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Balance of Powers is being launched on Kickstarter by Adrian Hon, Naomi Alderman, Andrea Phillips, and David Varela, a group that includes veterans of game and ARG design, live interactive events, and conventional fiction writing. The four of them were kind enough to answer a few of my questions about their new project — talking about pacing, storytelling as performance, and the narrative value of feelies.
Balance of Powers is set to unfold over eight weeks, one chapter a week. Can you talk a little about the function of time in your storytelling? How do you want the experience to differ from just sitting down and reading the story in one compressed session?
The action of the story itself takes place over much less than eight weeks – really more like eight days – so we’re absolutely not aiming to produce real-time storytelling. But there’s something deliciously Dickensian about enjoying a serialised story every week. It creates suspense. It allows time for the words to sink in and be analysed, either by the individual reader or between readers online. (We love a bit of speculation.)
The time between installments doesn’t just allow for reader speculation, either – it lets us peek at, and perhaps be influenced by, that speculation. The great thing about writing something online is that, unlike print materials, you can tweak at the last moment if you have a really fantastic idea. And it’ll allow us to drop in the other cool items – like our newspaper – between episodes, at a point in the story where they’ll have most impact.
The long timeline also gives people a chance to read at their own leisure without feeling that they’re being left behind. Having said that, we hope that the readers will be really looking forward to each week’s installment. TV execs talk about ‘appointment television.’ We want this to be ‘appointment reading’ because they’ll want to discuss and speculate about the story with their friends as soon as they’ve finished.
What about this story makes it a good fit for augmenting with physical objects and letters from the characters?
It’s a very rich world we’re creating, and each of the core characters has only a limited view of the whole story. Physical objects help round out the history and atmosphere of the world, and give you a deeper sense of character, too. The eight-week duration of the story also helps us to integrate slow-moving and unreliable communication networks like the postal service without anyone feeling that they’re ahead or behind anyone else.
And an alt-history story is a particularly good fit for physical objects. With a real-world narrative, any object could be part of ‘the story world’. But with alt-history, it’s as if an actual thing has fallen through a wormhole from another reality: it’s even cooler when alt-history gets to feel that real.
You talk about missing the engagement with your audience you had with Perplex City. How do you see that close audience connection shaping your storytelling?
It’s already started. By putting the project on Kickstarter, we’ve engaged with the audience and gathered a hundred or more supporters months before launch. It’s worth saying again that we’re not writing this as an interactive narrative in the classic sense – our storylines are plotted out and we’re not planning on asking for audience input directly – but we’ll be fascinated to hear what they’re enjoying, which characters they love or hate, and any suggestions they have for the future.
And beyond that, there’s a truly performative element to online storytelling. In a play, an actor will always say the lines, but details of expression and intonation might change from night to night depending on the crowd. Likewise, even though we know where our story is going, we’re going to change our performance for the crowd. That could mean adding in new detail to answer questions they’re asking about the world, lingering a little longer on minor characters they find most interesting, or maybe even changing the mood of a scene because the audience reacted to an element in a way we weren’t expecting.
We will also be including one or two live online events involving some of our readers directly. That kind of live storytelling is a huge buzz for both audience and writers – it’s about as intense an engagement as you can get between audience and storytellers, where a thought straight out of the audience can end up instantly part of the story.
For those who find that intriguing and would like to receive the objects or even join in the live event, the Kickstarter project is running for three more days.