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Getting Started with

Hypertext Narrative


Mark Bernstein
Friday Night Edition

Getting Started with Hypertext Narrative

Copyright © 2015 by Eastgate Systems, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or

transmitted in any form or by any means without written permission
from the author.

ISBN 1-884511-52-X

Eastgate Systens Inc.

134 Main St, Watertown MA 02472 USA
+1 617 924 9044 www.eastgate.com

Storyspace™ and Tinderbox™ are trademarks of Eastgate Systems,

Inc. Other trademarks are the property of their respective owners.

cover of the print edition: “Cassandra,” painting by the author.

Fictional examples and scenarios described here are works of the

imagination. The people, places, and institutions described are
entirely imaginary, and any resemblance to actual institutions, places,
or people living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Table of Contents
Introduction ............................................................1
What We Need ......................................................3
Getting Started .......................................................7
Better Than Books................................................17
Interacting With The Story ................................35
Links ......................................................................55
Patterns of Hypertext ..........................................71
Cycles and Dynamic Links .................................81
Card Shark............................................................93
Hypertext and Dialogue ....................................111
Games and Beyond ............................................139
The Encyclopedic Impulse ................................161
Lyrical Nature of Links ....................................177
Why Not? ........................................................... 183
Seven Challenges For Writers ......................... 193
Getting Started With Hypertext Narrative

A Note On The References
These informal notes are an opinionated, rough-and-ready
introduction to a generation of research and artistic exploration. I’ve
made extensive use of the research literature, both in computer
science and in adjacent corners of literary criticism, but this isn’t
meant to be scholarship. My habit has been to fill my papers with
footnotes and references, but have tried to avoid those here. Lead
references can be found in the Reading Notes, and anyone seeking
the source of an claim or observation is encouraged to consult my
research papers or to drop me a note.

Much of the key research in hypertext writing appeared in the

Proceedings of the ACM Hypertext Conference, 1987-present. All these
papers are available online through the ACM Digital Library. The
ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) is the leading
professional organization for computer science, and personal
subscriptions to its digital library are reasonably priced.

Many key early papers on hypertext reading and writing are collected

Mark Bernstein and Diane Greco, eds., Reading Hypertext.

Watertown MA: Eastgate Systems, Inc., 2009.

Getting Started With Hypertext Narrative

Over the years, I’ve discussed hypertext narrative with hundreds of
talented writers, readers, critics, and students. Many of these
discussions took place at conferences and workshops, but there have
been many phone calls, quite a few beers, and great piles of
correspondence. For more than twenty years, Eastgate’s toll-free
phone and its email address have welcomed calls from all who wanted
to ask questions about hypertext fiction, questions ranging from
narrow technicalities to broad issues of technique and taste. I’ve tried
to learn from them all.

Special thanks for very recent discussion about this project go to the
writers and scholars below, and to many others as well. They have
kept me from many errors; those that remain are entirely my own.

Mark Anderson Judy Malloy

Ed Blachman Catherine C. Marshall
Bill Bly Stacey Mason
Jay David Bolter Stuart A. Moulthrop
Michael Bywater Scott Price
Brian Crane Emily Short
Bruno Dias Rosemary S. Simpson
Jane Yellowlees Douglas Peg Syverson
Steve Ersinghaus Susana Pajares Tosca
Ted Goranson Isabella V.
Hartmut Koenitz Mark Weal

David Kolb
Paul La Farge
Diane Greco Josefowicz
George P. Landow
Russ Lipton

Getting Started With Hypertext Narrative

What We Need
Everyone spends years learning to use the literary machine we call “a
book.” More than a few people find these long years a trial and, after
their final graduation, read little or nothing. The past century has
brought us all sorts of media – cinema, radio, television, weblogs,
YouTube, video games – that can tell stories. The oldest of old media
– songs and stories told over the dinner table or across the bar – still
flourish. For a brief time, fifty years back, it briefly seemed that we
might not need writing as badly as our ancestors did.

That turned out to be wrong. Lots of things we want to say, we say

best when we write. We write down laws because writing is clear and
fixed; the spontaneity and changefulness of performance are a delight
in some ways but a vexation when we’re trying to figure out exactly
whose woods these are. We write down shopping lists because, if
you’re planning to roast a leg of lamb and you forget to buy the
rosemary, it’s not going to be right. If we want to explain physical
organic chemistry or if we want to tell our computer what to we want
it to do, we write stuff down.

The book is failing, and its failure threatens civilization.

Our legislators no longer understand the questions on which they

vote. They no longer think understanding possible. They rely instead
on the advice of experts or, increasingly, select experts who will

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render advice that corresponds to their prejudices, habits, or to the

convenience of their corporate donors.

Our colleges and universities no longer understand the work their

professors undertake. They no longer think understanding possible.
They rely instead on the whims of those who already possess the
nobility of tenure and on the consensus of “peer reviewers” to choose
who shall teach, who shall conduct research, and whom shall be cast
out. Businesses, too, rely on executive search firms and luck to decide
who should receive promotion and who should be let go.

Voters no longer understand the issues their representatives will

confront. They no longer think such understanding possible. They rely
instead on dog whistles and identity politics, on selecting leaders who
seem to be nice people whom they would invite to dinner.

Despite the sensational complaints of best-sellers, our problem is not

that reading is somehow at risk, or that kids today cannot pay
attention, or that Google is somehow rewiring our brains. Our
problem is that we don’t read what we need. We can’t.

Our reading is mass-produced for an imaginary audience. One size

fits all. Our newspapers and magazines are confined by imaginary
strictures of an audience that is infinitely ignorant. Our scholarly
journals, in contrast, imagine an audience so specialized that even
leading experts in the field find their articles forbidding or
unintelligible. Through everything runs our pervasive fear of the

Disabling anxiety continues to distort our approach to The Digital.
The research literature is constantly looking over its shoulder,

Getting Started With Hypertext Narrative

anticipating hurt or harm. Google is said to be rewiring our brains.

Reading is supposedly at risk. The end of the newspaper, of the
magazine, of the bookstore, of literary culture itself, is being brought
upon us by television and video games. Libraries replace books with
Internet terminals, and then engage in an endlessly futile quest to
prevent patrons from using the internet to read about sex. We deplore
that access to computers is restricted to an elite, but when computers
become broadly available to our students we are obsessed with
filtering pornography.

Our fears are nowhere more visible than in our idiosyncratic

compulsion to repeatedly study the same tired, settled questions. Do
computers improve writing? Do links improve reading? We have
funded countless studies, and consistently rediscover effects that
(remarkably enough) almost always coincide with the inclinations of
the investigator. Impatient of our conclusion, society had formed its
own opinion, and its judgment could not be clearer. Almost no writer
today chooses to work without a computer, save as a performative
gesture; almost no employer pays professional writers to use pen and
paper; almost no researcher fails to consult the Web. When we
cannot demonstrate that computers improve writing or that links help
us learn, we ascribe the defect to The Digital — using our
spreadsheets to run the statistics, using our word processors to write
the paper, and then emailing the fresh publication to our provost and
grant officer.

Like the ancient Greeks who named the treacherous Black Sea “the
Hospitable Sea,” we manage our anxieties by keeping Digital cute,
small, and distant. We fill our electronic books with elaborately
animated page curls and sepia inks not seen in a bookstore for
centuries. Our software is filled with nostalgia for an imagined past,
as the wire binding of our electronic notebook and the chads of

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discarded pages of our electronic calendar are lovingly reproduced on

our screens.

This is neither necessary nor acceptable. We hold in our hands the

literary machines for which we have striven for a generation and for
which past generations longed. We should use them without fear, and
if we cannot, we should take care that the children do not see the
irrational fears we cannot control but of which we are, or should be,

A glossary, found at the end of this volume, provides background on
some technical terms – both from computer science and literary
theory – used in this volume.

Reading Notes
Part of this chapter originally appeared, in somewhat different form,
in Mark Bernstein, “Fear,” Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy 7(2)
2010, pp.

Getting Started With Hypertext Narrative

Getting Started
why we link
The future of serious writing lies on the computer screen. That future,
indeed, is already upon us. We compose on the computers, we read
our mail on computers, and increasingly we read our novels and
textbooks on computers.

Today, most of what we read is written as if it would be read on paper.

We no longer write on paper and we no longer read on paper, yet our
computers, our tablets, and our ebook readers simulate paper. Indeed,
they go to great lengths to copy the inconveniences of paper, the
awkwardness of turning the page, or the arbitrary limits it imposes on
our margin notes. Most significantly, we still write books as if they
were to be mass-produced by factories, one page forever following
another in a fixed and inalterable sequence, one size fits all.

We don’t use links much, and we don’t use them wisely.

Hypertext is, simply, writing that uses links; hypertext narrative is

telling stories (and histories) that use links. Links let us write in new
ways for new audiences to tell stories that were once difficult to tell.

Why does this matter?

• Our audience is ever more diverse, and the fragility of our planet
makes reaching our audience ever more critical. We cannot assume
that every reader has attended the same schools, read the same books,
or will ask the same questions. The work must be ready to provide
answers to each reader.

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• The importance of writing truly for a diverse audience is clear and

pressing in nonfiction, especially when writing to influence public
policy for an audience of legislators that ranges from experts to
cultivators of ignorance. Fiction, which seeks emotional truth, is not
less important.

• Each reader brings to their reading distinct constraints and

attitudes. Today, your audience is calm, attentive, and critical.
Tomorrow, your audience is agitated, anxious, and eager for
distraction. The work must be prepared to satisfy both audiences –
especially as they might be the same person.

• A central lesson of modernism was that artists should exercise tight

control in matters that matter, but may relax their grip elsewhere and
let the material or the brushstroke show. Links explore a looser
approach to narrative.

• Serious reading has always encompassed rereading. Hypertext

requires rereading, and makes manifest the way changes in the reader
change the work.

These notes explore some lessons we have learned from the first
twenty-five years of hypertext narrative.

in my opinion
We been writing hypertext for nearly thirty years, starting about a
decade before the beginning of the Word Wide Web. We have been
writing hypertext narrative from the start; at the very first Hypertext
Conference, the second paper discussed hypertext novels. As long ago
as 1992, decades before people began to carry a powerful computer in
their pocket, the New York Times Book Review was hailing early

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Storyspace fictions like Michael Joyce’s afternoon, a story, Stuart

Moulthrop’s Victory Garden, and Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl.

It has been clear for a generation that the future of serious writing lies
on the screen – or on whatever display medium replaces today’s
screens. It has been clear for almost as long that the hypertext link is
the most important new punctuation since the invention of the
comma in the late middle ages.

Still, we know remarkably little about writing hypertext. Recent

developments in Web writing have frequently showcased bad and
dishonest writing: sentimental memes reaching for pointless virality
and deceptive headline clickbait are all too common.

I have been engaged in editing, describing, marketing, and in research

on hypertext narrative from the earliest years. In Getting Started with
Hypertext Narrative, I’ve tried to offer advice for writing stories with
links. These are not rigid rules, and in any case rules about writing are
always made to be broken.

For many years, my advice to hypertext writers was simply to read

everything that had been written on the subject, and to read all the
available hypertext, and then to go on from there. That remains good
advice, but today the literature is becoming large. Not all of it is easy
to locate, some of it can be quite dense. I have tried here to point to a
few highlights, to emphasize some good ideas that are not widely
known, and to identify some possible flaws in what most people

this is very short

These notes are necessarily brief and practical. In selecting topics and
choosing examples, I have focused chiefly on the needs of journalism,

Getting Started With Hypertext Narrative

memoir, and of realist and genre fiction, areas often neglected in the
academic literature’s pursuit of the experimental avant-garde.

My particular concern here is narrative coherence. The basic task of

narrative is to explain what happened. The reader wants an
explanation, not a chronicle of events or a ledger of accounts. The
reader wants judgment – your judgment – of what mattered, and why.
But the reader has always engaged and questioned the text as well,
mentally interrogating the writers and their choices, reflecting on
whether the events are set out fairly or have been manipulated to
force them into partisan piles. Hypertext creates a new dialogue
between reader and writer, a dialogue which makes the reader’s (still-
limited) role manifest and that offers the writer new opportunities to
repair fraying relationships, to catch the stumbling reader before they
are lost entirely.

In the interest of brevity and simplicity, I have kept references to a

minimum, or perhaps less. The works suggested in Reading Notes will
provide plenty of lead references for the ideas contained here.

modes of hypertext
Hypertext is, simply, writing with links.

Hypertexts can attempt lots of different things. On my desk today, I

have a history of rock ’n’ roll, a fictionalized memoir of life on a
WW2 landing craft, a treatise on the nature of beauty, a volume
about computational visualization techniques, and a biography of
Jennie Churchill. Any of these might be a hypertext. Though some
practices are inherent to a topic or a style, others generalize to lots of
writing. The historian, the biographer, and the computer scientist all
share certain values: clarity, coherence, linguistic precision,
adherence to truth as they see it.

Getting Started With Hypertext Narrative

Narratives describe a sequence of events. A narrative might be an

invented story, a history that strives to recover an actual occurrence
or a memoir that tries to express what the writer experienced. It
might be a manual describing a tricky procedure – laparoscopic knee
repair, or installing your new cable modem. If the narrative is in fact a
story, it might be a familiar story or one the reader has never heard
before, or it might be a new story that adheres (more or less) to
generic conventions of the mystery, romance, western, space opera,
tragedy, or contemporary realism.

Hypertext narrative has often been associated with postmodern

experiments in metafiction. The connection is natural: hypertext
became technologically feasible just when postmodern ideas came
into focus, and the postmodern concern with the nature of fiction and
with the elucidating relationships and conversations among texts (and
between texts and readers) fits naturally with hypertext. I believe
hypertext will lend itself equally well to other literary delights, to
technical manuals and page turners, to dramatic epics and planetary
romances. I think it can be done.

there’s lots we don’t know

We’ve been writing hypertext for a generation. That seems like a long
time – especially to a researcher who, two years after the first
hypertext conference, was already notorious for complaining that
everyone was being far too slow and for demanding to know, “Where
are the hypertexts?” The demands of academic tenure and
commercial publishing in this generation have tugged literary
hypertext in odd ways.

To be sure, this first generation accomplished a lot. Hypertext

narrative has been an artistic and critical success. It has demonstrated

Getting Started With Hypertext Narrative

commercial viability, though the pot of gold a few looked for has not
materialized. Hypertext narratives have been reviewed in all the
major reviews and have appeared from major houses as well as
cutting-edge small presses. Above all, we have the overwhelming
success of the World Wide Web.

There’s a lot we simply don’t know about writing with links. Many
early writers were deeply interested in the nature of narrative; we
know more about metafiction and intertextuality than we do about
immersive hypertext. We know less than we ought about the
placement of links and their appearance. Our thinking about
orientation and navigation, about what the reader knows and should
know, has been clouded by technological misunderstandings and
theoretical accidents. We know almost nothing about short
hypertexts. Many of the most accomplished hypertext writers have
been primarily interested in literary fiction; Iowa and Manhattan have
cast long shadows in hypertext, but we know far less about hypertext
in so-called genre fiction. We know shockingly little about writing a
hypertext page-turner.

Though there is much we don’t know, we are in danger of forgetting

lessons we ought to have learned. Writers must read, and hypertext
writers must read hypertexts. Good readers need to be able to learn
from many masters, including those whose personal styles, class, or
interests do not entirely match their own. In other places and times,
this has required artists to pay closer attention to vernacular work, to
Learning from Las Vegas or listening to what the rock wants to say.
Hypertext has long had a different problem: we have fine art and
poetry, but we’ve never mastered the craft of telling a good yarn or a
good joke.

Getting Started With Hypertext Narrative

Who should read this?

These notes are primarily intended for writers – novelists, memoirists,
and journalists who are intrigued by the idea of interactive or
hypertextual narrative and who would like to learn about known
techniques, their strengths and limits.

I am particularly interested story-driven narrative, in the intersection

of interaction with excitement and in the possibility of a hypertextual
page-turner. Many of my colleagues think this idea quaint, and not a
few think it preposterous. Story-driven, immersive narrative has not
been the chief concern of literary fiction in this generation, and so I
am at particular pains to welcome writers of genre fiction, YA writers,
and others who are interested in stories but also interested in the new
ways of storytelling that new media afford.

In the opening years of the 21st century, the study of new media and
the practice of electronic literature have been riven by strifes and
jealousies. Storytellers denounced postmodernism while games
quarreled with cinema. Within game studies, narrativists fought first
with ludists and then with luddites. Elsewhere, art games went to war
against the bourgeoise complacency of the military-entertainment
complex, and then the children of Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto
counterattacked with Gamergate. These furious combats were
exciting enough for those involved, but provide little guidance for
those who want to get on with the story. For the most part, I will pass
over these conflicts in silence.

One quarrel perpetually underlies any discussion of reading on

screens: C. P. Snow’s “two cultures problem” and the cultural chasm
that still divides the arts and sciences. A great deal of writing about
new media amounts to little more than a declaration of allegiance or

Getting Started With Hypertext Narrative

faith, an assurance that of course new media will provide new

affordances, or of course electronic books will prove barbaric engines
of cultural destruction. The results have often been absurd: experts in
electronic literature who seldom read it, jeremiads against the
difficulty of reading on screens that were typed on a computer screen
by professors who spend their days reading and writing electronic
mail. Changes in higher education that now encourage early
specialization – particularly in Europe and East Asia – make the two
cultures problem ever more pressing; even in the United States, one
political party is at war with Science.

The best and perhaps the only remedy for the two cultures problem is
to cultivate broad and active interests and to engage widely in the
literature of many fields.

You won’t need everything

Storyspace provides a wide range of tools and techniques for writing
and managing linked narrative. You are unlikely to need or want to
use all these techniques in a single project.

Storyspace 3 draws on three separate traditions of hypertext

narrative. It begins with the powerful dynamic links that gave rise to
the so-called golden age of hypertext fiction, combining them with
modern typography and a greatly improved writing environment. To
these, Storyspace 3 adds tools for handling the state and status of
characters and objects, tools inspired by and extending the tradition
of computer games and interactive fiction. Finally, Storyspace 3
supports sculptural hypertext, an exotic but promising new idiom
explored in a series of research projects both at Eastgate and at the
University of Southampton. You may find any of these useful, and you

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may combine them in new and interesting ways, but you should not
feel obligated to master them all before you begin to write.

Reading Notes
Throughout these notes, I point out a variety of books and research
papers that I believe will be particularly interesting to readers, either
for their extensive influence or because they propose ideas that may
not have been sufficiently explored.

George P. Landow, Hypertext: The Convergence of Postmodern

Critical Theory and Technology, Johns Hopkins Press, various

Landow’s indispensable introduction to hypertext has gone through

three editions, each quite different. The most recent is Hypertext 3.0:
Critical Theory and New Media in an Era of Globalization. which seeks
to explain the new media world’s disinterest in narrative in the early
21st century; Hypertext 2.0 is perhaps slightly more engaged with the
narrative questions that concern us here but any edition will do.
Readers who are not accustomed to the language of critical theory,
especially those trained as engineers or scientists, may benefit by
reading the book backward – beginning with its exemplary
discussions of hypertext in education, and then moving through
narrative to the opening discussion of theory and philosophy.

Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: abstract models for literary


A slender volume best-known for its heretical use of (mild)

mathematics to make arguments about the history of literature, this is
a fine introduction to the way realities of writing and publishing shape
the way people read and think. For example, times in which there’s a

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new book every few months are very different from times in which no
one can possibly read all the new books. A clear-eyed view of the
intersection of writing and technology that steers well clear of the
swamp of media essentialism.

Getting Started With Hypertext Narrative

Better Than Books

Books are wonderful.

The book we know is not an eternal form, divinely ordained. It is a

familiar technological artifact, a product of industrial production. We
can distinguish it at a glance from books of the early 20th century,
and those are readily distinguishable from their early modern

Any discussion of electronic books eventually descends toward an

elegy for the form, a panegyric for the perfect volume of the golden
age, which is eternally and always the year when we were twelve. The
smell of ink does not exist and has, in any case, evaporated from our
dry and dusty pages. Book collecting is not a love of books but a love
of acquisition, of the symbolic potential that a stock of books one is
not reading might offer.

What we need now is a better book – or something better than books.

Few venture to say even this much, and the occasional critics of
today’s book seldom choose the right target for their critique.

Books are not too long, and they do not take too much time to read.
Our world is complicated. Physical organic chemistry is complicated.
That you can learn physical organic chemistry by reading a book is
remarkable; asking that the book be shorter is asking too much.

Books are not too stodgy for young people with short attention spans.
One of the greatest publishing successes in history is a children’s
book that runs to seven long volumes; kids today have read it. Film

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and music have their place as well, but the medium was never the

The book is a product of mass production. It is composed once and for

all, and one size and sequence must fit everyone. Mass production was
the price we paid for mass enlightenment; for many years, the printed
and bound book was the only way to discuss large ideas with a large

The computer and the screen now give us a new opportunity to

construct literary machines, mechanisms that discuss large ideas but
that adapt themselves to each new reader and to each fresh

Literary Machines
The future of serious writing lies on the screen: not the screen of the
television or the movie theater, but the display of the computer.

People probably have told stories for as long as they have been people,
and certainly they have written stories for as long as writing has
existed. Stories have been written in clay, cast in bronze, painted on
or carved in stone, wax, and wood. They have been inscribed on
monumental walls and prison cells, and they have been written on
cramped sheets. Those sheets in turn have been sewn together as rolls,
folded into pamphlets, and later sewn into the bound volumes we
recognize as “a book” and that scholars call a “codex.”

The familiar codex book is a literary technology, a machine that is

well adapted for telling stories. As a technology, the codex has proven
a tremendous success; books are ubiquitous throughout the world,
they are bought and enjoyed almost everywhere.

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The book can trace is roots to antiquity, but the book as we know it is
only perhaps two hundred years old. The literary world is always
changing: the modern newspaper begins with Pulitzer and Hearst in
the early 20th century, the mass-produced codex book only becomes
ubiquitous in the eighteenth century, and our familiar world of
booksellers and publishers, of novelists and their followers, only gets
going in the nineteenth. The paperback is scarcely fifty years old, and
the ebook reader scarcely older than a decade. Two hundred years
ago, we had only a few novels, a smattering of small libraries, and no
university taught or studied literature written in modern languages.
The book as we know it is neither unchanging nor divinely inspired:
the Gospels were written on scrolls, the Commandments on tablets. If
the book seems to us to be comfortable, natural, and transparent, that
is because we have spent so much time learning to use it: children
devote years to mastering the codex.

Each change in the technology of the book has changed the way we
read and the way we write. Economics matter: in antiquity, books
were scarce and incredibly costly, while for the past two centuries,
the cost of a new book has remained roughly the cost of a restaurant
meal. The book world of antiquity was a world of elites; the modern
literary world is far broader – especially when we remember that the
occasional book, like the occasional restaurant meal, was out of reach
of a vast swath of working-class people even in the centers of the
developed world before the 19th century. Small innovations exert
surprising influence. Universal, subsidized postal service led to huge
and vastly-popular magazines which, by serializing popular novels,
created for the first time national tastes and literary sensations. The
introduction of cheap (if ephemeral) coarse paper from the vast
forests of Canada, coupled with rack jobbing in newsstands,
tobacconists and pharmacies, facilitated an explosion of pulp

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magazines in the early 20th century that led, in turn, to the fertile
genre fiction of the 21st. Paperback books, in turn, displaced the pulp
magazines and shifted attention from the short story and novella to
the novel.

The craft of writing has always been shaped by technology, by the

constraints of contemporary literary machines. The tales of Achilles
and of Beowulf are shaped so the performer can recall them
accurately and so the audience can hear an episode or two in a sitting
and can finish the whole story before they leave town. The narrative
verse of Shakespeare was honed for the stage, the verse of Pope and
Dryden for broadsheets and pamphlets. Hemingway’s unadorned
style stems from the spirit of modernism and the new world, but also
stems from the short column lines and layout constraints of
newspaper reportage.

The future of writing lies on the screen: it behooves us to learn to

write for it.

not (just) visual

Though the future of writing lies on the screen, the future of writing is
not necessarily visual or cinematic. On the screen, we can present
images almost as easily as text, and we can present moving images
almost as easily as static pictures; what was until recently costly or
impossible to do on paper is now easy and common. But that should
not mislead us to think that these newly-possible things are the only
things worth doing, or that the only things worth saying are those best
said with video.

McLuhan was mistaken to think that the medium is always or often

the message. Different media do seem to have different abilities, or
rather different inclinations; it is easier for a painter to show a figure

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at rest than one in violent motion, as it is easier for a sculptor to show

one person than a multitude. Yet we do have Duchamp’s Nu
descendant un escalier n° 2 and Rodin’s Gates of Hell and Burghers of
Calais: if to make a pillow of marble is difficult, that difficulty is part
of the point of making one.

Yet most of us, most of the time, will choose a medium that makes
our work seem easier. Many things we want to explain are best
explained with text. When we discuss physics and chemistry,
engineering and economics, we have no substitute for prose and
equations. Computer science may occasionally indulge in an
illustration or two, especially for pedagogy, but programs and their
descriptions are preponderantly written. Some stories may most easily
be told in film, but many are far, far easier to explain in words.

Note, too, that if you wish to involve readers immersively, then

additional media add constraints rather than removing them. You can
say quite a lot in an image – look at Bruegel or Hogarth, at
Delacroix’s La Liberté guidant le peuple or Couture’s Romains de la
décadence or Renoir’s Le déjeuner des canotiers. But continuous motion
adds new constraints, and natural sound adds even more constraints.
If the sound is incomplete or incongruous, we lose immersion. If the
motion is choppy or slow or even if it’s completely natural but the
characters keep getting in our way, we lose immersion. Stylized or
abstracted imagery can provoke the imagination, but clumsy
animations of mundane domestic scenes are unlikely to take you far.

Nor is interactivity a panacea for capturing the reader’s interest and

sympathy. Readers engage with protagonists they like; asking them to
choose what the protagonist should do may reinforce identification or
may destroy it. Making the reader serve as the hero-protagonist
invites them to object that they are indeed not Prince Hamlet; they
aren’t here to be heroes — not today, thanks — they want to see

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heroic things. Gratuitous demands for interaction do not lead to

immersion: they lead readers to reflect on what they are being asked,
and why.

Computer Lib
A central anxiety of literary theory in the wake of the two Great Wars
was to understand the reader’s place. The earlier New Criticism
placed meaning in the text and sought it there specifically and
analytically, freed from sentimentality and from the author’s
purported intention. As we sat amid the ruins of the modern world,
the Enlightenment’s trust in the power of analysis to find meaning
seemed misplaced. Literary theory placed growing emphasis on the
reader’s role in constructing (or construing) meaning; after all, an
unread text conveys nothing.

As computers advanced in the 1960s, a few pioneers – most notably

Ted Nelson and Doug Engelbart – foresaw the computer’s role as a
literary machine. In the spirit of that age, both reached naturally for
the rhetoric of personal liberation. Engelbart sought out to build tools
that would augment human intellect, helping people think more
effectively, freeing them from mental drudgery and helping them to
build still better tools that would, in turn, further augment human
intellect. Engelbart’s work fit well with the military-industrial
complex where early computers were to be found. Nelson, with family
roots in theater and film, adopted an explicitly countercultural stance
to emphasize personal liberation through personal computing. It may
be difficult to remember today that, when Nelson’s Computer Lib/
Dream Machines appeared in 1972, the notion of any individual
owning a computer seemed improbable and the assertion that
everyone ought to own their own computer seemed preposterous.

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Nelson’s key understanding was that the codex is intrinsically an

artifact of mass-production; because books are bound by the
manufacturer, authors must contrive a single way to arrange their
argument. When reading on a computer, we need not choose the next
page until the moment before the reader sees it; when reading a
codex, the next page may need to have been chosen years before. The
codex imagines a single ideal reader to which the audience is required
to conform, while the computer might allow different readers to
follow different links, reorganizing the work to fit their needs and

Though awarding this power to the reader might seem revolutionary –

and detractors often treated it as barbaric – the limitations of the
writer’s authority were always evident. First, willing suspension of
disbelief is clearly central to the experience of fiction, and that
suspension is always a complex negotiation between the reader and
the text. Moreover, modernism and postmodernism both foreground
the division of the reader’s attention between the surface of the text –
the craft and language employed to evoke an effect or convey an idea
– and the (nuanced, contingent, multivalent) world the text describes.
A reader may pick up a text to subvert it, to reconfigure it, to
misunderstand it: a reader may do anything to the text. So may Time
and History; whatever authority the author possesses, that authority
is clearly restricted.

Finally, a core concern of postmodernism was breaking the causal

chain and freeing the writer from the tyranny of the narrative line,
revealing and surmounting the constraints of the conventional yarn.
The metafictional concerns of writers like Coover, DeLillo, Calvino,
and Borges dovetailed naturally into the liberatory rhetoric of
Nelson’s Dream Machines and was refracted in turn in early hypertext

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Computers As Theater
To Engelbart, the computer was an active notebook that could serve
as a power tool, a prosthesis for thinking. To Nelson, the screen was a
page in a living book, one that made manifest the real nature of
reading and would free writing from the constraints of mass

To Brenda Laurel, the computer was a stage, a performance space.

This is clearly true at a fundamental level: when we “push a button”
on the screen, for example, we do not actually push a button: there is
no button. We click on some pixels and not on others; those pixels
currently enact a button and, when we push it, they enact the action
of being pushed. Tomorrow, they will enact something else.

Laurel applied an Aristotelian model of drama to the problems of the

human-computer interface, which is to say the problem of showing
people what the computer is doing and letting people show the
computer what they want done. The interface serves as a space where
things are acted out; all the screen’s a stage. Moreover, since the
computer is performing for you, it can assume and cater to the
specific needs and preferences you bring to dramatic action.

Though storytelling was not Laurel’s chief concern, she paid it

sufficient attention in Computers As Theater and in her later work
popularizing virtual reality that her language of agency and constraint
became the canvas on which early hypertext fiction that was not
consciously literary was drawn. This tradition led to Interactive
Fiction (IF) and Art Games, and to a variety of games that depend on
artificially-intelligent actors.

Though little attention was paid to it, one of Laurel’s early observation
is crucial: actors enact or perform, but they need not be authentic

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simulations. The man in black is not in fact Hamlet the Prince of

Denmark, and does not in fact possess a fraction of the information
about Hamlet that the Prince would know. We have the lines, and the
lines (plus our own understanding) are all we have. Yet I can write
about Hamlet as if he is a person you and I both know, even though
you bring entirely different experience and understanding to the text.
We can even compare two performances, perhaps to argue that one
Hamlet was more like Hamlet than the other. We might compare
notes on technique, discussing how some detail of one performance
better delineates Hamlet, or how one Hamlet captures the character
more vividly through some detail of blocking and pacing, some
mannerism or pattern of speech.

Even within the confines of a single production, we might say that

Jonathan Slinger was even better tonight than he was last week. With
care and insight, we might identify just what had changed and why
those changes were effective. Investigating those differences, it would
probably not surprise us to find that some were carefully planned by
the actor, some inspired in the mystic interaction between stage and
audience, some were proposed by the director, and still others seem
to have no particular driver: they just happened that way, and it

Hypertext seeks to return to text the modest openness to variation,

both intentional and arbitrary, that performance has always

Painterly Narrative
One conventional view of the process of composition requires the
writer to observe and capture every necessary detail, to arrange each
element in its true, precise, and proper order.

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In some cases, that one true order may not exist. Consider a funny
story we tell at parties: sometimes we add extra details, sometimes we
leave them out. Sometimes we might begin with a little warmup, and
explanation or a frame; other times, we rush right in. Perhaps we tell
ourselves that we chose what would work best for this particular
moment with this particular crowd; perhaps we tell ourselves that it’s
a pretty funny story and those details don’t matter. At the end of the
day, who knows?

Academic painting and beaux-arts architecture also held that crisply

accurate rendition of every significant detail held the key to creating a
convincing work. Both sought to submerge mundane details of craft,
to subordinate the poor artisan’s quandaries to the grand themes of
the grand work. Impressionism and its heirs changed painting, just as
Arts and Crafts and early Modernism changed architecture: brush
marks came not only to be tolerated but to matter, exposed beams
and honest materials were embraced and prized beyond neoclassical

Always look for invention first, and after that, for such execution as
will help the invention, and as the inventor is capable of without
painful effort, and no more. Above all, demand no refinement of
execution where there is no though, for that is slaves’ work,
unredeemed. — John Ruskin, The Stones Of Venice II

The Impressionists’ work was not unfinished, as viewers accustomed

to the Salon originally thought; it showed what was needed, what the
painter knew, and declined to impose on the viewer details that the
painter did not know or experience but only knew, from convention or
theory, ought to be there somewhere.

Consider a treatment of an episode from a larger narrative.

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Lady Daphne Laplace surveys her morning room, populated this

afternoon by many of the guests she’d invited to this August’s party at
Brecon Park. Outside, the splendid African sun shines down on her
splendid green lawn, turning her elder daughter Mary that splendid
shade of nutty brown she gets each summer. Mary and her friend will
be heading up to Hill Academy in a few weeks for their final year
before University. Mary is not to be head girl, as Lady Daphne had
been in her day (Orie was a prefect at Marlton but no husband is
perfect) but Mary has taken the blow well, and the headmaster’s
surprising choice – an indigent but charmingly spiky young lady named
Polly Xena whom Mary has invited and to whom Daphne has assigned
her most patient and tactful maid – seems to be a acclimating well.

On the whole, Lady Laplace thinks this year’s party is doomed.

Part of the problem is that the young people are having a very good
time indeed, and their parents don’t quite know what to make of that.
From her Head Girl days, Daphne has always been expert at the real
mystery of country houses: who is fucking whom, and why. It’s all very
well to understand that the kids are grown up now, and most of them
are gorgeous, but it makes one feel very odd. The Hunters both seem
especially edgy – Amy’s a dear, though underneath she’s every inch as
middle-class as her parents – and poor old Lord Randolph seems
terribly preoccupied even though his girl Cassie (who has been very
odd ever since her mother, poor Heshie, died) appears to be sleeping
alone. Mary has given up her friend Mason West: as prefect he belongs
with the new head girl if she’ll have him, and Mary is being a sport
about it. Daphne suspects that she’s sporting with Jacob Demarr, who
is gorgeous and charming and captain of the ball team, though his
father is just an administrator of one of the Senneterre estates. Daphne
tries not to notice and reminds herself to have a talk with Mary about
the perils of sex with the middle classes.

The political climate isn’t ideal for a party, either. Orie’s been Minister
of Culture for more than two years now and has been having a ball, but

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no government lasts forever and Daphne can see that they’re all
nervous about the coming session. They always get like this, afraid that
if once they lose they’ll be cast out forever. Culture is nice, yes, but it’s
not everything, and one can’t move up until you’ve moved out for a bit.
She’s tempted to ask Lord Randolph to have a word with Orie, but
Randolph keeps going on about the rebels in the hills.

There have always been rebels in the hills: that’s what hills are for, and
the rebels give the Army something to do.

There are the usual tensions, of course. The Hunters have never liked
the Wests, perhaps because in their wild youth they liked each other
rather too well. Their kids seem to like each other fine; that’s
something, anyway. The Cormyns don’t get along – they never have –
and Aspen Cormyn is constantly asking advice about anything that
comes into her head from anyone who happens to have a title or two in
the family. Poor Grenton, the butler here at Brecon, is overstrained by
these parties and never hires enough help: Daphne is sure that she’s
never laid eyes on the fellow passing those cheese pastries (remember
to praise Mrs. Benson), and even for an informal Saturday afternoon,
serving in a chef’s jacket and army boots seems a bit much. No doubt
there is some unprecedented crisis in the kitchen.

Now, suppose we want to recast this scene, with its buckets of
exposition, in dialogue. Where do we begin? With poor Lord
Randolph, worrying about the rebels and telling any man who will
listen what he’d be doing if he were still in office? With Aspen
Cormyn pestering Vic Senneterre for advice on managing maids and
daughters – subjects about which Vic has seldom spared a thought?
With poor butler Grenton, dragooning some messenger sent to find
“Colonel Pasternak,” who is not here and who is not expected, into
serving as an extra footman because, if the man must be underfoot, he

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might at least be of use? Or outside with the kids as they joke and
play ball games and fall in and out of love?

Where do we begin? Who speaks first?

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. They’re all going to get a chance, we’ll meet
them all eventually. Perhaps one sequence is just as good as another.

Though sequences may be equally good in principle, and though the

same things take place in each, their weight and meaning will differ.
In one sequence, we might see the repellent Aspen Cormyn eating
canapés from a costly plate. We next describe the hostess’s
rambunctious pet dog, which has quietly snuck the morning room.
Finally, we describe the accident: the dog startles Mrs. Cormyn, who
drops her plate, causing breakage and embarrassment. This forms a
plausible, even commonplace, sequence.

Alternatively, we could describe Mrs.Cormyn’s canapé, and then

follow it with the sudden accident. What could have caused this
mishap? It’s the dog! In the first sequence, the dog’s appearance
introduces tension, in the second, the dog’s comic hijinx release the
tension of Mrs. Cormyn’s sudden and inexplicable accident.
Whichever sequence we experience, that sequence will condition our
response to the next appearance of the dog.

Sculptural hypertext – tangled and densely linked hypertext as

contrasted to the familiar sparsely-linked or calligraphic hypertext –
could let us write this dialogue in all the ways it might work. We write
some speeches and some exchanges, perhaps some descriptive
passages and transitions. We add just the constraints needed to keep
things coherent: the kids are outdoors, the adults are not, and so kids
talk to kids and the grownups talk to each other. Perhaps we add
some constraints to keep the discussion on topic, but maybe we don’t;
maybe it’s that kind of party.

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We could start outdoors with the kids, or below stairs where the cook
and the butler are coping with the chocolate cream and the current
catastrophe, or we could start with the irritating Aspen Cormyn or
with our patient and witty hostess. Let things play out. If we notice a
bad combination, we’ll prohibit it. If we need more ways to move
indoors and out, we’ll write them.

Instead of trying to get the dialogue sequence right, we accept any

sequence that isn’t wrong. Moving from the morning room to the
lawn without any transition is wrong, so we forbid that. Letting one
character drone on without interruption is wrong; we won’t do that,
either. But starting with Lady Daphne is fine, and starting with Lord
Randolph would be fine, too. Where we don’t have a reason to choose
this or exclude that, we can leave it to chance or perhaps to the

In painting, it’s not always necessary to specify everything. Perhaps

it’s not necessary in hypertext narrative, either.

The Digital Gothic

“When we return to the discussion of the asymmetry of the spires of
Chartres and Amiens, we now understand that such are not accidents
happening to a pre-established order, but accidents happening
because of an order.” – Spuybroek, “Gothic Ontology and Sympathy”

Classical architecture is a universal architecture of precision,

planning, and control. Each element has its proper place and size, and
each is subordinated to the greater plan. In antiquity, classicism was
the architectural language of empire; in the 19th century is was the
language of manifest destiny and of a Republic taming the wilderness;
in the 20th century, it became the language of fascism.

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Ruskin expounded an (admittedly ahistorical) vision of the Gothic in

opposition to the Classical, emphasizing savageness and
changefulness as the touchstones of the Gothic. Changefulness refers
to continuous change, as the vaulted rib has no single radius of
curvature but changes continuously as it flies. Savageness refers to
clean breaks, to asymmetry, to unique work expressed by different
hands where structural constraints allow such variation. In classical
architecture, each capital should be (or appear to be) identical; in
gothic, the capitals must all be at the same height (lest the building
collapse) but each may be carved in whatever way the workman can
best carve them. In classical architecture, the architect controls every
detail and sees that everything is done right. In gothic, the architect
establishes the parameters and stands back while guilds and individual
masons and chance all do their best. Because the Gothic idiom is
changeful, the architect was free to say, “the East tower will be built
here, and we will start at once; the West tower will be built there, but
we may not be able to build it for twenty years, or seventy. It must lie
where I put it and have the plan I specified, but when it is time to
build the tower you may know better ways to build than I, and so the
design allows for a great deal of variation in elevation and in

The storyteller has similar freedoms. At bedtime, the audience

interrupts to ask why no one believes Cassandra or how the war got
started, and we can interrupt the story this time. Another time, we
will go straight on.

A hypertext can serve as a plan, a generator of variations on a theme.

Reading Notes
Theodore Holm Nelson, Computer Lib/Dream Machines

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Quirky, delightful, self-published and unforgettable, this is the

founding argument for hypertext and indeed for the idea of the
personal computer. Nelson’s rhetoric of liberation was a terrific
advantage in the 1970s, but became a liability in the Reagan era when
it seemed unserious and the idea of hypertext libraries infeasible.
Overnight, the Web proved the doubters wrong.

Theodore Holm Nelson, Literary Machines

This longer, more focused, and more detailed exploration of large-

scale hypertext expounds Xanadu, Nelson’s comprehensive hypertext
system that anticipated the Web. Unlike the Web we built, Xanadu
offered automatic payments to authors, clear copyrights, and links
that would never break. Though the book does its best to explain and
justify its technical claims, a combination of proprietary coyness and
terminological obscurity prevented the research community from
understanding crucial details until much later. It was not for want of

Underpinning Literary Machines and Nelson’s 2011 autobiography,

Possiplex, is Nelson’s belief that the natural mode for software
development is cinematic, that software ought naturally be created by
a director who distributes resources and directives to a specialist
technicians and craftspeople. This vision of software management was
arguably the general expectation in the 1960s. Later experience has
shown that software is usually better built by individuals or small
teams who do the work themselves, rather than by auteurs
commanding vast resources and providing overall vision. Critics place
far too much emphasis on the things, often incidental or accidental,
that Nelson got wrong, and far too little on the many things about
which Nelson was right.

Brenda Laurel, Computers as Theater

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This accessible volume adapted Aristotelian ideas about drama

refracted through mid-19th century German criticism. The underlying
ideas have proven fruitful and continue to underpin our thinking
about computer games specifically and user interfaces more generally.
The book’s reputation in more literary circles has suffered because it
accepted Aristotle’s formalism at precisely the moment when
postmodernism had dispensed with the tired old forms and – even
more emphatically – the tired old essences of pre-modern and early
Modern criticism. The intervening twenty-five years have witnessed
the rise of postmodernism and the reaction against it, and perhaps we
can now see what was right in the foundation, now freed from the
surrounding culture war.

Lars Spuybroek, “Gothic Ontology and Sympathy,” Speculative

Art Histories (2013): https://www.academia.edu/15681061/

Architect Lars Spuybroek proposed an astonishing and excitingly

fresh view of the nature of the digital in light of Ruskin’s view of the
Gothic in its characteristic savageness and changefulness in his book,
The Sympathy Of Things. That book is out of print (though a new
edition is expected in 2016); this essay updates the book’s tour-de-
force treatment of “The Digital Nature Of The Gothic.”

Belinda Barret, Memory Machines: The Evolution of Hypertext.

London: Anthem Press, 2012.

A sound and sympathetic guide to the prehistory of hypertext, and

especially to the work of pioneers Engelbart, Nelson, and Andries van

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Interacting With The

Links open narrative to interaction and to change. Text stays itself;
hypertext changes with each reading and yet it remains itself.

How might we tell a story with texts that are open to change?

varying the story

When we begin to think about the reader’s active interaction with a
narrative, we often reach first for interaction that changes the story –
that changes what happens in the narrative world. We imagine
“choosing our own adventure,” guiding a hero-protagonist through a
maze of perils and perplexities until we reach, at last, the desired
reward. Or, we might think of the challenge of solving a puzzle, of
assembling clues to determine who committed the crime. We might
cast ourselves as a general, devising a strategy that will enable our
troops to vanquish the enemy. We might even imagine with Janet
Murray an immersive fictional world, Hamlet on the Star Trek
“holodeck”, in which we can see and converse with simulated people
pursuing their own ends.

Using the reader’s choices to change the story – to change “what

happens” in the fiction – has been most closely associated with games
and the game-like fictions conventionally called Interactive Fiction or

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IF, fictions in which the computer describes the scene and the reader
writes instructions for what she wants to do.

You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building.
Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building and
down a gully.

What’s next? _____

(William Crowther and Don Woods. “Adventure.” (1976))

Interactive Fiction, despite its concerns with puzzles and combats,

has frequently produced work of considerable interest. The work of
Michael Bywater, Nick Montfort, Em Short, and Alexis Kennedy are
all good starting point.

My Friend Hamlet
1. Constructing a convincing fictive world is hard enough when the
writer controls what the reader will witness. In a book, the
reader goes where the page leads, but in the holodeck, the
reader might go anywhere. The imagined world must be fenced
somehow, yet the evidence of fencing is necessarily at odds
with the implicit promise of free action. In naive
implementations, this leads to combinatoric explosion (“the
death of a million endings”) or to clumsy dead-ends in which
the reader constantly “dies” by failing to guess the correct

2. Many stories depend crucially on the particular nature of the

protagonist, a nature which the story reveals to us. That a
prince died in Denmark is regrettable, perhaps, but
commonplace: all princes die. What matters to us is Hamlet,
and his death depends crucially on his character. If he were not

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Hamlet – if he were a sensible fellow like you and I – there

would be no story. Tragedy depends crucially on the
protagonist’s character, as does romance, though in the latter
case the audience may be more willing to pretend that they,
too, are Fortune’s visible elect, superior to reason and to fate.

3. Offering apparent freedom of action, especially when the reader

performs as the hero-protagonist, engages the reader in a
bargain we cannot fulfill. Any narrative system will have
boundaries and limits. Naturally the reader-as-hero will
invariably set out to uncover those limits: that’s what heroes
do. In place of the protagonist’s quest, we have instead an
unequal contest between the reader and the world-builder.
I refer to these several difficulties with using links to change the story
under the rubric, “My Friend, Hamlet.” The difficulties may be
overcome, at least partially, through care, contrivance, and skillful
writing, but they are real and pressing.

varying the plot

Rather than vary the story – what happens – we may instead vary the
plot – the way the story is related. Different choices of links may lead
to different points of view, different pacing, and, crucially, a different
choice of which events to relate, and of the order in which to relate

Consider, for example, the mystery story, which springs from a rent
in the fabric of the world, a felonious rupture which our protagonist
will struggle to understand and, at least in part, to repair. I choose the
mystery here not because its form is well adapted to hypertext fiction
– it is not – but because even this constrained form provides plentiful
opportunities to vary the plot. Consider, for example, the starting

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point, the initial rupture, and the many ways we might reveal it to the

• We might begin by viewing the commission of the crime, adopting a

viewpoint that reveals what happened and who is responsible.
• We might instead obscure either the crime or the criminal, perhaps
choosing the viewpoint of a victim who is taken unaware, a
bystander whose understanding is incomplete or incorrect, or
even the criminal who knows perfectly well who she is and
what she is doing, and so need not dwell on these obvious facts.
• We might instead begin with the action that motivates the criminal
or inspires their felonious pursuits.
• More conventionally, we might begin with the discovery of the
crime, its initial report, or with a subsequent recruitment of the
• We might begin still later, as the hero works to solve the mystery,
revealing the initial report later through a flashback or time
• We might begin far, far in the future, as the hero (perhaps facing
some new and different crisis, or perhaps telling a good club
story) recalls these long-past events, and chooses to begin that
account at any of the points previously discussed.
The writer shapes the plot deliberately, choosing sequence, tone,
voice, and point of view that best fits the underlying story and the
writer’s purpose. Some choices might be consistent for every reading
by every audience, but some might be left to the audience’s choice or
to fate. We make these choices all the time when telling stories orally;
if I want to tell my mother’s story about dropping the Thanksgiving
turkey, I might tell it one way for a family gathering, another for a
dinner party of cooks and critics, and take a completely different
approach for a children’s party.

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As a further example of the consequentiality of plot, consider the

story of “Little Red Riding Hood” (Arne-Thomson 303), in which a
wolf deceives a young girl into climbing into bed with him. The girl
sets out to visit her grandmother; before the girl arrives, the wolf has
already consumed the defenseless old lady. In some tellings, we
disclose this crucial information early: “meanwhile, as Little Red
Riding Hood strolled through the forest, the wolf had already arrived
at her grandmother’s cottage.” In this case, when the girl arrives the
reader knows what is about to happen: we find ourselves in a horror
movie, aghast at the foolishness and fate of the heroine. In other
readings, we might withhold this information, and the reader will be
as shocked as the girl to discover that things are not what they
seemed and that the universe can turn upon us so viciously; we may
find ourselves in comedy (if this turn leads to further complication) or
romance (if Little Red Riding Hood’s intrinsic goodness saves her in
the end) or melodrama (if she is rescued and married by the brave
woodsman) or perhaps in tragedy.

It might seem that changing plot, rather than story, is thin gruel, a
meager reward after the promise of the Holodeck. We started with
the expectation of doing great deeds, and now it seems we must be
resigned to fiddling with camera angles. Is changing the plot worth
the effort?

Changes in plot, without changes in underlying story, exert powerful

effects on our understanding of the material. These are not (as some
hypertext critics seem to have assumed) merely a matter of abstruse
artistic effect. Consider, for example, some familiar cinematic
accounts of the allied invasion of Normandy:

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• The Longest Day

• The Big Red One

• Saving Private Ryan

• Band of Brothers

• King Of Hearts

These films draw on the same reservoir of story; what happened once
upon a time on Omaha Beach and Ste-Mere-Eglise does not change
much from one film to another. But by changing tone, pacing, point of
view, by starting and ending the account at different places, and by
embedding the narrative in different frames, the authors create
entirely disparate arguments.

the cinematic cut

In Storyspace, we have a collection of pages or writing spaces that are
connected with links. In Tinderbox, we call these notes; the research
literature sometimes calls them nodes.

A link connecting two writing spaces frequently functions in a way

that recalls the cinematic cut, the juxtaposition of two separate shots
of continuous action that are nevertheless perceived as part of a
scene. We begin here, and after selecting a link, we are suddenly there.
The cinematic cut is equally outside our experience: at one moment
we are witnessing a scene from a specific point, and suddenly our
viewpoint changes.

In each case, the audience is expected to contrive a theory that

explains the connection. When watching a film, we may not be aware
of these transition and experience them as part of a natural and
immersive performance, though the filmmaker can, if she wishes,

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employ a variety of techniques to call our attention to the cut.

Similarly, the boundary between linked writing spaces may shrink to
near-invisibility, but we can also emphasize the transition at need.

a catalog of links
What can a link do?

Links aren’t required to do anything. Just as page breaks are usually

understood to be meaningless, links may simply provide a mechanism
to proceed through the text. Indeed, Storyspace default links, which
are followed whenever the reader clicks outside the text, on an
unlocked word, or simply presses [Return], may be seen as simply

Where the reader is called upon to make a choice, to select one link
rather than another, that link takes on added weight. Since we have
chosen that link, our choice becomes part of our theory of transition,
our explanation of what connects the writing space at which we arrive
to the writing space from which we departed.

Michael Joyce identifies three link primitives: recursus, in which the

text doubles back on itself, time shift, which leaves us in the same
place at a different time, and renewal:

That there are three link primitives does not speak to their myriad
types of course. Of recursus, there is hallucination, deja vu,
compulsion, riff, ripple, canon, isobar, daydream, theme and
variation to name a few. Of timeshift there is the death of Mrs
Ramsay and the near disintegration of a house, the chastened
resumption of the Good Soldier, Leopold Bloom on a walk, and a man
who wants to say he may have seen his son die. Of the renewal there is
every story not listed previously, the unrecollected whisper of your

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mother, and the barely discerned talk of lovers overheard at the next
table as they eat potstickers and drink bad Chinese beer.

In addition to Joyce’s three three kinds of narrative links, we must

also consider annotation, including expanded exposition, definition,
illustrative anecdote, intertextual reflection, lyric, and footnote.
Annotation does not directly advance the narrative, but annotative
links can lead to writing spaces which may, in turn, introduce new
narrative links.

breaking the narrative line

The story begins, the curtain rises: anything might happen. The one
certainty we have is that, at the end, we will understand more than we
understood at the outset. Our path to understanding might be clear
and straightforward in one work, indirect and circuitous in another.
Our path may set out along a familiar, well-worn course and then
might veer in surprising directions. But we will arrive at some sort of
understanding in the end: that is the contract between the reader the
writer. A tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing, is a tale told by an

In art as in life, we often haste into the midst of things. There is really
no beginning, and truly no end, either to any story or to the making of
more stories.

Clarity sometimes requires that we explain people and events by

moving through time. We show a character at a moment of crisis – a
math teacher, perhaps, who stands in the middle of a raging battle
and on whom much depends – and then we go back many years to
explain how this man arrived at this place, and how he came to be the
sort of man who would act as he is about to act. We do not start with

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his childhood, or with his great grandparents, because those only

become interesting because this man is where he is.

Meanwhile, in another part of the battlefield, another man – a general

– is following his instructions and moving the men he commands to a
new place on the field. Unfortunately, his instructions were garbled,
or he misunderstood them, or perhaps he simply turned left when he
intended to turn right: these things happen but our sources are
unclear. This muddle will matter later in the day because this general
and his men will not be in the right place – for a time, it may pass that
no one knows where they are, they may seem to have been snatched
up and removed from the field by some Homeric misadventure – and
this unforeseen and unforeseeable error, in retrospect, will render the
crisis we are about to describe even more crucial.

Because that crisis was faced, and because someone else made an
error elsewhere that left matters in the balance, the battle would
continue the next day – a day that Faulkner would remember 85 years

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he
wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that
July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail
fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags
are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long
oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the
other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and
it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun
yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to
begin against that position and those circumstances

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And of course, what Faulkner omits is that what hangs forever in the
balance in this golden, lost moment is a cause entirely bad, the shame
of the world.

Military history played a small but crucial role in the intellectual

development of the close of the twentieth century, when for a time it
seemed that the reader brought nearly all meaning to a text, that texts
were nearly empty vessels that were only filled by what the reader
brought to them. We might find it hard to locate meaning beyond the
reader in poetry and painting, even in stories – both those stories we
know to be made up and those stories that claim to represent a
version of history. If the nature of the mutiny on HMS Bounty or the
strange death of Captain James Cook lay at the mercy of audience
interpretation, however, soldiers remained confident that battles were
events that actually happened, and that what was done or not done in
combat had material consequences. What happened can matter quite
a lot, and simply understanding what happened in the face of myriad
viewpoint and superabundant confusion can pose a daunting
challenge, and links can help establish complex relationships across
space and time.

Battlefields are not the only reason to break the line. Stories often
depend not so much relating complex and puzzling chains of action as
on our gradual appreciation of how matters really stand. We begin
with a family which appears to be happy. Well, happy enough: it is as
happy as any family is likely to be in this place and time. Gradually,
we see that our initial judgment was wrong: not all of the family are
happy. They are far, far from happy; our first judgment was foolish.
And yet, we may in time learn that this, too, is a mistake, that even
now we do not understand.

Now, it is possible that this story of this unhappy family can only be
described in one sequence. It may be the case that a specific set of

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insights, ordered in one particular way, is the best or only way to

understand the family, and in that case, the author’s duty is clearly to
adopt that set of insights and to present it in that particular order.

But if we actually met this family – if we had been invited to spend a

wintery week at their dacha, or if we were guests at their cocktail
party, having left our kids at home with the babysitter – then in reality
it is very unlikely that we would have hit upon precisely this sequence
of experiences. If you go to bed an hour too early, rise a little too late,
get just a little too drunk, or duck into the den when you ought to be
listening to the story your host is telling out by the pool, and you will
have missed a crucial scene. You will never understand.

Yet we do, in time, understand things, or convince ourselves we do.

We sometimes understand things that are hard to understand, truths
that were hidden, and that reveal themselves gradually through the
accumulation of experience and observation. As writers, we may not
know the optimal sequence. There may in fact be no optimal
sequence, or it might vary from reader to reader, from day to day.

We know the various details that can be presented. We may know

some constraints about the sequence: some stories can’t be
understood until you’ve heard certain other stories or know the real
story about certain people. Others, you can squeeze in wherever they
happen to fit. Still others might be worth telling sometimes or to some
audiences, but at other times they’re best passed over.

In print, the writer must choose a sequence, and that sequence is fixed
for all audiences at all times. In hypertext, we can break the line,
allowing reader’s whim (or chance) to select among equally good
alternatives while also letting the writer constrain those choices
where continuity, causality, or clarity dictate.

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Janet Murray’s imperatives

In Hamlet on the Holodeck and its sequel, Inventing The Medium, Janet
Murray identified four essential affordances of digital media. In this
view, digital media are

• procedural

• participatory

• encyclopedic

• spatial.

All these seem plausible. Computers are programmed, and to use

them we follow procedures. “Participatory” is a useful generalization
of “interactive.” The encyclopedic impulse of the digital seems rooted
in the economics of cheap storage and ubiquitous networking. Lots of
digital media seem spatial, either in their representation on the screen
or in terms of the spaces the story describes.

But let us return to Lars Spuybroek and The Sympathy of Things,

which applies John Ruskin’s aesthetics of architecture to the nature
of the digital. In The Stones Of Venice, John Ruskin proposed six
“characteristic or moral elements of Gothic” art and architecture.
These were:

• Savageness

• Changefulness

• Naturalism

• Grotesqueness

• Rigidity

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• Redundancy

These qualities were meant to describe Chartres and St. Mark’s, but
they appear to apply remarkably well to the inclinations and
propensities of hypertext narrative.

• Hypertexts have been inclined to be unmannerly to the literary

establishment and (especially) to the military-infotainment
• Hypertext is intrinsically changeful: we are always choosing, and
our choice gives rise to change. Text follows itself; hypertext
replaces itself.
• Hypertext narrative, though embedded in and read on a machine,
has chiefly concerned itself with the close observation of
• Whether we are reading about the man who wants to say that he
may have seen his son die this morning, about the girl who is
stitched together from many bodies (and who tends to fall
apart), or one of the numerous car crashes that punctuate the
landscape of hypertext narrative, the propensity of hypertext
narrative for the grotesque is clear.
• Ruskin’s “rigidity” has been the source of much discussion, as
Ruskin knew little and cared less about structural engineering.
This rigidity arises, in his view, from the builder’s obstinacy,
and might best be viewed in terms of “resistance” of the work,
“the peculiar energy which gives tension to movement, and
stiffness to resistance.” This resistance is a familiar experience
of hypertext narrative; we often want to skip to the good parts
– to get the MacGuffin, to undress the girl – but the hypertext
has a will of its own.
• Redundancy (or generosity) concurs with Murray’s encyclopedic
impulse, but emphasizes that this is not simply a matter of
scope and scale but of literal abundance. A hypertext need not

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offer more stories, but it may explore one story from many
views, in light of numerous contingencies, while opening and
adapting itself to a wide range of readers.
Murray’s properties are the well-considered and well-received
judgment of one of the world’s foremost scholars of the digital.
Ruskin’s properties are torn from their context and applied to work
created more than a century after he wrote, and nearly half a
millennium after the work he was discussing. What are we to make of

First, essentialism is a suspect quality. Indeed, Louis Menand suggests

that postmodernism itself is a rejection of essentialism.

Postmodernism in the arts simply is anti-essentialism. It is a reaction

against the idea, associated by academic critics in the postwar years
with modernist literature, painting, and architecture, that the various
arts have their own essential qualities—that poetry is essentially a
matter of the organization of language, that painting is essentially a
matter of composition, that architecture is essentially a matter of
space and light.

If we stare at the digital long enough, perhaps we see what we want to


Second, Murray’s qualities depend on what we know about

computers, while Ruskin’s (or, really, Spuybroek’s) depend on
observation of the work itself. It is clear a priori that a computer is
procedural, but it is far from clear that computers should be
particularly grotesque. Grotesqueness is a surprise, and so more

Finally, the subject of classification – the digital – may be the wrong

subject entirely. Text itself has always been inherently digital, after
all, but text is familiar and hypertext is not. We know a good deal

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about the affordances and the limitations of alphabets. We’ve had

practice. New media are not new because they hold alphabets, or
because they represent those alphabets internally as binary digits. Yet
we sense that something is new here, something that represents a
break from the codex book. I maintain that the new thing is the link:
we should look not to the essence of the “digital” but to the essence
of the link.

the reader doesn’t know what the

reader wants
A frequent byword of early hypertext was “free and knowing
navigation”: hypertexts should give the reader what she wants. Early
treatises on Information Architecture for the Web placed a similar
emphasis on clear labels and consistent navigational cues. In each
case, we assumed that the reader would know what she wanted and
the text, naturally, should deliver it promptly and efficiently.

In practice, readers seldom know what they want. Clerical workers

performing routine chores – vetting insurance forms, say, or pricing
construction quotes – may indeed read to acquire factual nuggets, but
that sort of “reading” is in fact atypical. Whether we are reading
about OS X or Don Quixote, synthetic organic chemistry or the the
next election for county commissioner, we don’t know in advance
exactly what we need to know.

In narrative, moreover, the reader’s desires are at cross purposes. The

audience wants to know how things turned out, they want to know
what happened – but they also want to see everything unfold. They
may in fact know how things turn out, at least in a general way, either
because genre convention imposes constraints or because they

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already possess evidence: if an adventure story is being told in first

person, the narrator must have survived to tell the tale. We want
sympathetic characters to be happy, but we do not mind that the
author afflicts them en route to that happy state and, while we don’t
want the story to continue indefinitely, surely we don’t want it to end
quite yet!

annotation and pacing

Narrative drives forward and the reader, in motion and wanting to
know how things turn out, leans farther forward the more the
narrative progresses. But this acceleration cannot be sustained
forever. An orchestral crescendo is exciting, too, but sooner or later
we reach fortissimo and can no longer build getting louder, by going
straight ahead. We must modulate the acceleration and then resume

Hypertexts can use annotation to modulate narrative drive, offering

interesting background, explanation, commentary, description, or
even dialogue without closing the scene or establishing a new setting
with new characters. The interruption might be very short – a side-
trip to a single writing space for a short explanation – or it might be
an extended discussion of the sociology of a whaling ship or the
hazards of abusing a warp drive.

Discussion of hypertext fiction has often been dominated by the
question of immersion. If the reader is asked to make choices or to
follow links, will that distract them from the perfluent dream, from
getting lost in the book?

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Michael Dirda’s essay on reading “After The Golden Age” is a useful

reminder here that grownups don’t read the way kids read. In those
long mythic afternoons of your own Golden Age, perhaps you did read
Sherlock Holmes and Tolkien for the very first time, thinking of
nothing more than whether Sherlock would solve the puzzle or
whether Frodo could ever evade the armies of Mordor. You could do
that because you didn’t know anything and you didn’t know any
better. You paid no attention to craft on those lazy summer
afternoons: books happened in the same way dinner happened. Books
weren’t something one made, they were something you expected and,
if they failed to appear when needed, they were something you might
ask for.

You didn’t argue with the author, either, because you were a kid and
kids don’t argue with grownups (except their parents of course). Nor
did you stop to compare Sherlock to Poirot or Marlowe or Peter
Wimsey or Walt Longmire because you were a kid and you hadn’t yet
met the others.

You can recapture some of that sense of immersion with the right
book at the right moment. You can get something like it for a while in
film and theater, and perhaps in some computer games. You can find
it elsewhere: wine is the thing that makes us happy for no reason,
there’s a reason why sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll go together. Still,
you can’t really go home again, and you only imagine that you want

Hypertext narrative has often lent itself to metafiction, to stories that
concern, at least in part, with the nature of story.

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Innocence reads only for story; Experience reads for story, too, but
also for craft and style, for language and artifice and technique.
Innocence may put up with flaws that Experience cannot sincerely
embrace: what once may have seemed entirely thrilling and charming
– Narnia, say, or Peter Pan – may come in time to seem clumsy or

Some texts work to hide their artifice, to draw the reader entirely into
the story which the text relates, with great care and skill, as if no care
or skill were required or expected. Other texts invite the reader to
reflect, to step back and examine how they are constructed, to reflect
on language and symbol and what the text omits. These are the
concerns of metafiction.

Hypertext, when new, embraced metafiction. Indeed, in an age when

reading on a computer was a new experience, when students in a class
on electronic literature might ask in all sincerity “Are we reading
yet?”, metafictional concerns could not be avoided. Then, too, ours
has been a metafictional era, a time when inter texts and subtexts
problematized their worn stories and when the nature of textuality
and of reading were among the most active philosophical concerns.

Reading Notes
Murray, Janet. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative
in Cyberspace. New York: The Free Press, 1997.

Murray, Janet H. Inventing the Medium : Principles of Interaction

Design as a Cultural Practice. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press,

Murray’s influential work sets out from her unique engagement with
chatbots – automata that converse with people, originating with

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Joseph Weizenbaum’s ELIZA. Murray championed chatbots in a time

when generative poetry seemed esoteric and when their literary
promise appeared slight, and the title Hamlet On The Holodeck turned
out to be PR gold.

Lowe, N. J. The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western

Narrative. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press,
2000. (collected in RHT)

The crucial distinction between story and plot, or between syuzjet and
fabula, was emphasized in Gérard Genette’s Narrative Discourse: An
Essay In Method (trans. 1983). The opening chapter of Nick Lowe’s
study of the classical plot remains the best and most thorough
introduction to the topic, which is beset by monumental
terminological perplexities. Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory and After
Theory are superb reviews of postmodernism in literature and its

Bernstein, Mark. “On Hypertext Narrative.” ACM Hypertext

2009 (2009):

Much of the discussion here, and indeed throughout these notes,

devolves from this paper which tried to clarify the distinctive structure
of Storyspace hypertext and to demonstrate how other formalisms,
even those that seem very different in their affordances, can
encompass the same expressive and interpretive moves.

Joyce, Michael. “Nonce Upon Some Times: Rereading Hypertext

Fiction.” Modern Fiction Studies 43, no. 3 (1997): 579–97.
(reprinted in RHT)

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A challenging, difficult, but indispensable exploration of the

importance of cycles in hypertext reading. Many early hypertext
researchers assumed that returning to a previously-visited page was a
sign of inefficiency or confusion, an event to be avoided. Joyce asserts
that, far from being a failure, returning to a node we have seen before
can be a crucial and expressive indication of structure.

Marshall, Catherine C. “Toward an Ecology of Hypertext

Annotation.” Proceedings of the Ninth ACM Conference on
Hypertext and Hypermedia (1998): 40–49.

Marshall’s paper brilliantly caps a long line of research toward

enabling annotation in electronic books and tablets by asking afresh
how people actually use and think about annotation. She spent
countless hours scouring used textbooks in university bookstores and
observing students as they chose which used text they preferred to
buy. The observed annotations remain surprising for their variety and,
often, their whimsy.

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blue links were a mistake
The link is the most important new punctuation since the invention of
the comma in the late Middle Ages. Links have already transformed
the way we write, and we are only beginning to learn how to employ
them well.

The most familiar links today are the static, blue, underlined links so
common in the World Wide Web. Typographically-distinguished links
were probably a mistake from the outset, but blue links certainly
were: even people with excellent vision have difficulty reading blue
text, and of course a significant fraction of the population experiences
difficulty distinguishing colors.

The underlying problem is more serious: typographically-distinguished

text is usually emphatic. Titles, italics, bold fonts: all draw the eye.
They literally underline a passage to demand attention. Emphasizing
links is occasionally useful, but some links have no need for urgent,
immediate attention: we want people to read and reflect, and only
then to choose a link. Over-eager link following can lead to
trajectories in which the reader merely skims the text, always seeking
an attractive link that will lead to some new and better place. This
common behavior became known as “surfing”, and “web surfing” is
now used to often to describe reading Web pages that we seldom
reflect on the pathological reading habits the term describes.

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One way Storyspace traditionally deterred surfing was to avoid

disclosing links too soon. afternoon, a story resists disclosing links at
all: linked words are not visually distinguished, and the reader is
invited to click anywhere in the text. Other Storyspace hypertexts
disclose text links only while the Command and Options keys (⌘⌥)
are pressed. Normally, links are drawn in black; when the link keys
are pressed, the links are colored and may also be underlined. This
frees the reader to see the text without unwanted emphasis or
distraction, and then to select a link when the reader is prepared to do

A possible further advantage to the traditional Storyspace scheme is

that it promotes, literally, two-handed reading: one hand holds the
mouse used to click on the intended link while the other hand presses
the link keys. This is a small matter, to be sure. but by occupying both
hands, Storyspace’s deferred link disclosure may well promote more
attentive reading.

text links and basic links

Storyspace provides two different kinds of links.

• Text links, familiar from the Web, are anchored in specific spans of
• Basic links are anchored to the entire writing space. If the reader
clicks on text that doesn’t have a text link, then Storyspace
follows a basic link. If a note has more than one basic link,
those links are implicitly ordered from first to last. When the
reader clicks on text that doesn’t have a text link, Storyspace
follows the first or highest priority link.

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guard fields
Storyspace links may have guard fields – conditions that must be
satisfied if the link is to be followed. Guard fields may depend on the
word that the reader clicked, on what the reader has already seen, or
on actions that the reader (or perhaps the characters in the narrative)
have performed. Four links outbound from the same note, for
example, might include:

$ChosenWord=="fire" ⇒ mantelpiece

visited("grandmother") ⇒ returning again

$Cash(/characters/hero) > 50 ⇒ trouble with servants

⇒ grandmother

If we click on the word "fire" anywhere in the text, we move to the

writing space named "mantelpiece". Otherwise, if we have already
read the note named "grandmother", we go to the note “returning
again”. If the hero has lots of cash, we go to the note named “trouble
with servants”. Finally, if none of these conditions are satisfied, we go
to the note named “grandmother”.

In Storyspace 3, a note may have an expression called $Requirements
that determines whether the note can be visited. If $Requirements is
empty, or if it evaluates to true, the note can be visited. Otherwise,
links to that note will not be followed, even if the link’s guard field is

Note that a guard field applies to a specific link, while Requirements

apply alike to all inbound links.

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Requirements can be useful for continuity, for ensuring that the

narrative remains consistent from scene to scene. For example, we
might want a passage to be inaccessible until the reader has seen
some necessary background. If the passage describes what Margaret
did with the gun that was hidden in the desk drawer, that passage
could be inaccessible until we have established that there is in fact a
gun in the desk. If the passage describes a chance encounter with
Brian, it might be accessible only after Brian has been introduced, and
would become inaccessible after Brian has left for Switzerland.

the places you’ll go

It behooves us to take a moment to reflect on the energy of the
untamed link, so we can better appreciate both the writer’s challenge
of using links to best effect and the reader’s necessary task, choosing
the best links. Even annotative links – the least interesting variety for
narrative purposes – can be immensely rich and varied, and can lead
to surprising and unexpected places.

The earliest hypertext pioneers aspired to “free and knowing

navigation,” to hypertexts where readers would make informed
choices that let them travel where they wanted on the vast sea of the
docuverse. Those few who contemplated fiction might have allowed
for occasional use of uncertainty, doubt, or even deceptive feints for
occasional artistic effects. Free and knowing navigation was the

Once people started writing actual hypertext narratives, fiction or

nonfiction, they found that knowing navigation was a mirage. Readers
don’t know what they want: that’s why they’re listening. To give the
reader the information they’d need in order to decide which link
would best please them today, you’d need a bucket of exposition.

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For illustration, we’ll start from the passage that Scott McCloud uses
for an example in Understanding Comics:

I crossed the street to the convenience store. The rain soaked into
my boots. I found the last pint of chocolate chocolate chip in the
freezer. The clerk tried to pick me up. I said, “No thanks.”

He gave me this creepy look.

I went back to the apartment, and finished it all in an hour.

Suppose this is the beginning of a story: nothing has come before.

What might we link, and what might those links mean?

the street: We live on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in a tiny but
well-appointed gentrified tenement, not far from the basement
where – though we don’t know it – our great grandmother Ella
raised four kids in the 1880s.
the street: We don’t know about great-grandmother, but we know
about life on the street. We ran away from home at 15,
spending three years in sex work after several harrowing,
homeless months. After getting on our feet and making a lot of
money, we recently have reached a sort of rapprochement with
our parents. We’re glad to have this insanely-expensive
Manhattan apartment, but we know the street.
convenience: We think there’s some sort of gambling operation run
in the back of the convenience store. In reality, though, it’s a
CIA listening outpost.
convenience: What is convenient about a convenience store? Who
needs a can of Pokari Sweat or a pint of ice cream,
conveniently? What’s the matter with capitalism?
store: After we got out of the business and off the street, we invested
in a number of nice, safe real-estate trusts. One of these trusts
owns a chain of seven downtown convenience stores; this is
one of them.

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rain: “All these memories will be lost in time, like tears in the rain.” –
from Ridley Scott, Blade Runner.
rain: “All these memories will be lost in time, like tears in the rain.” –
from David Wojnarowicz, “When I Put Your Hands On My
rain: My grandfather expected the word to end at any moment in a
rain of Soviet missiles. We don’t think that way anymore:
pollution and global warming will do it instead.
boots: Why am I alone? And buying ice cream in the rain? It’s
because I just Walked Out On Him. This is all a framing story:
let me tell you what happened.
the clerk: He didn’t recognize me, but I’d know him anywhere. This, I
realized, is my chance to pay the bastard back.
the clerk: The clerk’s great grandmother lived down the street, too,
and he knew great grandma Ella, and let me tell you, not
everything they tell you about Ella is strictly kosher.
tried: To hell with picking up the girl on a rainy night when there’s
not even a ballgame to listen to: here’s what the clerk really

tried: But the clerk probably isn’t going to get what he wants,
because he’s got a trial date next month and his lawyer these
days doesn’t seem very confident.
pick: Remember that link about capitalism I mention above? Let’s
unpack capitalism and dating just a little. There’s this great
professor I know at NYU…
me: A quick sketch of what happened to me at 11. Boring, I know –
stuff like that happens every day – but in a way, everything
started there.
me: Never mind the backstory: you don’t need that. Let me tell you
what I’ll be like in forty years.

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me: Never mind me: let me tell you about the lover I just walked out
on. (See “boots”)
up: Maybe I’m coming down with the flu. Or is that the cocaine
wearing off?
up: The thing is, my kid sister Genette (yeah, my parents are both
professors, it’s not my fault) got out of Cal Tech and joined the
Air Force so she could fly hot jets. But she called me last night
and said she’s in terrible trouble, and she should be here by
up: I figure I wasn’t the only person feeling glum that night. Today’s
market crash had trimmed three, four million off my net worth.
I was down to my last million, and plenty of folks were worse
off. A lot worse. There was going to be hell to pay in Greece
and Spain, they said, and no one knew what was going to
happen in China.
up: Perhaps I might daydream about asking the clerk to come up,
before I turned him down. But then he’d have to cross the
street and the rain would soak into his boots, before he could
come up. We’d be in the same place, though now you, gentle
reader, would know a lot more.
And with all this we have not yet come to the ice cream, whose
crucial link might reveal it to be cold, melted, mislabeled, spoiled,
poisoned, concealing a desperate message, enchanted, enchanting, a
memory of childhood treats back on the streets of Sheboygan (or
Kyiv, or in the alleys of Shenzhen) or of young love – Mickey who
adored ice cream and Star Trek before the leukemia – a reminder of
old Uncle Bob’s story about meeting Jerry Garcia that time outside
Northampton, a warning that we’re gaining a little weight, an
invitation to all the carnal delights that don’t involve ghastly
relationships like the one we just ended (cf. “boots”), a confection
lovingly prepared by a Wiccan Systerhood and communal dairy farm

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set up outside Northampton during the summer of love by six Smith

alumni that still flourishes today while waiting for its profile in The
New Yorker, an imprudent choice given the weather and our wet feet,
or delicious.

We’re at the beginning: everything is new, and almost all links offer
renewal (though some are time shifts and the last is a tight little
recursus). Links can take us astonishing places.

The reader wants to choose, but the reader cannot choose: the reader
doesn’t know enough to make a choice. Here at the outset, the reader
doesn’t know what sort of a story this is: the audience is on our side,
they want to know what happens, they want to meet these people and
they want things to work out for them. But unless they already know
the story – unless we’re freeing yet another goddamn princess from
yet another silly castle – how can they know which link they want?

The story – the links – will need to express and discover its own
changing, emergent order in response to the reader’s choices and,
perhaps, in response to chance. Choices must have consequences, but
narrative choice need not be purely instrumental. We are in dialogue
with the reader – we always have been; we need not always do her

we don’t understand links

The very simplicity of links tempts us to believe them to be obvious
and their meaning self-evident. But links are a new part of speech and
a new kind of punctuation, and we are only beginning to understand
what we do not know.

Scholars have depended on links since Leopold van Ranke developed

scientific history and the modern footnote (Grafton 1997).

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Earlier historians did not anticipate Ranke’s ability to bring the flavor
and texture of the documents into his own text. When Ranke used
account books, ambassadorial dispatches and papal diaries to
characterize the austere, willful, and determined Franciscan who
became Pope Sixtus V and who rebuilt the city of Rome into a
magnificent stage for festivals and triumphal processions, he made his
book into a sort of archive. He enabled the reader to share something
of his own direct encounter with the sources.

Historians use footnotes to perform a specific function: history is a

dual narrative that describes both what the author believes to have
happened and how he or she arrived at this interpretation while
rejecting others. The main text sets forth what happened, and the
footnotes and appendices explain how we know what happened, and
why this account is superior to all alternatives.

Other forms of citation and reference, of course, are even older. The
marginal notes and glosses of the scribe and the scholiast are one kind
of linked writing. So, too, are the literary allusions that pervade
Cicero’s and Pliny’s letters to their friends, and the scriptural
citations that fill the Talmud, the Haggadah, and the Church Fathers.
Egyptian tomb and temple paintings often link texts (written out as a
series of hieroglyphic icons) and image.

Yet though we have composed linked texts for centuries, the

computer transforms our approach to expressing those links and our
willingness to follow them. Throughout the twentieth centuries,
publishers strove to minimize distracting apparatus. Notes and
comments, marginalia and appendices, were thought to intimidate the
lay reader. Indeed, if pursuing a citation demands the resources of a
fine research library, few readers can follow links in any meaningful
way. But in the World Wide Web, we may pursue whatever links we
wish, and a docuverse of linked literature awaits our pleasure.

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Though we can link liberally, and though our reader can pursue those
links with a freedom once enjoyed only by the most fortunate of
scholars, how ought we to link? We want to express ourselves with
clarity and confidence. If we offer too many links, might readers
ignore our argument and wander instead to pursue the work we
recommend? If we constrain our links to stop the reader from
straying, might the missing links vitiate our argument or misrepresent
our dependence on sources? The hypertext writer must balance the
centrifugal tendency of the outbound link against the confinement of
linear sequence.

Where exactly shall we place a link? Our generation, the first to write
with hypertext links, faces a challenge not very unlike those who first
benefited from (and were challenged by) the invention of the comma
and the period (Landow 2006). An ill-placed link distracts the reader
and interrupts the argument. Inept link placement can subvert the
link, leading the reader to wonder whether the link is intended to
adduce evidence for an assertion or to comment ironically upon it.

We hold these truths to be self-evident:

We hold these truths to be self-evident:

We hold these truths to be self-evident:

We hold these truths to be self-evident:

Links, like punctuation, shade and transform meaning, suggesting

intent and providing hints of pacing, emphasis, and tone. Their
presence adds texture, suggesting new horizons and new

Remarkably, we can perceive the suggestions these link placement

offers without knowing either the context of the source or the nature
of the destination. Perhaps we are reading a respectful biography of

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Thomas Jefferson, and the link takes us to a discussion of his sources

and alternative drafts. Or perhaps we are reading a contemporary
polemic, and the links comment ironically or scathingly on the gap
between Jefferson’s intentions (as we imagine them) and the
subsequent practice of his party and his state. Perhaps we are in the
midst of a family comedy, a scene in which a headstrong daughter is
arguing with her stubborn mother and the father interrupts, like
Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye, with the sardonic commentary that “We
hold these truths to be self-evident.” In either context, it is easy to
imagine what sort of arguments might lie at the end of these links.

link grammar
In current usage, links are most often connected to noun phrases,
either the subject or the object of a sentence. Noun phrase links often
suggest definition or annotation. Even here, the meaning of a link is

We hold these truths to be self-evident:

What might the link signify? Some possibilities come immediately to


Definition: the link might clarify exactly what body of people the
word “we” was intended to include.
Annotation: the link might comment upon or justify the anchor word,
or offer additional evidence that clarifies its meaning (cf. “We
the people”, 1789)

Elision: the link might lead to a detailed clarification of exactly what

the term encompasses, its subsequent interpretation, and the
consequences of that interpretation.
Irony or disagreement: the link might easily lead to a counter-
argument, as when this phrase was cited to argue for the rights

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of women in the Seneca Falls Declaration of 1848 (“The

history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and
usurpations on the part of man toward woman), or W. E. B.
DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk (“those great words which the
sons of the Fathers would fain forget: We hold these truths to
be self-evident:”)

Citation or acknowledgment.
Analogy or consequence, perhaps citing a pedagogically useful
A link may define, or elaborate, or conceal. It may support or subvert
its anchor. It may represent analogy or argue for causality. It may
offer sequence. And of course this list is hardly exhaustive: Randall
Trigg identified 133 link types for helping people to review scientific
papers, and all of Trigg’s link types are classified here as annotation
(Trigg 1983).

Most of all, links represent promise and invitation. The presence of a

link asks us to pause and to speculate., What is being offered? Should
we accept the invitation or defer it, or is the invitation meant for
others and not for us

link anchors
Everyday Web usage has accustomed us to assume that link anchors
are typically nouns or noun phrases, and that links annotate the noun
at which they are anchored.

On November 11, the guns at last fell silent.

He welcomed me to his modest New York apartment and mixed me a

Vesper, reminding me it was James Bond’s favorite cocktail.

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Julia threw her napkin onto her plate and, overturning her chair as
she stood, stormed angrily out of the restaurant.

Wikis, in particular, link nouns almost exclusively and usually use

those links only to define or elaborate on the anchor.

These habits are unnecessarily restrictive.

• Consider verbs as link anchors. Verbs offer opportunities for ironic

links, for links that comment on or subvert the expectation of
their anchor.
• Long link anchors are distracting on the web, where their
typography may interfere with legibility. Because Storyspace
can wait to disclose links until the reader asks to see them,
extended anchors may be less distracting.
• Character names are valuable link anchors. They can introduce links
to the character’s backstory, their reaction to the current
scene, their subsequent actions, or other character’s reaction
to them.
• After following a link and arriving at a destination, readers often
look for a theory that explains why the link they chose led
where it did. Theory formation can be assisted by repeating the
link at the opening of the destination, by acknowledging it or
explaining it. The uncertainty caused by the transition may be
minimized by minimizing the transition, connecting the
destination to what has just been read. Conversely, an abrupt
transition to a new place or a new time may be signally by a
more drastic disruption; again, that disruption may be made
more mild by explaining the link or sharpened by leaving the
link unexplained.

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default links
Much of the time, even the cooperative reader in the midst of a
predictable narrative may find it difficult to select which link is most
likely to interest them. The shorter the writing space, the more
frequent these choices become. Readers, confronted at frequent
intervals with choices for which they lack sufficient information, may
reasonably feel ill-treated. But if the hypertext allows them few
choices, and if those seem inconsequential or arbitrary, readers may
wonder why the work needs to be a hypertext.

Storyspace default links address this tension, and are among

Storyspace’s most significant and characteristic facilities. A default
link is followed when the reader

• presses the [Return key]

• clicks in the text margins

• clicks on a word not otherwise linked

Like other Storyspace links, a default link can have guard fields, so
several default links might depart from the same writing space, each
intended for a different situation and leading to a distinct destination.

Default links signal the author’s care for and sympathy with the
reader, the direction that the author expects most people will take
most of the time. Perhaps this reader will see a better, more intriguing
link: that’s why the link is there. Perhaps we’ve been here before, and
followed the default link, but now we’ve returned again to the scene
and, knowing more than we knew at first, we choose something else
in order to learn more. Or perhaps, knowing where the author is
herding us, we read against the grain and swim upstream toward

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something the author is keeping hidden, perhaps only to be revealed

to the most persistent or clever reader.

Reading Notes
Grafton, Anthony. The Footnote: A Curious History. Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1997.

A delightful little volume that recounts the (surprisingly short) history

of the footnote, focusing on its use in historical writing. Scholarly
history can be viewed as a dual narrative: the story of what happened,
which is told in the main text, and the story of how we know, which is
told in the footnotes and apparatus.

Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics. Kitchen Sink Press, 1993.

An important and useful book, even for those who don’t read comics.
McCloud’s examination of the intersection of text and the visual arts
is indispensable.

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Patterns of
Agravaine, Lancelot, and Jennifer:
an explosion
If we view links as choices – as splitting the narrative line – we open
the door to unmanageable complexity. Let us imagine a simple,
dramatic moment in a hypertext:

A strong and honorable man stands outside a door that bars his way.
Behind it lies an answer he must discover.

The story has scarcely begun, but we know this man will find a way to
open the door. If he does not, the writer has erred; either there was no
need to tell us about the man, or there was no need to tell us about the

At this moment, a multitude of choices lie before us, choices we can

readily imagine – choices a hypertext might embody in links. Perhaps
this man calls to demand that the door be opened. Perhaps he kicks
down the door. Perhaps he shoots out the lock with his service
revolver, or picks the lock with his burglar’s tools. Perhaps he has a

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Perhaps this man, and the couple who are on the other side of the
door, discuss matters through the door. The couple may cajole, or
threaten, or bribe this man. Perhaps they offer explanations,
justifications, excuses. They may have reasons – good reasons – that
this strong and honorable man does not yet fully understand. Perhaps
those reasons have been intentionally withheld from him by people he
trusts, people on whom he has relied.

Perhaps, as this strong and honorable man stands outside this door
that, for the moment, obstructs him, we will take a moment to review
the bidding, assess the stakes, remember the history that brought us
here. That history, of course, depends crucially on this man himself,
the forces that made him strong and required him to be honorable,
the reverence and duty he owes to those he serves, the life of service
and labor that has brought him here, to this door, behind which lie a
man and a woman he knows well, a couple he respects and admires
and, yes, perhaps he loves them too. A different history brought the
couple to the far side of this sturdy door, a history together and apart,
and also two separate histories with this strong and honorable man, a
man they honor and respect and, yes, perhaps love, though they know
themselves to be stronger than he, and they, too, value honor and

Or perhaps, standing here, we see what is to come when the door is

breached or broken, as we know this door must be. Friendships will
be shattered, loves betrayed, lives forever altered. There will be arrests
and trials and terrible punishments. The government may fall. The
world we have known may crumble.

Our strong and honorable man might agree to postpone the

confrontation, to depart and return later at a better moment, a more
auspicious time, allowing a delay for reflection or contrition after
which we will be return here to settle everything.

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Or perhaps there is one thing we have forgotten, some crucial detail

we have overlooked. Four men, strangers, are walking down the
street; they are staring at this strong and honorable man, and they are
armed. Or, a small child runs up to us and gets in our way, and this is
no place for a child. Perhaps a cloud briefly obscures the sun, but it is
not cloud: the building across the way is on fire, its tenants are calling
for help, and here we stand, honorable and strong. Perhaps the couple
have already used the back door and fled.

We have already, at the very outset of this familiar story, opportunity

for dozens of links – all perfectly plausible even in the most
stringently realistic mode. We have not contemplated the intervention
of angels, the possibility that the lovers behind that door might
transform themselves into the form of birds or dragons, that the door
might be an illusion projected by telepath or conjured by fairies.
Everything is possible, even expected; if we wish the reader to choose
on behalf of the protagonist, and if that choice extends to the freedom
of action that strong and honorable men must enjoy if their stories are
to be meaningful. Already we need dozens of links, and beyond each
of those links lie still more choices and still more choices.

Our projected hypertext has exploded in choice.

Sequence and Choice

We cannot offer the reader every link they might wish for; we cannot
even offer every link they might reasonably expect. We cannot proffer
a reasonable simulacrum of the universe – not even a constrained
fictitious corner of the universe. But we can offer some links. Which
links, of all the myriad links we might easily imagine, should we write?

A young child, hearing a story, asks questions – some interesting,

many not. In time, the child learns that some questions about stories

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are interesting to talk about, while others lead nowhere. It’s pointless
to ask why Hamlet is Prince of Denmark. That’s who he is; if he were
an astronaut, this would be a different story and not Hamlet. But it’s
not pointless to ask why Hamlet treats Ophelia so badly. You might
have one explanation and I might have another, we might each have
met people who were treated unkindly, or who were distracted, or
whose had difficult fathers.

Interesting conversations make interesting links. Good links lead to

interesting conversations.

Good links may lead anywhere, but most of the time, most links
should lean forward. The conversation should progress; like the story,
we want to to unfold rather than circling forever in place. Untended
links can grow into a discursive thicket. Wilderness has its own
pleasures, and wildness offers the promise of possibility: anything
might happen. But we also want to reach an answer, a consensus, an
accord of minds. We want to learn how things turned out.

Though links may lean forward, the reader should not be corralled
into a rigid sequence punctuated by occasionally link excursions. If
each excursion returns us to the same sequence, the reader will
wonder whether the apparent choices that links have offered them are
merely a sham, a pretext for eliciting their engagement. It is possible
to construct meaningful choices within the constraints of a rigid
episodic sequence, but this is not easy or straightforward. If a single
sequence of presentation fits the needs of a particular story, that story
might not need to be a hypertext.

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Characters and Psychological

A different approach to writing dramatic hypertext narratives would
have us create a list of utterances that each character might say, a
model of their motivations and responses to potential obstacles, and a
model of the narrative world they inhabit. This seems a tall order, but
for a fairly brief visit to a sufficiently-constrained world, it might not
be beyond our ability. Indeed, the Versu project attempts precisely
this in constructing interactive fictions such as Emily Short’s Blood
and Laurels.

Computational simulation of psychological models can be interesting

for its own sake, a useful test of whether abstract models reflect our
sense of authentic character. For narrative, however, they are neither
essential nor necessary. The young man who wears black is not the
Prince of Denmark. He is not pretending to be the Prince, or
simulating how he supposed the Prince might behave. He is an actor;
he recites his lines.

Playwright David Mamet writes about a director who “calls and asks,
‘You have a character in the script say, ‘I’ve been in Germany for
some years.’ Exactly how many years would that be?’”

“The character” did not spend any time at all in Germany. He never
was in Germany. There is no character, there are just black marks on
a white page – it is a line of dialogue.

In planning how to deliver a line of dialogue, an actor or a director

might reasonably ask themselves what someone who says something
like this might be thinking. Why would they act as they do, and not
otherwise? That understanding might inform the performance, adding

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depth, suggesting authenticity. Yet that authenticity is necessarily

fraudulent: there is no character. There never was. The sense of
authenticity is also unnecessary: fine performances can spring from
specious models of the character, and a person with a sensitive and
nuanced understanding of a character might nonetheless deliver a
very poor performance.

Talking About Structure

Suppose that a friend of yours is working on a novel. They have sent
you an early draft. A few weeks pass, you read it, and you call them to
say how much you enjoyed it, how promising this new novel is.

“There are one or two things, of course. But you know that.” There
are always one or two things; that’s why it’s a draft. But they press for
details. What works? What doesn’t?

Of course, you can’t simply say that there’s something wrong on page
78. Weeks have passed. Whole chapters have been added, moved,
deleted. Today’s page 78 may have nothing to do with your page 78.
Yet this presents no great difficulty: we share a rich vocabulary for
talking about parts of a story.

We converse readily about things that are implied by the story but
not, in this draft at least, explicitly shown, actions that occur off-stage
or that the reader infers from their consequences. We can talk about
individual scenes, or chapters that might be made up of many scenes.
We can talk about individual passages of dialog, perhaps to suggest
different ways they might be handled; some of that dialogue might
have been moved to a new place in the book, some may have been
revised, but the writer is likely to understand what I’m talking about
because they know the work, they can recall (perhaps indistinctly)

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the state it was in when they sent it to me, they can imagine how my
suggestions could apply to the current, altered draft.

We can discuss the advantages and disadvantages of changing the

point of view, or of altering some aspects of a character. We might
suggest moving chapter 3 to the start of the book, or discovering the
second body sooner. We have lots of ways to talk about parts of the
book, even though this is just a draft of a book – and, as far as the
writer is concerned, the draft you read no longer exists.

Hypertexts change in each reading; if they are honest hypertexts – if

the reader’s choices matter – then the reader’s choices change the
experience of the work. Just as when we are discussing a a work-in-
progress, discussing a hypertext require that we imagine what the
reader might have seen, constructing or reconstructing an imagined
reading of the work. The reader, in turn, can only describe their
reading (or their various readings): they can’t know what readings
they didn’t discover and so must imagine, from their experience of the
work, where its boundaries must lie.

Structural Patterns
My 1998 paper on “Patterns of Hypertext” outlined a variety of
structures that are useful for discussing the parts of a hypertext and
the ways they fit together.

The cycle is the fundamental structure of calligraphic hypertext and

the way readers perceive that the hypertext has structure. If a
hypertext had no cycles, the reader would experience it as a sequence;
the reader might not even know that it was a hypertext. Of particular
interest are Joyce’s cycle, where we return to a previously visited
note but then spin off in a new direction even if we do nothing new.
Douglas’s cycle, in contrast, enters a tight loop that signals the

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exhaustion of the story or of the reader’s current strategy, insisting

that the reader try something different or start over.

Several cycles may impinge on each other, allowing movement from

one cycle to another and back. These cycles form a contour, as in a
topographical map.

A series of notes that must be read in fixed order is a sequence.

A hypertext that alternates between two scenes engages in

counterpoint. The alternation may be lax or strict, and may occur at
the scale of individual writing spaces or episodic clusters. A large-
scale counterpoint found in a number of works is the mirror world, a
narrative that restates the main theme in a distorted or inverted
mode. Mirror worlds often serve as terminal codas, perhaps restating
a tragic theme in romantic or comic mode. Another common mirror
world is the Rashomon, in which the same event is experienced from
multiple points of view.

The tangle is the fundamental structure of sculptural hypertext, in

which many writing spaces are extensively interlinked to each other.

In calligraphic hypertext, the split offers readers a clear choice: they

may go one way or the other. Splits are ultimately resolved by a join,
in which several narrative strands merge. If numerous splits occur
without corresponding joins, the hypertext is likely to require
thousands of distinct endings.

Each hypertext establishes a natural rhythm, an expectation of

linkage. Violating that expectation creates a missing link, which
readers may notice and about which they may theorize. Readers,
similarly, will come to expect familiar link anchors and user interface
widgets will behave in familiar and predictable ways; if they do not –
if, for example, a link anchor turns out to be an unexpected pun or if a

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link to the “crash of 2001” appears to crash the computer, that link is
a feint.

Reading Notes
Mark Bernstein, “Patterns of Hypertext.” Hypertext ‘98 (1998):
21–29. (collected in Reading Hypertext)

Mark Bernstein,“Can We Talk About Spatial Hypertext?”

Proceedings of the 22nd ACM Conference on Hypertext and
Hypermedia (2011): pp. 103-112

Patterns of Hypertext remains my most widely-read technical paper.

David Mamet, True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the
Actor. New York: Vintage, 1999.

Many of Mamet’s essays from this period provide fascinating

arguments about the nature of writing and the place of the arts.
Heresy and Common Sense is, to a considerable extent, an attack on
method acting and on the notion that psychological simulation or
authenticity is necessary to, or helpful for, depicting a character.

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Cycles and Dynamic

Rather than think of links primarily as splitting the narrative line, we
may think of them as patterns of connection that leave the line and
later return to it.

Hypertext structure is perceived through recurrence and the cycle,

not the branch, goto, or jump, is the central hypertext structure.
Cycles were once thought to be defects, to reflect a reader’s
confusion or the writer’s incompetence. This was wrong: we cannot
dispense with cycles, and if we did compose an acyclic hypertext, we
could appreciate it as a hypertext only by returning to the start and
reading it again.

Earlier, we distinguished story – what happened – from plot – the

sequence in which we describe it. It might seem that plot structure is
mere artifice, that essential meaning lies in the story rather than the
plot. That plot is deeply meaningful can be demonstrated with ease.
Consider the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” (Arne-Thomson
303), in which a wolf deceives a young girl into climbing into bed with
him. The girl initially sets out to visit her grandmother; before the girl
arrives, the wolf has already consumed the defenseless old lady. In
some tellings, we disclose this crucial information early: “meanwhile,
as Little Red Riding Hood strolled through the forest, the wolf had
already arrived at her grandmother’s cottage.” In this case, when the
girl arrives the reader knows what is about to happen: we find

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ourselves in a horror movie, appalled at the recklessness and the

imminent fate of the heroine. In other tellings, we might withhold this
information, and the reader is as shocked as the girl to discover that
things are not what they seemed and that the universe can turn upon
us so unexpectedly and so viciously; we find ourselves in comedy (if
this turn leads to further complication) or romance (if Little Red
Riding Hood’s intrinsic goodness saves her in the end) or melodrama
(if she is rescued, and married, by the brave woodsman) or perhaps in

A film must usually choose one plot or the other, but a hypertext can
contrive to tell both.

rereading as a cycle
We want hypertext narrative to do things we could not do in print.
Not only must a hypertext offer links, but your choice of links to
follow must be significant and consequential.

As a gedanken experiment, imagine a narrative that is presented as a

hypertext. It offers links to let us move from page to page, and every
page offers several choices. But though we see many links and invited
to reflect and to choose one, in this text every link performs precisely
the same action. We are invited to choose, but the behavior of the
text does not actually depend on our choice.

How can we recognize this fraudulent hypertext? We cannot know

the links are inconsequential without rereading. We must either use a
“back” button to return to a previously-visited place, or we must
follow a link that leads us in a cycle, or we must start over and read
from the beginning, making new choices. Only by rereading can we
distinguish a hypertext from this impostor.

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Nor is it sufficient simply to assure ourselves that we have read

everything. We might, for example, follow every link in turn, hoping
thereby to see each part of the hypertext. But even this exhaustive,
artificial reading cannot show us everything. First, some links might
take us to different destinations, depending on what we have already
seen. Second, the meaning of the destination may depend on what has
come before. Understanding the hypertext requires understanding the
links it offers, both the consequences of following and the
consequences of turning away. We must not only consider each
passage, but where each passage may appear.

This creates a potential crisis over the end of the hypertext: when the
text can circle back on itself, when cycles matter and rereading is
taken seriously, when is the hypertext over? Game-like hypertexts
establish an arbitrary condition: the work concludes when you figure
out how to win. Exhaustive reading suggests another criterion: the
hypertext ends when you have exhausted its possibilities.
Alternatively, we may signal closure conventionally – by resolving
conflicts, by leaving the stage bare – or through technical means –
perhaps by insisting that the reader cannot resume until some time
has passed.

Both within the reading and between readings, hypertexts either

embrace cycles or require lavish expenditure of ingenuity to avoid or
evade them.

centrality of the cycle

Let’s imagine, for example, the following sequence:

1. A wealthy and handsome boy, returning from an isolated outpost,

embarks on a ship and encounters a beautiful girl who, it
happens, is a con artist.

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2. They meet. As is his nature, he falls in love. As is hers, she swindles

him out of a large sum of money.
3. He discovers that he was been swindled; they quarrel. She discovers
that she has fallen in love with him. They part, and do not see
each other for a long time.
4. The estranged lovers meet again.

In our hypertext, we next revisit node 2 — their first romantic

meeting — and then the reading will proceed from there. What new
node follows our recurrence to node 2? We can identify three distinct

1. We follow once again the cycle, either literally — viewing the same
sequence a second time — or in a new variation. We call this
2. We proceed through the recollection of node #2 to a fifth node that
follows naturally from the first four. Having met again, we
recall the glow of love, relive those precious memories, and
seizing the moment live happily ever after. Or, having met
again and considered those wonderful memories, so
bittersweet, we recognize that we can’t go home again. This is
timeshift: we revisit the scene of our first love because now it
means something new and that knowledge is crucial to
understanding what happens next.
3. We proceed through the recollection of node #2 to a new node
that, far from following naturally from the first four, takes off
in a direction that no one could have anticipated, This is
renewal. As the lovers recall the glow of love, once utterly lost
and now (perhaps) rekindled, a submarine periscope is sighted
off the starboard bow.
This structural motif – recurrence introducing recursus, timeshift, or
renewal, is not merely a characteristic of love stories, romantic
comedies, or postmodern literature: it will be found in any meaningful

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hypertext reading. Suppose, instead of exploring romance, we have

set out to instruct the student in the principles of preparing stock for
the kitchen.

• We might begin by describing why we would want to make stocks,

perhaps by describing the variety of useful and delicious sauces
we can derive from a well-made dark veal stock.
• We next describe the ingredients of dark veal stock — veal bones,
onion, carrot, celery, water — their selection and preparation.
• We might turn now to the preparation itself: roasting the bones,
caramelizing the mirepoix, gently simmering the ingredients in
cold water, skimming off impurities.
• We next describe the taste of the finished stock, with reference to
the ingredients, to our initial description, and the various
purposes we intend.
Here, again, we have recurrence, revisiting a previous node. And once
again, after the recurrence, we may proceed to recursus (preparing
white veal stock, chicken stock, fish stock, vegetable stock, demi-
glace, consommé), to timeshift (the central role of stock in the early
development of classical French cuisine, the work of Carême and
Escoffier, the impact of cuisine nouvelle), or to renewal (shortcomings
of flour-thickened sauces, jus lié and contemporary sauces, foams,
emulsions, molecular gastronomy).

traditional guard fields

We create and control cycles through guard fields – a mechanism that
turns links on and off, allowing the text to usher us into a cycle and
then sending us forward in a new direction. Guard fields are
invaluable for managing cycles and narrative energy in large and
complex hypertexts; without guard fields of a similar dynamic link

Getting Started With Hypertext Narrative

technique, large and densely-linked hypertexts tend to bog down as

the reader wanders in place.

Traditional Storyspace guard fields chiefly consider the word on

which the reader clicked and their previous trajectory in the
hypertext. The guard field

will be satisfied if the reader clicked the word “elephant” anywhere
on the page. The logical operators & (and) and | (or) can combine
options. The guard field

elephant | ostrich
is satisfied by clicking either “elephant” or “ostrich”.

A word or phrase enclosed in straight double quotes is interpreted as

the name of a note, and the guard field is satisfied if that note has
been visited at least once in the current reading. Thus

is satisfied if we have already read the page named "elephant", and

is satisfied only if we have both clicked on the word “elephant” and
also have previously read the note named “elephant.”.

The tilde “~” signifies negation. The guard field

is satisfied if we clicked on the word elephant but have not previously
visited the note “elephant.” Parentheses may be added, as above, to
group related operations; the guard field


is true only if we have not visited either “elephant” or “ostrich”.

Getting Started With Hypertext Narrative

Finally, the guard field

is randomly satisfied or not satisfied; it will be satisfied about 1/5 of
the time.

new guard fields

Storyspace 3 guard fields are more flexible than traditional guard
fields. They are also easier to read and to understand.

In Storyspace 3, guard fields can contain any logical expression. If the

result of evaluating the expression is true, the guard field is satisfied;
if false, it is not satisfied.

In logical expressions, the empty string “”, the number 0, and the
date “never” are all treated as equivalent to false. Any other result is

When evaluating a link’s guard field, this is bound to the source of the

Traditional Guard Fields

In Storyspace 3, traditional guard fields are supported as arguments
to the guard() expression:

guard( guardField )

is true if the guard field is satisfied. When a Storyspace 2 document is

imported, its guard fields will be updated automatically.

Getting Started With Hypertext Narrative

The Chosen Word

When the reader is viewing a note in Storyspace and clicks on a word,
that note’s attribute $ClickedWord is set to the note that was clicked.
The guard field


is thus nearly equivalent to the traditional guard field

though == is case-sensitive and traditional guard fields are not case-

The new syntax is easier to read and to understand, and also provides
additional flexibility. For example,

would be satisfied if the user clicked “elephant”, “Elephant”, or

When the reader views a note in Storyspace, that note’s numeric
attribute $Visits in incremented. Testing $Visits for a note

$Visits(/path/to/this note)
is thus nearly equivalent to the traditional guard field

"this note"
Storyspace also provides the visited() and unvisited() functions:

visited(this note)
unvisited(this note)
As a convenience, the unvisited guard field may be used without an
argument. The guard field

Getting Started With Hypertext Narrative

is equivalent to

and is true if the destination of this link has not previously been

Explicitly testing $Visits can distinguish the reader’s first visit from
subsequent visits.

is only true if we’ve visited the note Paris more than once, and

is true only if we’ve visited Paris an odd number of times.

Note the $Visits is not read-only. A note’s OnRead action can change
the value of $Visits for itself or for other notes.

$Visits=0; $Visits(Paris)=1;
marks this note as unvisited, but marks Paris as having been visited
once. Tinkering with $Visits can be useful for some simple tasks but
can easily get out of hand. If you are frequently setting $Visits
yourself, consider creating a separate user attribute instead in order to
make your intention clearer.

Keys and Locks

Suppose we have a writing space that describes the wine cellar, but
the reader cannot visit the wine cellar unless they have first obtained a
key. We define a boolean user attribute $Key. Its value for the note
Wine Cellar is initially false. Links to the wine cellar test whether the
reader has the necessary key:

$Key(/Wine Cellar)==true

Getting Started With Hypertext Narrative

where the comparison operator “==”is true if both items are equal.

The OnVisit actions of notes which bestow the key include the action

$Key(/Wine Cellar)=true;

Keys and locks are tricky to emulate with traditional guard fields,
especially if there are several different places keys may be obtained or
if keys, once obtained, might be lost.

If keys and locks were only useful for crude story manipulation as in
the example, they might be of little importance. A more significant
example occurs where we want to withhold some information, either
for surprise or for suspense, or simply because that information will
only be meaningful after the readers becomes familiar with the
character and situation. Similarly, some writing spaces might be
available early in the story, where they could provide a useful
perspective or necessary exposition, but would be superfluous and
distracting if encountered later. Locks and keys can make it easy to
express these aesthetic constraints.

Finally, locks can help maintain coherence in the face of a malleable

story. Suppose we have three central characters, Jo, Pat and Leslie.
They are in arguing in Manhattan bar, and that the point of view shifts
from time to time among all three characters. In some readings,
though, Leslie is removed from the scene for a time, summoned away
by a cell phone call that is otherwise unexplained. In other readings,
the phone call never occurs, or perhaps it occurs but it doesn't figure
in the narrative. If the call does occur in our reading, after Leslie
receives this phone call, and until she returns, we want to avoid
passages narrated from Leslie’s point of view. Again, the lock and key
formalism let us postpone, replace or omit passages that would be

Getting Started With Hypertext Narrative

Keeping Count
At other times, we may use a numeric user attribute to track a
parameter that can adapt a range of values. For example, the reader
might begin with 50 “credits”. We create a note called theReader,
and at the start of the story we give the reader 50 credits.

Name: cover page

OnVisit: $Credits(/theReader)=50;
Most links require that the reader have credits remaining:

Guard: $Credits(/theReader)>0
and most notes deduct credits when the reader visits them:

$Credits(/theReader) = $Credits(/theReader)-1
Other notes might add credits. When the reader exhausts her credits,
the reading ends, or the perhaps a chapter ends and we begin a new

Reading Notes
Joyce, Michael. “Nonce Upon Some Times: Rereading Hypertext
Fiction.” Modern Fiction Studies 43, no. 3 (1997): 579–97. (in
Reading Hypertext)

Bernstein, Mark. “On Hypertext Narrative.” ACM Hypertext

2009 (2009):

The centrality of the link was first argued by Joyce and the writing
exercise described here is his. “Nonce Upon Some Times” is a dense
and challenging essay that repays study

My Hypertext 2009 paper “On Hypertext Narrative,” on which this

chapter draws, anticipates most of the argument in this work, but

Getting Started With Hypertext Narrative

failed in its purpose. It anticipated a revival of stretchtext for the Web

which seemed probable at that moment but never materialized,
though see Danny Cannizzaro and Samantha Gorman’s Pry for iOS,
2015, for an intriguing narrative example.

Getting Started With Hypertext Narrative

Card Shark
Letting Go Of The Line
In our old, familiar texts, one word follows another, and one page
follows another in an inexorable march. Writers can tinker with the
sequence, moving sentences, rearranging chapters, cutting and
pasting, but only until the book goes to press. Once the engines of
mass production are engaged, the sequence is fixed for everybody.

Ideally, the sequences is carefully planned to meet everybody’s needs.

We sometimes fall short of that goal. Circumstances might intervene:
a printer’s blunder may have swapped two chapters of Henry James
The Ambassadors, and the author apparently thought it best to brazen
things out.

Hypertext opens things up, allowing different readers to pursue

different trajectories as best fits their needs and habit.

…and wandring, each his several way

Pursues, as inclination or sad choice

Leads him perplext, where he may likeliest find

Truce to his restless thoughts, and entertain

The irksom hours… (Paradise Lost II 523-527)

At times, we might find it hard to discover any links at all, any

alternative to the sequence we first adopted. At other times, it seems
the opportunity for links lies all before us.

Rather than beginning with lots of unlinked notes, sculptural hypertext

begins with a collection of notes, each of which is initially linked to all

the rest. A sculptural hypertext is like a shuffled deck of cards: any
card might come next. We might add some narrative rules: some
cards might be playable now, but others will only be playable later.
Perhaps we can only play a red card now, or perhaps we must play a
queen; we discard unplayable cards, or shuffle them back into the

How might this work?

You are writing a short hypertext.

Your hypertext will be clear, coherent, and concise. You have

something to say: stand up, speak up.

Tell everyone that you are busy. Find a comfortable place to write.
Close the door if you think that will help. Be sure you have a good

There was a link in the previous note. Perhaps you did not see it. You
cannot see it. Only Italo Calvino and his readers can see it, but there it
is. In hypertexts, there may be many kinds of links.

Each of these notes may contain an instruction worth hearing and

weighing. Obedience is not required or expected. Rules about writing
are made to be broken.

We are accustomed to writing a fixed line, one that we imagine will be

read from its start to its end. Let go of old habits.

The reader is always thinking about what has been read, and about
their reaction to it. The eye jumps ahead, the mind falls behind.

Some readers have always started in the middle, because this week’s
assignment covers pages 113-184. Some start in the middle because
they like it like that.

Coffee may help you focus. More coffee may help you focus more
intensely. You may consider decaf. Consider scotch, but not too closely.

Multivalence is not a vice. One word may mean many things. Won’t you
stay just a little bit longer?

Calligraphic hypertext uses links to connect notes together. Sculptural

hypertext assumes that everything might be linked together; the writer
adds constraints to remove connections.

You are a writer. You are writing a short hypertext. You write. You do
not author. No man but a blockhead ever authored.

Links come in many varieties. The slow, static, blue and underlined links
of the Web were a mistake. They are neither typical nor ideal. Respect
them, but do not venerate them.

Storyspace introduced the valuable concept of the default link – the

link the reader will follow if they have no immediate preference. The
default link from a given place may change, depending on what you
have read.

Do not think about the babysitter.

In Storyspace 3, if a note has no default link, the system looks for

sculptural connections. Sculptural connections augment calligraphic
links, offering a set of destinations, all connected to each other except
where the author has removed the connection.

A set of sculptural links is like a shuffled deck of cards. The destination

is the first playable card.

From time to time, we might tell the reader to swap the deck she’s
reading (or that she’s exhausted) for a new deck. The young Aristotle
exchanged the scroll he was reading for a new scroll.

In sculptural hypertext, a fresh deck signals a new chapter. Time has
shifted, or circumstance. Everything has changed. You cannot go home
again, not yet.

The link is the most important new punctuation since the invention of
the comma in the late middle ages. There may have been a time, long
ago, when you did not know enough about the comma.

You are not required to tell the reader when their deck has been
swapped. If you wish, you may signal the shift by writing a transition
that establishes a new place, a new topic, a new time, or a new voice.

If things don’t make sense, take care. Readers may suspend disbelief,
but they always form theories. One theory holds that you are an
incompetent bore.

Would you like another cup of coffee? You might consider the scotch.
Or, you could bake some scones: they’ll be out of the oven in 17
minutes. Sometimes, when you are writing and young and very merry,
the dawn comes soon.

The link’s guard field is time’s winged chariot, always urging us to move
along. Without guard fields, large hypertexts may feel encyclopedic,
and large narratives may have trouble getting anywhere.

In the midst of sculptural hypertext, we find calligraphic links. A

sculptural link takes us to the start of a calligraphic sequence – a
dramatic dialogue, perhaps, that needs to be performed in a specific

In the midst of calligraphic links, we find sculptural interludes, tangles

and split/joins where the writer can ease up and let the reader
improvise and chance intervene. Eventually, a new calligraphic link
restates the theme and returns us to the tonic key.

Cause and effect, call and response, point and counterpoint:

constraints and calligraphy protect coherence.

See whether new sequences will work for your hypertext. You may find
many paths through your thicket.

Four tourists are walking down a busy summer street in Ogunquit,

Maine, past the boutiques and the bars and the organic bakeries. One
of them asks another, “Say, is your husband out of jail yet?”

Closure is a suspect property.

“Stand up; speak up.” I said that before. I also told you to focus, to get
comfortable, to close the door if you think that will help. Have you
done as I asked? Don’t keep the door closed, and don’t keep your work
in a drawer. The grave is another fine and private place.

Comic theorist Scott McCloud describes “closure” as the theory that

viewers develop to explain a cinematic cut, to piece together two shots
– shots that might have been performed months apart – into a
continuous scene. The reader will create a theory; you cannot stop her.

The patience of the audience can be exhausted. It is greatest at the

outset: they have come here for a story and they are inclined to let you
tell it.

While you were trying to get through your college’s legendary reading
load, a girl across the dorm hall used to shout, to no one in particular,
that she really, really wanted to fuck but how would she ever find the

The patience of the audience may increase when the end is in sight.
Even when it is not the end, a glimpse of the goal, the object of desire,
can renew their patience.

Your readers may form theories to explain what you meant, even if
what you said cannot be true. You may tell them what they once heard:
they know they did not hear that, but they may nod, anyway.

You may fear that, if you let go of that line, you will fall, lose coherence,
be lost to meaning. Your fear may be correct, but until you let go of
that line, you will not know what lies beyond.

Sculptural Hypertext
This section is intended for readers already familiar with Storyspace
and Tinderbox, and briefly explains the sculptural hypertext facilities
introduced in Storyspace 3. New writers may skip to the next section
without loss.

In conventional Storyspace hypertexts, writing spaces have no links

until the writer adds them. We add links until we have enough links,
and then stop.

We might instead imagine sculptural hypertext, in which a note begins

with links to lots of other notes, or perhaps to all the notes in the
document. The writer removes unwanted links until we have just the
right links, and then we stop. Sculptural hypertext originates in my
2001 paper on Card Shark and in another paper from the same
conference from a team at Southampton that describes a system
called “Auld Leakey”.

Bernstein, Mark. “Card Shark and Thespis: Exotic Tools for

Hypertext Narrative.” Hypertext 2001: Proceedings of the 12th
ACM Conference on Hypertext and Hypermedia (2001): 41–50.

A physical analogy to sculptural hypertext may be helpful. Consider a

deck of cards, where each card contains a narrative fragment.
Perhaps the cards have other insignia — suits and numbers — as
well. We shuffle the deck and begin a game of narrative solitaire,
selecting a card and reading it.

We now continue with the next card. The rules might not permit us to
play that card yet; if not, we place it on the discard pile. If we are
permitted to, we play the card and read its narrative fragment. This
continues until we’re out of cards, or we’ve read the story, or perhaps
until we’ve reached the end.

We can readily imagine larger and more elaborate procedures. For

example, one of the cards might tell us to put away the deck we’ve
been reading, and to pick up a different deck of cards. Perhaps the
deck we’ve been reading concerned the things that took place on
Tuesday night; now, picking up the new deck, we’ll learn what
happened at dawn on Wednesday. In this way, decks might function
like chapters – episodic boundaries within a larger narrative.

Default Links
Storyspace 3 adds sculptural hypertext to the familiar Storyspace link
model by extending the way default links operate. Default links aren’t
anchored to specific text passages; instead, they’re triggered
whenever the reader clicks outside a text link or simply presses the
Return key. Storyspace maintains an ordered list of outbound links
from each note; a link is considered to have higher priority than
another if it precedes the other link in this list. To follow a link,
Storyspace 3 proceeds as follows:

• If the reader clicked inside one or more text links whose guard fields
are satisfied, the smallest text link that contains the click is
selected and the reader proceeds to the link’s destination.
• Otherwise, if there is at least one basic link whose guard fields is
satisfied, Storyspace selects the highest-priority basic link with
a satisfied guard field, and the reader proceeds to that link’s

• Otherwise, if the value of $Deck(/me) is not empty, Storyspace
makes a list of all notes whose value of $Deck has at least one
element in common with $Deck(/me). If any of those notes
have a $Requirements expression, their $Requirements are
evaluated and, if not satisfied, that note is not considered
further. If any notes remain, the note which has been visited
least often in the current reading is chosen; in the case of a tie,
a random candidate is chosen. The reader proceeds to the that
• Otherwise, Storyspace beeps.
$Deck is a set-type attribute but is typically simply the name shared
by a deck. We might have a deck named “shipboard” that describes a
transatlantic voyage in 1932. To “pick up” the deck at the beginning
of the episode, the initial note named Bon Voyage sets $Deck(/
me)=“shipboard”. Bon Voyage has no outbound links, but because
$Deck(/me) is “shipboard”, trying to follow the default link from Bon
Voyage will cause Storyspace to randomly select one unread note
which is marked as having a $Deck that contains “shipboard”. This
will continue until we reach a note that has conventional calligraphic
links, or until some note changes $Deck(/me).

We might want to impose other requirements – for example, a note

about “The Fight With Simpson” might require that we’ve previously
visited the note named “Meeting Mr. Simpson”. To do this, we select
“The Fight with Simpson” and set its $Requirements to
$Visits(Meeting Mr. Simpson)>0. Or, if we might have meet
Simpson in lots of different ways, we could create a user attribute and
have a $DeckRequirements check that $HasMetSimpson(/

Using A Chisel
Some concrete examples might be help explore how sculptural and
calligraphic hypertext can interact in Storyspace 3.

Setting Out
Every Storyspace hypertext has a cover page, the first note in outline
order. This will be the first page visited when the reader initially opens
the story, and it’s the page to which they return when they choose
Cover Page from the Note menu.

Our cover page establishes the scene. Luke and Leia are twins. Their
parents woke them far too early and have brought them to an exotic
and strange flea market. It’s clear that they’re not from here, that this
is all new to them; perhaps they’re on a family vacation. They’re on
their own for the next hour and a half, after which they are to rejoin
their parents at the Main Gate. Luke and Leia have been sternly
instructed to have fun, to behave themselves, and on no account are
they to be late.

This starting page provides an establishing shot, telling us just enough

about the characters and the setting to get things moving.

This prelude is followed by a series of short descriptions and brief

encounters as Luke and Leia explore the flea market. This gives us a
chance to see Luke and Leia together, to see that they bicker but
fundamentally like each other, that Leia typically takes the initiative
(being naturally braver and more daring), that Luke is inclined to be
more thoughtful and cautious. Leia expects that adults will want to
restrict her and so tries to evade and avoid them; Luke tends to view
everyone as a potential friend. They are each wide-eyed at the

opulence and splendor of the flea market, at the odd things for sale
here and at the very odd people who throng the place.

We might imagine quickly sketching out some writing cues on index

cards, each representing a short vignette:

the green-haired girl

the penny whistle table
a talkative bookseller
the old man who saves us from the pickpocket
honey cakes
juggling knives and torches
the gun and Bible dealer

police, clubbing a thief to the ground

a seller of colorful prayer papers
Each of these can show us a bit more about Luke or Leia, and seeing
these things through their eyes and seeing their reactions, we begin to
appreciate that this is a very strange place. There is plenty for the kids
to enjoy and admire, but we gradually learn that there is discontent
here, unhappiness, perhaps danger.

At this point, we don’t have any particular rationale to prefer one

sequence of events to any other. The kids are wandering and
witnessing. So is the reader. Any sequence will do.

To implement this, we’ll set the $Deck of each of these notes to “Flea
Market” – they’re part of the “Flea Market” deck, and whenever
we’re at the flea market, we might visit any one of these cards that we
have not yet visited.

A Note Named “Me”
In addition to the cover page, every Storyspace document
begins with a note named “me”. This note isn’t meant to be linked to
other notes and it’s not meant to be read; it’s simply a convenient
place to keep track of information about the reader and their progress
through the work.

In particular, the value $Deck(/me) determines which deck or decks

are currently in use. If $Deck(/me) is empty, we don’t use any decks
at all. In our story, the reset action will set the initial deck:

Name: start

ResetAction: $Deck(/me)=“Flea Market”
Each note’s ResetAction action is performed whenever the reader
selects Cover Page from the Note menu or begins a new reading.
Alternatively, we could set the Deck in the note’s OnVisit action, so
whenever we return to the cover page, we begin using the Flea
Market deck.

Following the default link will choose some note from that deck at
random. Following the default link again will choose another unread
note from that deck until all the notes in the deck have been read – or
until we something else intervenes.

One Thing After Another

One of the encounters in “Flea Market” introduced an old
man who saves us from a pickpocket. We might run into either the
old man or the pickpocket later:

the old man tells a disturbing joke

befriending the pickpocket

Again, these are short vignettes that might happen at any point of our
visit, but they should not be introduced until the old man has saved us
from the pickpocket.

Each of these new notes has $Deck set to “Flea Market”, but each
also has a constraint stored in $DeckRequirements:

Name: a new friend

Requirements: $Visits(Nearly Robbed)>0
Here, we assume that the writing space that describes our close call
with the pickpocket is named “Nearly Robbed”; because of its
$Requirements, this note can’t be visited until we’ve read “Nearly
Robbed” at least once. Similarly:

Name: a disturbing joke

Requirements: $Visits(a new friend)>0
In this case, we won’t hear the joke until we’ve made our new friend,
and we can’t make our new friend until we’ve met the pickpocket.

Launching A Sequence
One of our vignettes above was described:

police, clubbing a thief to the ground

When we come to write this, however, it turns out that we need more
space to describe the scene and our character’s reaction to it. We’d
prefer to avoid a very long chunk of continuous exposition. It’s also
possible that we’ll want to vary our description of the scene
depending on what’s gone before. We might break this up into three

Luke sees a thief

A chase!

What Luke and Leia saw

In contrast to the previous example, these notes should follow each
other immediately: we don’t want to shout “thief!” and then sample
the honey cakes, and only later chase the thief.

In this case, we return to calligraphic links. “Luke sees a thief” is part

of the “Flea Market” deck but “A chase!” and “Luke and Leia talk…”
are not. Instead, we links these three notes in sequence using basic
links. Since “Luke sees a thief” has an outbound link, that link will
trump the sculptural link and the reader will move immediately to “A
chase!” That note, in turn, is linked to “What Luke and Leia saw”.
Following the default link from that note, which ends the sequence,
will again choose a new vignette from the “Flea Market” deck.

A Conditional Sequence
We might write “What Luke and Leia Saw” one way if this scene
happens before we befriend the pickpocket, and write it differently if
it falls later. Now that we know a pickpocket, our attitudes might
have changed, at least outwardly, or perhaps the pickpocket can
participate in the conversation, too.

So, we now write two different versions of the conversation, both

linked from “A chase!”

Source: A chase!

Destination: “What Luke and Leia Saw” (after

Guard: $Visits(a new friend)>0
Source: A chase!

Destination: “What Luke and Leia Saw” (before

Now, after “A chase!”, we’ll visit one version of the discussion if
we’ve befriended the pickpocket, but we’ll visit a different version if
we haven’t.

Getting Out
Eventually, we’ll have shown enough of this strange and disturbing
flea market to serve our immediate purposes, and we’ll want to put
away this deck of cards and proceed with the rest of the story. What
follows might introduce a calligraphic section, or perhaps a shift of
scene and a new deck; the problem before us here is, how do we get
out when it’s time for the reader to leave?

First, we may write a note that leaves the flea market, describing our
reunion (only slightly beyond the appointed hour) with Luke and
Leia’s parents. This note is part of the flea market deck, and when it’s
drawn, the episode ends. The reunion note has a basic link to
“Leaving The Flea Market” which puts aside the current deck:

Name: "Leaving The Flea Market"

OnVisit: $Deck(/me)=""

Now, suppose the “Flea Market” deck now has ten notes in all. On
average, we’ll draw “Leaving The Flea Market” after we’ve seen 4-6
vignettes. We might be unlucky, though, and draw this card
immediately after arriving. Not only would we see nothing of the flea
market, but we would have delivered a bucket of exposition to set the
scene, and then discarded the scene without any payoff.

To avoid this, we might add a constraint to “Leaving The Flea


Name: "Leaving"

OnVisit: $Deck(/me)=""

DeckRequirements: $Visits(/me)>5

Just as the $Visits field for each note records the number of times we
have arrived at this note in the current reading, $Visits(/me) records
the total number of notes visited in the reading. So, if we’ve read at
least 5 notes, we can leave the flea market.

Or, we might want to only allow “Leaving The Flea Market” after
every other card in this deck has been visited. We can find all cards in
the deck:

find($Deck.contains(Flea Market)&$Name!="me" &


so our $Requirements would be:


find($Deck.contains(Flea Market)&

$Name!="me" & $Name!="Leaving"),


I’ve added space to this example to make it clearer; every’s first
argument describes what notes we want to check, and its second
argument describes what we’re checking.

We might provide additional exits. If we happen to befriend the

pickpocket, the pickpocket might later offer a text link that invites us
to his house for lunch. That link might be qualified by a guard field:

Source: "an invitation"

Destination: "lunch with the pickpockets"

Guard: unvisited("honey cakes")
We’ll only receive an invitation if we’ve not eaten honey cakes; the
pickpocket knows that his parents would not wish to meet anyone
who eats honey cakes. Again, if we are invited and decide to go to
lunch, we put away the “Flea Market” deck. This time, we pick up a
new deck that describes the strange foods we are about to be offered,
and the still stranger proposition we are about to hear.

Name: "lunch with the pickpockets"

OnVisit: $Deck(/me)="Lunch"

Shark Links
Whenever a reader arrives at a writing space, Storyspace checks to
see whether that note has links with the link type “shark”. If there is
more than one shark link with a satisfied guard field, Storyspace
selects the highest-priority shark link, and the reader proceeds to that
link’s destination. Shark links silently shunt readers to a new

Shark links provide a useful way to substitute one note for another.
For example, suppose we have a narrative goal our sympathetic
protagonist hopes to accomplish: they would very much like to leave
their Ghastlyville childhood home and move to New York. They
follow a link to New York City, but there’s a shark link from New
York City:

source: New York City

destination: "No bus ticket"

linkType: shark

guard field: $BusTicket(/me)==false

So, if we try to leave town, we discover we need a bus ticket, and of
course bus tickets are hard to find in Ghastlyville.

Later, ticket in hand, we follow a different link to New York again.

The first shark link’s guard field is no longer satisfied, but there’s

source: New York City

destination: "No place to stay"

linkType: shark

guard field: $Cash(/me)>500 | $Invitation(/me)!=""

We either need money for a hotel, or we need an invitation;

otherwise, we can’t leave town. Whenever we follow any link to New

York, the shark links are ready to divert us unless we’ve blocked all
their guard fields.

Reading Notes
Bernstein, Mark. “Card Shark and Thespis: Exotic Tools for
Hypertext Narrative.” Hypertext 2001: Proceedings of the 12th
ACM Conference on Hypertext and Hypermedia (2001): 41–50.

Millard, David E., Charlie Hargood, Michael O. Jewell, and Mark

J. Weal. “Canyons, Deltas and Plains: Towards a Unified
Sculptural Model of Location-Based Hypertext”, Proceedings of
the 24th ACM Conference on Hypertext and Social Media. HT ‘13
(2013): 109–18.

Hypertext and
Consider a narrative scene, one comprised primarily of dialogue. How
can the reader’s choices – both choices made previously in the
reading as well as choices made within the scene – influence the
scene in meaningful ways?

First, we have the problem of repetition: characters should seldom

repeat themselves. If the destination of a link happens to be a line of
dialogue, that line should only be repeated with special care. I have
said elsewhere that “recurrence is not an error;” we might repeat a
line as a signal of time shift, perhaps to review a scene from a new
perspective. Rare repetition can be deployed to dramatic effect (as in
Eugene O’Neil’s Long Days Journey Into Night) and frequent, brief
repetition can create cadence and a naturalistic effect (David Mamet,
Sexual Perversity in Chicago), but clumsily repeated dialogue could
merely reinforce a sense of artificiality, that this is a robotic,
mechanical work that doesn’t quite know what it’s doing.

Dialogue naturally suggests a fixed sequence. It is possible to break

that sequence, perhaps by reference to what was said at another time.

“An hour ago, you said you wanted to go to the beach,” Lisa’s
mother complained. “Now, after I’ve packed box lunches and

loaded everything into the car, you say you want to go to the
But this can be difficult to pull off, and often demands recasting
dialogue as indirect discourse. Dialogue typically follows its own
intrinsic logic: someone talks, and someone else responds to what
they said. Dialogue might seem to hold few opportunities for
hypertextuality beyond the occasional annotation.

Still, real conversation is not always simple. People talk at cross

purposes, they speak of many things, and sometimes they say several
things at once. Here’s a passage from Charles Mee’s The Trojan
Women, recast as prose:

EISA: Turned and ran

VALERIE: No, not most of them. Most kept on till they were

CHEA: But the smart ones. They all ran in the end.

AIMABLE: Except Aeneas.

CHEA: Who what?

EISA: Who hid here in the house

CHEA: Pious Aeneas.

AIMABLE: The last man alive.

EISA: Or maybe not. Who knows where the others are?

CHEA: Let him rest. Let him recover. Let him escape. Let
him live to gather up all the others who ran away
and pay them back for the wrong that's been done
to us.

HECUBA: No. Enough. Let it end. There are tanks below our
windows. People have learned many things even
just these past seven days.We no longer switch on
the light in our homes; the kerosene is running
out;day by day our lamps get dimmer. We have
cigarettes made of tea; …. optimists are those who
believe they will be buried next to their families;
we don't get angry at the mailman for coming late,
because there is no longer a mailman.

Then let it end here. Let it end now.

Hecuba’s speech comes last: she is Queen. Hers is the final word, but
the other women’s speech is not inconsequential in its dream of
revenge and ultimate victory, of survival, of national rebirth in some
distant land.

They speak to each other and to Hecuba, but they could speak in
other sequences. Defeat brings many reactions: depression, despair,
desperate hope, self-doubt, loathing, a hunger for revenge. Each of
these reactions has a voice and, here, a personification. Many can
argue with the others. Some reactions reinforce others, some
contradict. Nor need we insist on strict syllogistic reasoning in this
dialogue; the loss of reason in the loss of civilization is part of the

Still, we cannot dispense with all artifice and order; we have lots of
freedom, but the dramatic situation also imposes four kinds of
constraint: coherence, continuity, cast, and closure.

Coherence. Responses typically follow statements to which they

respond. When Hecuba concludes with a definitive “No,” her verdict
denies all the other responses but it specifically responds to Chea’s
invocation of a Resistance that will fight on against the enemy.

Hecuba must follow Chea or her verdict will make no sense; Chea
must precede Hecuba or she will not merely be hoping for the rebirth
of a nation: she will be defying the command of her ruler. If, in the
course of a conversation, one character reveals an unexpected secret,
the other characters cannot discuss that secret until it is revealed.

Though much that happens in conversation can occur in different

sequences, people sometimes respond directly to what was said
immediately before. Emphatic contradiction has to be immediate. A
punch line must follow its setup immediately; it can’t wait for an
intervening conversation.

Continuity: At times, events within a conversation establish facts or

conditions that subsequent statements must acknowledge. While Sir
Agravain stands pounding on Lancelot’s door, anything remains
possible and anything might be said. Agravain could stall for time, ask
Lancelot’s advice on working out, recall the good time they shared
that night in Picardy, discuss whether Betsy or Eliza has the better
voice. Once the door is opened and Guinevere is in Lancelot’s bed,
everything is changed and almost nothing can be said. It’s not
something you can ignore.

The guards on the battlements can only talk about the weather before
the ghost appears. After the ghost leaves, it would be absurd for them
to return to chatting about the temperature.

Cast: People come, and people go. A character cannot speak when he
is off-stage, and a character cannot be addressed when absent.

Closure: When a scene has concluded its business, when its narrative
work is done, we want to move on.

Consequential dialogue dramatizes argument, and it may seem that

arguments can only be presented in a fixed sequence. It may seem

inevitable, for example, that an investigator proceed by enumerating
crucial clues, highlighting what proved significant and ignoring
irrelevant details and false leads until reaching a conclusion with the
unmasking of the culprit. Yet even this is not entirely fixed: another
detective might dramatically announce the shocking identity of the
actual culprit, eliciting gasps of outrage from her astonished audience,
and then review the accumulated evidence that points to this
conclusion. One might even begin by listing some details, reveal the
identity of the perpetrator in the middle, and then conclude by
showing that further details are consistent with this revelation;
though this might appear a clumsy construction trotted out here as a
bit of special pleading, it occurs naturally in the wild – in the
dénoument, for example, of Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, the
greatest of cozy mysteries.

Hypertext and Structural Edits

Changing the sequence in which we read dialogue might appear far
too difficult to undertake, other than as a stunt or an experiment in
computational linguistics. But this is, in fact, a challenge writers face
routinely: a structural edit.

Let’s consider a concrete scene. A young man, Billy, has been drafted
during World War II and will shortly be sent overseas. On leave, he is
summoned to meet his uncle, whom he scarcely knows, at his uncle’s
club. In addition to its own intrinsic pleasures of setting and language,
this scene is required to perform some tasks that are needed later in
the story.

• This uncle is an alcoholic, and is not completely reliable nor fully

respectable. It seems, however, that he is harmless, he has
money and position, and he does appear to genuinely like Billy.

• Our uncle openly dislikes our father, has always thought his sister
was a fool to marry him, and doesn’t care who knows it.
• According to his uncle, Billy’s father has concealed a large trust
fund which was established by Billy’s grandfather and which
his father was to control only until Billy turns 21. The father
stands to inherit the entire fund if Billy should be killed in the
(The scene is based on one in W. E. B.Griffin’s Battleground, but in
outline it’s a commonplace.)

In a play, we would need to convey all this through dialogue. In a

story, we can choose to employ description, interior dialogue, and
free indirect discourse.

“Do continue, Uncle.” Billy said, thinking that this man, though
drunk, did not seem to be a bad fellow.

If we consider these two characters as computational agents, and

simply wanted to perform the necessary work economically,
everything could be accomplished at once:

“Hello, Billy,” his uncle greeted him, eyes too bright, his gin-and-
tonic almost empty. Billy figured it hadn’t been his uncle’s first gin
and tonic. “I may be an alcoholic, kid, but I’ve always liked you, even
if I can’t abide your dad. Never could.” He emptied from his glass
and signaled the waiter for another. “The thing is, I wanted you to
know about your trust fund – the one my father left you in his will. I
bet your father has never told you about it, right?”

Or, even more baldly:

“Sit down, Billy. You need to know I’m an alcoholic, and I like you,
and I don’t like your father, and you’re rich.”

But of course, people seldom talk like this or act like this. Characters
are not simply in the service of the business of a story; they have lots

of reasons for what they say, and they say things for no reason at all.
While the enumerated points may be the essential work of the scene,
we may have many other things to say here. We might want, for
example, to sketch a sympathetic but critical portrait of an alcoholic
businessman, or recall a childhood memory of a visit to now-vanished
club where old men who had built railroads and made them run drank
liquor from bottles with forgotten labels. We may want to reflect on
mistaken choices, grown siblings, or the manner and language of the
elderly Negro waiter, once a Pullman porter and now a teetotal
church elder, as he tends the wealthy drunks in this posh club with
undisguised affection, a man whose grandfather died a slave and
whose eldest grandson will march with Martin at Selma.

Perhaps our first draft begins with a frank chat about money, then
veers as the bourbon flows toward our uncle’s resentment of our
father and of his sister for her ill-considered marriage, after which the
evidence of our uncle’s alcoholism becomes unmistakable. Returning
later to revise, this may seem schematic and forced, and we might
recast the discussion to intersperse the topics, moving some hints of
habitual drinking earlier in the dinner and deferring some of the
financial revelations.

Perhaps this remains unsatisfying. We aren’t going to see this uncle

much – he might not appear again at all. We need him because we
need to establish Billy’s unexpected windfall, but someone must bring
the news and we want that messenger to feel true and genuine and we
want him to command interest. We’ll take some time to draw the
uncle in more sympathetic detail, to make him a man of real
accomplishments who moves among powerful and capable men, men
who treat our uncle with familiar respect. They know his weakness, of
course, but they also have know his strength and have relied on his
loyalty, and for his sake they’re perfectly willing to offer his nephew a

smile and a handshake and their very best wishes as he prepares to go
off to fight over there, where many of them were fighting when they
were his age. Once again we move some passages, recast other
passages entirely, we add new details and description. We are not
changing the story: the same things happen. We are changing the plot:
we’re changing how this is told, and that changes everything.

Later, we send the chapter to our agent or to a publisher or we let a

good friend take a look, and they mention that “the estranged uncle”
is itself a rather desperate construct, a contrivance that lets us receive
family secrets from a quarter where they would not be completely
unexpected by that still allows us to speak as we would to a stranger.
Our parents could reveal the secret, of course, but then our reaction
would be so bound up with grievances new and old that it would
scarcely be intelligible. A mysterious attorney, that staple of Victorian
melodrama, could arrive with unexpected news, but that too seems
arbitrary and undramatic. Besides, we’ve taken the trouble to cast the
uncle in a somewhat sympathetic light and we may be reluctant to
lose the character entirely.

We might try to gain distance from the uncle by viewing the scene
from the perspective of the club’s bartender, the courtly old Pullman
porter we mentioned earlier. He can overhear anything he chooses to,
and he can be a man of deep understanding. Our uncle is a regular and
an alcoholic; the bartender know him well and, when the uncle
introduces Billy, he can honestly tell Billy that, yes, he has heard a
very great deal about this fine young man. We might experiment with
different voices for the bartender/narrator: perhaps he is telling the
story across the bar some days later, or perhaps he’s telling his wife as
they sit at the table for Sunday dinner after church, or perhaps he’s
telling it many years later to an oral historian who has tracked him
down because his grandson marched with Martin. In one telling, he

might be restrained, concerned, and sympathetic to the plight of
these people he serves, people whom he really does like and who treat
him pretty well. In another, he may be very angry indeed after a
lifetime of slights and insults and thoughtless orders from old white
drunks who never did an honest day’s work.

Edits and revisions like these have always lain in the writer’s toolbox,
ready to hand. In a conventional text, we typically choose one or
another, but in a hypertext, we might find one approach works well in
some readings but a different approach could be better in others. Our
challenge is to support all the effective readings while imposing
sufficient order to maintain the overall structure of the story, to keep
things moving.

Managing Coherence
Where a statement provokes a necessary response, both the
statement and the response can be included in the same writing space.
While it is easy to envision hypertextual dialogue constructed from
individual statements and speeches, each in a separate writing space
and connected through various links, it is not difficult to include
several lines of dialog in one writing space.

In a sculptural hypertext, we can also use calligraphic links to connect

a writing space to its necessary sequel. Since calligraphic links have
higher priority than sculptural links, the explicit link will take
precedence and act as the default link. Note that in this case the
sequel need not be a member of the sculptural deck, and usually
should not be: you don’t want to randomly have Howard deliver the
punch line before Amy has laid the foundation of the joke.

At times, you might use a text link to introduce a discursive passage in

a sculptural hypertext.

AMY: You want to bring a girl to brunch? You haven’t
brought a girl to brunch in years.

BOB: I don’t think Howard’s brought a girl since


AMY: Which was like six, seven years ago. C’mon: who
is she?

BOB: And how much are we going to hate her?

HOWARD: You won’t hate her; she’s great. There’s just one
thing you’ve got to remember….

If we follow the text link here, we will visit an interstitial passage or

perhaps an entire chapter of backstory, material which the leisurely
reader will enjoy but which might not be strictly essential to the story
we’re telling. The hurried reader, following the default link, simply
skips the discursive passage. (A guard field might hide the text link if
we’ve already explained the situation with Barbara, in which case
retelling the story would be tedious.)

Discursive text links raise an interesting challenge of craft because

they need to explain two separate things:

• how the discursive passage connects to the story – that is, why we
need to know about Howard’s past romance.
• how the discursive passage connects to the link – that is, why it’s
connected to the specific words, ‘a girl since Barbara.”
Text links always challenge the reader to imagine what might they
might find at the end of the link, and after the reader has followed the
link they are expected to tell the reader where she is and what is
happening. To this end, it is often useful to repeat (or paraphrase,
respond to, parody, or subvert) the original link anchor at the
beginning of the destination.

Howard had not brought a girl to brunch since Barbara had set
Jeanine’s dress on fire on a cold March Sunday at that place near
Clark and Diversey. They’d been a hot couple and the breakup had
been unforgettable. None of us had forgotten. We weren’t totally
sure that Jeanine remembered, but since she still wasn’t speaking
to any of us, we figured the odds were good.


After Barbara, Howard had dated Claire (who left him to have a
fling with her shrink), Tiff (who left him and took his Xbox as
reparations), Steff (who may have been fictitious), Mei (who left him
for a job in Palo Alto), and Cassie (who left him to dig dinosaur
bones in Idaho after ‘borrowing’ a grand from Amy and $2500 from
Bob). Howard told us about them every Sunday, but we seldom saw
them. After Cassie, none of us was that eager to see them: who
could afford it? But Barbara, that was a hell of a story.

Coherence is concerned with sticking to the subject, with characters

who appear to have motivation and purpose rather than simply
uttering phrases at the writer’s behest. Novice hypertext writers are
often deeply concerned with coherence and rely on long linear
sequences to guard against its loss. This is frequently unnecessary:
even in tautly-written drama and dialogue, people wander among
topics quite freely. Here’s a moment from The Cherry Orchard (Julius
West, trans.)

GAEV. I remember, when I was six years old, on Trinity

Sunday, I sat at this window and looked and saw
my father going to church....

LUBOV. Have all the things been taken away?

LOPAKHIN. Yes, all, I think. [To EPIKHODOV, putting on his

coat] You see that everything's quite straight,

EPIKHODOV. [Hoarsely] You may depend upon me, Ermolai

LOPAKHIN. What's the matter with your voice?

EPIKHODOV. I swallowed something just now; I was having a

drink of water.

YASHA. [Suspiciously] What manners....

LUBOV. We go away, and not a soul remains behind.

LOPAKHIN. Till the spring.

VARYA. [Drags an umbrella out of a bundle, and seems to

be waving it about. LOPAKHIN pretends to be
frightened] What are you doing?... I never

TROFIMOV. Come along, let's take our seats... it's time! The
train will be in directly.

VARYA. Peter, here they are, your goloshes, by that trunk.

[In tears] And how old and dirty they are....

Everyone seems to be talking about something else, and everyone is

speaking over the others, yet everyone is talking as well about the
same thing.

Managing Continuity
Where coherence worries about keeping the characters on track and
on topic, continuity is concerned with keeping the story from
contradicting itself. Things happen in dialogue; our characters might
argue, deny, refute, or ignore what has been said, but they cannot
force us to unread it. Common continuity challenges include:

• revelation of a secret

• introduction or removal of a prop

• change in scene

A bunch of teenage kids are at a weekend party, talking and flirting

and fighting. At some point, Rick reaches into his pocket and takes
out a Surprising Thing – a handgun, perhaps, or a handful of Spanish
doubloons, or Mrs. McGuinness’s ferret. Let’s go with the ferret.
Now, this may not change everything – Amy and Stacey may
continue to disagree about the Cubs because who cares about the
stupid ferret anyway – but some things can only occur after the Thing
has been established, and others might no longer be possible now that
the Thing has been presented.

Before the unexpected production of the ferret, it would be

preposterous for Amy to say,

AMY: I hate ferrets. And weasels, too. Yuck. At summer

camp, we used to tell stories about finding a ferret
in your sleeping bag…

All this may be true, but why would Amy say it? After the ferret
appears, this is perfectly reasonable to say. Amy need not respond
immediately; she could watch her foolish classmates fawning over the
ferret and upbraid them later, but if we encountered this passage
before we have established the ferret, we might wonder whether Amy
(or the author) was entirely sound. This is not a problem of
coherence, but one of continuity.

Guard Fields
Guard fields are the simplest and most familiar way to establish
continuity. The ferret is introduced in one specific writing space,
named “Rick’s Ferret.” Links to Amy’s soliloquy on ferrets share a
guard field

visited(Rick’s Ferret)
Since no links to Amy’s soliloquy can be followed until we have
introduced the ferret, continuity is protected.

Sometimes, a prop may be introduced differently in different readings.

Perhaps there is a second note, “Escaped!,” in which the ferret gets
loose on its own, even before we have not encountered “Rick’s
Ferret.” Perhaps the reader has been avoiding Rick or following a
different character; that’s fine, but sooner or later we need the ferret.
So, now the guard fields for links to Amy’s soliloquy are a little more

visited(Rick’s Ferret) | visited(Escaped!)

If Amy’s soliloquy has many inbound links, it may be simpler to add

Requirements to that writing space. Requirements are conditions
that must be satisfied for the writing space to be visited; we could this
add the Requirement

visited(Rick’s Ferret) | visited(Escaped!)

to Amy’s soliloquy and dispense with the guard fields. This is

especially useful when, as here, the pertinence of a particular writing
space depends on the state of the story world.

Defining Attributes
If there are many ways the ferret might be established, and perhaps
other ways it could be removed from the scene, it might prove simpler
to add an attribute to keep track of the ferret. We might define a
boolean user attribute, $Ferret. Notes that introduce the ferret have
an OnVisit action:

OnVisit: $Ferret(/me)=true

Note that we set the value of $Ferret for a specific note. Values must
be stored in some note, and /me is conventionally the place where we
record the state of the story world.

In another note, Rick puts the ferret back in his pocket, or perhaps
the ferret runs off into the woods and is not seen or spoken of again.
This note has an OnVisit action:

Now, the Requirements for Amy’s soliloquy are simpler.


At times, a Boolean attribute might not suffice. Perhaps Mrs.

McGuinness’s ferret is not the only ferret in the story. We might need
to keep track of the number of ferrets at large. We can define a
numeric attribute $Ferrets:

Name: Rick’s Ferret

Requirements: unvisited(Rick’s Ferret)

OnVisit: $Ferrets(/me) = $Ferrets(/me) + 1
“Rick’s Ferret” can only be visited once, and when it’s visited, it
increments the count of ferrets. Amy’s soliloquy might then be
reserved for the second ferret; one ferret is a misfortune, but multiple
ferrets are intolerable.

Name: Amy’s Soliloquy

Requirements: $Ferrets(/me)>1

Topics and Tags

Adding new attributes can help clarify your intent, and this is by no
means inconsequential. In a large work, you will have hundreds of
links and notes, many with guard fields and requirements, and you
may well need to revise your work long after its first composition.
Making your intent clear can help you avoid confusion later.

Still, defining a new attribute for each facet of the fictive world can
sometimes lead to extremely long lists of user attributes, lists than can
themselves become unwieldy. Instead, we can define a set attribute
called Topics or use the built-in set attribute $Tags.

Name: Rick’s Ferret

Requirements: !$Topics(/me).contains(“ferret”)

OnVisit: $Tags(/me)=$Tags(/me)+“ferret”
Notes that establish the ferret add “ferret” to the list of $Tags. Notes
with requirements and links with guard fields can check the list of

Name: Amy’s Soliloquy

Requirements: $Tags(/me).contains(“ferret”)

Changing Decks
When writing sculptural hypertext, you may find that many cards in
your deck share the same requirements. While we may think of this as
a single scene, The Party, it may prove simpler to divide the action
into separate decks, The Party and Party With Ferret. The note
named “Rick’s Ferret” is part of the deck named The Party, but it
changes the current deck:

Name: Rick’s Ferret

OnVisit: $Deck(/me)=“Party With Ferret”
A later note might recapture the ferret (perhaps temporarily) and
return us to the previous deck:

OnVisit: $Deck(/me)=“The Party”

Alternatively, the recapture of the ferret might send us to a third

deck, “Late Party,” describing what happens later the same night.

Managing Cast
In the course of an extended scene, characters may come and go.
Changes of cast present an especially important problem of
continuity: readers may overlook an occasional reference in dialogue
to an object that has not been clearly established, but a speech by a
character who was recently seen to have departed will be jarring.

As was the case in managing continuity, the easiest way to handle

cast changes may be to split the deck. Police officers Henderson and
Mitchell are interrogating a suspect. We start with Initial
Interrogation. At some point Henderson steps outside, leaving
Mitchell and the suspect alone: we end the Initial Interrogation deck
with Henderson’s departure and switch to Further Interrogation. In
calligraphic hypertext, this sort of cast change seldom presents a
technical problem, though occasionally a guard field may check that
Henderson is still present:

unvisited(Henderson slams the door)

Occasionally, a character – a coffee-shop waitress, a bartender, the
scullery maid – may enter and leave a scene repeatedly. In some
cases, you might simply assume they are present when needed. If it is
important to keep track of their entrances and exits, you might define
a boolean attribute $Henderson that is true when $Henderson is

Alternatively, you might define a set attribute $OnStage. When
Henderson enters, the OnVisit action adds him to the cast.

For notes where Henderson departs, the corresponding action is

Testing whether Henderson is on-stage is easy enough. A note that
requires Henderson might have Requirements


If a note describes Henderson’s disparaging remarks about Jenkins,

remarks that cannot possibly be made when Jenkins is present, we
would require that:

$OnStage(/me).contains(“Henderson”) &


Taking Turns
If each writing space in a sculptural deck contains a statement made
by a single character, we may use sculptural hypertext to assemble a
dialogue. In this case, we might want to alternate speeches so that the
same character doesn’t speak twice in a row.

To accomplish this, we define a string attribute Who. Each note

designates its speaker in the note’s Who field.

$Who(“Amy’s Soliloquy”)=“Amy”

Each note, when visited, sets $Who(/me) to the name of the most
recent speaker:

OnVisit: $Who(/me)=$Who(this)
And each requires that the previous speaker not be this note’s

Requirements: $Who(/me)!=$Who(this)

Managing Closure: Closure Is A Suspect Quality

In Michael Joyce’s classic hypertext afternoon, a story, the writing
space named “work in progress” (which has not in fact been a work in

progress since 1987) argues that our customary desire for simple
endings may be problematic.

Closure is, as in any fiction, a suspect quality, although here it is made

manifest. When the story no longer progresses, or when it cycles, or
when you tire of the paths, the experience of reading it ends. Even so,
there are likely to be more opportunities than you think there are at
first. A word which doesn't yield the first time you read a section may
take you elsewhere if you choose it when you encounter the section
again; and sometimes what seems a loop, like memory, heads off
again in another direction.

There is no simple way to say this.

We are no longer required to marry each protagonist to a character of

opposite gender and equivalent social rank. Fiction no longer means
that “the good ended happily, and the bad unhappily.” We frequently
begin a hypertext by hastening into the midst of things; can we not
end it as well in the midst of things?

Modern and postmodern discontents with closure have led to

unhappiness about the way hypertexts end. On the one hand, games
and game-like hypertexts declare an unambiguous end-state, one
which renders judgment on the reading and perhaps on the reader:
you have lost or won, you achieved a new high score, you have died
yet again in the colossal cavern or you rescued the princess and will
live happily ever after. The alternative seems to be a rhetoric of
exhaustion: when you tire of the paths, the reading ends.

Games can seem childishly simplistic, but to transcend them, it

seems, we must put away childish pleasures in the text and, with
them, forego any hope of resolution or even of a closing cadence. This
hypertextual fictive world

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.

Critics weighed the rejection of closure and they did not suspend their
disbelief. Laura Miller concluded that if hypertext could not offer
closure is was claptrap (NY Times, March 15, 1998); Tim Parks titled
his overview of hyper fiction “Tales Told By The Computer,”
suggesting that in the end they signified nothing (New York Review of
Books 44 (16) 2002); Sven Birkerts mourned the loss of the sort of
immersive, perfluent dream which had once given him reason to go on
(The Gutenberg Elegies, Faber and Faber, 1994).

Closure and Rereading

Problematize it as we may, the old familiar tonic cadence that wraps
up the story cannot easily be replaced with the thin gruel of “when
you tire of the paths.” The Count of Monte Cristo, The Hound of the
Baskervilles, King Solomon’s Mines, The Stars My Destination, Red
Harvest: these are thrilling, immersive, exciting. They’re going places,
and they get you there without any shilly-shallying over the rhetoric of
exhaustion. In the mid-1990s, while late modernism and
postmodernism were engaged in civil brawls as Reagan’s heirs
cheered, the simple pleasures of narrative seemed at once to be too
familiar to emulate and too dishonest to valorize. Once that fight
exhausted itself, critics surveyed the wreckage and realized that we
had never established that hypertext narrative was capable of doing
what conventional text had always done: tell a rollicking yarn.
Because no one had troubled to do it, critics assumed no on could.

What was missed in this discussion is that hypertext requires

rereading. All serious writing expects rereading, whether on first
encounter (where we might simply call it attentive reading) or when
we revisit a title days or years after we first read it. We often pick up

familiar books and read them again. To understand a hypertext,
though, requires that we understand what we have chosen and also
what we did not, in our previous readings, choose; we need to know
the paths not taken to understand the work.

Your second encounter with The Hound Of The Baskervilles will never
match the first in every respect. You already know what happens, at
least generally, and that knowledge is bound to shape your reading.
You can still pick up your old, worn copy, but you’re not twelve
anymore, and that, too, will shape your reading. You will see both
more and less when you return to a book; that cannot be helped, and
you would not have it otherwise.

When we pick up a familiar volume, we might read it from start to

finish. Perhaps we picked it up to check a reference or to find a
specific passage; today, we find what we sought and return the book
to its shelf. Or, we might steal a few minutes from our daily work and
read a chapter or two, continuing until it’s time for our 2:15 staff
meeting or until concerns over neglected responsibilities overwhelm
the pleasure of reading. Perhaps we leave the volume on our bedside
table and dive into a treasured episode and read until we’re satisfied
for the time being. This is very much like the closure afternoon
proposes: we’ve seen these words before, we’re thinking about them
in new ways, and when the half-familiar words are no longer
provoking new ideas, we may set the book aside (for now) and read
something else.

Closure may be a suspect quality, but closure is not the only or even
the chief pleasure of the text. Moreover, hypertext’s resistance to
closure has been greatly exaggerated.

Episodic Closure
Afternoon, like many classic hypertexts, resists closure; it has no
single, simple ending. But afternoon is also replete with episodic
closure: we move from one scene to another, shifting time and place
and cast. The technical problem of these shifts is trivial: two of the
three roles Joyce enumerates for the hypertext link – timeshift and
renewal – signal transition to a new episode. Episodic closure
typically requires little more than starting a new scene.

How might we signal not merely the end of a scene, but rather the
end of the story? Upon consideration, we have a host of tools at our

First, the hypertext may simply stop. We read until we come to a

writing space which has no outbound links, and there the reading
ends. Games end like this: the reader has won or lost, the hero has
survived or not.

Second, the hypertext may signal exhaustion by refusing to yield new

material. The hero is confined to a cell; she can pace the cell, she can
look out the barred window, but she has no means of escape. The text
cycles within confined bounds. There is nothing left to do, and nothing
more to be said; the tale has ended.

Third, a time shift that returns to our framing story can signal that the
tale has reached its conclusion and that we have entered the coda.
“Heart of Darkness” begins aboard a yacht at rest.

The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of

the sails, and was at rest.

After the frame is established, the story begins with the sudden
introduction of the narrator and a time shift: “‘And this also,’ said

Marlow suddenly, ‘has been one of the dark places of the earth.’”
Only in the final paragraph do we return to rest, and to the Nellie:

Marlow ceased, and sat apart, indistinct and silent, in the pose of a
meditating Buddha

Returning to the frame signals that we have reached the end of the
line. Indeed, a coda that presents itself as outside the narrative,
perhaps describing what happened “after” the story ends,
reestablishes a frame by establishing it for the first time, as when Don
Giovanni (in the original libretto) concludes with its cheerful
assurance that Leporello found a new master and the world proceeded
on its way.

Finally, we may simply declare an ending, either by explicitly stating it

or simply by resolving the questions that the reader has been pursuing.
We find the Macguffin, we identify the criminal, we escape the
relentless and pitiless pursuers. The text may continue on, perhaps, as
things do, but it this particular story has ended.

Technique and Closure

The problem of hypertext closure is not that it is difficult, but rather
the threat that it will be encountered too soon. A codex book
describes its scope: we hold it in our hands, we know its thickness, we
can feel in our hands that we have scarcely begun. Electronic texts
have no need to disclose their size, and, if they do, the disclosure
might be contingent or duplicitous. A common anxiety for hypertext
writers is that a reader will stumble upon a trajectory that happens to
reach closure (or apparent closure) very quickly and, having read to
the end, will then stop, perhaps shaking her head that so much fuss is
made over such a slight work.

Suppose we have a hypertext narrative with a single designated
ending. We also have a designated stating point, the cover page. Many
links might depart from the cover page, each leading to different
destinations that launch different trajectories. The problem of
premature closure then becomes the problem of ensuring that none of
those trajectories is too short.

One strategy for ensuring that no reading is too short is to insert one
or more linear sequences that the reader must follow to their end. The
linear story is simply a degenerate case of this strategy, which is
sometimes useful but never entirely satisfying.

In calligraphic hypertext, we can add guard fields to links leading to

the end which require that we have already visited a list of
prerequisite writing spaces; if these occur in distinct scenes, the
condition amount to having seen at least part of each of the
enumerated scenes. This can often prove effective, but can sometimes
require complex guard fields. Some of this complexity might be
relaxed by adding guard field clauses to all the links that lead to notes
which themselves link to the end: you cannot approach the end until
you attain the requisite qualification. You must arrive at the Emerald
City and gain an audience with the Wizard before we even need to
check whether you have successfully obtained your broomstick.

Avoiding premature closure by manipulating the link network alone

can be challenging. Even small hypertexts – this is Mary-Kim
Arnold’s “Lust” with a mere 38 writing spaces and 141 links – can be
challenging to analyze, yet if we enforce artificially simple structure
on the hypertext, why write hypertext in the first place?

New facilities in Storyspace 3 make it far easier to avoid premature

closure. First, we may simply require a minimum reading length by

adding Requirements to the end. For example, if the end has the


then the end will be inaccessible until at least 100 writing spaces have
been visited in this reading. Or, we may also impose an episodic
constraint through Requirements just as we did through guard fields:

visited(Pick Up The Broom) 

& visited(Emerald City)

& visited(Oz)
We can treat the End as any other locked note and require that we
have acquired one or more keys in various places in the hypertext.


Closure and Sculptural Hypertext

Finally, we might examine how to manage episodic closure in
sculptural hypertext. Often, for example, we might begin a sculptural
episode with a note that sets the $Deck:

$Deck(/me)="Wild Party"
Following the default link will now take us to unvisited notes in the
Wild Party deck, each of which describes some facet of what
occurred during that long and memorable night. Let’s suppose that we
have 30 writing spaces in the “Wild Party” deck, and all of these are
found inside a container named Party.

How does the reader manage to leave the party? If the reader simply
continues to follow the default link, she will eventually visit all the
notes in “Wild Party” once, and will then revisit them again. Sooner
or later, though, we do want to leave the party.

One simple solution is to provide a calligraphic link from one of the

“Wild Party” writing spaces.

Name: The Cops Rush In

OnVisit: $Deck=“”;


Source: The Cops Rush In

Destination: And So To Bed
Once the cops arrive, the party ends and we move on to the next
episode. Since there are 30 writing spaces in the deck, we’ll typically
read about 15 of them before the police show up. About 3% of the
time, though, the very first card will end the party.

Alternatively, we might have a note which is part of the “Wild Party”

deck and which ends the party, but which is not inside the Party

Name: The Sun Rises; I Depart

Deck: “Wild Party”

Requirements: every(child(/Party),$Visits>0)

OnVisit: $Deck=“”

The sun can only rise after every note inside the Party container has
been visited. Once all the rest have been visited, this note will be the
only unvisited note in the deck and can be visited, ending the party.

Perhaps we don’t need to visit every note from the party, but we want
to visit some notes. We could permit the party to end at any time after,
say, 4 notes have been read:

Requirements: count(child(/Party),$Visits>0)>=4
Or we could require that some specific notes have been visited.

Requirements: visited(Gin)&visited(Rum)
While it’s possible that only three notes from the party will be visited,
that will happen in only 0.02% of readings, and a typical reading will
visit about 18 notes.

Reading Notes
Bernstein, Mark. “Criticism.” Proceedings of the 21st ACM
Conference on Hypertext and Hypermedia (2010): 235–44.

A survey of critical reaction to early hypertext and an attempt to

understand what early hypertext writers were trying to achieve, and
what early critics wanted to express.

Games and Beyond
Literary hypertext has long existed in tension with video games of
various sorts, from the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books and
text-parser adventures of the 1980s to avant-garde Twine stories and
one-of-a-kind systems like the Brown University’s virtual reality
“cave”. At the same time, game scholars have frequently doubted the
supposed role of narrative in games. Many games, like chess, have a
nominal narrative cloak, but no chess expert spends much time
thinking about whether knights are like horses or about the attitude
of the queen’s bishop’s toward royal supremacy or transubstantiation.
The immersive joys of games are not literary, and our literary
pleasures seldom feel like games.

Nevertheless, identification is central to story: we care about the

story because we care about its characters, because we want things to
turn out well, or at least to turn out as they ought.

Storyspace 3 provides tools that make it easy to create literary games,

either as separate works or as components of stories. These tools are
also valuable for continuity – for keeping track of the changing state
of the world and what the reader knows – or thinks she knows.

Locks and Keys

We have already seen an example of a lock. The first part of our story
took place in the small town of Ghastlyville. Eventually, our
protagonist would board a bus to New York City. We might narrate
this as a sequence of three notes:

bus station ⇒ on the bus ⇒ New York

But in order to board the bus, we must possess a ticket: a guard field
on the link to “on the bus” requires that we have a bus ticket.

source: bus station

destination: on the bus

guard: $BusTicket(/me)==true

where $BusTicket is a user attribute which is true if we possess a

ticket and false if we do not. The link to the bus only exists if we have
a ticket. Alternatively, we might add a shark link from the bus:

source: on the bus

destination: thrown off the bus!

path: shark

guard: $BusTicket(/me)==false
If we try to board the bus without a ticket, we arrive instead at a node
named “thrown off the bus!” which describes the consequences of our
mistake, or perhaps begins a new episode.

How might we acquire a bus ticket? Certain notes might bestow a bus
ticket when we visit them.

Name: Ticket Office

Requirements: $Cash(/me)>83

OnVisit: $BusTicket(/me)=true;$Cash(/me)=$Cash(/
Other notes might give us a bus ticket only if some other condition is

Name: Trade With Billy

Requirements: $Guitar(me)==true


If we arrive at the note “Trade With Billy” and if we still have a
guitar, we swap the guitar for a bus ticket.

Paying For What You Use
An important, though perhaps not immediately obvious, use of locks
and keys is to keep track of what the reader knows and, specifically,
to ensure that you have paid for narrative elements before you use
them, and that you use what you pay for.

Two old men, Ernest and Morris, have risen early on this November
morning. They meet at the old Empire Diner, across from the bus
station in this dying upstate hamlet. They plan to catch the first bus to
the city for their big day on the town. We follow their talk, with
occasional contributions from the waitress Marge, who misses Ernie’s
late wife terribly and thinks that Ernie was a lousy husband.

Their conversation ranges widely; these men are talented and

thoughtful as well as lonely. They each have an interesting past; they
know each other’s stories well, so we glimpse hints rather than having
the history laid out before us. Links let us pursue some details, letting
the reader follow this hint or ignore that one.

Eventually, we will wind up in New York. Things will happen. In the

end, we are going to wind up at the police station, interviewed by a
pair of very young and very suspicious cops.

Now, many years ago, Morris was a committed radical, a member of

Students for a Democratic Society. He knew Angela and Bobby, he
even met Malcolm one time. He has an interesting police record. He
knows it, and Ernie knows it. It’s important that the reader know it
well in advance, lest it seem a sort of cheat, a deus ex machina trotted
out to spice up the plot.

In a conventional text, we’d make a note that this bit of exposition

needs to be worked into the story somehow. One morning, we might

sit down with a cup of coffee and our draft and ask ourselves, where
can we fit it? We might do it right off the bat, adding some exposition
to the first introduction of the character. We might talk politics at the
diner, and let this information emerge there. The bus might pass the
State Penitentiary and our seat companion might be a young lady
named Angela; we could try to impress her with the story of the time
we got arrested with another Angela, many years back. We might try
different approaches and choose the one we like best. We might ask
our editor, or try out alternatives in our workshop.

Hypertext makes this more complicated because we our reader might

not encounter every passage before we wind up in the police station.
Yet we must disclose this information first. If we’ve already talked
about our past once this morning, we may want to avoid belaboring it
a second time – yet that second time might be the only information
some other reader will see.

Here, again, we have a lock and a key. The lock stands at some point
before the police station. The key is The Secret, the past which today
is going to rise up once again. If we’ve already revealed the secret, we
can proceed. If not, we’ll need to insert a second scene where we
discuss our past.

Secrets and Revelations

Some stories hinge on revelation: either the characters or the reader –
often both – learn something they did not expect. Just as we must
establish some plot elements before we use them, we must reveal
secrets before the story can be resolved. Moreover, once characters
know a secret, they may no longer act as they once did. They may see
themselves or other characters in a new light.

In any one draft of a conventional narrative, these moments of
revelation are fixed. They may move from one draft to another; in one,
we might disclose everything at the outset and focus on the
consequences, while in another we might withhold the disclosure until
the very last paragraph. The means of disclosure might change, too: in
one draft, we learn the truth when a stranger comes to town, while in
another we might receive a letter, or read a newspaper story, or hire a
private investigator to explain a mysterious fire at the local factory.

The secret might be shocking and unexpected: the sheriff is secretly a

woman, the leading family in town has been stealing from the treasury
for decades, the president is a crook. Or, the secret may be something
we always knew but could not admit – for example, that our tough
and independent hero, Mike, is still deeply in love with the beautiful
Lisa, with whom he had a brief but memorable affair many years ago.
At the outset, Mike, Lisa, and the reader all agree that the affair is
long forgotten; fate or war or some common purpose have thrown
them together for the moment and, being adults, they can certainly
cooperate sufficiently to overcome the current crisis. At some point in
story time, they will discover their love, but in principle this discovery
might come sooner or later in the story. Moreover, the story isn’t told
in strict chronological order, so the revelation of that discovery to the
reader might come soon or later in the reading.

Let’s assume that the story begins on Monday and will end on Friday.
On Monday, Mike and Lisa meet; they are distant and civil. On
Friday, they will be rapturously in love. In the meantime, they must
work together to locate the lost Maguffin and to evade the Hunters
who seek to frustrate them.

Keeping Track Of Constraints
The hypertext begins on Monday and ends on Friday, but the
narration may jump back and forth in space and time. Depending on
what links the reader follows, some scenes that take place on
Thursday might be most clear or most effective near the outset, and
something that happened on Tuesday might be explained much later
in the telling, after its importance has become clear. Some scenes
might be omitted entirely in certain readings.

Let us suppose that Mike and Lisa might discover they are in love at
several different moments:

1: Tuesday, in the wheat field

2: Wednesday afternoon, when they almost locate the McGuffin

3: Wednesday night in the bar

4: Thursday morning, waking up together

5: Thursday noon, when all seems lost

Continuity imposes some constraints on our writing:

• Mike and Lisa might treat each other civilly, coldly, even cruelly
before the revelation. They cannot do that afterwards.

• Mike and Lisa cannot treat each other as lovers, or plan for a future
together, before the revelation. The can do so afterwards.

This means that some scenes will need to be rewritten or omitted if

the revelation happens too early to too late. Parts of scenes that must
be omitted might be moved to some other place. For example, we may
have written a bitter but funny joke that fits naturally into Thursday
morning, provided we aren’t yet in love. If we’re committed to
discover love on Wednesday, we could use the joke on Tuesday – it

might be a little better told on Thursday but, if it can’t fit in there,
perhaps we can use the material in another place.

Keeping Track
We’ll assume here that True Love is perceived, simultaneously and
self-evidently, by Mike, Lisa, and the reader. But when?

We define two numeric user attributes: $FirstLove is the earliest

moment at which love might be revealed, which is initially 1,
corresponding to the earliest entry in the list above. $LastLove is the
latest moment at which love might be revealed; it is initially 5.

Name: cover page

OnVisit: $FirstLove=1;$LastLove=5;
Now, let’s consider a note that describes a loving scene that takes
place Tuesday evening. This scene can’t be used unless we know the
revelation took place Tuesday morning. We can add a guard field or a
$Requirements of

If we’ve committed to a revelation on Tuesday morning, we can used
this note; otherwise, we hold it in abeyance.

Another note is also loving, and takes place between times 3 and 4. If
the revelation cannot happen that early, – if we’ve already committed
to a discovery of True Love at the last possible moment – we can’t use
this scene. In other words, this note doesn’t contradict what the
reader has already seen if


and we can use that expression as a guard field or in $Requirements.

Now, suppose we’d like to link to a note in which Mike and Lisa fight
bitterly (but hilariously) late on Wednesday afternoon. This is a very

good scene: we want to use it if we can. If we’re already in love, of
course – if $LastLove is 1 or 2, then we can’t use the scene — if we’re
in love, we can’t be fighting. But, if we haven’t already contradicted
this note, we’ll use it.

Requirements: $LastLove>2

OnVisit: if($FirstLove<3) { $FirstLove=3;}
Once we’ve read this card, we know that we did not discover love
before this moment; we can eliminate possibilities 1 and 2.

Finally, let’s look at the scene where we discover True Love at in the
bar, Wednesday night.

Requirements: $FirstLove<=3 & $LastLove >=3

OnVisit: $FirstLove=3;$LastLove=3
We can only read this card if it’s not already contradicted — if the
reader hasn’t already seen us in love at an earlier time, or seen us
fighting at a later time. Once we’ve read this card, we know precisely
when the revelation occurred.

In sculptural hypertext, we often switch decks in order to change time
or setting. One deck might describe the early minutes of cocktail
party, the guests’ arrival and introductions, their preliminary jousting,
their first expression of distaste or rivalry. Then something happens:
the mayor arrives, or the host’s sullen teenage daughter starts a fire in
her bedroom, or old Lady Bracknell faints. Whatever happens, this
changes everything, and we switch to a deck that describes the

We can also switch systematically between decks to braid together

two narrative strands. A young man and a young woman are attending

a provincial ball. He is visiting the MacGregors, he attends the ball
because the MacGregors wanted to come,though he knows no one in
the district and he doesn’t care for dancing. The young woman is
visiting the her schoolfriend Peggy Sorenson, whom she now realizes
is a terrible bore. Everyone else in this little town is even worse, and of
course balls were never more than a thinly-masked tool for oppressing

The Boy and The Girl have met before, they are slightly acquainted,
and each disliked the other at once. We alternate passages, one from
the perspective of The Boy, the next from the perspective of The Girl,
as they do their best to avoid each other and to evade the hand of fate
that has decreed that it is their necessary duty to fall in love.

We might open this episode with a note that establishes the scene,
describing the dazzling room, the candlelight, the fittings and fashions
that seem so opulent to the locals (and even more opulent to the
shopgirls and clerks who gather across the street to peer at the red
carpet) and which The Boy and The Girl will soon find so

Name: The Assembly

OnVisit: $Deck(/me)=“Boy;Girl”;$BallStart(/me)=
We pick up the Boy Deck and the Girl deck and shuffle them
together, and we make a memo of how many notes we’d read when
the ball commenced.

The card we choose first turns out to describe The Girl’s perspective.

Name: A Disappointing Gown

OnVisit: $Deck(/me)=“Boy”
The Girl climbs the stairs and at once sees Lavinia Higgins, who is
reputed to be a rare beauty but whose gown is cut in an unfortunate

manner from a cloth whose color is by no means what her friends
might wish. The OnVisit action switches to the deck “Boy,” from
which we select the next note.

Name: Hock

OnVisit: $Deck(/me)=“Girl”

Having little hope of finding tolerably interesting company in this

backwater, The Boy thinks to take refuge with Bacchus. The hock,
alas, is compounded of sugar and lead acetate, and cannot possibly be
consumed in anything close to the quantity this wretched place would
demand. The OnVisit action switches the deck back to “Girl”.

Name: A Round

OnVisit: $Deck(/me)=“Boy”

Link: What Mrs. MacGregor Heard
Here, the ebb and flow of the company and the commencement of
dancing lead The Girl to an awkward pass, as she is very nearly
pushed into the company of Betty Masterson, whose gossip is neither
fresh nor scarce, or of The Boy himself. Only great cleverness, agility,
and the fortuitous intervention of old Mrs. MacGregor save The Girl
from these perils. The link now takes us to ‘What Mrs. MacGregor
Heard”, and this may in turn lead us more deeply into that amusing
yet disturbing anecdote. Eventually, we’ll run out of calligraphic links;
when we do, our next note will the selected from the deck, “Boy.”

Name: A Boisterous Fellow

DeckRequirements: $Visits(/me)>=$BallStart(/me)+5

OnVisit: $Deck(/me)=“Girl”
The Boy finds himself in an unpleasant meeting with a fellow who is
much the worse for drink, and who is making very unkind and
inappropriate remarks about a young lady of his acquaintance. This
note would be odd if encountered at the very start of the ball, for how
could this cad have time to get drunk so soon? We add a requirement

that we have read at least five other notes since the start of the ball
before we come to this one.

Name: There Is No Help For It

DeckRequirements: visited(A Boisterous Fellow)

&visited(What Mrs. MacGregor Heard)

OnVisit: $Deck(/me)=“”

Link: The Balcony

Eventually, The Boy and The Girl must meet. We must delay that
meeting: that, after all, is the purpose of this elaborate dance, and the
story would not work if they met immediately. In addition, we want to
ensure that we’ve disclosed two necessary facts to the reader: we
want to be sure that the reader knows about that boisterous fellow
and that the reader knows heard what Mrs. MacGregor heard. Until
those prerequisites have been fulfilled, this card cannot be chosen.
Now that they have been, the card can be visited, we put aside the
previous decks entirely, and a link opens a scene on the balcony.

Displaying Attributes
In any note,

^value( expression )
will be replaced in Read mode by the result or value of the expression
in parentheses. For example,

would be replaced by “5”.

Most often, expression is simply an attribute of the top-level note

“me”, a convenient place for tracking of the state of the reading. For
example, if we define a numeric attribute $Cash that represents the
protagonist’s supply of cash, then we could write

Ernesto looks in his wallet. He has roughly ^value($Cash(/me))
dollars left.

If we like, we can write more complex expressions.

Ernesto has ^value($Cash(/me)) dollars, which works out to roughly

^value(0.88*$Cash(/me)) Euros.

Alternatively can add text that only appears when certain conditions
are met:

^if($Cash(/me)>100) Ernesto has plenty of money. ^endif

You have ^if($Cash(/me)>100) lots of ^else some ^endif

Character Notes
When making a new document, Storyspace automatically creates a
top-level note named “me” which is not intended to be read or linked,
but which provides a convenient place to hold attributes about the
current state of the reading. If you like, you can create additional
notes to represent the state of a character or a place in the story that
might change during the reading. We call these “character notes,”
though some might describe places or objects rather than people.

For example, let’s define numeric user attributes $Cash and $Merit.
$Cash(/me) represents “my” cash. If we define a top-level note
named “Angela”, then $Cash(/Angela) represents Angela’s cash.
Perhaps in our story there’s a drawer that initially holds a twenty
dollar bill. We create a note to hold the state of the drawer, and add a

ResetAction: $Cash(/drawer)=20.
One note describes Angela taking the cash from the drawer. The link
to this note is only available if there’s cash in the drawer:

Name: Angela borrows some money

guard: $Cash(/drawer)>0
and the note’s OnVisit action removes the cash:

OnVisit: $Cash(/Angela)=$Cash(/drawer); $Cash(/


Often, we can choose between defining new attributes and adding

new notes. We could define attributes

and keep track of them all in /me, or we could instead make notes for
Angela and for the Drawer and use


Indeed, if we have lots of character notes, we might move them into

separate containers:

It’s often a good idea to avoid adding too much elaborate
infrastructure until you’re confident you need it. Storyspace makes it
reasonably easy to revise actions and restructure your work, so you
need not worry too much about getting everything right before you
begin to write.

On occasion, visiting a note might change the state of /me, or
perhaps of some other notes. For example, suppose that every time
we visit the bird seller, we purchase a bird. We can only follow the
link to the bird seller if we have some cash with which to buy a bird.

guard field: $Cash(/me)>20

When we visit the bird seller, we give up some cash and we acquire
another bird.

OnVisit: $Cash(/me)=$Cash(/me)-20;$Birds(/me)=
Nearby, there is a sacred grove where we can release birds.




If we have any birds when we visit the grove, they’re released and we
gain merit.

Perhaps the bird seller has only three birds to sell. We’ll create a new
character note for the birdcatcher /Papageno. The ResetAction action
of the cover page, /start, gives the bird seller his initial stock.

OnVisit: $Birds(/Papageno)=5.
Now the bird seller’s guard field tests both that the reader has money
with which to purchase birds, and that the bird seller has birds to sell.

guard field: $Cash(/me)>20 & $Birds(/Papageno)>0

Perhaps the price of birds varies. We can create a new numeric
attribute $BirdPrice and use the cover page’s OnVisit to set the initial

OnVisit: $BirdPrice(/Papageno)=20
The guard field now checks the market price for birds:

guard field: $Cash(/me)>$BirdPrice(/Papageno) &

Whenever the bird seller sells a bird, we can increase the price.




$BirdPrice(/Papageno)=$BirdPrice(/Papageno) * 2;

Elsewhere in the story, we might observe a squad of Imperial Price

Checkers moving through the marketplace. In the wake of reading
about their descent into the bazaar, the price of birds is reset to the
official price.

OnVisit: $BirdPrice(/Papageno)=20;
Some days are legally Inauspicious; if today is not auspicious, $Tags(/
me) will contain the tag “Inauspicious”. The bird seller cannot sell
birds on inauspicious days. We could add a further constraint on the
guard field:

guard field: $Cash(/me)>$BirdPrice(/Papageno) 

& $Birds(/Papageno)>0

& (! $Tags(/me).contains(“Inauspicious”) )
Alternatively, we might want to write a scene in which the bird seller
explains that this day is Inauspicious and that he cannot sell us a bird.
Perhaps this might lead instead to an invitation to meet the bird
seller’s daughter at dinner. We add a shark link from the bird seller to
the invitation:

shark link

source: bird seller

destination: today is not auspicious

guard field: $Tags(/me).contains(“Inauspicious”)

If we try to visit the bird seller on an inauspicious day, this link will
shunt us instead to to invitation.

Finally, at some point of the story we may be the victim of terrible

rumors spread by someone who wishes us ill. If so, $Tags(/me) will
contains the tag “Evil”. The bird seller won’t sell us birds if we’re
thought to be evil:

shark link

source: bird seller

destination: Do not darken my door

guard field: $Tags(/me).contains(“Evil”)
We make this a higher-priority link than the link to “today is not
auspicious”, since if we are evil, the bird seller won’t want to invite us
to dinner. Once we have cleared up our problematic reputation,
another note removes the tag

OnVisit: $Tags(/me)=$Tags(/me)-“Evil”
and, since we are no longer evil, we can once more visit the bird seller.

A Page That Changes Each Time

It’s Read
Imagine a page that we revisit throughout the course of the reading.
For example, let’s suppose that every time our protagonist returns to
her dormitory room, she always finds the dormitory lounge inhabited
by a group of exhausted revelers, some of them playing bridge, some
watching the television. The scene is fundamentally the same but the
details differ on each encounter: sometimes, the television has news of
some fresh disaster, sometimes the television is playing an old movie.
Sometimes, one of the bridge players might greet us.

One way to handle this is to create several different pages, each
describing a different variation of this repeated encounter. This is
often then best solution. If these notes have complicated links to
many possible destinations, though, it might be tedious to duplicate
those links. Worse, if we decide to add a new link from the dorm
lounge, we might need to add corresponding links to every variation.

Instead, we can insert a fresh passage embedded of text inside a single

note, so the note is changed in each reading. To do this, we create a
container named “lounge,” and inside this container we create a
separate child note for each variant passage.

Four tired students are playing bridge. There’s still a little wine in their
bottle, but nobody’s paying much attention.

Amy and Tricia are defending while Roberto tries to find a hope for a
hopeless slam. Misha is dummy and changing channel.

As you pass, Tricia looks up from dealing the cards and asks if you’d
bring her back a coffee. “I’ve got an exam in two hours.” she explains.

None of these notes will be visited in a reading; instead, the much-

visited note “Dawn” will incorporate their texts.


Emily leaves her room, forgetting as usual to lock the door. The
bridge game is still going strong.

….interpolated passage goes here…

Emily wonders on the way to breakfast how she is going to

discover who is blackmailing the Dean, and how she is ever going
to finish her term paper for English 32.

How shall we choose the passage to interpolate? One simple
approach would be to choose one of the children of “lounge” at
random whenever we revisit “Dawn”.


Alternatively, we might display the first child on the first reading, the
second child on the next reading, and so forth.



if ($MyNumber(/lounge)>=$ChildCount(/lounge)) 


Each time we read Dawn, we will interpolate the value of some note’s
$Text into Dawn’s text.

^value( $Text( ….the note to interpolate…. ))

Which note will we interpolate? The first child of “lounge” is

or, equivalently,

The next child is


We’ll use $MyNumber(/lounge) to remember which child we want to

interpolate next. It’s initially zero. After we interpolate a passage, we
can use either the ^action() command or an OnVisit action to
increment $MyNumber and move on to the next child. Finally, if we
visit Dawn so often that we have run out of passages to interpolate,
we set $MyNumber to zero and begin once more with the first

the vacant landscape
Locks and keys and vending machines are easy to model. They are
mechanical, their behavior is repetitive and predictable. They’re not
people, and we don’t expect them to be.

We can write a story in which the reader exists in conflict with an

array of locks. That story is the puzzle, and puzzles can be satisfying
and immersive stories, especially if the puzzle is both engaging and

If we reframe the puzzle so the reader guides a protagonist through a

puzzling environment, we find ourselves in a narrative game. When
the environment is sufficiently interesting, as in Rand and Robin
Miller’s Myst, the world itself becomes a second character. These
worlds tend to be empty; because machinery does not emulate people
easily, these worlds are often depopulated.

Writers have sought to repopulate the fictive world by creating richer

mechanisms that might emulate emotion and volition. Interactive
Fiction has a long literature on automata that perform roles, called
“non-player characters”. Various techniques from AI and
computational linguistics have been applied with mixed success to
characters in games like Façade and The Sims.

Keep in mind, however, that the written world does not require a
faithful simulation. The man in black plays Hamlet but he does not
need to know about Denmark’s tax policy or military budget. Good
writing, and just a touch of state to maintain coherence and
continuity, may be all we require.

Reading Notes
Merrit Kopas, ed. Videogames for Humans. New York: Instar
Books, 2015.

Twine, a hypertext/interactive fiction platform originally written by

Chris Klimas, has become popular for writing hypertext stories
inspired in some ways by Storyspace and in others by Interactive
Fiction as popularized by Infocom in the 1980s. This volume collects
transcripts of reading transcripts and commentary of notable Twine
stories. The Twine community has tended to follow interactive fiction
in identifying the reader as the protagonist, but rather than complain
of the limitations of today’s holodeck, they sought out domains where
those limitations are natural. Many of their protagonists are alienated
from themselves; some are depressed, some demented, some are
gender-queer, some are demons.

Narrativist Games
Efforts to explore the nature of narrative through computationally
generating stories have been widely discussed, most notably Schank
and Meehan’s “Tale-spin” and the OZ project on believable agents by
Bates and his students. This work and its descendants proved fertile
chiefly for learning about language and computation.

Though often disparaged, table-top games have generated a series of

thoughtful and sophisticated contemplations of the nature of
sophisticated narrative that are virtually unknown either to literary or
to computational circles. A few especially interesting and notable
works may be mentioned here; most can be downloaded as ebooks at
very modest cost.

Paul Czege’s My Life With Master explores the range of storytelling
variation even where the story and the plot are tightly constrained by
genre and circumstance. The protagonist is a tormented minion of an
abusive evil master, and the story necessarily ends when the servant,
filled with love and self-loathing turns on the master, kills him, and
dies in the ensuing struggle. Even within this tight frame, we find
room for infinite variation. Stalin’s Story by Victor Gijsbers explores a
related puzzle: Comrade Stalin is unhappy, his courtiers are terrified,
and a troop of Players have been brought in to cheer him up – or at
least to distract him. A story with a story where the audience can and
will order the characters about or remove them permanently.

Jason Morningstar’s Fiasco examines the structure of the caper movie,

stories of “ordinary people with powerful ambition and poor impulse
control.” It schematizes relationships and story structures in
intriguing and unexpected ways. His Gray Ranks sets out to explore
what must be the least promising possible topic for a game: the
doomed fighters for the Warsaw ghetto, and finds ways to find
compelling stories even where the trajectory is brutally fixed and
freedom of action seems scarcely to exist.

D. Vincent Baker’s Dogs In The Vineyard is an example of the power

of world-building to drive compelling stories. Baker’s game describes
an American frontier made up of struggling settlements run by
religious zealots; the “players” are an inquisition that moves from
place to place, settling disputes and rooting out injustice. Games often
invite players to slaughter opponents; here, avoiding or resolving
conflict is desirable but cannot always be achieved. Again, a simple
formulaic plot framework, when augmented by an interesting and
well-drawn (albeit unattractive) world, create fascinating narrative

The Encyclopedic
In her influential book Hamlet On The Holodeck, Janet Murray
attributed four essential affordances for digital media. In this view,
digital media are procedural, participatory, encyclopedic, and spatial.

“When the encyclopedic affordance is appropriately exploited, large

information resources are semantically segmented at multiple levels
of granularity, sorted, classified, and labeled with controlled
vocabularies. When informational spaces or virtual worlds are well
organized with clear boundaries, consistent navigation, and
encyclopedic details that reward exploration they create the
experience of immersion.” (Inventing The Medium: Glossary)

I have long been skeptical that the encyclopedic impulse – more

properly, really, the impulse toward abundance, toward profligate
distribution of story and data, exposition and annal – is actually
digital, unless we regard text itself as digital. While Murray identifies
aspects of efficient curation and organization, moreover, these are not
necessarily the sole virtues, nor indeed are they always virtues. On the
whole, clarity, brevity, and sincerity are good things for a writer to
command at need, but were these our only aims, where would that
leave Milton, Melville, Proust, or Vonnegut?

Clear boundaries and consistent navigation make large information

spaces seem small. It is only inconsistent and unpredictable

abundance that conveys a sense of scale and awe, a confidence that
we are awash in a boundless world which is strange and unknown, yet
(we are confident) could be known if only we wandered far and
studied hard. Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings is a convincingly vast
history not because it tells us so much, but because its notional author
assumes that naturally everyone knows so much that we do not know.
– that Dol Amroth has a prince, that the Haradrim are cruel, that the
Anduin flows down to the sea, and that the Rohirrim speak something
like Old English. Many triumphs of speculative fiction world building
– “The Moon Moth”, “The Witches of Karres,” “Nightfall,”
“Scanners Live In Vain” – are very short. Hints at the edges of Dr.
Watson’s notes (the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world
is not yet prepared) make Sherlock Holmes’ world a source of
fascination, while Trollope’s Barsetshire, drawn in far greater detail,
seems small because it is more thoroughly mapped. The word of
Harry Potter is wondrous because we see it as school children, kids
who are wise and smart but who don’t know much, and who know
above all that they don’t understand the world. Lev Grossman’s realist
redaction, The Magicians and its sequels, makes its world seem
smaller by making his hero know it well – and by making its hero a
young man who is certain he knows it all.

The encyclopedic impulse is frequently at odds with narrative.

Narrative wants to drive ahead; annotation holds us back. The
audience wants to see what happens next; annotation can modulate
the experience, it can prepare and sustain the preparation, but in the
end it stands between the audience and its desire. This section
speculates on some pragmatic approaches to controlling and
exploiting the encyclopedia impulse.

The most straightforward approach to blending narrative and
annotation is the Parsifal story, that memory of ritual initiation in
which the hero sees a succession of wonders – often frightening,
always incomprehensible – which he comes eventually to understand
and, through understanding, enters into adulthood. This is the story of
going walkabout, of Lyra Belacqua’s harrowing of Hell, of The Magic
Flute, of True Grit and of The Road To Oxiana.

The Parsifal Story integrates the encyclopedic impulse with narrative

by entwining them twice. Our natural expectation calls for a journey
followed by exposition of the marvel we will witness. Afterward, we
will journey again, and again we expect to witness a new wonder.
Exposition of the marvel we have worked so hard to see is not here an
interruption in the story, but becomes a goal of the story, part of what
we and the hero are seeking. Moreover, because we understand that
the end requires understanding, not simply witnessing, these marvels,
the hero’s struggle to decipher and interpret itself becomes a

The very convenience of this narrative device is its chief drawback:

readers who recognize Parsifal may perceive the puppet-master
behind the characters and naturally may resent the master’s
manipulations. Why should the audience sit through this long stream
of phony perils and mumbo jumbo? If you’ve got knowledge to
impart, why not get on with it! The Yiddish term for a silly story, one
only a child would sit still for, is bubbe meise from Sir Bevis, another
Parsifal story.

One way to justify Parsifal is to disable the hero, to so limit their

agency that they can do little more than witness and interpret. In True

Grit, Mattie Ross is a child and a woman in a man’s world. In Pry, the
electronic novella by Danny Cannizzaro and Samantha Gorman, the
hero is paralyzed: all he can do is witness and remember. In Tinker
Tailor Soldier Spy, George Smiley is old, retired, cast out, a former spy
called in to clean up a mess.

Finally, when considering the Parsifal structure in hypertext, keep in

mind that Parsifal often requires progressive revelation. The
psychological impact of the mystery, for example, depends not on our
assembling clues and performing deduction, but rather on the hero’s
ultimately-successful effort to repair (at least partially) a breach in the
world’s proper order. The clues might come in any sequence but the
clues don’t matter: what matters is the progressive impact of growing
knowledge (both of the rupture and its cure) on the hero. That
progress is linear, and so the benefit of hypertextuality is not
immediately clear.

spatial narrative
The travel story provides a second way to blend annotation and
narrative. The world lies before the protagonist, who seeks something
she cannot find at home. The thing she seeks is often obscure or
arcane, and is almost always a state of mind, knowledge or
understanding. As our long journey progresses, it is perfectly natural
to explain it, reflect on it, annotate it. Each place offers an incident or
a problem, and our journey in space makes manifest our struggle to
overcome adversity and to find what we are seeking.

One of the first hypertext stories, Crowther and Wood’s Adventure or

Colossal Cave, was a literally spatialized narrative. The reader could
move in fixed directions through a maze, and each place or “room” in
that maze offered a narrative incident or puzzle – a bit of gold or an

axe-tossing dwarf. The knowledge sought here was, ultimately,
understanding the world – knowing its compass and comprehending
the language that commands its elements. Adventure gave rise to a
number of disparate works that invite the reader to explore a large
world; early worlds like Myst were largely vacant, while later worlds
like World of Warcraft masked the absence of characters by filling
themselves with a crowd of fellow travelers, all equally at sea.

This is, in fact, the central difficulty in writing spatialized narrative:

the hero is always leaving and always alone. Yes, we can drag Sancho
Panza or Leporello along with us, we can hire guides, porters and
fellow-travelers, but companions and hirelings become an extension
of the hero. A hostile secret opponent – often the totalitarian state
through which we are traveling – can sometimes serve as a shadowy
second character. The hero of the spatialized narrative had better be
good company, because we will spend most of our time with her.

This is also the strength of spatialized narrative: because we are

pursuing someone else’s mysterious passion, and because they are
such excellent company, we can delight in their conversation as we
move from one interesting place to the next. In the course of the 20th
century, the travel book became the refuge of the essay, the
appropriate place for fascinating, personal discussion of arbitrary
topics. Fictional travel – Jan Morris’s Hav or Ian M. Banks’ The Player
Of Games – lets us provide the sense of vast worlds which need not be
depopulated. In the travel story, continuity and coherences don’t tax
our characters severely because our contact with them is brief, and
we will soon leave them behind.

Writers frequently follow the original Adventure in providing links that

determine where the reader goes, allowing them to encounter the
narrative element native to that place before moving on to the next.
While this can be effective, it may not be ideal; many readers, on

perceiving this structure, will focus on finding and defining the
boundary of the world, and that focus may not support – and may
even impede – the story. The reader’s progress may be delayed, of
course, by various obstacles, but again those obstacles may come to
overshadow the story.

Time is also a difficulty: if the itinerary is fixed, the reader cannot

actually choose where to go, but if the itinerary varies in different
readings, combinatoric explosion threatens. In one reading, the hero’s
spectacular mishap in Meknes will lead everyone to mistrust the hero
when she gets to Marrakesh. In another reading, we go straight to
Marrakesh with a clean conscience and unstained reputation, and
that means Marrakesh must be written twice. Star Trek solved the
problem by giving the hero a faster-than-light spaceship that could
literally outrun the news of yesterday’s adventures, but not every story
can justify that.

Instead of choosing the itinerary, we might more profitably move

among linked anecdotes or themes. After all, when asked at a dinner
party how our recent sabbatical trip to Antarctica or to the
International Space Station went, we wouldn’t begin by describing
our empty suitcases and proceed in chronological order. We might
select the most engaging or amusing story, and then perhaps our
friends will draw us out on some detail, or a chance remark might lead
to a different story.

encyclopedias in the story

A craft problem for all travel narratives, but one especially pressing
for those travelers who have gone farthest from the fields we know, is
the need to explain how the world works. We may find ourselves in a
land where magic sometimes works and electricity often fails.

Everyone who lives there knows this, just as everyone knows that
water is wet. The reader does not know what everyone knows, and so
we must contrive some opportunity to inform the reader.

Embedding pertinent extracts of notional (but imaginary) reference

material in a narrative has been a familiar device since Kipling’s
“With The Night Mail” if not before. We have Asimov’s Encyclopedia
Galactica, Herbert’s Manual of Muad’Dib, and of course Douglas
Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, and much more. These
extracts, like all exposition, interrupt the narrative; at their worst,
they are (in Elmore Leonard’s memorable phrase) flapdoodle and at
their best they separate the reader from what they most want to
know, which is simply what happened next. But where exposition
cannot be avoided, the embedded extract saves us the trouble of
finding another excuse, of inventing a Dr. Watson who can induce the
hero to stop and explain, for the reader’s benefit, what the hero has
always known.

Though many have decried links as distracting, links do allow us to

consult reference work, literally, at the touch of a finger. In school,
my teachers insisted that we ought to use a dictionary whenever we
encountered an unfamiliar word. We seldom obeyed: who wanted to
go to all that trouble when we could read on and find out what
happens next? Now, we can touch a word and see its definition, its
translation, its encyclopedia entry. Touch the name of any painting
ever famous enough for a novelist to mention it, and you can see in
moments just what the characters are discussing.

This is not distracted reading: it is everyday scholarship. Discrete

annotative links can serve this function for fictional worlds, letting
curious readers understand the world more deeply while allowing
those who already understand (or think they understand) this world to
get on with things.

The enduring popularity of Tolkien’s maps and appendices has
spawned a host of emulators, many of which misunderstand the place
of appendices in The Lord Of The Rings. The maps and chronologies do
not support the reader with helpful definitions and handy glossaries: if
you need to know what mithril is, Tolkien will tell you in the course of
the story. The genealogies aren’t there to tell you who’s who: if a
character’s parentage matters, they introduce themselves by naming
their parents. Tolkien’s end-matter, like Kipling’s advertising
supplement from the future, embed the completed myth back into the
fields we know, showing the characters we have seen alive as they
might appear first in tradition and later in scholarship. The end-matter
comes after the story: it does not support it so much as situate within
our common memory.

planetary romance
In the Parsifal story, we witness the hero as she sees what she must
see if she is to be initiated, become an adult, or attain understanding.
The tale of Parsifal is the tale of that initiation and that

In spatial narrative, we follow the hero as they move through the

landscape, join in their necessary tribulations, and listen to their fine
and engaging commentary on all they see and all they learn about
themselves. The tale of the traveller is the traveller herself.

Planetary Romance is the third encyclopedic story. Again, we follow

the hero, but in the end we don’t care primarily about the protagonist:
we are interested in the place, its story, its character. Planetary
romance envisions lands and peoples that obey different laws than
those we know, and explores how they might operate. The central
character of planetary romance is the planet, the place that is not like

our place. The protagonist serves chiefly as a point of view, though he
may be given some necessary task to keep him moving: in Miéville’s
The City and the City he is a police inspector, in Niven’s Ringworld and
in Gilman’s Herland he leads a survey mission, in Herbert’s Dune he
is a young man who its trying not to become the Messiah in a universe
that requires a prophet. At other times – H. G. Wells’ The Time
Machine comes to mind – the protagonist simply wanders into and
through the world, with threats to her person, to new friends, or to
her transportation proving sufficient to advance the plot.

Institutional romance translates planetary romance to explore a

closed and secret institution with its own society, its own rules and
requirements. The central character of Tom Brown’s Schooldays is
Rugby School; everything and everyone is contrived to show us how
the school works, an unfamiliar place to which the book’s huge
working-class audience had no access. Similarly, Two Years Before The
Mast is an account of a Harvard student who, diagnosed with an eye
condition, takes time off from his studies to work as a common
seaman, participating in a closed fraternity which was as inaccessible
to New England’s literary circles as was Rugby to Welsh miners.

If I am reaching far afield here, it is simply because so few examples

of literary hypertext, or of its relatives and its antecedents, seem
greatly to share the encyclopedic impulse. Where, especially, are the
planetary and institutional romances? We can point to a few potential
exemplars – Bill Bly’s We Descend and its projected sequel, perhaps,
or M. D. Coverly’s historical novel Califia, and perhaps in Alexis
Kennedy’s Fallen London – but if the encyclopedic is truly in the
bones of the digital, why has it found so little expression?

One explanation might perhaps be found in craft issues of managing

the technical business of story. The first generation of literary
hypertext was not deeply interested in storytelling for its own sake,

and their critical work often focuses on language and metafiction
(and, oddly enough, on the page as artifact, the page as a painting).
Planetary romance isn’t deeply interested in story, either, yet the
romance needs some story, some impetus to get us moving, to
establish our romantic excellence, and to keep us asking what
happens next. Kipling’s story of The Future opens with a
newspaperman’s description of marvelous airships and then, when it
needs extra impetus, conjures up a perilous storm to speed the story
forward. It’s a simple enough bit of business, but it’s precisely this
sort of craftwork that has seldom been discussed in hypertextual

artifactual hypertext
The most inherently encyclopedic of hypertext genres is the
artifactual hypertext: a collection of documents, files, and images
from which the reader must establish sense and order. John McDaid
called his Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse “a chocolate box packed
with death;” it collected the literary remains of our late Uncle Buddy,
originally on five floppy disks, two cassette tapes, and some
photocopied correspondence from the lawyer who drafted our uncle’s
will. Meaning (and story) emerges gradually as we probe these

Lev Manovich’s 1998 paper on “The Database As Symbolic

Form” (later elaborated in The Language of New Media) argues that
the database (which he regards as synonymous with an indexed list)
naturally suits new media, chiefly because both always remain open
for inscription. His is an eloquent defense of an imagined medium,
which he views as inherently at odds with narrative. “As a cultural
form, the database represents the world as a list of items, and it

refuses to order this list. In contrast, a narrative creates a cause-and-
effect trajectory of seemingly unordered items (events). Therefore,
database and narrative are natural enemies.”

Is database actually the enemy of narrative? Imagine an old box, kept

high on a closet shelf because we cannot really bear to look at it,
though of course we cannot discard it. It was hastily labeled “Lisa:
Hospital” in indelible marker. It contains bills, insurance reports, a
few letters from physicians, sorted roughly in chronological order
starting with that first diagnosis. There are hotel bills, too, from the
trips to Mayo and Dana Farber and Disney World. There are those
nice notes from that wonderful nurse (What was her name again? Oh,
yeah.) There are the pictures Lisa liked to put on the wall when she
was doing chemo. Maybe there’s some other stuff in there. Maybe
you’re saving it, secretly; you’re going to give it to Lisa when she has
her first baby. It’s just a pile of bills and papers. If narrative and
database are enemies, why is it so hard to keep narrative away from
this mute, neglected pile?

annotation in sculptural hypertext

Calligraphic annotation fits smoothly into the framework of
sculptural hypertext. Within an episode, default links move among
notes that describe the action and explain what happened. Text links
from a note can then provide background information on the action,
the setting, the characters, or anything mentioned in the main
account. Annotations can offer additional annotation, either through
links to specifically pertinent notes or through links to navigational
structures such as a topic list or a table of contents.

The reader can pursue these annotations as long as she wishes; to

resume the narrative, she simply follows the default link from the

annotation she has been reading. Annotations have no need to change
$Deck, and so following the default link from any annotative
destination simply selects a new destination from the current episode.

To reflect the distinction between story and annotation, it may prove

helpful to adopt a distinct voice for annotations. Where this is
impractical, distinguishing annotations typographically or through an
explicit heading may be helpful.

Occasionally, an annotation might lead to an interstitial story, a

sculptural passage which temporarily replaces the current deck and
which, when it reaches its conclusion, resumes the episode that we
were reading before the annotation. We define a new user attribute
$SavedDeck, where we’ll save the deck we were reading before this
interstitial story began. At the opening of the story-within-the-story,
we save the current value of $Deck:

Name: That Reminds Me Of The Time

OnVisit: $SavedDeck(/me)=$Deck(/me);$Deck(/
and later, when this story has reached its end (or some end), we
restore the saved deck

Name: Rescued

OnVisit: $Deck(/me)=$SavedDeck(/me).
When adding annotations to calligraphic hypertext, on the other
hand, we either need to require the reader to backtrack to the
annotated note, or we need to provide a backlink that returns them
either to that note, or to another note in that episode. This is
straightforward enough, but complications arise when the same
annotation may be visited from different notes and different episodes.
In this case, we would require multiple backlinks, one for each note to
which we want to return, and the reader would either need to select

the destination from which the set out from a list or menu, or guard
fields might deduce the correct destination on the reader’s behalf.

the encyclopedic thriller

In 2003, a writer began a weblog under the name of “isabella v.”

"On March 2, 2003 at 4:12 pm, I disappeared. My name is isabella

v., but it's not. I'm twentysomething and I am an international

Through the coming months and years, her web site would describe
her flight from her overbearing and dangerous father, an Eastern
European oligarch, and from the arranged dynastic marriage to which
he insisted she agree.

At first, her expectation was simply that readers would see the most
recent update, and might revisit daily for the latest news. She adopted
a simple tagging mechanism for her own convenience, but discovered
that many readers came to her site and read systematically through a
specific tag category.

⁃ Conspiracy

⁃ Flight

⁃ Flight Risk Radio

⁃ History

⁃ MoraleRisk

⁃ Musings

⁃ Nightmares

In particular, the tags Conspiracy and Nightmares emerged as distinct
sub narratives – or readers treated them as if they were. “I began to
notice that people were clicking the Conspiracy and Nightmares tags
right after the landing page and then using the next post link to run
through all of those category posts in order,” she recalled more than a
decade later. Readers also used Search tool to create thematic paths
through the work; Isabela’s enigmatic father was particularly
prominent in these searches, both because he was a strong (though
absent) presence in the flight narrative and because the framing story
invited readers to speculate about Isabela’s identity and indeed to seek
to prove whether or not the story was fiction. The search term
“Cessna,” similarly, provided ready access to some of isabella’s
escapes in the thriller’s characteristic leap from unbearable peril into
new worlds. A very similar approach to emergent paths was adopted
previously in Forward Anywhere, an epistolary hypertext fiction by
Judy Malloy and Cathy Marshall.

Reading Notes
Lanham, Richard A. The Electronic Word: Democracy,
Technology, and the Arts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,

Lanham’s early volume seems to have been largely and unjustly

forgotten. A student of rhetoric, he builds an effective case against the
fetishization of clarity, brevity, and sincerity.

Fussell, Paul. Abroad : British Literary Traveling Between the Wars.

New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

The definitive treatment of the travel story.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, Mass.:
MIT Press, 2001.

Manovich’s 1998 essay on “The Database As Symbolic Form,”

expanded and revised here, was influential, insightful, and mistaken.
That the database is a symbolic form is clear and interesting; that it is
the symbolic form of our age, as linear perspective was the symbolic
form of the Enlightenment, is an interesting proposition.
Unfortunately, this gets tied up with fundamental misunderstandings
that can seem to discredit the whole.

Manovich assumes a fundamental duality between procedure and data

that was fashionable in the 1980s but has long been obsolete, and
which is now a distant memory of long-discarded practices and
aspirations. His argument pits this duality against the supposed
duality of a compilation of events and a narrative. Here, too, the view
is obsolete, since clearly the compilation is to be viewed by a person
and that person can and will seek to explain a series of events by
constructing a narrative. The alternative is to assume that this work of
art displays for us a series of unrelated events which are incapable of
further consideration or discussion: whether this is possible is
doubtful, but clearly if possible it would be an inexpressive and
circumscribed art form.

At one time, this essay was regarded as a necessary starting point for
any discussion of new media, and it remains a key text though lately, I
fear, one that is seldom read. I’ve attended conference panels on the
subject in which none of the panelists were familiar with the essay.

Lyrical Nature of
Hypertext links offer us choice, and choice interrupts the story,
threatening to wake us from the perfluent dream. Even choosing the
default link represents a break, a rupture in the seamless experience,
a distraction that does nothing to show us c-beams glittering in the
dark near the Tannhäuser Gate or the elfin girl undressing in her
Greenwich Village flat.

To be sure, turning the page is an interruption, too, and that old

familiar rhythm of recto and verso is hardly primal. Someday, links
may seem natural and pages distractingly awkward, but all today’s
readers have spent years mastering the affordances of the codex book.
To reach the readers of the future, we must first enchant the readers
of today.

How can we embrace this interruption, this rent in the fabric of the
experience we have worked so strenuously to craft for our audience?
How can we turn the link’s delay into a positive benefit?

The Postmodern Oscillation

If the link makes us pause to reflect, that reflection is not entirely a
bad thing. It costs us an interruption but we gain an opportunity to
understand, a chance to inhale and to think about the work’s craft
and composition, about where it is going and where we have been.

Links are the brush marks of hypertext narrative, the evidence of the
creator’s effort and thought. So, too, are the boundaries between
writing spaces, for while page breaks are understood to be accidents
beyond thought or sense, the writer chose to end the space here and
not there, neither splitting it into fragments nor combining it with
some other writing space.

Identification and Games

Links invite us to turn the text into a game. That game may be
implicit or explicit, and the writer may urge us to play or deplore our
approach as a boorish subversion. We can play with Oulipo or with
Colossal Cave, or we can play along with Aristophanes and insert
playful oilcans into Aeschylus while setting Emily Dickinson to
popular country melodies.

Elements of games are present in all books. Some readers experience

any book as a quest to reach the end, to work through the text until
they have reached the conclusion. Others experience this sensation in
tension with its counterweight, the reluctance to see the end of the
story, to surrender our acquaintance with its characters and witness
their return to the dust of the page. Readers interested in craft will
also experience the text as a competition: “I see you do that – you
can’t fool me!” we say, or perhaps we shake our head over some
sloppy edit, some ill-considered word, and we assure ourselves that
we’d never make that mistake.

Even so, the symbolic but explicit identification between reader and
protagonist, the convention that (to some extent) the reader controls
what happens, represents and interesting new opportunity. I have
argued above that this opportunity is more problematic than has
generally been appreciated, but it is real and it deserves richer

exploration. Nor have the opportunities for changing plot in the
context of a game been sufficiently explored: we all have heard stories
about readers thumbing through books in search of the good parts,
but now the books can actively resist, challenging the reader to a
battle of wits.

Arrival and Departure

But most important, the link’s brief interruption provides the writer
with a new and intriguing opportunity for counterpoint, for creating a
rhythm and a pattern that the story will inhabit.

The link anchor casts a shadow over the destination; we arrive there
looking to resolve whatever the anchor promised. The roads not
taken, the link anchors we passed by, cast a second shadow: we read
the destination with the knowledge of what brought us here, and also
the knowledge that those other possibilities would have taken us

When a classical sonata modulates to a new key, we hear the new key
and we continue, in a way, to “hear” the old key as well. We also
sense, throughout the entire movement, the presence of the tonic key
from which we started and to which we must eventually return. Links,
too, operate this way; we follow a link from the phrase, “troubling
news,” and whatever we discover at its destination will be tinged with
the knowledge that this is (or should be) troubling. If the destination
describes something we would naturally describe in these terms – a
Dear John letter – then we have the narrative pleasure of establishing
and resolving a small tension. If the destination describes something
that does not seem to be troubling news – an unexpected promotion,
perhaps – then we experience the destination with the uneasy
knowledge that things are not what they seem.

Reading Notes
Susana Pajares Tosca, “The Lyrical Qualities of Links,”
Proceedings of Hypertext ’99, ACM, New York. Reprinted in
Reading Hypertext.

An important and accessible little paper, only two pages long, this
was widely influential but is seldom cited.

Catherine C. Marshall, Reading and Writing the Electronic Book

(Synthesis Lectures on Information Concepts, Retrieval, and
Services). Morgan and Claypool Publishers, 2009.

By far the best study of the nature of electronic books to date, though
one of the least known. Marshall takes pains to understand and
emphasize the complexity of reading by close observation of actual
readers. For example, to study how people actually think about
annotation, she spent weeks in a college used book store, examining
exactly how freshmen (and their parents) chose which used copy of
their introductory Biology textbook to purchase. People write
remarkable things in the margins of their books; Marshall records
them. People also jump around their magazines and newspapers, and
Marshall shows how important this is to the ways real people really

Silvio Gaggi, From Text to Hypertext: Decentering the Subject in

Fiction, Film, the Visual Arts, and Electronic Media, The University
of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.

The best introduction to postmodernism in art and literature for

scientists and engineers, many of whom may find the subject
forbidding thanks to barriers of terminology and language erected, in

part, to keep them out. Postmodernism and its metafictional
concerns, focusing on the painting of Jan van Eyck, the photography
of Cindy Sherman, and the hypertext fiction of Stuart Moulthrop.

Why Not?
A great deal has been written on why hypertext fiction is impossible
or undesirable.

The indictments leveled by intelligent critics at hypertext narrative

have been these: that it is incoherent; that it is insufficiently engaging;
that if it is narrative it cannot be a hypertext and, if a hypertext, in
cannot be a narrative.

Several other objections that need not long detain us include the
observation that hypertexts lack the feel and smell of the codex book;
that the computer screen is difficult to read in bed or in the bathtub;
that kids today don’t read, have short attention spans, and would
prefer to play games; that hypertext is complicit in postmodernism.
We might review these last arguments briefly before looking more
closely at the substantive objections.

the smell of the ink

Critics object that reading on the screen is unpleasant or inefficient,
and that computers are costly, unfamiliar, uncouth. If we read on
screens, we no longer experience the book as an artifact; we cannot
touch the pages that Poe once creased, we cannot sit by a roaring fire
on a winter’s day and enjoy the texture of fine paper, the smell of old
ink. The form of the book, and indeed the forms of specific books we
have owned and enjoyed over the years, exerts strong emotional ties
over many readers.

As readers, though, we care little for leather bindings or yellowing
paper, for the accidents of typography and provenance. These are
concerns of book collectors, not readers, and they address the body of
the work, which is to say dust and clay, rather than its spirit. Few
people routinely purchase and read fine editions in preference to
mass-produced volumes, and millions prefer shoddy but inexpensive
paperbacks, or shabby old volumes from the library, to freshly mass-
produced hardcovers. Bibliolatry is an acquisitive hobby, not a love of

A parallel objection to reading on the screen is its inconvenience. For

years, people objected that we could not use a computer in bed, and
they still object that even iPads are awkward in the bathtub.


Mark Bernstein “Where again are the hypertexts?”, opening
keynote, Hypertext ’99, Darmstadt, Germany.

Screens improve until they are good enough to satisfy lots of people
much of the time. Some people require better screens, either because
their vision is poor, because their aesthetic preferences are strong and
they are willing to pay to satisfy them, or because their interests –
painting, radiology – demand exceptional visual detail. Electronics let
readers who need better printing pay for it.

short attention spans

Other commentators have complained that hypertext, by constantly
offering links that lead us onward, leads to shortened attention spans
or appeals to the already-short attention spans of today’s depraved or
debased youth. These arguments lament that “kids today”flit from
topic to topic, unable to immerse themselves in reading as they
literary elders once did. This is absurd.

The publishing sensation of the past decade – one of the great

publishing sensations of history – was Harry Potter, a series of seven
exceptionally-long novels intended to be read as one long saga.
Tolkien’s immensely-popular mid-century novel, The Lord Of The
Rings, exceeds 480,000 words, not very much less than War and
Peace. In 1964, Warhol’s 8-hour art film Empire State was a bold
gesture, but J. Michael Straczynski Babylon 5 spends more than 100
hours telling a single story, and Joss Whedon’s Buffy, The Vampire
Slayer is even longer – and intended to be viewed over the course of
seven years, so the characters age as we age. Genre and literary
fiction are replete with serial novels. If kids today can’t pay attention,
they have a remarkable way of showing it.

The strains of age and responsibility have led some critics to discover
that they themselves no longer have the power of sustained attention

they once possessed – or at least the power they believe they
remember in fields ever green. Though they blame the internet for
their failing powers, we may perhaps place some blame elsewhere.
The discomforts of age and the distractions of work and family pose
an obstacle: it is not coincidental that Calvino’s If On A Winter’s
Night A Traveller… begins with a meditation on immersion:

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a

winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other
thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the
TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I
don't want to watch TV!” Raise your voice--they won't hear you
otherwise—πI'm reading! I don't want to be disturbed!” Maybe they
haven't heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m
beginning to read Italo Calvino's new novel!” Or if you prefer, don't
say anything; just hope they'll leave you alone.

Find the most comfortable position: seated, stretched out, curled up,
or lying flat. Flat on your back, on your side, on your stomach. In an
easy chair, on the sofa, in the rocker, the deck chair, on the hassock.
In the hammock, if you have a hammock. On top of your bed, of
course, or in the bed. You can even stand on your hands, head down,
in the yoga position. With the book upside down, naturally.

The actual practice of reading is a tricky thing. When I was in school,

teachers constantly urged us to resist immersion, to reflect on the
craft of the book, to question its construction and its argument, and
(especially) to use a dictionary to learn unfamiliar words. Today,
dictionaries and encyclopedia’s are a finger-tap away, and now they
magically open themselves to the relevant page. If a book alludes to a
poem we can find it at once; if a character reflects on a Turner
seascape or a Bernini fountain, we can call up a photograph in
seconds. Our reading practice has changed: it has improved.

Experience and understanding do pose real obstacles to immersive
reading. Writers read, but they bring to reading an understanding that
this too was crafted, devised with intention and skill to achieve some
effect. A generation-long reflection on how reading works, on what
the author does and what belongs to the reader, has focused our
attention on authorial control and its limitations, just as an earlier
conversation about paint and painting shifted attention from nymphs
and silver pots toward the impression of a sunrise and the texture of
paint and canvas. If, knowing more about paint, we cannot look at the
(image of the) girl without also seeing the energy of the brushstrokes,
we have merely travelled once more the well-trodden path from
innocence to experience, and by now we know better than to mourn
innocence so greatly that we find ourselves longing for ignorance.

postmodernism and authorial control

The late 20th century saw extensive discussion of the relationship
between author and audience. The audience brings a lot to the text; a
meaningful text is meaningful because it resonates with the
audience’s experiences and desires. If the audience brings much to the
text, what (if anything) can they not bring?

Hypertext reifies the reader’s activity and the text’s disturbing

liveliness. A link might transport us anywhere; links assign new
privileges and new responsibilities to the reader.

Early postmodern rhetoric, and some early hypertextual speculations,

emphasized the reader’s great power over interpretation, over plot,
and perhaps over story. That speculation, in turn, sparked a bitter
revolt among the defenders of narrative pleasure. If hypertext, the
technological incarnation of postmodernism, was opposed to the
narrative line, these readers wanted nothing to do with it. Stories,

they declared, are told – not constructed – and they start at the
beginning and proceed to the end. This reductive debate caricatured
postmodernism, using links as a mere symbol to be abjured.

The threat of the link – especially the threat of links that change the
story, that change what happens, but also the threat posed merely by
links that are difficult, perplexing, that require effort – led to an
outcry against hypertext’s apparent incoherence. This is an argument
about literary politics masquerading as an argument about form: the
interplay of chance and intention, of meaning in an uncomprehending
world, is a central theme of much of the art of the late 20th century.

The literary issues are best seen in Robert Coover’s 1969 short story
“The Babysitter”, which is not a hypertext but rather a linear story
told in a series of brief narrative passages that sometimes resemble
hypertext nodes. The setting is banal, a married couple at a
contemporary suburban party and their children, left at home with a
babysitter, the stuff of mid-century American realism, of the New
Yorker story. In Coover’s narrative, though, we have access to the
characters’ unspeakable thoughts and desires, and these unspeakable
thoughts leap out into actions – perhaps merely imagined – and
consequences – perhaps equally imaginary. As short passage follows
passage, the different but equally-unspeakable longings escape from
the characters’ hidden thoughts and begin to take on a force of their
own, interacting with other dark imaginings with eery, dark, and
sometimes hilarious effect.

“The Babysitter” is incoherent by design, just as Duchamp’s Nu

descendant un escalier n° 2 is incoherent: it shows us multiplicities of
moment and perspective at once, hiding things we customarily see

and showing what is often hidden. Duchamp superimposes objects in
time; Coover effaces the gap between fantasy and intention and
between intention and action. As a matter of technique, Duchamp
abstracts away detail, and Coover abstracts away the apparent
continuity of experience. This was an approach attractive to and
emulated by several hypertext fiction pioneers in the 1990s, but it is
not an effect that is inherent to hypertext, or to which hypertext is
uniquely friendly.

immersive reading
Hypertext always confronts the reader with choice.

We have always had choices when we read: shall I read the next page,
or shall I get a cold beer? Do I want to reread the start of the
paragraph, or shall I rush on to find what happens next? Yet links are
a new kind of choice, and links make choice manifest: we can pretend
to ourselves that we’re not thinking about beer, or that the beer has
nothing to do with our reading, but we cannot ignore links: we must
choose a link to get on with things, even if all we want is to find out
what happens.

Links force the reader to think of themselves, to ask what they want
now and how they might bring it about. Even where links will not
change what happens – even where the reader knows that their
choice cannot change what happens (perhaps they know what
happens, or perhaps they have read the hypertext before), the reader
needs to choose this link and not that one, and to make a choice the
reader must form a theory of what the links are likely to do. This tends
to fight against the perfluent dream of immersive narrative, the
narrative in which we lose ourselves. In place of that lost immersion
we may gain a new engagement with newly-consequential choices and

a manifest demonstration of our readerly responsibility, yet we might
regret that lost immersion.

A distinctive feature of Storyspace hypertexts is the default link, a link

that is activated by pressing the [Return] key or clicking in the margin
or, in fact, clicking anywhere in the page that doesn’t have an
associated link. This is less of an interruption than choosing an
explicit text link, though perhaps more disruptive than turning the
page. In Storyspace, readers do not always have to choose, though in
all texts we find choices. The beer always waits.

starting at the beginning

Finally, some have wondered whether it is in fact possible for a
narrative to be embodied as a hypertext. At core, narrative involves
relating a series of events unfolding in time; and that suggests a
requirement for a fixed presentation while hypertext always varies.

The objection may be quickly refuted with a gesture to plot – the way
we explain what happened. We seldom describe events in strict
chronological sequence, because they usually make better sense in
some other order. We may need to explain why the reader should be
interested in the story we’re about to tell (Hwæt!) by showing what
happened afterwards. Paradise Lost begins at the end:

Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit

Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast

Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,

With loss of Eden, till one greater Man

Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat, 

Sing Heav'nly Muse.

“Heart Of Darkness” begins long after the end, on the deck of a boat
comfortably becalmed in the Thames, as the protagonist describes his
old struggle to the board of directors who profited from it. Even the
simplest technical procedures might be described by first explaining
their purpose or by warning of what might go wrong if the procedure
is not correctly executed.

And yet, even so, the objection has some force: it is possible, even
easy, to build large hypertexts that set out to tell a story and do not
manage to tell it, meandering instead in world-building and
annotation, wandering from link to link and never getting on with
things. Anxious authors sometimes respond by adding still more links
that jump forward in time or space, tugging the reader from dull
aimlessness to dazzled disorientation. The larger and more densely
linked the hypertext, it sometimes seems, the harder it is to get the
reader (and the story) moving forward and not wandering forever in
looping paths that never stray far from home. This is the problem of
narrative force.

Storyspace’s answer to narrative force is the guard field. Some links

are always available, but others are only available when certain
conditions are met. A link might connect A to B, but only if the reader
has not already read B. Another link might connect A to C, but is only
available if the reader has seen D and E. This simple formalism has
proved surprisingly powerful.

Reading Notes
Portions of this chapter are based on Mark Bernstein, “Criticism.”
Proceedings of the 21st ACM Conference on Hypertext and
Hypermedia (2010): 235–44 and Bernstein, Mark. “On Hypertext
Narrative.” ACM Hypertext 2009 (2009) (collected in RHT)

Birkerts, Sven. The Gutenberg Elegies. Boston: Faber and Faber,

The definitive argument of bibliolatry against electronic books,

Birkerts confounds the incidental form of the codex book with the
affordances of reading that he considers to have saved his life.

Carr, Nicholas G. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to

Our Brains. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.

The best exposition of the attack on ebooks for fragmenting our

attention, which is not saying a great deal. Carr finds that he cannot
read with the prolonged attention he recalls from his own youthful
innocence; it seems not to have occurred to him that the fault might
lie in age and experience, not in the temptations of the internet, or
that the struggle with distracting temptation has been a standard
topic of aging writers since Augustine remembered his apartment
above the bath house.

Ensslin, Astrid. Canonizing Hypertext: Explorations and

Constructions. London: Continuum, 2007.

A useful counterweight to works that argue we need not bother to

read new media, Ennslin examines a very broad range of works and
their reception, finding much to appreciate beyond the confines of
transient mood and personal taste.

Seven Challenges
For Writers
People have been writing serious hypertext for a generation. Many
people read the hypertextual World Wide Web daily. Yet, there
remains much we don’t know about hypertext narrative.

This section briefly outlines seven aspects of hypertext narrative

which have seldom been attempted. I believe all of these challenges
are interesting. I do not claim that these are the most important
challenges we face, but these matter, and they’re easy to explain and
to discuss.

Hypertextual mysteries have been frequently attempted by writers or
promoters who mistakenly believed that mysteries are primarily
puzzles. The mystery resists hypertextuality because its formal
requirements – the repair of the world’s hidden wounds – impose so
many constraints.

The thriller, on the other hand, seems to be designed for hypertext.

The thriller’s protagonist is literally on the run, forced suddenly from
her customary life and indeed from everything she knows. Thrillers
are easily spatialized: whenever a confrontation has built to the
breaking point, either the hunter or the target can bolt to a new place
and start a new confrontation. Though thrillers are naturally inclined

to renewal, they have plenty of scope for time shift – the hunter’s
backstory and character, say – or recursus to reexamine an earlier
scene and identify opportunities are mistakes that could not have
been seen at the time.

Attempts at hypertext thrillers in the IF tradition have sometimes

been crippled by that tradition’s fondness for puzzles; fleeing for one’s
life is difficult to reconcile with clever wordplay. Other efforts have
been captured by video games, many of which wordlessly enact the
thriller’s plot. The most convincing hypertext thriller is likely “She’s a
Flight Risk” by “isabella v”, the pseudonymous first-person daughter
of a Eastern European oligarch who is on the run from her father’s
criminal organization and a forced marriage. The disease blog, in
which the protagonist’s everyday life is upended by a sudden illness or
injury, is closely allied to the thriller; see especially the web fiction of
Kaycee Nicole.

Some dismiss page-turners as candy making, a writing skill we have

mastered, copied to the formulary, and transcended. Until we can
demonstrate that we can write a hypertext page-turner, that
confidence may be misplaced.

Lust and Desire

I have never read an entirely convincing hypertext sex scene. This
seems surprising; surely hypertext should lend itself to sex, with its
infinite variations and its openness to interruption, time shift, and
recursus. Technical problems for hypertext narrative like ambiguity
and incoherence melt away: “and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

On a broader canvas, the pursuit of the beloved (and its symbolic

twin, the Hidden Fortress story, cf. Star Wars) has scarcely been
explored in narrative hypertext. Here, the disrepute of genre

Romance and fear of tenure committees may have dissuaded writers
from exploring the opportunities more fully. The love story is inclined
to be discursive: it’s all discursion, in fact, all the way from Pride and

IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in

possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife

to Love Story.

What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died?

A difficulty in writing hypertexts that focus on attainment of desire

has been the centrifugal tendency of large hypertexts without guard
fields; if the link network is dense, reader trajectories wander toward
the margins or circle aimlessly at the start while the object of desire
lies at the center. If the link network is pruned sufficiently to force the
reader to the center, the work falls toward linearity.

Mirror World
If the cycle is the characteristic structure of hypertext, then the
mirror world is hypertext’s natural fit. We see the same scene
repeatedly, and each time the same things happen (mostly), but
because we see things through different eyes or with new knowledge,
the things we see are completely different.

A man and a woman meet in a neighborhood cafe in the back of a

convenience store. They sit and talk casually, perhaps eating
potstickers and drinking green tea. Their conversation is elliptical and
hard to understand; they know each other well, they are alone, they
have no need to explain thing for our benefit. Perhaps an unhappy girl
comes in from the rain to buy a carton of ice cream.

Now, we rewrite the scene with precisely the same action, but we
write it from the man’s perspective. He needs something from the
woman, and needs it badly, and knows she is unlikely to help him. The
scene, so bland and commonplace in the first telling, is now perfused
with emotional tension.

We rewrite the scene yet again. The woman is not what she seems:
she is an intelligence operative, and our point of view is now that of
the officers who are controlling her, guiding her to her target, and
prepared at any moment for desperate flight. Or, perhaps this time
the scene is narrated in past tense, in the debriefing after the
operation has failed.

Writers since Homer have revisited scenes or crafted parallel episodes

that adopt different modes: heroic, realist, or ironic. We may, if we
wish, allow slight plot variation or uncertainty, giving opportunities to
explore fate and contingency.

Hyperdrama and Computer as

A great deal of research has been devoted to implementing
computational models of emotionally plausible characters. Often, the
resulting characterization seems flat and schematic. Brenda Laurel’s
observation that computers are theatrical, that the screen is a
proscenium, is valuable here: what we want in the end is to know
what people said and did, and the authenticity of their internal
implementation is a detail. The man in black is not the prince of
Denmark, and we don’t really care what the man is thinking about:
we care what he says and how he says it.

Ann Lamotte, describing the process of writing, reminds us that “it’s
teatime and all the dolls are at the table. Listen. It’s that simple.”
Improv arranges characters on the stage but doesn’t give them pre-
determined lines; hyperdrama might give them lines and find different
times and contexts for their delivery.

The British theater company Punchdrunk specializes in site-specific

performance in which the audience, masked, wanders freely through
complex prepared settings. The actors move through the same spaces,
and interact with actors though (usually) not with the audience.
Different scenes occur in different rooms; one cannot see everything
that happens, and where you go determines what you witness. This is
a fundamentally hypertextual vision of theater; it should generalize
easily to text, but we have few if any examples.

Battle Field
Battles are big, consequential, and complicated events. There’s a lot
going on. Decisions are made, things are being done, fate passes
everywhere. At every moment the big picture matters, and each little
picture matters too. Every battle carries with it the narrative of its
cause: why are they fighting, and also why are they fighting here and
not elsewhere, today and not some other time. Every battle carries as
well the narrative of its results, the effects large and small that echo
through the years.

Making sense of large and complex events has always challenged

writers; indeed, one cannot help but think that the complexity of
Illiad, especially once technology had rendered the kind of warfare
that poem describes obsolete, may have prompted people to write the
thing down in the first place.

Hypertext narrative can adapt flexibly to large events that unfold
across space and through time, drawing disparate threads together
and making hidden dependencies manifest. The hypertextual
opportunity extends not merely to literal battles but to all large and
complex events, to histories real and imagined. The opportunities for
journalism seem particularly vivid. Some stories about crime and
corruption are simple, but many are necessarily complicated,
involving dozens of independent actors, shell corporations, complex
exchanges and indirect rewards. Even comparatively simple stories,
the routine give and take of small-town politics or the local police
blotter, often require complex connections – historical, familial,
political – to be properly understood. Stories like these are famously
difficult to fit into a news column or even into a magazine feature; in
hypertext, they’re a new battlefield.

Artifactual Hypertext
Artifactual or documentary narrative, narrative told primarily through
found objects, is inherently hypertextual; even where documents or
objects have been arrayed in sequence for us, we see that
arrangement as artifice, extrinsic to the nature of the things we see.
Even the most exquisitely-arranged museum exhibit necessarily
invites us to think about other arrangements in other museums.

Artifactual hypertext narratives are always challenged by their

tendency to emptiness, the absence of characters. If the story is
contained in a box of documents, the documents must carry all the
characters, for we see them only through these documents. Epistolary
novels (and collected letters) can populate their world through the
letters of absent people; if characters have access to cameras or
recorders or cell phones, then all sorts of media artifacts might be

found. Alternatively, we might construct a dual narrative: the story of
the archive and the story of the archivist.

Ballroom and Boardroom

The locks and keys of Interactive Fiction can devolve into artificial
and robotic puzzlements when the narrative concerns gates and
corridors, mazes and caverns. Colossal caves and cranky dragons are
nice, but people are what interest us, and finite state machines make
poor models of personality.

Or do they? What are Milo Minderbinder and Major Major, if not

locked doors? What else, for that matter, is Mr. Darcy’s arrogant
pride — a characteristic and indeed a character who, through more
than half a volume, is sketched very lightly indeed.

I believe the key here is to make the locks human, and to give them
interesting things to say and do. That requires skilled writing, perhaps
an abundance of skilled writing, but robotic puzzle will be far more
interesting to solve, and far more worth time and attention, if what
stands between us and the resolution are people with ideas and

We may call this a robotic hypertext. Under the hood, our characters
are finite state machines draped with costumes and clothed in
dialogue; it was ever thus. Whether set in the ballroom or the
boardroom, the robotic hypertext seems especially suited to the quest
of the Outsider to find Home — for Dick Whittington or Tom
Brown, or Robert Caro’s LBJ.

Group Biography
The group biography (or prosopography) has been the characteristic
genre of the last 20th century, from Band of Brothers to Team of
Rivals, from The Peabody Sisters to Circle of Sisters.

Choosing structure and emphasis for a biography is always

challenging. The reader may not want to know much (or anything)
about the subject’s childhood, and though the reader doesn’t know
what she needs, the biographer must either dispense with childhood
or must convince the audience that childhood details are not mere
hagiography or gossip. With multiple subjects, the childhood problem
grows manifold, and with it the temptation to depart from strict
chronology. A reader might hesitate to delve into one subject’s early
traumas, their years at school and family holiday rituals, but when we
have four or six subjects, each with their own school days and their
own sets of sibling stories, then stock tools of foreshadowing and wit
may fail us entirely.

The techniques of hypertext narrative ought to facilitate group

biography, and indeed seem almost to have been designed for the
task. Timeshift is one of the basic link functions, allowing us to move
back and forth in the subject’s history. Recursus, too, works ideally
here; we can return from a parenthetical discussion about one subject
– a discussion that may have been extensive – and restate the
previous theme in order to advance in an entirely new direction. The
facility with which annotative links accommodate intertextuality can
be applied even more readily to documentary evidence and to material

– letters, paintings, interviews – that allows the subjects and their
contemporaries to speak in their own voice.

The chief obstacle to work in hypertextual biography has been

logistical and economic. Young biographers require academic
credentials, recognition, and tenure. For a generation, positions have
been scarce and those seeking them have been averse to risk.
Biographers who are secure in their vocation are rare, and the output
of this privileged caste is sufficiently profitable as to deter
experimentation. Because biographies often take a long time to write,
biographers have a lower tolerance for technological risk than

These obstacles are likely to prove transitory.

About The Exercises
The exercises suggested here suggest several brief encounters with the
challenges of narrative hypertext. They may perhaps be useful to
various readers in different ways, not all of which may be immediately

• By proposing a narrow problem, each exercise indicates one

challenge of hypertext narrative in a concrete context rather than in a
general and perhaps nebulous theoretical framework.

• By drawing on a range of instructional and genre practices, we may

better transcend the narrow views that sometimes limit the vision of
critics and writers – especially those who assume that hypertext
narrative is necessarily juvenile, intrinsically metafictional, or
naturally digressive.

• Difficulties that seem trivial in contemplation are sometimes better

appreciated if one attempts to surmount them. The art critic may not
be a talented or highly trained painter, but some familiarity with paint
can inform their appreciation.

• Problems that seem insurmountable to experts may yield easily to

fresh views. Story-driven hypertext narrative has frequently been
viewed as unlikely or improbable. I suspect this is mistaken. (It’s
worth noting that some of the most widely-read and admired
hypertexts began as student exercises.)

• Writers need to write. Instructors need assignments. Perhaps these
exercises can help.

Many of these exercises are based on workshops and courses by some

of the many people who have taught hypertext writing in colleges and
universities, and I am grateful to many instructors who have shared
these with me. I have tried to indicate the source on which I based
exercises I have borrowed, but some of these have been passed from
hand to hand and I may not know their original source. In any case, I
have adapted (or distorted) all these exercises to fit my own
inclinations, and so the purported originator should receive none of
the blame for infelicities or illiteracies I have introduced.

Joyce’s Cycle
The best-known hypertext writing exercise, and still the ideal starting
place, was created by Michael Joyce for writing workshops in the

1) Begin by creating a writing space that briefly describes a single


2) Create a second writing space, describing what follows after the

first. Link to to the first writing space.
3) Create yet another writing space, describing what happens after
the second. Link it to the second writing space; you now have a
sequence of three writing spaces.
4) Next the reader will revisit the first writing space. Create a link,
and revise any of the writing spaces to make facilitate the
5) Finally, write a new writing space that is also linked to the revisited
space but which, perhaps through the use of guard fields or

Requirements, will not be visited until the initial cycle has been
The final space might continue the action in the initial sequence,
perhaps changing the point of view or benefiting from insights we
have gained.

The final space might shift to a new scene, perhaps a later scene in
which some of the characters meet again.

The final space might even shift to something completely new,

something unexpected, and only later in the story will we learn why
the first scene was a necessary prelude.

Suggested Reading
Joyce, Michael. “Nonce Upon Some Times: Rereading Hypertext
Fiction.” Modern Fiction Studies 43, no. 3 (1997): 579–97

Second Person Present

Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box” (New Yorker, June 4, 2012. http://
www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/06/04/black-box-2 ) is a short
story written entirely in second person, chiefly as instructions
(perhaps from an implanted receiver) to an intelligence agent in the
field, and written as a series of very brief lexia or crots. Everything is
either present tense or an instruction, and order, or an observation
about what the agent is seeing or doing at that very moment. The
language militates strongly against narrative: where everything is
happening right now, nothing has happened and nothing else is going
to happen. Nevertheless, narrative emerges – the more strikingly
because its emergence is unexpected.

Hypertexts are inherently in dialog with their reader. The text
proposes and the reader responds. The text does something to the
reader, and then the reader does something to the text. Second person
suits them, making the dialog manifest. We know, of course, that the
computer is not a person, that the text is not human, but still:
whatever this is, we are talking to it, we are communicating with
something animate, lively. Direct address emphasizes the liveliness of
the text. This emphasis is all the more profound when the text
responds in ways we do not expect: when the first page of Michael
Joyce’s afternoon, a story ends by asking us

Do you want to hear about it?

many readers are astonished to find that, if they answer “no”, the text
proceeds with a plausible, enigmatic response:

I understand how you feel. Nothing is more empty than heat.

Seen so starkly the world holds wonder only in the expanses of clover
where the bees work.

Direct address is also the language of the adventure game, choosing

your own adventure, interactive fiction

You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.

Write a hypertext narrative scene entirely in the second person. The
computer may, as in Egan, represent an inner voice, one half of an
ongoing internal dialogue. Alternatively, the computer might be a a
second characters – an angry mother-in-law, an unhappy child, a

Use links and guard fields (or perhaps sculptural links and
$Requirements expressions) to allow the reader to make
consequential choices. These choices should not, however,

predominately affect (or seem to affect) the outcome of the scene.
You should not make this a puzzle to be solved or a game to be won.
Instead, let the choice of links gradually unfold a narrative (or several
narratives) in which our choice matters but does not merely enact a
child’s power fantasy their wish might reshape the universe.

Suggested Reading:
Walker, Jill. “Do You Think You’re Part of This? Digital Texts and the
Second Person Address,” In Cybertext Yearbook 2000, edited by
Markku Eskelinen and Raine Koskimaa,

Heart Suit
In many Storyspace hypertexts, most writing spaces contain a no
more than a few paragraphs; many writing spaces together might
comprise an episode, scene, or chapter. Some more recent, Web-
inflected hypertexts – Geoff Ryman’s 253, Paul La Farge’s Luminous
Airplanes, and Iain Pears’ Arcadia, use writing spaces that function as
chapters. The hypertext is made up of small pieces, loosely joined.

It is possible, however, to end each writing space in mid-sentence,

and to have that sentence continued in each of the destinations.
Stuart Moulthrop invented the technique on opening of Victory
Garden, but few works have embraced it as enthusiastically as does
Robert Coover’s sculptural hypertext “Heart Suit”, a hypertext card
deck delivered on actual cards in which every card save the first
begins and ends mid-sentence.

Write a short hypertext in which some or all of the writing spaces end
mid-sentence. For greater impact, take care to vary the sentence
structure, so the disparate completions are distinct. Unexpected shift
in object, tense, or speaker can be particularly effective, demanding

thoughtful reading even as the sentence fragment drives the reader
forward in urgent quest for completion.

Suggested Reading
Robert Coover, “Heart Suit,” A Child Again, San Francisco:
McSweeney’s, 2005.

Walk And Talk

1. Two people are walking together briskly and conversing
energetically. We join them in the middle. Quickly
establish the two characters and the subject of their
2. Linked to this first note, write a second note that pulls back to
establish the scene. Let the scene be at least mildly
unexpected – a different place or time from what we might
have anticipated from the introduction, yet natural and
3. Write a third note, linked from the second, which continues the
encounter with increasing intensity.
4. Add a note, linked to the second or third note, in which our focus
shifts to some person or thing in the background. Perhaps
two other people are walking in the opposite direction and
pass the first two, and we follow them rather than
continuing with our original dialogue.
5. Optionally, follow this passage with a second passage that
intensifies the second dialogue.
6. Add a note, linked to the third or fourth, in which a third
character enters the frame. Link this to a successor in
which we return to one of our dialogues, and also link this
to a successor in which our attention moves to the new
character, perhaps in interior dialogue with herself.

7. Add a note or sequence, linked to any of the preceding notes, that
introduces a time shift. If the scene is a contemporary
Manhattan street, we might shift to the same street the
week before, or a century ago, or we might reveal the
ultimate fate of one of the characters.
8. At this point, you have unraveled a single (interesting encounter)
into numerous loose ends. Identify the loose ends and mark
them with badges; you’ll want to locate them later.
9. Thread together these various passages so that a reader may
encounter several of them in turn. Use guard fields to
prevent the reader’s entrapment in cycles.
10. Now, write a passage which naturally follows from one of the
loose ends, and to which a second loose end can also be
linked – either directly, or by adding an intermediate
11. Bring additional loose ends together to rejoin the others. In the
end, let all trajectories again converge on a single endpoint
which represents the conclusion of the episode, if not the
end of the story.

Frustrating The Reader

1. Begin by writing the end passage — the termination that the
reader wants to reach. The hero obtains the MacGuffin,
the object of desire undresses, the protagonist scores the
winning run, the investigator reveals the secret for which
we have been searching. We’ll call this passage the End
(though it might merely represent the end of an episode or
a pause in the story).

2. Compose a passage that precedes the End, anticipates it so the
reader expects and wants to see the it, and could
reasonably lead to the End. We’ll call this Start.
3. Interpose a writing space which follows Start and is linked to it,
but which defers or delays our arrival at End. The
MacGuffin is not yet uncovered, the object of desire is not
yet won, the evidence we expected to discover is missing or
leads in an unexpected direction. Call this Complication 1.
4. Write a second Complication, also linked to Start, but which
complicates our journey to the end in a completely
different way. Link the second complication to Start as
well, but in a different way than the first complication.
5. Write a third Complication, also linked to Start, which delays our
journey to the End, but this time let the delay arise from
Plot rather than Story. Before we can reach the End,
discover a necessity for a shift in time or place. Revise Start
as needed to make this shift natural or inevitable.
6. Find ways to link one complication to another, either directly or
by adding additional transitional passages.
7. Finally, establish one or more paths from complications to the
End. Take care that this path can be found by the reader,
but also that it cannot be found trivially – that the delay is
neither too short nor too long.

We begin in the middle of an interrogation. At least two interrogators
are confronting an individual; this might be police officers
interviewing a suspect, or an academic disciplinary hearing, a
household confrontation, the first encounter with an alien species or
with a traveller from a distant land. The interrogation is intense, the
stakes are high.

Make an effort to distinguish the interrogators from each other and
from their target. Aim for naturalistic dialogue: short questions, short
and fragmentary responses which assume their context. Establish the
big issue and the interrogator’s intermediate goals, and show how
their target cooperates and evades.

Divide the interrogation into a series of short writing spaces threaded


Now, rearrange the interrogation, threading it together in a new way,

perhaps adding new passages and omitting others.

I use a few terms in these pages that may be unfamiliar, or I use
familiar terms in some unfamiliar ways. Here are a few notes for the

Calligraphic hypertext connects passages (notes or nodes, pages,

lexia, or writing spaces — chunks of writing) via explicitly created

Card is another term for hypertext node, page, lexia, or writing space.
A set of cards is a deck, and decks are a useful way to think about
sculptural hypertext.

Closure describes the cadence or resolution that is understood to end

a story, though it might be followed by additional narrative in the
form of a coda that describes what happened after the end of the

The codex book is composed of individual leaves that are bound in a

fixed sequence, a technology developed between the 2nd and 4th
century AD.

Collage places two things next to each other, giving rise to a third
idea that is not contained in either. For example, a passage describing
the joyful preparations for Billy’s Eight Birthday Party might variously
be accompanied by an illustration of a graveyard, of an angry young
man, or of The US Capitol. See montage.

Coherence in narrative is the absence of unwanted or accidental

contradictions, either explicit or implied. If the same bartender has

red hair in one scene and black hair in another, the reader requires an

Computers include desktop, laptop, tablet, and dedicated reading

machines. The computer’s display remains a “screen” whether
presented on a CRT, liquid crystal display, wall projection, eyeglasses,
or heads-up display.

Default links in Storyspace are links that are followed when the
reader clicks outside the text, on text that is not otherwise linked, or
when the reader presses the [Return] key. Along with guard fields,
default links are the characteristic feature of Storyspace hypertexts.

A graph, in mathematics, is a collection of nodes interconnected by

one or more arcs or links.

Guard Fields are tests or predicates that determine whether a given

Storyspace link may be followed at this in the reading. Traditionally,
guard fields could depend on what the reader clicked and on which
writing spaces the reader has visited; in Storyspace 3, guard fields
may take other factors into account.

Genre Fiction has come to embrace all contemporary fiction that lies
outside, or is marketed as if it lay outside, mainstream literary fiction.
Mystery, fantasy, science fiction, romance, horror, and historical
fiction are some important categories of genre fiction, though
interstitial fiction, which falls between the cracks, is increasingly

The Holodeck is a Star Trek entertainment in which one engages

with fully-realized, holographically-simulated people and
environments. Some see it as the natural end of new media. I’m

Hypertext is writing with links. The term has always encompassed
“hypermedia,” a term favored by salesmen and promoters.

IF or Interactive Fiction: a genre of hypertext fiction in which reader

choices chiefly affect story rather than plot. Typically, the reader is
identified with a hero protagonist who must escape from various
perils, puzzles, and impediments, often through dialogue with the

A janespace, named after J. Yellowlees Douglas, is a hypertext node

or writing space that cannot be reached through links, though it might
be discovered through some extra-textual mechanism like map view
or search.

“Lexia” was coined by Barthes to denote the unit of meaning or block

of signification of a text. Frequently identified with a hypertext node.

Links connect two (or perhaps more) hypertext pages. The link is the
most important new punctuation mark since the invention of the
comma. Avoid the terms “hyperlink” and “weblink.”

Montage presents two different objects in sequence, giving rise to a

third idea not contained in either one. An anxious figure, followed by
a clock, suggests “waiting.” Compare collage.

Multivalence is the ability of one passage of text to mean more than

one thing. Multivalence is not a vice or an arcane artistic effect: it is
the natural way for language to behave.

The navigation problem was the fear, common among hypertext

pioneers, that readers would tend to be disoriented and confused by
hypertext. Much of my early research addressed the navigation
problem with then-novel tools such as tabs and breadcrumbs. Upon
further review, hypertext is not more disorienting than text, and

hypertext writers must exert themselves quite strenuously if they wish
to disorient readers.

Node is a piece of a hypertext. Equivalent terms include note, page,

and writing space. Barthes uses the term “lexia” to describe units of
text, and this would likely have become the preferred term if anyone
knew whether it was singular or plural. Storyspace traditionally
favored “writing space,” Tinderbox prefers “note,” the Web uses
“page,” and computer scientists prefer “node.”

Plot is the term used here to denote the sequence in which events are
presented to the reader, which frequently departs from strict
chronological sequence. In the critical literature, often referred to a
sujet. See story.

Rashomon is Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film, in which a single conflict

in the woods is recounted from many viewpoints, with dramatically
different effect. A common pattern in hypertexts and hypertext-
influenced work like Lolla Rennt, Sliding Doors, Egan’s A Visit From
The Goon Squad, and Coover’s “The Babysitter.”

RHT or Reading Hypertext: a collection of early essays on

hypertext, edited by myself and Diane Greco and published by
Eastgate in 2009.

Recursus or recurrence is one of four fundamental link types (the

others being timeshift, renewal, and annotation). Recursus initiates a
cycle, returning again to a previously viewed sequence. The reader
may later leave that sequence, or the sequence may, on second
viewing, unroll itself in a new direction. Compare to the chorus of a
song or to the restatement of the theme in a sonata.

Romance, when capitalized, is the familiar genre also known as the

marriage plot, in which the protagonist overcomes obstacles and

temptations in order to gain the love of their ideal mate. Not to be
confused with romance, here uncapitalized, in which the hero must
ultimately succeed in their endeavor because of their intrinsic worth.

A screen is the computer’s display, currently most often a luminous

surface. In the future, displays may be projected on walls, or eye
glasses, or elsewhere; for convenience, we call these all screens.

Sculptural hypertext begins by connecting a group of passages to

each other and then establishes constraints that some passages must
precede or follow others.

Shark links are Storyspace 3 links with the type “shark”. When
arriving at a writing space with outbound shark links, Storyspace will
immediately follow the first outbound shark link with a satisfied guard
field. In an early paper (IWHD ’95), I called these “eager links”.

Story is the term used here to denote what really happened, or (in
fiction) what “really” is imagined to have occurred. In the critical
literature, often referred to as fabula. See plot.

Storyspace is a hypertext system, originally designed by Jay David

Bolter, Michael Joyce, and John B. Smith, marketed and maintained
by Eastgate since 1991. It embodies a notation or formalism of
hypertext, in which writing spaces are connected by dynamic links —
links whose behavior may depend on the reader’s trajectory through
the hypertext.

Storyspace 3 is a new implementation of Storyspace, designed in

2015, which incorporates the original Storyspace formalism as well as
a sculptural hypertext formalism which coexists with it and which can
be freely combined with the original formalism.

Technical refers here to matters of technique; these are more likely to

refer to the writer’s craft than to the programmer’s.

Tinderbox is a tool for visualizing, analyzing, and sharing notes.
Tinderbox, like Storyspace, is an Eastgate Systems product.
Tinderbox and Storyspace 3 share a common foundation, and can use
each other’s files interchangeably. Tinderbox descends from
Storyspace and from two research tools developed at Xerox PARC,
Aquanet (by Halasz, Trigg, and Marshall) and VIKI (Marshall and