Hyper, Non-Linear, and Plain

I’ve been experimenting in hypertext, and I’m reveling in what it can do, as well as discovering its limits.

I’ve been using Twine to create a hypertext story. It’s part choose-your-own-adventure and part an exercise in figuring out what constitutes a pixel in text (a pixel is the smallest controllable part of a picture on a computer). What’s the smallest meaningful part of a story? It’s not the individual word, because words only take on meaning in relation to one another. I can say the word “bark,” but with no other context, you don’t know whether it’s a noun or a verb. Even as a noun, it could refer to a sound made by an animal, or the covering of a tree, or a type of boat.

One can make a case for the pixel of fiction being the independent clause (a group of words that contains a subject and a verb). The number of microfiction posts on Twitter make a compelling case for sentence as pixel. I believe that fiction on that level functions much like poetry. Writers who work under those circumstances need a strong command of language and have to have a clear vision of the work from the outset. I’ve heard longer-form authors say “I was writing and I the character took me by surprise.” Poets and microfiction authors have to exercise tight control over every word. A word out of place weakens the structure.

But hypertext is different from microfiction. Each piece has to further the story, carry meaning, lead the reader to the next piece. Which means that, although a single sentence can be a node or pixel or whatever you want to call it, it doesn’t have to be.

And, like writing with Lithomobilus, to write decent hypertext fiction, you have to work in multiple threads, possibly in multiple storylines simultaneously. As I’ve been working, I’ve been going back and re-writing parts of it so that they make sense with parts that come after. Making sure the verb tenses all work. There’s only one character, which is fine for now.

And all this is in aid of a much larger project that I might want collaboration on: stories based on tarot cards, but stories that work when the tarot cards are laid out in a pattern. This means writing multiple nodes of text for each card – tens of thousands of pieces of text. It’ll take a while.

Now comes the hard part: figuring out how to share.

Thoughts From AWP: Beyond “Media”

Several panels had the word “transmedia” in their titles, but there was little agreement on the definition of “transmedia.”

We all understand “media” to mean the manner by which the message is transmitted, but after that,  neither authors nor publishers nor academics could agree how adding “multi,” “trans” or “hyper” exactly change the noun. If those of us meant to be experts in the field can’t agree on these definitions, it’s no wonder the reading public is confused and therefore hesitant to adopt.

Here are some of the common terms used:

  • Multi-media: a piece that orchestrates text, audio, and video elements in the narrative. Any one element may stand alone and therefore be primary, but the secondary elements don’t necessarily stand alone. A poem read to music over a movie of waves lapping the shore would be multimedia.
  • Transmedia: a piece made up of two or more elements that can stand alone (even if they don’t constitute a separate narrative).  Transmedia can include elements like websites, social media feeds and email to augment a narrative. A transmedia experience may have a movie that tells one story, a book that tells another, and an album whose songs tell another, all of which work together in one complete, over-arching narrative.
  • Augmented e-book: a text that looks like a regular e-book (a faithful electronic reproduction of a physical book) but with added video or audio elements that create a more entertaining experience without necessarily adding any additional meaning to the text. Depending on the age of the intended audience, either the text or the pictures will be the primary element. Most augmented e-books are directed at younger audiences.
  • Hypertext: an online method of creating text that allows for user-interactive, non-linear narratives. Because most hypertext creation engines are strictly online, they can link out to any other kind of online content, or contain audio or video clips.
  • Apps: a self-contained program designed to fulfill a particular purpose –  normally, in narrative cases, to allow a user to interact with a text in specific ways designed by the author of the app. Depending on the app, users might be able to navigate the story in particular ways, add material to the text, or create elements that go along with the text.

The good news is that whatever an author can think up can likely be done with today’s technology. For authors who operate in more than one element – text, music, video, programming, etc. – this allows for an easily-distributed version of that vision.

The bad news is that for those people who are trying to teach technology to younger generations, there’s no good way to create a textbook that addresses the realities of the space. Both hardware and software are evolving so quickly that a curriculum created in August would be out of date by December. What needs to be taught instead are the modes of thought that go into looking at what exists and imagining what might be. Teach children the basics of storytelling, and then allow them to look out at the world and think about how to distill its essence and create something new and wonderful.

Where Were We?

Oh, that’s right. We were talking about where narrative is going. The first thing you have to understand is that “narrative” is not necessarily the same as “writing.” A narrative is just a story – a way of expressing a series of events. The Nutcracker is a narrative told in dance. Peter and the Wolf is a narrative told with music. Guernica is a narrative of the Spanish civil war told in a mural. And there’s the most familiar and accessible form of narrative  – the television.

Since narrative isn’t necessarily literature, let’s pull back and broaden our scope. Some of the most innovative uses for narrative are showing up in games. First-person shooter games like Borderlands (and its sequel Borderlands 2). The great thing about these narratives is that they’re user-driven. The game can control the narrative in some ways, such as not allowing a player access to new chapters until certain criteria have been met, but the player has ultimate control over where they go during the game. As such, the narrative has to be flexible enough to allow the player to understand what they’re doing and how it affects the story, but it also has to be cohesive enough to remain interesting. Granted, people play games in order to overcome challenges and “win,” and that alone is enough to keep a lot of games interesting, but the best games engage the player on a narrative level as well.

Which leads to the next amazing source of new narrative: augmented reality games. The one that’s currently out and available (albeit on a invitation-only basis) is Ingress. These augmented reality games take existing landscape and landmarks and, using a smartphone’s touchscreen and geo-location capabilities, it spins a narrative about things the player can see in their physical environment. Ingress specifically uses pieces of public art, but other games under development use shared experiences like live sporting events and small-town geography to create a narrative that the player can enter at any point and will not follow in any predictable sequence. The challenges of constructing such a narrative, and keeping it compelling and believable sound so exciting to me, I can barely contain myself.

Okay, I’ve caught you up with what actually exists in the way of new narrative. Just wait, though. There’s more. I know the future.

Tell Me a Story

I’ve started the process of writing my thesis paper for school. I’ve taken as my subject “the future of narrative,” except that, as a paper title, it will be capitalized.

When one starts out to talk about where something is going, what is the first thing one does? That’s right – talk about where it’s been. And it turns out that humans communicate primarily through storytelling, and always have. Think about your typical day. You get up, and maybe you turn on the radio or television to catch the news and traffic before heading out for work. Do the news and radio presenters give you long lists of undifferentiated information? Well, if it’s traffic, yes. Or weather. And sports scores. But all that other stuff? It’s all stories. Narratives about something that happened to somebody, and sometimes what that somebody did about it. Then you go to work or school and talk to your friends or co-workers. How do you talk to them? You tell them stories about things you’ve done or seen or thought about since you saw them last. Then you get home, and if you live with someone, you tell them the story about how your day went. If you don’t, you might call up a friend or two and the whole tribe of you will exchange stories. Or you might watch television – the non-literary narrative device. And, if you’re like me, before you go to sleep, you read a book. My entire day, from beginning to end, is steeped in story.

Now that I think about it, there’s a feature in our tiny town’s local paper that both intrigues and infuriates me – you probably have something similar in your local paper. It’s the police blotter, a place where all the calls to law enforcement are catalogued without any editorial. While it’s interesting to know whether my neighbors have also gotten their mail stolen, I want to know the stories behind these calls.

Here’s a sample:

Jan. 1

1:35 a.m.: A Boulder Creek resident reported that her live-in boyfriend had covered her mouth with one hand and used the other to try to choke her during an argument. The boyfriend had fled by the time deputies arrived at the scene.

What were they arguing about? How long had they lived together? Is this the first time they’ve called the police? How old are they? What happened after the police left?

I need story so much that when I’m bored out in public, I make up stories about the people around me. People at restaurants, people attending the same meeting I’m in, nobody’s safe. And, if asked, I’ll certainly share those stories, even if they’re about you.

Narrative is certainly changing. As technology moves ahead, it enables humans to offload some of the intellectual work of remembering a given story thread, so that stories can be told over longer periods of time. First writing made it possible to save stories for later, kind of like raisins are grapes someone saved for later, which makes the written word the raisin of narrative. Just go with it. Scrolls meant that we could have stories of any length – just start a fresh scroll when you get to the end of the one you’re on now. And whoever uses up the end of a scroll had better get out a new one, because no one likes to sit down at the writing desk and find they’re without a scroll. Not cool. Then books allowed for longer narratives in less space. Then, eons later, electronic media allowed books to take up almost no room at all.

Just wait. Next time, I’ll tell you more about where narrative is going. First, I have to go talk to some of my neighbors. Someone owes me a story.