Straight Lines Get Broken: The Issues of Linear Storytelling in a Digital Environment

Saying straight lines are bad isn’t going to suit well with Amy, my very OCD friend and colleague. But when it comes to stories told in digital environments, I’m discovering it’s true. Those of us from more traditional writing backgrounds – stories, novels – tend to think of stories in terms of plot and character development.

Go figure.

But people exploring stories online or in mobile or locative displays often aren’t thinking of them as linear stories at all. They’re exploring, as they’d explore a playground or theme park. We’re doing them – and ourselves – a disservice if we either A) force them along a linear path, or B) create a linear path and then break it up, offering it to them out of order and in pieces.

This discussion came up during the Transliteracy conference in Leicester last week, through the various presentations and discussions over the course of the day. Gareth Howell discussed McCloud’s concept of closure (readers making narrative leaps in the spaces that exist between the panels of comics), and applied it to online readers.  We don’t work our way through a Wikipedia entry or someone’s Facebook page in a linear fashion; rather, we pluck out the interesting bits, follow links, on our PCs, on our mobiles, across platforms and pages and structures.  There is no linear progression because the pieces are disparate, without a central creator.  And yet we work our way through them from point to point all the same, creating the story, as it were, within our own mental spaces.

So why are so many digital storytellers stuck into this idea of a linear story with beginning, middle, and end?  Because we see them as stories, as linear pages converted to code, rather than places.

The point was brought home to me during the practitioner panel I attended, where the stories that were presented both started with a completely linear base, but were delivered to the readers/visitors in nonlinear pieces.  The authors were tied to that linear structure, but happy to play with a nonlinear delivery.  They were excited about reader contributions and crowdsourcing stories, but unhappy with the results, even citing the need for the author as editor to act as a filter.  (A Million Penguins was referred to here, as a fully collaborative novel, where the process was fun and interesting, but the result was a mess.)

Sitting in the audience, I just kept thinking “It’s not that these stories don’t work because the reader-contributors aren’t as good as we are (which is what the call for an editor seems to imply) – it’s that we’re approaching this in the wrong way.  It’s not the story that’s king in these environments – it’s the environment itself.”

Look at the success of online games – the world is created for the players, and the players form the story.  Why is Lord of the Rings such a popular trilogy?  The story is painfully slow and disorganized, but the world is amazingly rich.  People want to be in the world, the story bedamned.

At the end of my panel, we had a good little discussion about the “book” (I’d say digital story) as a place, rather than an object.  We were talking about monetization, but in this post I’m talking about the digital story as a place, a city, a world, where readers can play.  Second Life works because people build their stories within the world; my idea with my project is to build a storyworld where people want to play, where they want to contribute, where they want to live and create stories of their own.

One person likened the book to an organism rather than a place – arguing that it takes on a life of its own.  I agree with this, but I see it as both, the way a city can be considered an organism that grows and takes shape,  because of the smaller organisms and communities that make it up.  That’s what I want my ‘story’ to be.

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