Story spaces

Dean Kiley’s critical guide to the shapes of hyperfiction

The pneumatic conjunction of hypertext and fiction should have by now spawned a whole happy brood of bastard mongrels. Apart from the inevitable neologism (hyperfiction), however, there’s not been much hybridity. Some prefab plug-in-addicted multimedia extravaganzas, yes, a few shrink-wrapped join-the-dots novellas, lots of frustratingly static and linear word-processing (put text on template, add pictures, upload, watch users get scroll-bar-RSI) and much hopscotching (recipe: chop text into ungraceful and/or illogical small chunks, string a few links or loops between them, add colour and backgrounds, season lightly with gif animations and stew; do not stir; do not cook; do not improvise). Tristram Shandy did it all better, faster, funnier, 200 years ago.

Having got that small rant out of the way, let’s look at some of the modes, genre and shapes of hyperfiction currently available, starting with the most compact and least scary. Stand-alone hypertexts (which aren’t online and often aren’t html in format: anyone remember HyperCard?), despite their generally precarious positioning as intermediate technology, are still produced at a steady Big Mac rate.

In America especially, programs such as Storyspace are enduringly popular, perhaps specifically because they don’t rely on the extras to go online. Storyspace has also gained ground in schools and universities here (eg RMIT) as an authoring environment, a concept-mapping or storyboarding medium, or a pre-structuring device for websites, but in the US it’s absurdly successful in Composition classes and for hypertexted novels (see http://www.eastgate.com/ for fiction samples and program details). This hermetically sealed version of hyperfiction runs on scaled-down or simplified components of its web-based counterpart and, since it’s not networked out into the vertigo of the www, it’s somewhat easier to manage: you can see the horizons of the text and juggle between precise, comprehensive overviews in ways that aren’t possible on the web.

That means a stand-alone hyperfiction (and don’t forget the steady dribble of Big Name Authors like Carmel Bird who are now releasing novels on CD-ROM) can be domesticated and authorised, processed back into the paper-pulp mainstream. Witness the Norton Anthology of hypertext fiction. Or the new academic journal (sponsored by Eastgate), Modern Fiction Studies, devoted entirely to Storyspace-based hypertextual fiction. Sad.

Meanwhile, the web venues you’d expect to be most amenable to hyperfiction—web journals or ezines—largely perpetuate the inertia caused by still thinking of The Page as the basic design unit, and print analogues as default settings. The seductive properties (and opportunities) of hypertext thus get truncated or overstructured, bad-metaphor-stretched or literalised. The sense of a projective imagination responsively immersed in a fictional environment (with all its gaming potential), the experience of being a semi-free agent inhabiting a narrative sequence, the 3D solicitation to co-construct the story…they all lose out to the legitimation of either The Anthology, The Short Story Collection or The Literary Magazine. Which nearly always means cut-up-n-pasted-n-mounted Text + Graphics = Onscreen hyperfiction.

Read Janet H Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (New York: The Free Press, 1997), bypassing the hype as you go, to get a feel for what’s being passed up when hyperfiction becomes hypedfiction (inert at one extreme and overbusy with whizzbang whatsits at the other). Have a look at the TextBase site (http://www.skynet.apana.org.au/~samiam/textbase/textbase.htm – expired) to see what can be done when the word ‘hypertextual’ can be unembarrassedly applied to all dimensions of the writing.

There is no reason, given that hypertext allows a synthesis and synaesthesia between text and graphics, for traditional genre borders to remain impermeable either. House ’97, for instance (http://house.curtin.edu.au/ – expired), based at Curtin University, had elements it called ‘comics’ that were nonetheless effective narratives looping through other live-radio and webcast events, stage performances later reworked for the web, and ‘ordinary’ short-story-type fiction. Haiku theatre and other forms of dramaturgy (like soap opera) become meshed or framed or reworked by hyperfiction in the Venew site (http://www.aftrs.edu.au/venew/ – expired). GRAFFITO, a political satire journal, manages to be hypertextual despite being in the form of plain-text emailing list: though it’s posted without graphics or formatting, the poems and rants and stories build on each other, sequel each other, refer allusively and hilariously to each other and current events, and reflect the juxtapositional, jumpy logic of hypertext in the reading experience.

More fundamentally, the text versus graphics ‘illustrative’ relationship so beloved of almost-print designers is satisfyingly sent-up and subverted (as per theorist Gregory Ulmer’s influence) in the Parallel sites (http://www.va.com.au/parallel/x1/index.html) with their artificial and unsustainable separation between ‘gallery’ and ‘journal’ while engaging multidisciplinary and multimedia artists to produce pieces that interact or correlate beyond And Here’s A Gif Of That Too. Moreover, I think we’re seeing a slow generic version of continental shift, as fiction writers become their own designers of elements usually relegated to the practice of poetry (line-length, scansion, extended rhythmic patterns etc) and graphic artists (typeface, colour, texture, framing, pictures, etc). All of this, of course, is irrelevant where the venue for the hyperfiction is either a web journal with a standardised ‘house style’ or a kind of onscreen/online brochure appendage to the ‘real’ print version.

At the level of narrative, the text-vs-graphics relationship between plot and story, and between structure and genre, can be inventively played with rather than imported wholesale from print. So the ‘narrative logics’ of hyperfictions can productively be experienced (to reduce them to metaphors for the sake of categorising): as a series of nested funnels; as branching sequences of choices and nodes; as counterpoint or fugue; as mirrored or paralleled characters and/or stories ; as spliced montages or found-object film; as multiple layers or collages; as bricolage, with your active involvement in 3D construction; as Tinkerbells (from the old Disney story-reading records where Tinkerbell would tell you when it was time to turn the page) read left-right-top-bottom with a button to read further; as loops or cycles; as boardgames (sets of steps or ‘moves’, some chance rolls of the dice, then back to some starting point again); as an automated public-transport ticket dispenser (lotsa buttons taking you nowhere); as braided river-deltas (Kirsten Krauth noted this in an earlier piece); as concordances (with links and other material working like references); as weeds or ‘rhizomes’, spreading across surfaces without clear beginnings or ends or structures.

And when more than one author is involved, or more than one version of a given piece of writing, or enough overlap among pieces to function as an cumulative hypertext, then it becomes even more interesting and complex, with all kinds of interleaving, turn-taking, switchboard, chorus, and other narratorial or narrating possibilities. Ditto for multiple or competing timeframes or characters’ versions of events. Ditto for multiplying techniques of reader-orientation (whose voice is this? is that a site-map? will this button do the same thing each time?), pacing (the sequencing of lines of narrative), web-effects (animation, dynamic html, movies, sounds) and resolution (The End? no ending? several options? ambiguity levels?).

Expectations of this ‘new’ medium and mode for storytelling are perhaps unfairly high, resulting in exaggerated irritability if the message isn’t massaged for the media, but it means many of the old rules of conventional and convention-driven narrative can be bent, broken, ignored, renovated or reinvented.

Even better, since there are no set conventions for onscreen rendering of fiction, every design vector can be extrapolated or modelled from the story itself (I’d say ‘organically’ but that’d be too romantic and optimistic). At the risk of vested-interest, look at the ways a story can be enacted (rather than literalised), a piece about an increasingly psychotic wife who (jealous of her husband’s love for his grandfather’s house) dismantles the house while pretending to renovate it, in the new Extra! journal: http://members.xoom.com/olande/callahan2/index.html [expired].

Why do we have to wait till someone starts up a competition (like the now-annual stuff-art contest run by Triple J, ABC Online and the Australian Film Commission) before onscreen and online writing appears that exploits the medium, mode and emergent genres? Why are so many print and magazine conventions being hauled over hypertexts like an alien diagnostic apparatus? Why are the very design and material components of paper publishing still being translated, literally and often crudely, to the monitor? Why aren’t there more Oz web journals willing to broker, sponsor, solicit, commission and house hyperfiction that earns and enacts its prefix? And if it’s out there, or you’ve been doing it, why aren’t you writing about it for this series on hyperfiction in RealTime?

RealTime issue #27 Oct-Nov 1998 pg. 15

© Dean Kiley; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 1998
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