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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I've actually thought SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY would be a good model for online nonlinear fiction. Lots of little modules that can link in just about any order and give rise to a cohesive whole.
I knew I was forgetting something -- this came out recently and it's pretty cool and participatory, or more so than the CYOA's: Sean Stewart wrote a book called Cathy's Book: If Found Call 650-266-8233. It looks and acts like a diary, and inside are a packet of "clues" (a bar napkin, receipts, etc). In the entries, which are graphically designed to look handwritten with scribbles and doodles on the pages, are also "facts" or random numbers to call which the reader can call or research online.

Also there's a game called Perplex City --a series of collectible cards, each with a different puzzle or game on them. You then log into the site online and submit answers to gain points. Perplex City is a fictional place, but it has a real-time footprint -- websites, secret email addresses, phone calls -- which make the game very addicting.

The puzzles collectively lead to a "treasure" buried somewhere in real life, and if you collect enough cards and solve enough puzzles, you can find it's location and dig it up. Someone recently did in the UK for Version 1, and V.2 just came out.
i think non-linear stories like memento probably work much better as movies than books. as viewers, we forgive so much more, and there is so much going on, engaging us on a sensory level, while the logical part of our brain is taking a backseat to everything that's happening in front of us. if we had the same story on paper we'd be annoyed. i would be annoyed, anyway. so many times i watch a non-linear story and think you'd never get away with that on paper.
I saw a book in a store today, called ANONYMOUS LAWYER. It's written in the form of a blog, with comments. Date, heading, text body, comments. I've seen people put stories up as serial fiction, on blogs. And Bill Crider made a whole blog into a story, comments included.

I think the art of storytelling as an oral art (cut the snickering, you up the back), allows for a certain amount of interaction from the audience. The storyteller listens to their reactions and modifies the story to suit.

Why not use a blog to do the same thing? Except take it further, and rather than just tailoring the story to the readers, change the story based on the comments they make.


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