Page from Tristram Shandy

Web narrative

For one reason and another I’ve been thinking a lot about web narrative lately. Not transmedia, not interactive storytelling, but web narrative: stories that not only make sense, but flourish, in a linked-up, interconnected medium. And I mean web in the broader sense, whether it plays out in a desktop browser, on your phone or on your telly.

The first web page (1991)

Links are a problem for stories. They may be used to reference, annotate, explicate and disambiguate, but they also divert attention, and sometimes they excise and replace information altogether. An annoying aspect of blogging, for instance, is the tendency of bloggers to link to a subject or reference that demonstrates a precedent or a step in their argument, rather than explain it there and then in the post. If links have led us to lose the art of summary, then how on earth are we going to write a story?

As well as confounding our ability to tell coherent stories, links also disrupt the reading experience. They point repeatedly to more content, more information, just round the corner. Or, as Cory Doctorow puts it: “the problem with reading long-form on screen is you’re only 2 clicks away from a man inhaling a lemon on YouTube.”

So what to do? Is this development liberating, finally freeing us from the horrors of linear thinking, or is it simply symptomatic of a modern world full of distractions and the requisite short attention spans? At first I was inclined to think the latter. “Linear” all too often is taken to mean something hideously old-fashioned and outmoded, when in fact the invocation of a beginning, a middle and an end – even if not followed through – is what keeps us interested. Whether reading a book or watching a film or listening to our mothers talk, we need to feel like there’s a point to it all or we’ll just stop paying attention.

What’s more, there’s nothing new to rejecting linear narrative. The straightforward progress of a story has always been called into question; from the flashbacks in Homer’s Odyssey (taken to a subconscious, joyless extreme by Joyce in Ulysses) to Woolf’s stream of consciousness, writers have repeatedly shown we neither remember nor express experience in a linear fashion.

And yet there is something comforting about its presence. Homer’s careful repetitions (“rosy-fingered dawn”, “wine dark sea”) set a metronome ticking throughout the Odyssey, and remind us that wherever Odysseus roams, time is passing. Goethe frames his rambling Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre with an account of Hamlet, and even Woolf’s experiments in narrative form (Jacob’s Room, Mrs Dalloway) have the shadow of that greatest of narratives, the First World War, behind them.

Open copy of Tristram Shandy

In a recent workshop about storytelling and transmedia, I brought along another example of interactive narrative, this one from the eighteenth century. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman was written in the 1760s by Lawrence Sterne.

It’s the ultimate shaggy dog’s tale: there’s no “plot” as such, and at no point do you find out anything substantial about the life or the opinions of Tristram Shandy. The book starts grandly at the moment of Tristram’s conception, gets distracted, constantly promises to get back to the story at hand, and eventually ends a few years before he’s even born.

The narrator loses track of his story, jumps to other events and back in time, and sometimes even reverts to drawing something rather than describing it in words. It is as if he is limited by the written word, that there is experience beyond that which we can understand through language. Sterne goes further than that: at a moment of high emotion, he blacks out a page, a visual moment of silence for poor Yorick.

Blacked out page in Tristram Shandy

Chapters are torn out and lost forever. The limitations of the delivery platform – in this case the book, or novel – are arbitrary: the beginning, the middle, the end… the very pages themselves. Sterne is making the point that there is a wider story beyond the limits imposed by an author or a platform, things that can only be hinted or gestured at, and asks the reader to fill in the gaps.

None of that could be done without the imposition of form and structure, even if it is eventually rejected. The limitations might be physical, as anyone who has turned a large book on its side to judge their progress can attest, or it might be one of perspective, where the reader is party only to one character’s version of events. Or it might be temporal: that one moment leads to the next, even though. Linear narrative is like any kind of discipline: we need its structure to be able to bounce around its constraints.

The characteristic of the web, however – its series of networks upon networks – suggests it is limitless, unending, unboundable. It is a sprawling mass of information that can be added to endlessly, a deepening coastal shelf of abandoned blogs, forgotten tweets, lost photos, untagged reminiscences, all lost artefacts of human activity. It is as endless and meaningless as life. How do we make it worth reading? How do we apply form and define it (or seek to, and fail)?

Page showing the shape of a flourish made by Corporal Trim's stick.

Sometimes the most beautiful art comes out of an admission that we cannot fully represent life. Art seeks to bound life in a nutshell, making the huge sprawl of unrelated and unconnected things that happen during the course of our lives human-scale and understandable. But it also hints at the unknowable, at a meaningless expanse of experience that has no beginning or end, no reason, no cause and effect. Sterne did this by invoking the limitations of the written form – that it was enclosed and authoritative, and demanded the linear progress of a story and a final meaning – and managing to dodge them all.

His book Tristram Shandy isn’t alone in this; I used it to demonstrate that novels, like any form of communication, are not fixed, and books are not passively consumed. Too many times proponents of interactive fiction talk as if it’s a new thing, as if interactivity were never part of the reading experience. How many of us has written in the margin of a book, turned down a corner of a page or smoothed the book back at a particular passage, felt our attention wander as we gaze out the window? We each interpret a story in different ways; it’s how we can re-read a book without getting bored, or watch the same film twice.

What does all this mean for web narrative? Here are some suggestions in summary:

1) Don’t reject linear storytelling – it’s what keeps us reading. Think instead about links in terms of breadth not depth, by which I mean, could links represent a multitude of angles and viewpoints surrounding a single event, rather than the progress of events themselves? Story is more than coincidence, or where things intersect. It is more than plot. Perhaps if we imagine links as a function of structure, rather than plot, we might get somewhere with web narrative.

2) Think about the limitations of the web, not the opportunities it offers. What can’t it express? What gaps are there?

3) Mould stories to people’s reading habits. Where are they reading, where are they comfortable? Stories always have and always will be interactive, and a good storyteller imagines and simultaneously enlightens and tantalises his or her readers every step of the way. It’s often said that people don’t read websites (the old “lean forward” / “lean back” theory), and that may be true. But they do read on buses, on sofas and in parks – bring your story to them.

I’m not sure that summarises the preceding ramble, but it’s a start.