A look at some articles from the scholarship of literary hypertext, and thoughts about how their concerns and terms relate to current work in Twine and other procedural literature.
Recently I’ve been including some coverage here of academic materials that might be of interest to industry or hobbyist readers. Some of that’s been focused on recent work in story generation or interactive narrative in some way.
Today’s example, by contrast, begins with a reading from a rather older paper: A Nonce Upon Some Times, by Michael Joyce in 1997. (If you want a proper citation: Modern Fiction Studies 43.3 (1997) 579-597.)
This article came to my attention because when I was responding to Mark Bernstein’s piece The Fellow Who Caught Fire, he called out that I was unfamiliar with something he considers to be essential reading in the field of literary hypertext.
“A Nonce Upon Some Times” raises questions about how we categorize hypertext structures, and what we understand from the meaning of these structures. Occasionally this is reminiscent of Sam Kabo Ashwell’s work or perhaps my own on small-scale structures in CYOA: what does it communicate when the author chooses a particular relationship between the available lexia?
Joyce, however, is overtly contemptuous of branching narrative:
The workshop exercise with which I began this essay seeks to isolate a set of primitive choices that both prompt the visual kinetic of rereading in hypertext and, at the same time, isolate the elements of what Douglas calls “a narrative of possibilities.”… It engages working writers with aesthetic and readerly questions about linking rather than encouraging a choose-your-own-adventure sort of drearily branching fiction.
…and what interests him is not the question of how one might project oneself into the role of a protagonist; not how one might experience agency, constraint, or non-agency through this pattern of links.
Joyce’s taxonomy is easier to diagram than to explain in words. He proposes that one start with a four part structure, linked linearly, which ends by going back to one of the earlier texts. I would diagram it like this:
Now: what happens next, after we have re-entered the second of the four texts? Where do we go from there, and is it different from where we might have gone the first time around, and what do these different arrangements mean?
At NarraScope last weekend, Mark Bernstein (“Those Trojan Girls”, previous observations on hypertext narrative) was passing out a booklet entitled “The Fellow Who Caught Fire.” On the left-side pages are sections of a story; on the right-side pages, commentary about how stories are presented. Some of the areas for discussion are familiar from non-interactive literature, such as framing, tense, and person. Others dig into topics like explicit choice and link placement in hypertext narrative.
Since not everyone will have access to these, I thought I’d talk a little about what it contains, and some thoughts I had in response to Bernstein’s questions and provocations.
Those Trojan Girls is a hypertext novel by Mark Bernstein, written in Storyspace. Storyspace is Bernstein’s project, and the blurb for Those Trojan Girls describes how the tool might add to the possibilities of the medium:
Those Trojan Girls is also the first published hypertext to use the new Storyspace 3 facilities for stretchtext and sculptural hypertext – ideas explored in the research literature for more than a decade but that remain little known outside the research community.
In practice, stretchtext and sculptural hypertext refer to ideas that already exist in interactive fiction. As discussed in an interview with Bernstein here, “sculptural hypertext” refers to having pieces of text that appear based not on links but on other variable conditions, similar to quality-based narrative. Stretchtext refers to replacing a section of text with a longer, more detailed section, which is one of several things Twine texts do fairly routinely with text replacement macros. So “little known outside the research community” might be a slight exaggeration.
But the point, I think, is that the piece is attempting to introduce some of these features and methods to a community of practice — academic/literary hypertext — that has historically not paid terribly much attention to the IF community of practice, despite very significant overlap in many of the technological affordances of their tools.
Those Trojan Girls is definitely unlike game-like hypertexts, and avoids the kinds of agency found therein. I’m not sure I’d say there’s much of what I typically think of as “readerly” agency either. It’s hard, for instance, to decide on a theme, character, plot point or other element you want to pursue and track that train through the narrative (in contrast with Arcadia, which is designed for exactly that type of reading, or if, which thematically encourages completionist rigor).
There are a few formatting challenges familiar from Twine and not exactly solved here. Some blue links expand in place, while others lead through to a new passage of text — a frequent complaint about Twine works as well — and in Storyspace (or at least in this implementation) one can’t predict which is which without either clicking through or referring to the map, which appears in the lefthand side of the screen and moves as you read: