When you begin reading a book, it is a given that if you start on page one and read each successive page you will eventually get to the end of the story. The same goes for watching a film or a play. We sit. We watch. We leave. From childhood we are trained that there is a known route that will get us to the end of stories. Presented in these formats, stories are easy to navigate through. The only thing hindering our voyage is our mind; are we paying attention or are we sleeping? But online, stories do not always follow the course that we are accustomed to, and we must stay alert if we are to move forward. In web stories your well-worn directional knowledge no longer takes you through the story. Each time you begin a new story, you must find the starting point, chart a new path, then head out onto unstable waters.
Founded in 1997, Born Magazine is a literary venue that gives writers and artists an opportunity to tell stories online by taking full advantage of everything the technology has to offer. “We publish poetry and short prose as well as textual and other experiments in storytelling and narrative structures created in collaboration with an interactive artist. We are dedicated to fostering experimentation in this new medium, and nurturing literary arts on the web in a way that can only exist on the web,” states Anmarie Trimble, Born’s editor. “Original projects are brought to life every three months, created by a continually evolving community of poets, writers, interactive artists, programmers, photographers, and musicians.” Focusing on short pieces that, according to Trimble, “enhance the reader’s experience of the poem or prose,” the site is full of diverse and thought provoking interpretations of storytelling by interactive artists and graphic designers.
“We have several stories that illustrate how our artists’ experimentation with navigation transform the storytelling and reading experience,” Trimble states. A good example of that is The Itch. The poem, written by Shirley Stephenson, is interpreted for Born by Bryce Nihill. In the web interpretation, Nihill made it impossible for viewers to read the poem without using the mouse to scratch an image of a red, swollen, almost infected body part that looks as though it has been rubbed raw. As you scratch, the words of the poem appear: “Don’t scratch, He said. Don’t even say you scratched.” Unfortu-nately, by the time you read that line, it’s too late. The Itch uses the poem’s metaphor as its inspiration for navigation; the reader must literally enact the poem’s metaphor in order to read the poem. The navigation becomes inseparable from the story,” Trimble points out.
Damion Tripplett, whose Born project, Remote Medical Services, takes us through the pharmacological neurosis of everyday life, says that, “I often imagine [navigation] primarily as the type of pause that you would have in turning the page of a book. Yet, with some programming you can create more dynamic facets to your content, (introducing cause-and-effect transitions, animation, etc.). It’s the balance of navigation and content that I’m always drawn to when it comes to online content. I think that on sites such as Born Magazine you should push the boundaries of navigation towards perhaps unfamiliar territory, but always toward the enhancement of your content.”
In online storytelling, navigation and interactivity, while interrelated, are not the same. In an e-book, let’s say, navigation is not particularly important. It follows the same formula as reading the bound pages of a book—when you get to the end of one page, turn or “click” to the next. But for a true online story, navigation can alter how a story is told. It can take you in multiple directions, it can manipulate your interpretation, and most of all, it allows you to apply your own structure to a story. “There is a human desire in many of us to want to figure things out, to discern and decipher,” Tripplett notes. “Navigation can pique the level of interest to keep exploring or coming back to a story.”
The interactivity of the story, in the best examples, is determined by how the creator wants the viewer to navigate through the plot. For artists working online, determining the extent to which an audience interacts with the story is a complex task. Just how exactly will the viewer navigate through, and how interactive will they need or want it to be? Elisabeth Lahti, creative director and president at the Stockholm-based company Strange Ways, which produced the Born project entitled Landscape Without You, points out that “Since navigation in online storytelling differs from traditional storytelling, it can make life difficult for the one trying to follow the story. We all agree how to read a book or look at a movie, but navigation online isn’t standardized in the same way. This makes storytelling online a bit difficult but also challenging.”
It is important for an online storyteller to realize that utilizing navigational facets of the web for a story can hinder the viewing process. Many times, too much navigational interactivity can become frustrating for the user who prefers sitting back and letting the story just happen, especially if the interactivity is not bound to the content. “It can be a detriment if you get too clever and lose your audience. It’s difficult not to get caught up in the bells and whistles of some of these facets and lose sight of your intent/content,” Tripplett points out.
Lahti stresses, “When you are not sure how a reader is going to navigate through your story, you have to think in a different way. Instead of just telling something from the beginning to the end, you have to try to make the story evolve depending on how the reader reacts. This can mean that there are no definitive ends or beginnings.”
As a viewer, when starting a story online where the beginning is not apparent and the end is completely out of sight, you must pay close attention to the signs and signals the creators have put on the screen. Both the audience and the creators have to look beyond the traditional storytelling formats and open their minds to a new kind of narrative. So, as you set out to view a web story, whether at Born Magazine or another site, don’t forget to explore the territory, chart your course and be patient as you navigate towards the artificial horizon.