…this illusory experience of living the story in time is not the only thing that is going on dynamically as we read. All the while, we are simultaneously building up a mental model of the story as a whole. And unlike the first model, this image of the story is timeless: it includes everything that ‘has happened’ and a great deal that ‘is going to happen’. At the point we have reached in our journey through the text, there are still large areas of the map that are blurred or blank. We know some, but not all, of the events already ‘past’ — who found the body, perhaps, but not yet who committed the murder…
This narrative model does not develop in the timelike way that the text does — as if a curtain were rolling back and exposing everything to view an inch at a time. Rather, its linear development is holographic: from an initial blur to increasing focus and clarity. From the start of our reading, it is a total picture of the story, with successive details filled in as we go along. It is finally complete only when the story is ‘over’ — that is, when we read the last word of the text.
Thus N. J. Lowe, in The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Narrative, p. 23.
Lowe is a classicist, and a good deal of his book is concerned with the way that story works in specific ancient works and genres, but he is interested also in how stories work in general. One of his points is that, while reading a story, the player is constantly building up an understanding — a gamelike understanding — of the rules that pertain to this story world, what to expect next, and what sum total of information or event would make the story feel complete.
I find Lowe’s concept of the holographic story model constructive because it presents a way to think about plotting without reference to a taxonomy of temporal structure: stories told in linear order, mysteries that are about discovering what happened at an earlier time, stories with foreshadowings and flashbacks, braided narratives looking at multiple points on the timeline simultaneously, and so on. Such taxonomies describe a range of craft techniques all serving a common goal: to bring the story into focus for its reader or player in an order that will be maximally satisfying.
The holographic concept makes it easier to understand a variety of interactive story models that don’t map well to static fiction: works that are given meaning by their losing endings, works that need to be replayed several times to be understood fully, works whose authors expect their players to compare notes to arrive at a communal understanding of the story. Indeed, a number of interactive story techniques are about letting the reader/player control the focus knob in some way. What do you want to look at? What is the final point that will bring the story into focus for you? How slowly or quickly do you want to reach that understanding?
(And an aside: the whole discussion made me think about an interactive story concept where the whole plot is presented in a sentence or two and then elaborated by the player choice, rather than unfolding in time. I made a small sketch of what that might look like in inklewriter, which I’ve mentioned elsewhere: Holography.)