Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Future(s) of Publishing: On New Narrative Structures and the Digital Game-Changer

A few months ago I attended one of New York’s most celebrated and original shows in years: Sleep No More. A loose interpretation of Macbeth that pays homage, in tone and mise-en-scène, to Hitchcock’s films, Sleep No More had me on its premise alone.

However, what really sold me on the show’s genius—and what’s earning it rave reviews and a near-perpetually extended run in its New York City home—is the fact that Sleep No More is less a show than an experience. The set is a world in itself, an entire hotel gutted from the inside and transformed into a ballroom, a graveyard, a mental hospital, a bedroom, a museum, a forest, and more. Silent stewards in black stand sentry in these little worlds but do nothing to discourage guests from trying on gowns in a hospital ward or peeling back Lady Macduff’s bedcovers to reveal the dark stains of blood. The characters are plucked from Macbeth’s playbill but rendered nearly unrecognizable by their 1920’s apparel, their danced rather than spoken dialogue, and their deliberate refusal to separate out into “main” and “secondary” characters. Unconstrained by the conventions that are so integral to most theater as to go unnoticed—that the character with the most stage time is the main character, that any information not delivered onstage is irrelevant, and that all stories unfold in a linear fashion—each of Sleep No More’s characters cycle through their own haunting story, leaving it to the viewers and not the writers to choose how little or how much attention each merits. And if the viewers become the show’s scripters, so too do they become members of its cast, underscoring the show’s themes of guilt and madness by flocking to its characters, costumed in ghastly masks that transform them into the physical embodiments of the specters that haunt Macbeth and the horrors that plague his cohorts.

Sleep No More is not nearly the first piece of experiential theater ever produced, but I’d argue it’s one of the first and most important shows to make full use of an emergent narrative style: a storytelling structure in which the audience’s choices and actions determine the story that unfolds. While each of the characters in Sleep No More follows a script, the sequence of events from start to finish is wholly determined by the audience. Each viewer’s decisions about what characters to follow, what rooms to explore, and what information to ingest creates a new version of the narrative. And while the play’s producers are able to influence its overall emotional arc through external cues like music, set design, and choreography, there is practically no limit to the number of unique experiences that can emerge from the elements the audience pulls together.

I am fascinated by Sleep No More’s complex narrative structure, and I’ve been reflecting on it in the months since I saw the show, especially as I’ve watched publishers and writers experiment within the realm of e-publishing. You see, I don’t think it’s accidental that this innovation in theater has occurred alongside similarly monumental innovations in the way we experience written narratives. And I’d argue that while Sleep No More is a reaction to Shakespeare and to Hitchcock and a rebuttal of the rather ridiculous notion that some stories are more worthy of following than others, it is also an expression of the growing understanding, of writers and readers alike, that stories do not have to be linear.

This isn’t an entirely new concept for the storytelling world. In fact, video games have been embracing this idea for decades, with a range of titles from the Fable to The Sims adopting non-linear and even emergent narratives in order to customize user experience. It wasn’t hard for me to draw a link between Sleep No More, with its file folders full of mental profiles for the show’s characters and telltale blood stains, and the video game Fallout, in which the player pieces together the tragic histories of several different fallout structures by sifting through clues in the debris left behind.

It’s not that books haven’t dabbled in this before now. The Choose Your Own Adventure series of the 90’s gained immense popularity among young readers who devoured its customized plotlines and read each book multiple times to uncover new experiences and twist endings, and countless spin-offs of the idea followed. But at best (and I say this as a childhood fan who looks back very fondly on the series) these books were clunky, prone to spoilers revealed when the wrong page was flipped past or the too-present temptation to return to a previous page if the chapter one’s choices led to wasn’t satisfying. And with the exception of the occasional artistic use of the non-linear narrative form, like Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, this structure never gained widespread popularity in adult books.

The missing link is obvious: technology. The very physical form of a book enforces a linear narrative; page 3 must follow page 2 which must follow page 1, and so on. The end has to occur after the beginning because it lies deeper into the physical object—and short of breaking the unspoken rules of literacy (as Danielewski asks his reader to do in House of Leaves) we can’t escape that experience of one event following another in physical books. And just as removing the barriers of stage and seating from the audience’s experience of Sleep No More opened it up to an emergent story structure, so removing the paper-and-ink makeup of a book opens up written storytelling to non-linear and emergent experiences.

New ventures in the publishing industry are showing this realization. Coliloquy launched last month with the self-proclaimed intention of “taking advantage of new technology to reinvent the way authors and their audiences interact with reading and narrative.” To quote their press release:
By delivering titles as active content applications, rather than static publishing files, Coliloquy enables new kinds of engagement made possible by advances in electronic book distribution. Multiple “what if” story lines let authors and readers explore different permutations of character relationships. TV-like episodes can grow and change, based on reader choices, voting, and feedback. Fans can reread a key scene from a different character’s point-of-view or unlock new content.
Writers and publishers of more traditional fiction are recognizing similar opportunities for their own publishing programs, as the enhanced-e-book-turned-emergent-experience Chopsticks demonstrates. And while The Wall Street Journal pointed out in a recent article that interactive e-books and book apps have yet to prove themselves profitable, it nonetheless called the technological shift rocking the industry “what could be the most significant transformation of books and reading behavior since Gutenberg.”

Interestingly, one of the contributions of Gutenberg’s printing press to storytelling may have been the widespread adoption of linear narratives; Shakespeare’s sonnets weren’t bound into a numbered order until their first printed compilation after his death, and in the old bardic practice of storytelling from which the tales of Odysseus originated, a bard chose his next plot point from a collection of stories he’d memorized based on his audience’s whims. And now, in reading’s next major revolution, we could see a shift away from linear narratives once again.

That said, am I kissing plot structure as we know it goodbye? Are non-linear narratives and interactive reading experiences the future of publishing? I’d say no. And, well, yes.

Storytelling is an art older than written history, and it’s undergone more changes and existed in more forms than we can count. It will continue to exist in more forms and styles than we can predict. I truly believe that as long as there is reader demand for specific types of stories, be they linear or non-linear or interactive or emergent or anything in between, there will be people who continue to create and distribute those types of stories.

So no, I don’t think this is the future of publishing. I think it is a future of publishing. It is an exciting opportunity to explore something new, to meet demands that have begun to surface or that have existed for a long time and been satisfied in other ways, like video gaming and roleplaying. It’s a call to open our minds to the many different ways to tell a story, and an opportunity to experience and embrace the potential for literary quality in myriad types of media. And in that respect, I can’t wait to see the future of publishing play out, in digital and in printed form.


  1. I've always thought the coolest thing would be Choose Your Own Adventure movies (though I can't imagine any scenario where those would be cost-effective), but Choose Your Own Adventure ebooks would be up there too. As a kid, I loved those books, especially the ones that were part of a series I liked (like Animorphs). There's actually a wiki for free, user-created CYOA stories, though I don't know what the quality is like.

  2. I think this is a case of technology finally progressing far enough to meet the desire of a niche audience (and niche writers) that has always been there.

    What we're going to see is an emerging trend of legitimization for the writers of video games (e.g. Skyrim, L.A. Noir, Dragon Age), of avant-garde projects like Sleep No More or Pandemic ( Even small outfits with bargain budgets have churned out amazing feats of interactivity (see youtube interactive adventures like this one:

    Because print publishing hasn't until very recently forayed into multidimensional storytelling, both artist and audience have had to go to alternate media realms to get their fix. So this is not a new world. Publishers will have to move deftly and expertly to actually make inroads into this world.

    It will be interesting to see how this year shapes out. I predict that print publishers venturing out into this new media terrain will find it already populated by those who were long ago cast out of more legitimate media industries because their ideas were "crazy" or "low brow." I hope that publishers take the time to learn from those who were the pioneers in this kind of storytelling.

  3. I think you're so right, Reinhardt. I've been frustrated with the storytelling community as a whole for undervaluing video game narrative, and I think those writers could start to see the sort of respect and acceptance that pioneers in film and playwrighting have. Well... in time. Prejudices do have a funny way of lasting.

    And hear, hear on that final point! All of us in publishing definitely need to take as much time as we can to learn from everyone who will give us a moment. Now as much as always.