“Any writer who is not interested in what we are now calling “video games” is a bystander to one of the most important conceptual shifts between story and storyteller in a hundred years.” — Tom Bissell
I am not an electronic artist. I can’t construct a poem that both comments on and is presented through the tyranny of the computer screen, as Justin Katko does with “Up Against the Screen Mother Fuckers,” nor can I build a Google Map to tell the story of gentrifaction, as J.R. Carpenter does with “In Absentia,” nor construct an immersive document that investigates the risks of reading, as Stuart Moulthrop does in “Deep Surface.”
What I can do is say that I have yet to be moved by any of my experiences with hypertext literature (or more generally, electronic literature).
But I want to be. I desperately want to be.
We live in amazing times. As a man in his mid-thirties, I’ve lived through the birth and development of the digital revolution. And as a creative writer, I’ve yearned to explore the openings created by that revolution.
A vast, but limited, tool chest indeed.
My experience with creating electronic fiction does not go beyond the shallow waters of the hyperlink, and I struggle with the desire to create something more engaging than a glorified choose-your-own-adventure story.
The difficulty of hypertext fiction is similar to the difficulty of narrative storytelling in video games (and to be sure, hypertext fiction can be considered a form of the video game). In his recent book, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, Tom Bissel explains the root of that difficulty:
Games with any kind of narrative structure usually employ two kinds of storytelling. One is the framed narrative of the game itself, set in the fictional “present” and traditionally doled out in what are called cut scenes or cinematics, which in most cases take control away from the gamer, who is forced to watch the scene unfold. The other, which some game designers and theoreticians refer to as the “ludonarrative,” is unscripted and gamer-determined — the “fun” portions of the “played” game — and usually amounts to some frenetic conception of getting from point A to point B. The differences between the framed narrative and ludonarrative are what make story in games so unmanageable: One is fixed, the other is fluid, and yet they are intended, however notionally, to work together.
To some extent, what Bissel is talking about here is authorial control. The game designers maintain authorial control over the framed narrative, but they give up much of that control during the ludonarrative. Quoting Clint Hocking, a famous game designer, Bissel writes:
The very nature of drama, as we understand it, is authored. Period. The problem is, once you give up control of that to a player, authorial control gets broken. Things like pacing and flow and rhythm — all these things that are important to maintaining the emotional impact of narrative — go all will-nilly.
As in video games, hypertext fiction gives the readers control over what words they’ll read next, what information they’ll find next, what scenes they’ll enjoy next (of course, writers can always reduce their use of the hyperlink to glorified footnotes or page turns, but that’s not exactly hypertext fiction; that’s just fiction being printed in hypertext).
The trick to maintaining the necessary narrative momentum, as in video games, is constraining the possibilities of reader control without the reader feeling as if she’s being constrained.
That’s a trick I haven’t mastered yet. But if you’re going to be a creative writer in the twenty-first century, it’s a trick worth learning.
Genre is, to my mind, the delineation of a boundary between and around literary works determined by the intellect’s instinct for perceiving integritas and consonantia, which I would do well to let James Joyce explain:
— In order to see that basket, said Stephen, your mind first of all separates the basket from the rest of the visible universe which is not the basket. The first phase of apprehension is the bounding line drawn about the object to be apprehended…selfbounded and selfcontained upon the immeasurable background of space or time which is not it. You apprehend it as one thing. You see it as one whole. You apprehend its wholeness. That is integritas.
— Then, said Stephen, you pass from point to point, led by its formal lines; you apprehend it as balanced part against part within its limits; you feel the rhythm of its structure… You apprehend it as complex, multiple, divisible, separable, made up of its parts, the results of its parts and their sum, harmonious. That is consonantia.
A genre is bounded, contained, and separated from the genres that are, indeed, not it; at the same time, a genre contains within it a harmony of multivariate works. The concept of genre is spatial, measured in terms of within or without, and it defines an existing dimension of any literary work.
The problem with the spatial definition of genre is that it is static; it neglects the genre’s dynamism. If the consonantia is harmony of multivariate works, dynamism is the way in which a new work figures into that song. With dynamism, the boundaries of a genre become expressions of the conceptual forces that emanate from individual works, and they are always subject to flux.
But how does one reshape the boundary lines? How does one write the work that moves the border of an existing genre? In short, how does a writer work within a genre at the same time as one goes beyond it?
Because it is only through the answer to this question that a writer will make her mark.
“Don’t just sit there and stare at your words, allowing them to whizz silently through your head. Read them aloud, loud(!), so that you can hear what your writing sounds like. You will get a much better feel for how your writing comes across to a reader.” — Christopher Jackson
“On a good working day, working from nine o’clock in the morning to two or three in the afternoon, the most I can write is a short paragraph of four or five lines, which I usually tear up the next day.” — Gabriel Garcia Maquez
A lot of beginning writers gravitate towards narrating their stories in the first-person, present-tense: “I walk to the store” (as opposed to “He walked to the store”). There’s nothing inherently wrong with this particular perspective, but it creates all kinds of challenges that a beginning writer might want to avoid.
The first challenge of the first-person, present-tense (FPPT) is being locked in to your character’s limited perspective. With the FPPT, you can only narrate your story in the “here and now,” which means if your character doesn’t experience it, neither does your reader. You can’t take them into rooms where your character doesn’t go, listen in on conversations your character doesn’t hear, or explain things that your character wouldn’t know.
The second challenge of the FPPT is that your narrative style is limited to your character’s style. You don’t have the freedom to make word choices your character wouldn’t make or attempt syntactic gymnastics that your character can’t land. Your rhythm must conform to your character’s class and background, and the judgements you might want to make as the narrator have to be the same judgements your character would feel in the moment.
It’s that last bit that is particularly challenging for beginning writers: writing in the moment-to-moment prison that is the present-tense. Where past-tense perspectives provide the narrator with the gift of hindsight, the present tense locks you into the shallow world of stimulus and response, where the very narration of your story has to align to your character’s reaction to sensory impressions. In some ways, the difference between writing in the present tense and writing in the past tense is the difference between the rational mind and the stimulated body. With the past tense, you can pick and choose your moments; with the present tense, the moments just keep coming at you like a freight train, and you have no choice but to narrate them.
Which brings us to the third challenge of the FPPT: the need to narrate everything that is occurring to your character. While a past-tense perspective allows your narrator to consciously select the moments and people who are germane to the larger story, the narrator who’s horizon is limited by the FPPT doesn’t even know what the story might be: they just know the moments they’re living in. And who knows?, maybe that conversation with the waiter about what’s on special tonight will have significance later on; but then again, maybe it won’t…and if it doesn’t, the need to narrate that moment has only sidetracked your story into a narration of the mundane.
And really, you don’t have a choice but to narrate moments like this, these mundane moments that matter not at all, because if you’re going to stay true to the first-person, present-tense, you have to stay true to the moment. And truth be told, it can be difficult to sustain narrative tension if you’re forced to explain all the different moments of any given day; hell, even James Bond got bored once in while.
Of course, this is not to say that all writers should avoid the FPPT, but it is to say that beginning writers should avoid it.
Instead of trying to tackle all the challenges inherent in the FPPT, hone your skills by narrating in the tried and true of the third person, past tense (“He walked to the store”). Give yourself the freedom to go wherever you want, to listen in on whatever conversations occur, and to make narrative judgements and write in narrative styles that go beyond the limited perspectives of your characters.
My advice? Save the first-person, present-tense for the stories that absolutely demand it.
“This is the fundamental purpose of fiction: to get a protagonist from point A to point B with the greatest difficulty possible. ” — A. Victoria Mixon