Narrative structure in hypertexts

Michael Joyce is widely thought of as the grandfather of hypertext fiction. In 1987, he published what is recognised as the first major narrative of this genre, afternoon: a story, which he created with Jay Bolter using the software and hypertext application, Storyboard.

In his work, Hypertext 3.0: Critical Theory and New Media in an Era of Globalization, George Landow quotes Joyce:

I wanted…to write a novel that would change in successive readings and…make those changing versions according to the connections that I had for some time naturally discovered in the process of writing and that I wanted my readers to share. (Landow, 2006, p. 216)

To me, this still seems like a pretty novel (excuse the pun) idea. I generally assume fiction to be prescriptive, with a primary narrative leading sub-plots and coming to what could largely be agreed as being a valid resolution or conclusion. Before commencing these recent readings on hypertexts, the idea a ‘reader’ could actively participate in the creation of the story they’re ingesting, in real-time, seemed to be something restricted to childish ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books. While I admit to having fond memories of such stories, they do still present with finite endings.

Landow notes the concept of plot dates back to Aristotle who said:

‘to be beautiful… every whole made up of parts, must not only present a certain order in its arrangement of parts, but also be of a certain definite magnitude’. (Landow, 2006, p. 218)

Hypertexts, however, he notes, challenge this idea, and all narratives and literary forms based upon the principle of linearity. Furthermore, J. Yellowlees Douglas identifies (and Nelson’s pretzel structure demonstrates), that hypertexts offer readers the opportunity to generate a version of the text the authors themselves have neither anticipated nor seen. Douglas writes:

A work of hypertext fiction can act as a blueprint for a series of potential interactions, and your movements through it, a dance choreographed by an absent author who has anticipates the questions, needs, and whims of imaginary readers’ (Douglas, 2000, p. 23)

I quite like this rather artistic explanation, and have subsequently had little vignettes of dancers on pointe running through my mind. However, I suppose this places the author in the backseat, and makes them a kind of (less annoying) backseat driver of sorts. They’re suggesting directions for you to follow, or at least providing you with potential routes, but ultimately, it is up to you as the reader, to sit in the driver’s seat and handle the gears. In hypertexts though, the backseat driver has also equipped you with the knowledge and opportunities to make regular U-turns if you so choose.

Yet, as you’d expect, some backseat drivers do pipe up more than others, and persist to varying degrees.

Landow discusses this and suggests hypertext narratives exist across four ‘axes’ through which the text’s creator can offer his or her readers varied degrees of agency:

  1. Reader choice, intervention, and empowerment
  2. Inclusion of extra linguistic texts (images, motion, sound)
  3. Complexity of network structure
  4. Degrees of multiplicity and variation in literary elements, such as plot, characterisation, setting, and so forth

While identifying these spectrums, Landow suggests that one point or end of this range is not necessarily better than, nor superior to, any other. Maybe you really would like to be told how to get from A to B in less time, you’d like to check out the back streets, or perhaps, take a scenic route. If you’re lucky, your backseat driver might even step in and take the wheel for a while, relieving your tired hands to tap away at your phone in the passenger’s seat and catch up on the latest in other hypermedia networks.

And, although you’d sort of been heading for a sleepy seaside town, you find a nice lookout by an unexpected lighthouse somewhere along your journey. And, you decide that maybe you’ll park your car and stay here a night and take in the stars so foreign to a city-body like you. To paraphrase Landow, if this lexis provides you with an experience of formal and thematic closure, then so be it. The beauty of life – and hypertext fiction – is that tomorrow is another day, where you can explore unchartered grown, or return to familiar territory. It’s up to you.

Cape Schanck lighthouse (Photo: Yi Zhao / Flickr)

Cape Schanck lighthouse (Photo: Yi Zhao / Flickr)

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