Some versions of hyperfiction

Originally published in the PN Review, November-December 2002

There is a story on the World Wide Web called "Getting Together" by Richard A DeCristofaro. Basically it is a love story about two young Americans called Kennet and Lorraine, following them from the time when they first meet in 1986 to their engagement in 1993. I mention it not because it is of outstanding literary merit, but because it serves as a good introduction to some of the basic principles and methods of hyperfiction. In a preface, DeCristofaro describes its narrative structure as follows:

You will read parts of the story told by different characters, but mostly Ken and Raine... There are a number of ways you can move through the story. Using the ‘Switch point of view’ link will change you from Lorraine's story to Ken's, or vice versa. You can also move forward or backward in the current character's story (i.e. without switching viewpoints). There are also several options presented at the bottom of each screen. Clicking these will move you to the page that describes what is on the link. Not all of these options are available on every page.

The links at the bottom of a randomly-selected page read:

Obviously "Getting Together" is written using multiple viewpoints, but this is nothing new in itself. What really marks it as a full-blown hyperfiction is the fact that there is no single path mapped out for us to follow. In a linear narrative using multiple viewpoints, the viewpoints would be presented to us one at a time, in a fixed sequence. The order in which we moved from one viewpoint to another would be determined in advance by the author, and his or her decisions would be enshrined by the order in which the book-pages were printed. Of course there is nothing to stop us reading the pages of any book out of sequence, but to do so is an act of conscious sophistication, a deliberate flouting of convention and (we assume) it goes against the author's intentions. In "Getting Together", on the other hand, the choice of reading-sequence is left up to us. We can read the whole story from Ken's point of view, we can read it from Lorraine's, or we can read it (sometimes) from the point of view of their friends. We can go forward from beginning to end in Ken's point of view, then backward from end to beginning in Lorraine's, and polish off the leftovers afterwards; or we can take the story one chronological section at a time, reading all the available viewpoints for each section as we go. The choice is ours: but whatever choice we make, we are always conscious, as we read, that we could have chosen differently. To put it another way, we always feel that we are missing something which is available elsewhere. And this has a double effect. Firstly, whereas a linear narrative is always pulling us onwards, a nonlinear narrative like "Getting Together" pulls us in more than one direction at a time. Secondly, we feel less obliged to read the whole story from start to finish because the form is more fragmented. To some extent we, the readers, give the narrative its shape by deciding how we want to read it - this is what aficionados of hyperliterature mean when they describe it as "interactive" and claim that it "empowers" its readers - but because we are obliged to make our own choices about what to read and when, we feel less sense of responsibility towards the author. We never place ourselves in the author's hands so completely when reading a nonlinear fiction like "Getting Together" as we do when reading a linear one.

Another point worth making about "Getting Together" is that it is written in a large number of fairly short sections. There are at least 30 sections, most of them less than 500 words long. At the end of the preface to the story we are told that it was originally written as a "HyperCard stack" in 1993, and "converted to HTML for the WWW by Phrank" - Phrank, presumably, being the owner or curator of the website on which the story appears. The Hypercard program was supplied free with all Macintosh computers in the 1980s, before the World Wide Web came into being. It allowed users to create "stacks" of virtual notecards (hypercards) on a subject, and to connect them with each other via hyperlinks. Writers who were interested in computer technology soon began to use this system as a means of creating nonlinear stories, but because the Hypercards were only designed to carry a limited amount of text (like index cards in a box) the stories produced in this way all had to be written in short sections. Thus, early experiments in hyperliterature were already being conducted several years before the World Wide Web began (the WWW concept was originated by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989), and when hyperfictions started to appear on the Web they were mostly, like "Getting Together", translations from hypercard stacks into HTML (Hypertext Markup Language, the language in which most web pages are still written). In HTML a page can be any length, but most early hyperfictions consisted of lots of short sections linked together in a variety of ways, because most of them were originally written using the Hypercard program or something similar. This stylistic trait has persisted to the present day: a great many modern hyperfictions are still written in numerous short sections.

"Getting Together" is a very simple type of hyperfiction, and unrepresentative of the genre in that the overall structure of the story is mapped out for us before we start. Perhaps more typical, from the design point of view, is Adrienne Eisen's "Six Sex Scenes" - the story of a young Jewish woman's dysfunctional love-life, with frequent flashbacks into her equally dysfunctional childhood. Again, this is written in numerous short sections; but in this piece, instead of the organisational scheme being laid bare at the outset, we are merely presented with a many-forked path and left to explore it as we may. The story always starts with a section entitled "Therapy", but at the end of this section we are presented with a list of possibilities: “You Suck/Bored/Mind Disorder/My Room with a View”. If we choose “My Room with a View” from this menu, we are taken to another section with another list of alternatives at the end: “Mom Says to Aim for a Nice Arc/Reading/The SPIN Woman/The Wisdom of Puberty”. Whichever section we choose to view next, at its end we have to choose again from another list, and so on.

One criticism which could be levelled at Eisen's writing is that her stories tend to be quite similar to each other in feel. They all seem to be about young Jewish women struggling with their sex-lives, their relationships, and their lack of self-esteem. They all include numerous flashbacks to a quarrelsome and difficult childhood. But the oldfashioned virtues of good fiction-writing are certainly there: she can write dialogue, suggest character, create dramatic tension and establish a milieu. Her prose is terse and witty, sometimes very funny, sometimes poignant. So what does she gain by writing hyperfictions rather than conventional linear narratives?

First of all it should be said that the layout of "Six Sex Scenes" is less diffuse than it appears. Whichever route through the story we choose, we are often presented with the same options: if, for example, we chose "Bored" instead of "My Room with a View" at the end of the first section, the next menu of choices would be exactly the same: “Mom Says to Aim for a Nice Arc/Reading/The SPIN Woman/The Wisdom of Puberty”. And the narrative as a whole always ends with the same section, entitled "Pro-Choice", which is about the narrator having an abortion. We are thus being steered in a particular direction to a much greater extent than we are likely to appreciate until we have gone through the story several times. All the same, what we feel, on a first reading of the story, is a sense of uncertainty. Where are we going? What are we missing by choosing one path instead of another? How long does the narrative go on, and is it really leading us anywhere?

What the story gains by not being written in a fixed sequence is a sense of spontaneity. This is particularly useful where the "flashback" sections are concerned. We don't feel, as we might with a conventional story, that the onward movement is being checked for the sake of a detour through some background material. There isn't a plotline as such - the story develops through a series of loosely-associated scenes and incidents - so we don't feel frustrated or derailed if we find ourselves travelling sideways or backwards rather than forwards. As a matter of fact the "present-day" sections of the story are never allowed to gain sufficient dominance over the "flashbacks" for us to feel sure that the real focus of the novel is on the grown-up protagonist rather than her childhood counterpart. Instead we are given a particularly full sense of how the past continues to live in the present: how the Jewish girl's character as an unstable young woman cannot be properly understood without taking her childhood into account.

Because the narrative is fragmentary and hops from one thing to another, as well as moving backwards and forwards in time, we feel that one section is leading to another by a process of association. The shape of the story seems less willed than a conventional narrative. As I mentioned above, there is more shape to the story than may be apparent at first reading, but what we feel while that first reading is taking place is that the writing is very fluid, the narrative loosely-constructed, almost as if it were being made up as it went along; and to some extent, because we are invited to make our own choices about what to read next, we feel that we are sharing in the author’s process of exploration and development. The act of reading seems less passive and more creative than usual.

When we reach the end of the story, there is a less definite sense of closure than would be the case with an ordinary novel. This is partly because we are aware, having chosen one narrative path out of many, that there must be parts of the story which we have not read. It is characteristic of this type of hyperfiction that we feel less obliged to read it right through to the end than we would with a linear story; but more inclined, having reached the end, to go back and read it again.

Eisen's method of layout, as I have said, is to present us with a menu of options at the end of each story-section. This menu is actually a contents-list for the story's next stage. If we click on a link that says "Bored", we will find ourselves reading a section entitled "Bored": so in a sense, although we may be unclear about the shape of the story as a whole, we are shown at the end of each section, in a relatively straightforward way, where we can go next. There is an alternative method of presenting links, however, which is popular with many writers of hyperfiction (Eisen doesn't use it at all, so far as I have discovered), and this is to embed the links in the body of the narrative. On example is Carolyn Guyer's story "Quibbling", an excerpt from which is available on her personal website. This excerpt is mostly concerned with gifts and their meanings. Here is a fairly typical short extract:

They had been searching for two days, Heta always shaking her head or finding some objection to the potential gift for her mother. It was snowing and very cold, they had tramped from store to store and it was almost closing time downtown.

The words "potential gift" in this passage double as a hyperlink - which is obvious when we see them on-screen, because they are blue and underlined, whereas the rest of the passage is plain and black. The disadvantage of this method of presenting links is immediately apparent: it distracts us while we are reading. Adrienne Eisen allows us to read a section all the way through before reminding us that there are multiple choices to be made. In Guyer's work, the choices are always with us, popping up in the middle of sentences; and it could be argued that this means she is more thoroughly embracing the nonlinear form. Perhaps in Eisen's story-sections, particularly the longer ones, we are allowed to lapse back into a linear way of reading, only to be jerked out of it when we reach the menu of options at the bottom of the page; whereas Guyer is always nudging at us, unsettling us, reminding us of the nonlinearity of her text. In spite of this consideration, and in spite of my admiration for some of Guyer’s writing, I much prefer Eisen's method of presenting her links.

Another problem with text-embedded links is that they raise expectations which they do not always fulfil. In the example above, for instance, we would expect that clicking on the words "potential gift" would take us to a passage about potential gifts - instead of which, it takes us to the following:

What is war?

War is taking what has not been offered.

What is the opposite of war?


- Deena Metzger, The Woman Who Slept With Men to Take the War Out of Them

This is certainly not unrelated to the theme of gifts, but on the other hand it doesn't have any obvious relevance to the words in the link; and the same is true of links throughout the story, and in stories of this type generally.

A further refinement of the "embedded links" method is to remove any highlighting which would draw attention to the words acting as links. The links, in other words, are invisible - any word or phrase in any given passage might be a link, or it might not. This is less distracting to readers while they are reading, but on the other hand it may reduce them, when they want to move on to the next passage, to clicking all over the page at random in the hope of finding a link. For this reason, this method is normally used in conjunction with other methods of navigation. Michael Joyce's famous hyperfiction Afternoon: A Story is an example, as explained in the short user's manual which comes with it:

- You may move through the story by pressing the Enter key to go from one screen to another.

- You may double-click any word in the text to follow various lines of the story. Some especially significant words yield, bringing you to a new line of the story. Others continue the current thread The story exists at several levels; the story changes depending on decisions you make...

The lack of clear signals is not an attempt to vex you, but rather an invitation to read inquisitively, playfully or at depth. Click on words that interest or invite you.

Afternoon: A Story certainly has its fascinations: but there are obvious questions to be asked about its method of presentation. Any story which is obliged to open with a short set of reading-instructions is limiting its potential audience at the outset; and the note above betrays an uneasy awareness that some readers will probably be "vexed" by the narrative's obscurities of form. It also betrays a desire to instruct us, not merely as to the mechanics of reading Afternoon: A Story, but as to the proper frame of mind in which we should explore the piece: "inquisitively, playfully or at depth". Unfortunately these instructions merely serve to establish a pretentious and self-important tone before we have even begun to read the story.

Clearly there are disadvantages to hyperfiction as well as advantages, and perhaps the greatest disadvantage is sheer unfamiliarity. We are all used to reading linear narratives: most of us are unused to reading nonlinear ones. This is one reason why the proponents of hyperfiction spend so much time explaining and justifying their works. But they also frequently overstate the complexities of their narratives, to an extent which can only serve to put off members of the ordinary reading public. Complexity of form in hyperliterature is a subject for another essay: suffice it to say here that as Adrienne Eisen's stories show, good hyperfiction can be presented in a simple and self-explanatory manner, and does not necessarily need to be justified or expounded before it can be read.


"Getting Together" by Richard A DeCristofaro has unfortunately disappeared since this article was written

Adrienne Eisen

Caroline Guyer

Michael Joyce

Eastgate Systems (publishers of work by Joyce, Guyer, Eisen and others)