The other day I ran into the keynote presentation from the SXSW technology conference by Will Wright, creator of a video game called the Sims, among others things, where he covers what he sees as a problem of story. Mostly as it pertains to games, but I think it could be relevant to any form of writing. His point, in short, is that it's too linear.

It's something I've been thinking a lot about, lately. His point is largely that the creator knows the flow of the story and the audience pretty much needs to suck it up and go along for the ride. In games, where things are largely interactive, this doesn't necessarily work well. The player can make choices, in fact has to make choices. They have to solve puzzles, decide which direction they want to go, how they want to approach a challenge. The more sophisticated the game, the more freedom the player/audience can exhibit.

In any performance, and that's what we're really doing here, performing, the creator and the audience are negotiating. And though anyone who's slogged for months over a manuscript will want to instinctively disagree with me, I'm sure, it's the reader who does the heavy lifting. The reader's imagination is what supplies the narrative its color, even while it's the narrative that supplies the reader with the structure.

I write, "The Latina behind the bar is wiping it down with a rag that looks like it was used to clean engine parts. Tattooed arms and metal in her face. He orders a Michelob and a Southern Comfort. She pulls a bottle from a cooler full of ice, pours him a shot."

And you see whatever it is you see. What's your image of the bar? Is there neon? A jukebox? Peanuts on the floor? Dirt? You've probably got a pretty vivid image of the bar and the bartender, and I can guarantee that it's not the same image I have. In fact, what I wrote has next to nothing to do with your image of the bar, or the Latina, or the mystery "him".

So what happens if you let the reader dictate the structure, too?

As a kid I ate up these "Choose Your Own Adventure" books, where after a couple of pages you would be faced with a choice. "If you open door A go to Page 12," kind of thing. Pretty simple, frankly, though the cost of creating it is high. How many different directions does the writer need to create? How many different narrative paths do they have to go down?

Video games, role playing games, and so on follow a similar structure. Some are just more free flowing than others. What are games like Dungeons and Dragons other than group story telling time? It's communal writing. The players might as well be sitting around the campfire making up stories about how Og the Great took out that mammoth last week.

But most fiction doesn't have that free flow of exchange between the reader and the author. By its nature, it can't. Though the reader is doing the bulk of the imagination work, they're still largely captive to the writer's whims.

So, I find myself wondering how one could approach this kind of writing in novels/short stories/etc. Something more sophisticated than simply an "If A Then B" kind of structure. Is it possible? Is it even desirable?

What if the reader could, if not take control of, at least have a little more free will over the story? Most people wouldn't want to, I'm sure. Too much work.

Now I'm not sure I'm even making any sense here. I could very well be talking out of my ass. I do that a lot, actually. You should see me at parties.

I don't know what this would look like. Still, I'd love to see someone give it a shot.

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So, I find myself wondering how one could approach this kind of writing in novels/short stories/etc. Something more sophisticated than simply an "If A Then B" kind of structure. Is it possible? Is it even desirable?

Maybe you could write a story with three different endings and let the reader choose which to read first?
Stephen,

Have you checked out Lee Siegel's novel LOVE AND OTHER GAMES OF CHANCE? It provides different options for the reader to jump off the linear page and proceed to different chapters/sections of the book. Check the reviews. It's not exactly what you are - I thinnk - describing above in your post, but it approaches some of the interactive nature of storytelling/reading you outline.

James
It is your ability to talk out of your ass that has elevated you to the status of American Treasure. Or was that curiosity?

You have just given me a great idea. And if I could ever pull it off, it could be valuable. Which is why I won't tell you about it.

I remember Choose Your Own Adventure books.
Well, I think if you did this you'd simply have a Choose Your Own Adventure for adults. And while it would be an interesting experiment, I think it's ultimately doomed to failure in the long run.

Novels are linear by nature, although we do have the ability to jump forward or go back in time at will, and often do that through the thoughts of our characters. But finding a way to allow our readers to choose where they want to go seems too problematic to deal with.

Besides, it's my opinion that the writer should always have control. It's his/her ride and there's nothing more satisfying, I believe, than being able to manipulate a reader, forcing him to want to turn the page.

In my opinion, if you give him a choice, you've lost.
I'll defer to your judgment because I haven't read their books. But what I meant by "ultimately doomed to failure" is that I don't think it's something you could do on a regular basis. It might work for a one shot, but to do it continually? I don't know.

But I've been wrong before...
This is a paraphrase from distant memory, but:

Has there ever been a time when the storyteller couldn't turn to the audience and say, "What do YOU think happens next?"
--Penn Gillette

Audiences have never really wanted it, any more than they want to go to a concert and have Clapton hand them the guitar and look patient.

Game people always make that point, talking about linearity as though it's a problem. It's only a problem for games, because until there's true artificial intelligence, games will not be able to break out of linearity and be the amazing thing their designers envision.

The D&D games I played in high school, with a brilliant human teenager sitting behind a cardboard screen, making it up as he went, were orders of magnitude less linear and more creative than the most sophisticated games on the market today.

Game guy, nonlinearize thyself.
I remember a few years back a director created what he thought would be the next big thing in movies -- an interactive story where they audience had Choose Your Adventure type choices. It bombed.

Love that quote from Gillette.

I think readers want to be taken on a ride and don't want to have to make choices other than, "should I continue reading?"

Our job is to make that ride an amazing one and, to my mind, giving them choices would simply water it down.
I agree completely.

I also want to see games that are as cool, quick-thinking, and focused on always being unexpected and entertaining as my brilliant teenaged Dungeon Master was. Until a game can improvise a thousandth as well as a quickwitted 17-year-old, games will continue to be stupid.
I also think it's the writer's job to make sure that the next choices in the story are surprising, while still making sense. Linear does not have to equal predictable, and if the writer's done a good job, the reader will forget the fact that they're at the mercy of someone else "controlling" the story and will simply be "in" the story, living it and the surprises as each chapter unfolds.

That said, I just did a non-linear short story for the Killer Year Anthology... think Pulp Fiction struture meets a riff on O'Henry's Ransom of Red Chief. It was a lot of fun to break up the linear plot and that enabled me to do something I really ended up liking... but I think the non-linear nature of what I did would be too overwhelming for a novel length piece.
I guess the closest one could come to allowing the reader to do a lot of the mental work (just not controlling the story) is using an unreliable narrator, because the reader must create their own understanding of the novel and characters through the writer's hints, reading between the lines. However, the plot is given to them in a mostly linear fashion. The best example I can give is The Remains of the Day in which the saddest parts are those that the narrator fails to mention, or even accept, what is plainly going on.

However, accomplishing something like you're thinking would have to be done in an interactive medium, which books are not. You could use a webpage or even an electronic book, and have links to different parts of the story, but I don't think you could do this with anything that was plot driven.


Choose Your Own Adventures are a huge reason that I write today. I remember a contest they sponsored where the winner would get their own book published in the series. My effort sucked. But I was also 12.

In addition to LIFE'S LOTTERY by Kim Newman the idea of multiple endings usually is a "novelty" -- some lesser "chick lit" knockoff CYOA's I can't recall (one was tongue-in-cheek where you tried to score with someone at a bar).

And you also reminded me of the movie "Clue" -- which during its theatrical run, had three different endings (A, B, C) that varied depending on which theater you went to see it. (Ending "A," which was homage to "Murder On the Orient Express," was the best one and thankfully the first one I saw. The one where Peacock did it was the worst).

Under the premise that a videogame or a book or a painting or a film can all be "art," -- because they are all creations -- what happens is that the harder one aspires for something as true-to-life as possible, one will never ever get close enough to the actual "stuff" of truth and real life.

As interactive as real life is art can't ever reach it. You'll always fall short because the reader, even with their own input, is still on a linear or at least "binary" dynamic with the creator -- you say something, they respond. You post here, I post back. You write something, they read. You pray, they listen. You paint something, they react to how it looks. You design a virtual world to roam in and inhabit and like Second Life or World of Warcraft, there are still limits -- you can only do what's been thought out or pre-programmed.

And "joint" or "collective" dialogue -- a chat room, a quorum, an episode of MST3K -- still has that tennisy give and take because everyone all at once often leads to unintelligible cacophony, mob mentalities, groupthink.

An interesting exercise Penguin UK tried recently was the idea of a "Wiki" novel-- that is, a novel created by user content, that could be edited by anyone at any time during its creation. "A Million Penguins" sounds a lot like something you've touched on here, but I don't know if it's enough, or successful, or possible to get anything viable from it -- outside of the concept of attempting it.

When I'm writing -- offering my perspective -- My Voice beams it out, distinct and unique, mine entirely, first. I don't want it manipulated by other users before or during that process. That is what I struggle with while I write anything -- to not be molded by external forces or wishes that are false, especially my own. There's plenty of time for that to happen after the fact -- with criticism, comments, opinions, and reviews.
Thank you all. Certainly food for thought.

I happen to actually agree with Rob's point that, in the long run I don't see how it's sustainable. It also just occurred to me that I'm talking about two different things here: non-linearity and participatory story-telling.

The movie "Memento" is non-linear story-telling. You're getting the story in bits and pieces, forward and backward, but it's still a cohesive structure. The foreshadowing is sometimes ante-shadowing (I just made up a word!) and what's already just happened in the story isn't necessarily what's happened for the viewer.

As to participatory story-telling, yeah, I think a paper book would have a lot of trouble. By its nature it's not interactive. It doesn't talk back to you and ask what you think would happen next.

But electronically is a different story. I'm thinking in particular of "I Love Bees", which was a web-based viral marketing campaign for the video game Halo 2, where it was a combination of serialized fiction, emails that would get sent to readers and constantly updated reactions to reader participation. Fiction, certainly, but not a novel. At least not in any conventional sense of the word.

I'm thinking that what I'm talking about would have to be a completely different format.

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