narrative lab, final project ideas

I have two ideas for a final project in Narrative Lab, one a project that I’ve wanted to work on for a long time, another that I’ve been coming up with since class started.

The first project is a hypertext work of fiction that either imitates or actually works like a Wiki.  This is basically the current idea/incarnation of something I’ve wanted to do for years.

In high school I was obsessed with blogs, live journal, myspace, open diary—I read blogs of people I knew and strangers all the time.  I don’t read so many these days, there are still a few people that I have followed for years, close to a decade in one case, though they don’t know it.  I really liked the idea of real people becoming sort of characters to me.  Of course, it was their real life, but there was a certain amount of fiction involved, as there is in any non-fiction writing, and is many cases blogs are entirely fiction.  That idea was particularly appealing to me.  Most of the time when you find out about a fictional online personality its not in a good context, like this amazing Gawker story about a cancer survivor hoax.  But I thought it would be cool to create a fictional world for the purpose of fiction writing.  In college I spent a lot of time writing fake blogs.  The characters all new each other.  Some updated their blogs everyday with songs they liked.  Others wrote long intimate posts about their love lives once or twice a year.  I imitated both my friends lives and blogs I was reading.  But of course no one ever read the blogs.  I had this idea that people would get really obsessed with the world I was creating, but there was really no way for anyone to discover it.  I maintained a couple of the characters for a long time, but there was something that always felt strange about making these fake blogs for no real reason.

Blogs also got a lot less interesting in college.  I’m sure there are still plenty of people writing personal/diary style blogs, but I found more and more that blogs were being driven towards one sort of market or another, people writing about food or their sex lives or sports in an attempt to drive traffic.  Maybe my taste had changed, but I was no longer discovering really fascinating personal blogs.

I got really obsessed with fan fiction for a while, which plays a smaller role in this, but what I liked about fan fiction was that a huge group of people were writing really different kinds of stories based on different stock groups of characters.  Almost all of the stories are terribly written, but some of them were really compelling either in their crazy logic or twisted inventiveness.

I’ve always been interested in the idea of a hypertext novel or short story but I’ve never actually read one that I liked.  I can’t say why.  A hypertext work of fiction just feels pointless in a way that novels don’t (maybe some people think that novels are pointless).  I’ve worked on hypertext fiction projects that have always been abandoned.  But when Wikipedia became hugely popular I had an idea for a reading experience based more on the Wikipedia functionality, not in the collaborative/crowd sourcing sense, but in the way that Wikipedia uses hyperlinks.   One great thing about Wikipedia is that every important noun is hyperlinked to it’s respective wikipedia page, so if you look up the page for meta-fiction, you might follow a link to a page on Don Delillo, read something, and return to the page of meta-fiction and so forth.  The form resembled a lot of meta-fiction works that existed before the Internet, like Pale Fire or Hopscotch.  So instead of writing linear stories that are linked somehow through hypertext, you could instead create an entire fictional world, written in the style of a encyclopedia, where readers could explore the world at will, clicking on the characters or events that interest them.  I think you could create a pretty compelling multimedia, hypertext experience that way.  But it would require a lot of writing and a good story.

The other aspect of Wikipedia to consider is of course the collaborative aspect of it.  This takes the original idea away from the sort of “detective story” paradigm we talked about in class, where a reader is uncovering a world where everything has already happened, toward a forward moving, evolving, more interactive form of storytelling.  It also introduces a lot of complications from a story telling angle.  I imagine that in a project like that I would set up a basic story and let people contribute new events and story lines, which I would curate.  There is a lot of online storytelling and fiction based on this idea that already exists, but I find those to lack the hypertext aspect.  Most of them are just long blocks of text that have had multiple contributors.  Using hypertext to create a more interactive experience for the readers as well as writers could make it a more compelling experience.

So, that’s idea number one, if you’re still with me, hypertext fiction in the wiki format, either with collaboration or not.

The second idea is sort of similar, but based on web comics and a different idea of interactivity, the westernized online version of Mahjong.

I don’t like games that much but for some reason I’ve always been really into playing online mahjong.  If you’re not familiar with the game, there’s a layout of 3d tiles which you have to match with one another to make them disappear.  The object is to make all of the tiles disappear before the person you’re playing against or a timer.  It gets complicated because if you run out of matches while there are still tiles on the board, you can’t get rid of all of them, so there is some strategy involved, but most of it is just memorization and quick eyes.

So, the idea is to turn the tiles into panels of a comic.  There has been some stuff done with interactive comics that involved non-linear formats, here’s an example Scott McCloud references in his Ted Talk, which is really good.  This is a pretty cool idea, but it doesn’t really take advantage of the format because none of the tangents go anywhere.  They all just end somewhere and then you have to return to the main thread, so the experience is kind of frustrating, it doesn’t have the sort of cyclical flow of reading wikipedia or a network of blogs.

It occurred to me kind of randomly that mahjong could be a good way to structure a web comic.  I’m not exactly sure how it would work, but creating a system of tiles may engage the reader in a non-linear fashion, where they have to match panels in some way to uncover the whole story.  In a way it’s similar to the book in a box concept, like The Unfortunates by B. S. Johnson, a really great book that has a bunch of loose booklets contained in a box that can be mixed up and read in any order, but with a game aspect.  With the web comic mahjong idea, the tiles could spread themselves over a space in random order, so the narrative and reading experience is different for each person.  It’s another project that would be work intensive, both in terms of drawing comics and programming the logic of the game, but I think both aspects could be fun.

For those interested in playing mahjong, this is my favorite version:

Still with me?

I’d really like to hear any feedback from the class about these ideas if anyone has time, which one seems more compelling or possibly problematic and any recommendations for other work in the vein of these ideas.


narrative lab, meta-narrative examples

my meta-narrative moments mostly had to do with reading comics as a kid, though i don’t think i necessarily understood them that way at the time.  but comics are full of meta narrative tricks, from stan lee writing editor notes and jokes into the panels, superheroes crossing over to different universes for guest comics, and the way that certain stories are retold again and again, like the origin myths of major characters like batman and spiderman, by different writers and artists.  the newspaper comics are also pretty self referential at times.  i found a few funny images.


i think the first “serious” work of meta fiction that i read was “chimera” by john barth.  when i was younger i just started reading all the books on my dad’s book shelf and found his first two novels, which are traditional sort of realism/modernism and really great books, but his career got very post-modern after that, and many of those books are really good as well.  chimera is based on scheherazade from the thousand and one nights, and is a frame story with a bunch of framed stories in it, with like ten levels of embedded quotation marks of the speakers in each story telling the next story. its pretty trippy.