How We Launched a Cross-Platform Digital Storyworld

Ballads of the Distant Reaches logo

Last week I launched a new creative project: Ballads of the Distant Reaches, a bi-weekly anthology of illustrated fantasy short stories. I started developing this project almost one year ago, and began working with co-creator and co-editor Robert Frankel shortly thereafter. This project brings together some of the top genre writers working today with an incredible team of illustrators, including our lead artist, Eisner Award-winner Shay Plummer.

Rothus 'ja Darden, Imperial Bard.
Rothus ‘ja Darden, Imperial Bard. Art by Shay Plummer.

For those who know me as a screenwriter and filmmaker, Ballads of the Distant Reaches won’t come as much of a surprise. For those in my audience who know me better as a journalist or media consultant, I think you’ll find other elements of this to be interesting: The narrative structure, cross-platform digital storytelling capabilities, and development process are highly adaptable and can be applied to a range of projects beyond a fictional universe, including non-fiction or branded storytelling.

Ballads of the Distant Reaches has a deceiving simplicity to it: We publish a new illustrated short story every two weeks, and publish newsletter-style content about the project on off-weeks. The stories and newsletters are delivered directly to the inboxes of our subscribers. In terms of its narrative structure and potential scale, however, it’s highly complex.

Narrative Structure

The Ballads of the Distant Reaches storyworld is constantly expanding, both with lore developed by us, and with additions from our writers. While all of the stories take place in the same fictional universe and function as an anthology, we’ve used a unique “story within a story” structure to maximize the creative freedom of our writers while keeping the overarching story moving forward. Ballads of the Distant Reaches revolves around the “Conclave of Bards,” a gathering of storytellers from throughout the fictional universe, who are all competing to tell the best story. It’s a little bit like The Canterbury Tales.

This narrative structure allows us to map an entire year-long cycle of stories, similar to the way a TV writers room would. It also allows our writers significant creative freedom. They all receive a prompt and some basic information about where their story falls within the narrative cycle, then it’s up to them to fill in the gaps. The Lore we’ve developed functions like a set of rules; the goal is to open doors for our creators rather than prohibiting creativity.

This collaborative storytelling process will be familiar to anyone who has played a tabletop RPG such as Dungeons & Dragons, but is exceedingly rare in the realm of entertainment. This approach allows us to be highly collaborative, very flexible, and lean enough to find new and exciting angles and stories we might not have uncovered on our own — all while working within the storyworld and narrative cycle we defined at the very beginning.

Cross-Platform Storytelling

Ballads of the Distant Reaches aims to maximize the potential of true cross-platform storytelling (sometimes referred to as trans-media storytelling in Hollywood). In practical terms, this means that right now, while the short stories on www.distantreaches.com are the narrative core of the project, we also began producing and distributing unique narrative and lore elements across our social media channels. (For those curious about such things, Twitter has been by far the most successful social media platform for this project.)

We’ve deliberately launched our social media program so that it contributes to the storyworld instead of simply serving as marketing (although there’s a bit of that, too). While the bulk of our audience will engage with the project on our website or via email, those who follow us on social media will get an even richer experience as a result. The story, in other words, flows across these platforms.

Long term, the plan is to add additional platforms. While the short stories on www.distantreaches.com are the narrative core of the project, we developed the world and the story structure with the intention of expanding it into other media — from podcasts, film, and TV/streaming to books and interactive media such as video or tabletop games. As with our approach to social media, we don’t intend these to be duplicative of the short stories, although there will certainly be some overlap. Instead, these expansions  will be truly additive, molding the world of the Distant Reaches to best fit each new platform.

Why It Matters

All this focus on structure and storytelling process may seem very inside baseball to some. But it relates directly to how effective the project will be.

My experience is that writers, artists, and creative types do their best work when they feel like they are empowered to be creative and when their talents and passions will directly contribute to the final output, be it a film, storyworld, magazine, marketing campaign, or newspaper. When we build our stories collaboratively rather than proscriptively, we foster and share the belief that the stories themselves will be more interesting and more surprising as a result — and will reach a wider audience because of that.

Likewise, the choice to tell our stories across platforms is key. Social media allows for collaboration and interaction with our audience in a way that other formats do not. And once we begin adding additional platforms such as podcasts or novelizations, we’ll reach even more new people and provide additional levels of depth for dedicated and casual fans alike. This is a tactic Disney and Marvel have perfected. Most people engage with the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the multiplex or on Disney+. More dedicated fans, however, also read the comic books, play the video games, and watch both the shows and theatrical films. Closer to our space, Wizards of the Coast has cultivated a similar environment around Dungeons & Dragons with books, campaigns, video games, podcasts, novels, and myriad other ways to engage.

Next Steps

We are still in the early days of this project. In the immediate term, please visit us at www.distantreaches.com and subscribe with your email address. This ensures you’ll receive every piece we publish. You can also follow us on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

As our audience and subscriber base grows, we’ll begin developing additional platforms such as podcasts. This won’t be a fast process. For one thing, we’re growing this organically with limited resources — and a commitment to paying our writers and artists from day one. Our focus at the outset is on cultivating an audience and building the core of the storyworld. For another, it’s important to spend time on development. Rushing anything — particularly a creative endeavor — rarely yields good results. We’re only at the beginning of the journey, and there’s still lots of world to explore!

We would also love to hear from you. Please subscribe, and feel free to reach out with collaborations, suggestions, feedback, or just to say “hi.” You can message me here , or write to me at ben@distantreaches.com. Thank you!

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.