• The very nature of Meta-story™ development is the creation and meticulous shaping of a large multi-format story. Creating and shaping that big story means understanding what the unique needs and opportunities of each of the different story telling and experiential formats are. Then, as a creator, you can begin the long, iterative work of finding what your story is really about (the meaning) and then building out all the other elements so that they are driven and informed by that meaning and the narrative itself (more on crafting that alignment in a future post).
• Meaning: is what is left after you strip away all context (like space and blasters and the year 3999). It’s why your characters act the way they do and is the corner stone upon which all good story, Meta or not, is built.
• Format shared elements: As a general rule of thumb in Meta-story™, each format tends to share about 70% of the Larger Meta-story™ with all the other formats. This 70% is where much of the franchise consistency comes from that will hold a Meta-story™ together and give it long term growth as the Franchise moves to market.
• The remaining 30% within each individual format is comprised of the really unique strengths and opportunities that each media is best at (see full listing below). That 30% is often where the living “newness” gets created and fed back into the Meta-story™.
• Meta-storyⓒ = Life: Think of a Meta-story™ like your life. Your friends whom you go hiking with don’t see some of the “you” that your workmates do. Work requires bringing some different competencies and aspects of you to the forefront during those 8 hours a day (10 to 12 for some of us). When you are hiking, you are world exploring much more and using your physical abilities to a much greater extent and more than likely “letting your hair down” and relaxing more as well. It’s you in both situations but because you have these multiple dimensions, you are fundamentally complex and more interesting. Multiply this times all the major categories of what you do and who you do it with and you begin to see that Meta-storyⓒ is simply treating a story like it lives well beyond one expression and building it to “have a full life” from the get go.
• Format unique needs from 50K view: Let’s “helicoptor up” now (my friends who know me well are all laughing now at that phrase because I use it often). Here is a 50K foot up view of what are the big differences within each of the major formats that need to be taken into account when crafting a Meta-story™. Under each of these very top-line statements is a full industry’s complexity and competencies to make each format work well. I could fill volumes with much more granular, but no less critical, information on each format that needs to be considered and employed. In addition, the “demographic target” of the intended audience can have a huge effect on these considerations as well. We can save some of that for those of you who may join me at the seminars later this year. For this blog, it is still very interesting and useful to discuss understanding, employing and balancing those differing needs from the more Macro view.
• Note: the listing below is a rough sketch what each format can do better than the other formats from the standpoint of what considerations you need to take into account in crafting a Meta-story™. Truthfully, no format can really be summed up in one or two lines and depending on the marketplace positioning of your company or product offering, you may have a differing perspective. Post away anything you’d like to add!
• No one format can tell a whole Meta-story™ yet each must be a complete and compelling experience in and of itself.
• Not all stories are made to be Meta-stories™: Forcing a story to become something it’s not is inauthentic and your audience will smell it quickly and not connect to your content. This mistake is one that can be made in a desire to project better future earnings for a property.
• Format differences:
o TV – Episodic exploration of characters, character interaction and relate-able human issues. For sustained awareness and audience relationship, TV is still a big horse. In general, it is a format increasingly struggling with a slow decline in weekly “eyeballs” but here is a place where Meta-story™ really shines by finding audience in other formats who then want to experience more of the story through TV! In order to sustain a weekly or even daily visit with your story in TV, the underlying concept has to have extremely well rounded characters who have zen-like clarity in what role they play in exploring and expressing the story spine and themes of the Meta-storyⓒ. All too often I’ve seen excitement over the “context” (powers, cool action, setting, etc…) of a concept hijack the TV development into not boiling the idea down into something that is truly meaningful and lasting with its audience. This is at the heart of the oft-times uneasy creative relationship between Network developers and execs and I.P. holders who may come from the world of toys or games. TV has to find a committed audience or it’s off the air quickly. Meta-story™ balances those needs without compromising either creative power and integrity or downstream commercial success in other formats.
o Publishing – Written exploration of internal voice and the internal thought landscape. This format is one that establishes some of the more “personal” relationships with your audience. It’s often a “seed format” that other formats look to for identifying candidates for development, in part, because it develops the characters and story lines so deeply. It is also a very rich and varied format with many sub-formats that range up and down the demographic scale. Though art and art style is important in all formats, it is uniquely powerful in publishing if your sub-format is any of the picture-book, comic-book, or read-along formats. (more on aligning art with story in future posts)
o Motion Picture - Universal human meaning explored through an epic, passive-experience, visual narrative. Once launched, Motion Picture often becomes the dominant media that sets, or resets, story and art “vectors”. For this reason, deciding when to launch this media and what story it contains should be considered carefully. Like some of the other formats, in motion picture, you can’t spend a moment of screen time on anything that isn’t directly and powerfully contributing to your screenplay’s narrative. Meta-story™ development can supply the answers that organically seed-in those broader concepts without hijacking the narrative. In fact, well-done Meta-storyⓒ finds and makes available ideas, themes and sequences that should add significantly to the depth and power of the Motion Picture. I can’t say this emphatically enough…META-STORY™ SHOULD NEVER BE ABOUT PRODUCT PLACEMENT!! I’ve organically put rich gaming, toy, publishing and many more commercially vibrant content elements into Meta-storiesⓒ for clients but none have been put in unless they make the narrative better, plain and simple. Anything else is at best distracting to your audience and can quickly feel like a betrayal. Even on the talent side of the Motion Picture equations, I’ve heard the anxiety expressed more than once that owners of existing IP are worried that they won’t be able to attract “A-list” talent to develop their movie if they give them much direction. I think this is an unnecessary anxiety. What is true is that you have to have an “A-list” Meta-story™ to attract A-list talent to work with. This anxiety has often arisen from a company’s attempts to take their IP into the marketplace with competencies and rules derived from just their format. Excellent Meta-story™ development should create meaning, concept and context that just screams “come play in my world!” because it’s well crafted and truly unique. Generally, rather than being restrictive, Meta-story™ has far more opportunities for finding and shaping a Motion Picture story than single-media-grown properties.
o Online gaming - Audience-as-hero narrative, deep, constantly expanding world content, community and alliance enabling. Gaming, in general, puts the audience in the hero’s role and empowers them to personally live the fantasy. For that reason, building a deep and unique world where the Meta-story™ takes place becomes very important to enabling this format. Because of the extraordinarily high need for new experiences, “content” is often very broad and constantly updated. In this form of gaming, narratives take more of a role of a “guide” to the play experience creating tent poles in your achievements. Most stories that begin in other formats lack the depth of world, a currency of power, factions and other gaming structures, to enable most gaming formats. I have found that these gaming constructs can be built into a Meta-story™ quite organically without hijacking the core story or making it feel like someone is making another Yu-gi-oh (not poking fun at Yu-gi-oh but using it as an example of a story about gaming). Conversely, if you are making a deep game, doing the Meta-story™ work as part of initial development will make you aware of what will be edited down or made less prominent to enable the other formats when the time comes. I have seen more than a few great games fail terribly when moving to other media and play formats because they couldn’t let go of any elements they felt were critical to the game in order to make the story have vibrancy and consistency in another media. I have also seen games defined as their context versus recognizing that no true narrative structure with meaning and empowerment was developed (but could be in Meta-story™).
o Platform gaming - Audience-as-hero narrative, world as finite narrative canvas. Note the differences here between online gaming and platform gaming. The world is still front and center but it isn’t constantly expanding as in an online world. In Meta-story™, all world development has to have “meaning” associated with locations. As an example: if your Meta-story is fundamentally about a rite of passage into heroism, each new location should have meaning and purpose in that journey. One location might challenge your bravery and another your cleverness and yet another your sense of honor. As a result, that simple structure then shapes all your other decisions for those locations. What does a place about bravery look like versus one about honor? What characters and challenges will I meet and face who are personifications of demonstrating bravery? Though this is a simplistic example, it serves to say that your gaming will hang together more compellingly if, when you develop the Meta-story™, you are clear about the metaphorical meaning and role of every place you add to the world and every aspect you put in those places. This goes back to starting with the story spine and building outwards from there.
o Card gaming - Multiple access points for differing gaming personalities, currency of power, strategy driven. I love card gaming because it’s all about the math. Funny to say that in the world of fantasy but card gaming works because some brilliant game designer somewhere is toiling over a mathematical spreadsheet looking at values and game play. This translates into some simple but powerful structures that, for the right property, can be built organically into the Meta-storyⓒ to enable a move into card gaming. “Factions” are perhaps one of the most important structures. These can be built into the Meta-story™ through the various heroes and villains, through the beasts, the societies and even the powers you may gather. One of the strongest underlying structures for shaping factions in your Meta-story™ is understanding “gamer personalities”. There are several different models for these such as the Bartles types, the Mays types and others.
o Traditional gaming – Face-to-face goal based competition, strategy and chance. Traditional games, such as board games, are unique in that they take your property and through its gaming structure, transform small groups of people into face-to-face competitors who reveal things about themselves through competition. Example: Grandma becomes a ruthless land baron when playing Monopoly. Think about how your Meta-story™ can be extended to help reveal behaviors in others for this format.
o Casual gaming - Simple goal-driven activities with ownable, iconic, addictive play. Not too much narrative here and as fun and successful as some of these can be, most any Meta-story can spin off quite a few of these from the inventive minds that work in this space. I’ve often thought that some of the very successful casual games that have the seeds of a story in them are ripe for Meta-story™ expansion.
o Toys – Aspirational, hero role play, playable action elements, ensemble cast or multiple hero versions. Toys are narrative because when kids play with toys, they are playing out a story. The stronger the “portable empowerment” in your Meta-story™ the deeper the desire play it out and the more kids (and collectors) want the playable icons that are toys. However…that empowerment has to be shaped in particular ways to actually work as toys at all. There are heroes and then there are “aspirational heroes”. The latter is all-important to Meta-story™ success. Very often I see motion pictures with incredibly fun, exciting and heroic stories but the hero isn’t someone that a kid aspires to be. That’s more than fine if you aren’t then trying to convince a toy company to pay you a lot of money to license the toy rights. The audience might relate fiercely to the journey that hero is on but, if the character isn’t someone a kid wants to actually become then it’s unlikely that toys are going to work all that well. Like all the other formats, there’s a lot more to tell here but as a first “gate” to measure your thinking with, “aspirational hero?” is a good one.
o Social/community media - Audience defined and created community activities exploring and expanding the meaning and world of the story and inventing and exploring ways to bring it into daily life. This is probably one of the most important parts of building a Meta-story™ but because it has to live after the launch of a major format, most companies…let me refine that…almost all companies, don’t invest well in developing this aspect let alone pre-think how it fits into the larger story and franchise growth. Most Social/community media that has grown up in the last few years has done so because of fan passion or community self-selection. There is an axiom I heard years ago at Wizards of the Coast about your creative relationship with your audience or “community” that I’d like to share with you. “You can’t authentically create for any community unless you are a member of that community.” Powerful stuff. It can mean a lot of things to you if you take it to heart but one of the things it should say loud and clear is that if you don’t have a community relationship with your audience where you are listening and they are actively involved on many levels, then you are “pushing” your ideas and story at them. I’m not suggesting investing in exotic “crowd sourcing” here but am saying that we now live in an age where we share meaning we have found and want others to find it to. It’s self-selecting communities of audience members who are internalizing and using the meaning you have created. You need to be there with them, supporting, giving free content (part of Meta-story™ development and planning), listening, respecting and encouraging the activities. There are even many opportunities for different kinds of story content and sub-formats here to keep your story alive and growing dynamically.
o Image licensing - Creation and use of iconic visual and conceptual elements that will be applied to all image licensed objects. Role: social expression, membership declaration, emotive reminders, fashion. Image licensing is not “ancillary”. I feel the phrase “ancillary” is a hold over from a dinosaur of a licensing concept where there was the money you made off of box office and then everything else was called the “ancillary rights”. Image licensing works best when you have a true “lifestyle brand” or franchise that your audience has connected to the portable empowerment to a level where they are partly defining some aspect of themselves through your property. Image licensing then provides the iconic declarations and reminders for your audience to surround themselves with and recall that meaningful empowerment to inspire themselves in their everyday life. On many big franchises the licensing income can exceed 50% of the total income of the brand. Since what your audience spends their money on is a good measure of what they care about, doing the things necessary to make your franchise/Meta-story™ a lifestyle brand should be a top priority for what it means creatively as well as for what it means commercially. I know it’s an easy shot to talk about Star Wars but as an example of just how powerful a property can be, look at the fact that “the Church of the Jedi” is now an officially recognized religion with over 10K serious followers. I guarantee you that those followers who have found that much meaning and purpose in Star Wars have also brought many of the licensed images into their lives to show that devotion. It’s important to them! For this reason, when crafting a Meta-story™, it is very important to be aware of the role your designs and art may play and be sure that metaphorically, psychologically and narratively they are vibrantly aligned and fulfilling that role. This goes way beyond simply creating cool and iconic design. Here again, be aware of the meaning in your Meta-story™ and what it really means to inform your thinking.