (thanks to @savvyjustine) was a story about the dead mining town of Pine Point. Not only is it well told, in the Twainish way of going off road at times, veering around, looking lost and then getting back on track; it also makes wonderful use of web technology (which I belive Twain would've done as well, would he be alive today). Granted, it's not a funny-ha-ha story, but it's moving and it's gripping and it's good.Link is http://interactive.nfb.ca/#/pinepoint

  3. Ahhh yes I've seen the pine point site… I spent hours there!The reason I asked was because I'm putting out content for my company and outside of some storytelling projects I did with my students when I was a teacher, I don't have much experience. *sad face*Can you think of any non-fiction examples for video (think True Life or perhaps a less-Hollywood Office), blogs (A Smart Bear, Balsamiq, Mailchimp), cartoons (used loosely in reference to Hyperbole and a Half)?Any help would earn copious high fives 🙂

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