Story Shapes for Digital Media
Copyright 1996, 1998 Katherine Phelps
Writing can be a difficult enough task as it is when telling a story in the form of a novel, play or film. From the outset the author has to think about plot development, character development, theme, climax, resolution and any number of other artistic considerations, in order to form a consistent whole and provide a satisfying experience for the audience. These creative challenges can become trebled when authors have to face storytelling within digital media. After all, interactive storytelling can potentially be as infinitely branching and intricate in its choices as a Mandlebrot set.
As a first step in coming to grips with this problem, it occurred to me that if I could make the basic story structures for digital media visible, then I could more easily keep them under control and I would be in a better position to examine how standard storytelling elements can be mapped onto the media. Others have made rudimentary essays into pinning down these basic structures. Michael Shumate in his Hyperizons1 site on the Internet touches on what he describes as linear, annotative and tree-branching shapes. Darryl Wimberly and Jon Samsel in their work, Interactive Writer's Handbook2 go into more depth with a broader variety of shapes, but fail to reach a truly atomic level with them, and do not divorce these shapes from the specific genres from where they found them.
From my investigations of various CD-ROMS and hyperfiction sites I have discovered seven digital story shapes with which I have formed a model of the possible pathing structures stories can take within digital media. I did allow that some digital fiction was likely to be a combination of shapes. The results of my investigations seem to indicate that I have a workable model. Those seven story shapes are: Linear, Interactive, Multi-Linear, Braided Multi-Linear, Nested Funnel, Tree-Branching, and Non-Linear. For the purposes of my model I have given the above terms specific meanings.
Some would argue that linearity has no place in digital narrative, that it is an inappropriate use of the medium. In the early days of Web and Mosaic, about 1993, I in fact received a number of e-mail messages to that effect concerning some linear short stories that I had made available on my Web site. Very few narrative works were available online at the time, but of what was available quite a surprising percentage were devoted to experimenting with multi and non-linearity. A popular use of the new technology was to put new and out-of-copyright novels onto the Web such as Travels with Samantha3 and The Marvelous Land of Oz4, hyperlinking the separate chapters and including illustrations. This is still basically a linear structure and yet I believe completely valid.
In the case of Philip Greenspun, author of Travels with Samantha, he has been unable to garner a paper publisher interested in publishing this work regardless of the significant awards it has won online. His work also includes a large number of full colour photographs, so self-publishing would be prohibitive in cost. Therefore, the Internet is the most appropriate medium for the publication of his and many others' work.
Librarians are finding it vital that more linear works be digitised such as encyclopedias, dictionaries and collected works in order to have more physical archival space due to the overwhelming amounts of written work that are now being produced. This same volume of written work puts a strain on our forest resources, therefore it is vital that ephemeral media such as newspapers and magazines cease having a wasteful paper existence and appear exclusively online. Finally, linearity does not preclude a work from being multi-media. A linear experience can be enhanced with sound, music and animated sequences, thus justifying its existence on a CD-ROM or Web site.
Nevertheless, a linear digital structure does not challenge or extend our basic understanding of narrative structure.
An interactive narrative shape is one in which the story is basically linear, but each screen of material offers an opportunity to enrich your experience of it. It is sometimes also referred to as an annotative structure or advanced footnoting*. Two particularly good examples of interactive narratives are the CD-ROMs Just Grandma and Me5 and The Complete Maus6. Just Grandma and Me is based on a picture book written and illustrated by Mercer Mayer. As each "page" of the story is displayed on the screen the printed words are read out. Now the audience could choose just to go from page to page and read the story through as it is. However, a much more rewarding strategy would be to start clicking on many of the visual elements of the page after the reading has ended. In this way you learn a little more about the characters of Little Critter, his grandmother and what living in his world is like, for upon clicking objects in a scene you are presented with short dramatic vignettes.
The Complete Maus offers at its core the two graphic novels that comprise the whole story of Maus. The graphic novels stand on their own and have even won a Pulitzer Prize. What the CD-ROM offers is an opportunity for the audience to hear the corresponding interviews Art Spiegelman had with his father to develop this story, his historical research, preliminary sketches he did for each page, plus other items which went into creating Maus. So at each page of the comic, you can decide to click on an icon to receive any part of this additional information. None of this is needed to improve the work, but it certainly expands my understanding of what it was like to create it and who the people were behind it, thus providing a parallel and integral narrative of equal profundity.
Any of these additional elements in either CD-ROM could be automatically presented upon each new scene appearing. However, in giving that choice to the audience they have a greater sense of involvement, an important distinction from an ordinary piece of literature.
I have carefully divided multi-linear from braided multilinear. A multi-linear narrative shape is one in which several parallel stories will be presented without those stories directly interconnecting. The reasons for this may be that you will be travelling through the same physical spaces or the same series of events through the eyes of different characters, or the same character through different events, or perhaps even the audience is meant to compare and contrast these different lives and/or events. A number of books have already experimented with this such as The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder7 or even Bleak House by Charles Dickens8. What distinguishes digital media in the use of this form, besides just the addition of sound or moving images, is the degree to which the parallels can be made.
The online hyperfiction, Delerium by Douglas Cooper9, makes powerful use of a multi-linear shape. In four strands we have the story of the main character in the present, the main character in the past, the story of his biographer, and the story of one young woman who ends up having a significant impact on his life. You are free to move from strand to strand, but they remain absolutely unique. This structure enhances the building tension when in the final chapter all strands finally converge, so that we can see how they have all been pointing to this one dramatic moment.
I felt less secure about this shape than others I had discovered when I first assembled my list. I could imagine such a shape, I could imagine such a shape being a useful way to approach a story, but I didn't have many obvious examples. Interestingly, upon suggesting this shape to the class that I teach in writing for digital media, most chose it as the shape for their projects. With braided multi-linear we become less focussed on parallel development and more on how lives and events can repeatedly interconnect.
With the braided multi-linear shape an initial situation is given which then branches out in a number of thematically related plot directions which subsequently converge upon another situation that then again offers a number of directions to choose from. In this manner it is still possible to build dramatic tension, give the reader a feeling of free movement and yet even with that free movement provide a seamless story experience. More significantly, it makes the work compellingly repeatable. Most CD-ROM experiences and sadly much hyper-fiction tend to encourage a one time experience. Once you've solved the puzzle, there is no reason to go back and do it again at a later date. Well done braided multi-linear, such as 24 Hours With Someone You Know by Philippa Burne10, provides you with a framework that you may discover you enjoy, and then makes it possible to uniquely repeat the experience.
The nested funnel narrative shape could just as easily be called either the scavenger hunt or multiple act shape. Within the nested funnel you must either go through all scenes, do all set activities, or at least a significant set of scenes and/or activities within an act before you are allowed into the next act. Elements of this shape are as old as what is known as "Interactive Fiction"11, approximately twenty years. A popular puzzle for the more story based games has been to require players to find different objects which will later be vital to their success in entering different levels of a game, hence the scavenger hunt character of many nested funnel stories.
Myst12 is largely a nested funnel narrative. More obviously, Discworld13 fits in this shape. The Discworld CD-ROM game is based on the series of novels by Terry Pratchett, though far from being shovelware (the cheap re-purposing of existing media), the structure of this narrative gives the audience a real sense of being in that world and participating in that world's events without sacrificing characterisation or plot development. In the first act it is up to you to help the character Rincewind discover the parts to make a "dragon finder". Retrieving each piece gives you a chance to find out the nature of this world and how it works. You also learn about how Rincewind sees and interacts with his environment, thus developing your emotional involvement with the character. Upon assembling the dragon finder, you enter into act two where you must direct Rincewind in finding the dragon and beginning to unfold a terrible scheme whereby the dragon is being used by an underground group to overtake the kingdom and so are led into the concluding act.
The nested funnel is particularly useful when you wish to evoke a sense of place and encourage more direct involvement.
Tree-branching is the classic structure with which most people are familiar. At each scene the audience is given several choices, these scenes in turn lead to further choices. Unless you can find honest ways for certain paths to end, you are facing an exponential problem with infinitely finer choices being offered.
Traditionally this has been handled by having one "correct" story path and all others lead to death, thus pruning their potential early into the decision making process. I feel this solution to the size problem compromises the audience's experience and is a waste of the medium's potential. How often in life are we offered choices of roughly equal value, it's simply a matter of committing to one and then experiencing the outcome? A basic example would be walking into an ice cream shop and choosing one flavour over another. No one right choice exists, it's a matter of preference. This is a fascinating realm of exploration for the digital creator which the medium is eminently suited. Addventure14 on the Internet provides the most thorough experience of equal choices and allows the audience to add to the story themselves.
Douglas Gayeton, writer for the game Johnny Mnemonic, has spoken about how any film could be turned into an interactive and in the Interactive Writer's Handbook makes an example of The Piano15. It is true that the majority of linear narratives have important decision points where the story could have gone one way or another depending upon the choices made. Nevertheless, storytellers carefully craft the series of events in their stories deliberately making their characters' choices at each turn such that the entire narrative expresses a certain theme of concern to the teller. To enter into certain storytellers' works and change their choices is to subvert the theme and to damage the artistic integrity of a work. Again, we are dealing with a shovelware problem. A better strategy is to create a story whose theme encompasses a few select endings and the story is carefully told such that the audience is satisfied with making a constrained set of choices that will lead to one of these endings. This is where the challenge and artistry of using the tree-branching narrative shape enters in.
The term non-linear is often applied to digital storytelling when multi-linear is probably more descriptive of the new challenge within the medium. Non-linearity in its strictest sense simply means non-chronological. This is nothing new in storytelling. In the Odyssey16, written about 800 BC, when Odysseus returns home, his old nurse recognises him while washing his feet and goes into a long reminiscence about Odysseus when he was a young man before the opening of the story. I am defining non-linearity when applied to digital narrative as laying out a story so that the reader can leap from any one point in the story to any other point in the story. This is a tricky task at best and is usually met by either reverting to prose poetry or anti-fiction and the purely aesthetic. Much of the Eastgate publication list represents these approaches such as Stuart Moulthrop's Victory Garden17 or Michael Joyce's afternoon, a story18. Many of their works, self described as non-linear, are in actual fact usually braided multi-linear in shape.
I have found it unusual to discover anything like a complete story coming out of this shape, because lack of narrative progression provides too little support for developing character and plot. For a short work the audience may be willing to wade through all segments of a narrative in order to piece together a coherent story. For a longer work the tendency is for people to lose interest after only a few screens. The most workable solution may be to create narratives for the non-linear shape much like Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats19 by T.S. Eliot or Our Town20 by Thornton Wilder which are collections of short self-contained stories held together by a common theme.
Ultimately the non-linear experience can have a random feeling to it. Nevertheless, randomness or chance can in its own right be an important added element to storytelling within several of the story shapes. Randomness is frequently used to introduce a range of secondary characters or challenges within particular sections of a story. Which of these characters or challenges, as well as when and where they will be introduced, is left to the computer to randomly select. Therefore, stories incorporating this function may also be said to be non-linear, but in an a-chronological sense. In stories where the audience moves around as the central character, randomness brings the pleasure of surprise and a means of developing that character.
The most common places you will find random elements are within the nested funnel and treebranching shapes. While you are choosing your course through a section of the nested funnels, occasionally the computer will select a random moment to insert one or more story events necessary to completing that section. Rarely is the randomness found in whether or not an event will take place, but rather when and where. This is because randomness is often used to increase/decrease your health, strength or skill as a character or to impart useful items or knowledge. In Diablo21 , and many other fantasy roleplaying systems, you must at random moments face a select range of randomly picked foes in order to be prepared to face a different and more powerful selection of foes in later sections. The encounters themselves need an element of chance, but those chances must be influenceable with outcomes that have a real impact on the overall story in order to be satisfying aspects of the narrative.
Within the treebranching shape random events form the crucial points where the story forks in different directions. If you succeed in facing a challenge, then the story unfolds one way; if you fail, it unfolds another way. Should these new paths find a way to converge through subsequent random events (perhaps to maintain a core story), then we are entering into the braided multi-linear shape.
A unique instance of treebranching I call "random cascading". As episodes of a story proceed, at any point amongst those episodes a random event, such as winning the lottery, can be inserted. How the audience chooses to react to that event will colour subsequent episodes. If they choose to have the story's lotto winning character go on a spending spree, the story will proceed in one direction; if they choose to have the character save the money for a house and family, then it proceeds in another, until the next random event, such as Grandma dying. This sort of shape closely mimics our experience of life. Though Grandma's death is not unexpected, it's apparently random timing can greatly effect what we do and how we feel.
Random elements can also form a "random shuffle", a unique instance of the multilinear shape. Much like the children's mechanical books, which are divided into three flippable sections whereby beginning middle and end can be randomly selected, it would be a simple matter to get a computer to perform these selections. Though in order to have any sense of causality within the plot, the stories would have to be closely parallel.
Linear, interactive, multi-linear, braided multi-linear, nested funnel, tree branching and non-linear shapes of course can be and often are mixed and matched in most productions. A number of people have queried me with the comment that their story development diagrams were apparently nothing like my story shape diagrams. However, after looking at their flow charts we found that they were indeed using the shapes I presented. A distinction needed to be made between spatial, and story and programming development diagrams:
The first method helps a designer keep track of what is going on where in the development of both graphics and story. The second method helps the writer keep track of story flow and the programmer keep track that all interactive links are correctly made. Though there are many methods of graphically representing story systems such as spatial diagrams, semantic webs22, or concept maps23, these do not preclude the existence of the outlined story shapes, they merely express them in different ways.
The interesting aspect of laying out these shapes is that they immediately become suggestive of certain sorts of stories. Each shape obviously provides certain strengths to certain thematic investigations. It also becomes apparent about how we can more carefully place details for the development of character and plot in order to better communicate narrative and artistic intentions. These sorts of insights are necessary for this budding artform to reach aesthetic maturity and take flight in the imaginations of its audience.
* My primary source for this information was the Hyperizons site which with an update subsequently no longer mentions these terms.