The Unknown: The Orange Line.

Date: Wed, 06 Jan 1999 16:26:41 -0600
Subject: Some Thoughts on Writing Hypertext Fiction
From: Scott Rettberg
To: “Online-Writing list”

“So, my question-to-explore is still: How can a writer effectively present a plot, setting, and characterization in hypertext??? Haven’t any of you thought about this, or come to a point where you have a few guesses about what could work?”

1) I think that the first thing that we need to realize about hypertext fiction, as readers and as writers of the genre, is that it necessitates an entirely new poetic. Purely linear, conventional, plot-driven stories can work within a hypertext medium, but they are only one possibility for the form, and perhaps the least inventive, since they mimic what could be better achieved in a bound book. Serial fiction has its place on the Web, but that has more to do with the way that people read on the Web than it has to do with hypertext literature.

2) The primary difference between hypertext fiction and book fiction is the link. The link is the primary poetic structure within hypertext. What is a link? Obviously, it is a phrase that, when clicked, takes you to another page. But that doesn’t answer the question of its function. If the links are purely and exclusively arbitrary, they don’t serve a terribly useful poetic function, and conversely, if they are purely chronological, they don’t serve any function beyond that of turning a page, as in your standard book reading experience.

3) What are some of the poetic possibilities of linking?

***Referentiality One of the most common functions of the link is similar to that served by a footnote. A referential link can lead you to an extra, related bit of information, and then refer you back to where you came from, or it can deliver you to an entirely new section of the story that explains whatever you just came from, and you can go on from there to other cross-references.

***Link as Line Break/Double Entendre
In a poem, a line break can serve as a multiplier of meaning. In a poem, the last word of the line often means one thing when you finish that line, and an entirely different thing after you have read the line which follows it. Say in a poem, you have a couple of lines like, ah:

And I have climbed to the top of that mountain
Of lies and seen what a mole hill you’ve left me
Similarly, within a hypertext, you could be within a scene about a young pilot’s dream of flight, and click on say “soaring” and jump to a scene in which that pilot is soaring into the side of a mountain.

***Link as P.O.V. Shifting Device
A link can be serve as a device which shifts the point of view in the narrative. Say we are sitting in the cabin of the ship, and the Belge detective is grilling Mrs. Mallarme about her whereabouts the night of the murder, and the butler and the captain and the scullerymaid are all in the room as well, we could make links with their names, and then shift to their perception of the events.

***Link as Comic Subversion
Links can also serve a comic function within a hypertext fiction. Say you have a scene in which a preacher is railing mightily against the sinners of the world, and names sloth, gluttony, avarice, etc. You could link from each of those phrases to scenes in which the preacher is himself engaged in those acts, undermining the previous narrative, and potentially producing a chuckle in the reader.

***Linguistic Link
More arbitrary linguistic links can also be used to interesting effect. In The Unknown, the collaborative hypertext novel that I worked on, for instance, I selected particular words and phrases such as “explain” or “mean and withdrawn,” and connected every instance of their utterance to another instance of their utterance. This creates a new kind of narrative thread that in a way shapes a new meaning. If the thread is followed, a new sub-story is created, one that has more to do with how the characters in the novel explain things, or what happens on the occasions when they are mean and withdrawn, than it does to do with a linear chronology of events.

Narrative chronology remains an element in most hypertext fictions, and links can perform the simple function of getting from one point in the story to the next, as well.

***There Are Many More Possibilities.
This list only covers the ways that my collaborators on The Unknown and I used links. There are many poetic possibilities for linking, I’m sure, that hypertext writers haven’t even yet contemplated.

4) A hypertext fiction is a more immediate form of collaboration between the writer and the reader than that of most standard fiction. Not that there isn’t always a great deal of collaboration—a story is always only a story once it is read, and logic dictates that any reader of any story will always experience it differently from the way that other people experience it. It’s not a movie. We make our own head pictures. The difference between regular fiction and hypertext fiction, however, is that in a hypertext the reader both interprets the data that they’re given, and has a greater degree of choice in the way that they navigate it. In a hypertext novel such as The Unknown, where there are almost always multiple links on a given pages, in addition to multiple other means of navigation, it is almost certain that no two readers will read the same actual text on any given session of reading, much less interpret it the same way. In this way, a hypertext is a much less author-guided, and much more reader-decided journey, than a conventional narrative would be. In writing our collaborative hypertext novel, we found it useful to think of the apparatus and structure of the novel as a “ride.” What we, as hypertext authors, set up, is the narrative equivalent of a transportation system: we even consciously adopted a metaphor based on the CTA, Chicago’s public transportation system. An entire landscape is connected in a myriad of ways, but the reader (granted, without any one entirely comprehensive map of the system at their disposal) makes the decisions about where to get off the train and look around.

5) Or maybe a hypertext novel is shaped like a brain: neither memory nor conversation work like most stories do. The novel is itself artifice: a genre that has developed and flourished over a period of approximately 300 years. When we remember things, we navigate primarily through association: the smell of apple pie links you the time you went sledding at Grandmas: a song brings you to a moment when you were in love: the sight of a car crash brings you back to a painful memory of a friend. We shift through memory without always effecting closure. Hypertext can be more mimetic in this fashion than regular text: you happen upon connections. The same goes with conversation: when you are speaking to a group of people, the course of conversation shifts from thread to thread. You go from the weather, to comparable weather in the past, to the bands that were big in 1979, to disco, to Travolta’s latest project. No one person completely dictates the flow of conversation. In hypertext fiction, neither does the author.

6) Plot, characterization, and setting, in my view, are as important in a work of hypertext fiction as they are in any other kind of fiction. What differs is how these elements are developed, and what function they serve in the story. In our case, we went with a picaresque, on-the-road narrative. So individual episodes are more or less self-enclosed story units. But the development can’t be linear or consistent. For instance, one of the characters in The Unknown becomes a cult leader. You might very well read a scene in which he is already a cult leader, or even is already a murdered cult leader, before you read the scene in which he becomes a cult leader, or first has thoughts in that direction. But your in medias res understanding of his character is never dependent on previous knowledge of his character. This is part of what can make reading a hypertext an active and fulfilling experience: you are gathering pieces of a mosaic, and putting it together as you read. It is, hopefully, as enlightening a process as it is a frustrating one.

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The Unknown at Spineless Books.