In January, I took a class called Transmedia Storytelling, where my classmates and I were asked to create stories that could translate across multiple media. We learned about the art, history and business of designing vast fictional storyworlds such as the Star Wars universe and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (I’d like to mention that Whittier College offers some of its most interesting courses during the January term, called JanTerm, between the fall and spring semesters.)
Looking at the original Star Wars trilogy, I learned how transmedia stories require a rich fictional world, one that expands beyond the boundaries of a given text or, in this case, film. Within a fictional universe, it’s important to engage your audience by inserting references to people, places, or things that we might not initially see on screen, which George Lucas planted in Star Wars from the very beginning. These unseen parts of the story can make for excellent spin-off stories and help enrich the sense that this fictional world is vast and can be explored in other media.
A perfect example of this can be seen in A New Hope, through a scene in the Mos Eisley Cantina. There’s a quick moment where Luke Skywalker looks around and sees a bunch of different alien species. These aliens are never explained to us. They just exist in the background with their own personalities and customs, making us as the audience want to know more about them and the world that they live in.
Or consider when a character makes a passing reference to a significant, past conflict called the Clone Wars. This event is never explained in the film, but that intriguing seed existed for other media—like a prequel, comic book, or spin-off TV series—to explore and grow the Star Wars franchise.
The Hero’s Journey
Through this JanTerm transmedia storytelling course, I also learned the basics of storytelling, such as the three-act structure (setup, confrontation, resolution) which can be applied to almost every popular film. I also learned to identify a common thread in narratives across media: the hero’s journey.
The hero’s journey is a pattern of storytelling that can be found everywhere from Lord of the Rings to Spider-Man. Professor Sean Morris has this fun explanation of it: