Over a year ago, I was looking at the website of a magazine (Strange Horizons) that said something like “we’ve never published hypertext, but we’d like to”. It started me thinking about how one could use hypertext to enhance a story, and then, more broadly, about different ways to tell stories. I came up with a dozen or so ideas, including:

  • Static hypertext links – the most obvious one, telling a story through a series of interconnected scenes that the reader can visit in any order. I tried this in “Hivernaculum”, which is in the Laboratory.
  • Skeleton – telling the same story at different levels of detail, depending on how much time the reader has available. I tried this in “CBB”, also in the Laboratory.
  • Silhouette – implying a story by showing that something is missing. This one I adapted, in “Shadow”, to a series of scenes that follows in the footsteps of an epic quest.
In any case, the experience recently led to a conversation about what the purpose of all this is – is it solving a problem, or is it doing something different just to be different? In my case, I wrote the three above as experiments. I see hypertext as an interesting new tool, and my purpose is to learn how to use it. These stories are exercises to that end. Are they different? Somewhat, though none of this is really groundbreaking. Did they work? Pretty much. But the main question is, are they better? Here, I’m not so sure.
  • “Hivernaculum” (static links) works as I anticipated, but since there’s no real linearity, I found it hard to tell a story. What I ended up with was a sort of gestalt – if you read all of the scenes, you end up with what I hope is an interesting picture and awareness of several stories in progress. I aim to plant enough seeds to encourage a little daydreaming – “maybe this is what happens next”.
  • “CBB” (growing detail) I found harder to write than anticipated. Mostly, this was because while the concept was aimed at readers choosing one level of detail to read, I felt I had to allow for people like myself, who if they liked it, would read all levels. That meant that each level had to use the same basic skeleton to tell a slightly different story, challenging assumptions, etc. It was interesting, but somewhat tiring to write.

These two stories worked, in my view, but they didn’t really gain much from using hypertext. “Shadow”, on the other hand, I genuinely thought was interesting. Many people didn’t like the fact that there was no continuity between the scenes. The continuity, of course, is in the part that’s missing, the real story of which the text is a shadow. At the suggestion of Zed Paul, I’m planning work with an artist to co-produce a graphic novel version of this story. I’m excited to see how it will work out. Is it a better way of telling stories? Probably not, but that’s like saying first person is not a better way of telling stories than third person. It’s a different tool, and sometimes it may be the one you need.

None of which really resolved my recent discussion. One side said “it sounds like you’re just trying to be different for the sake of difference”, and lumped me in with modern artists who try to sell you a blank canvas with one green stripe. My side is “hey, I’m using this new tool. The result looks different, but I still have the same objective of telling a good story.” I suppose it comes down in part to intent.
  • Case 1 – All you have is a hammer. You’d better learn to specialize in nailing.
  • Case 2 – You’ve always used a hammer, and you’ll be damned if you’ll try out one of those new-fangled saws. So you can’t make a dovetail joint. Didn’t need ’em back in Dad’s day.
  • Case 3 – Everyone else is using a saw, so you use a hammer to be different. You’re going to produce some pretty badly cut wood.
  • Case 4 – You look over all your tools and decide that for this job, what you need is a chisel.