Re-Definition and Place of Plot

Organising a Plot, Losing the Plot

Don Woods, the first fiction writer for digital media, in 1976 started with a digital space, a text map of the Bedquilt Cave system, and a love of the works of J.R.R. Tolkein. He then proceeded to add puzzles and challenges of a Tolkeinesque nature throughout the space as part of a quest to gather treasure. This formed the game known as Colossal Caves or Original Adventure [Ada98b]. Following the plot in this case meant both following a map and a game system of literary events. His work opened the door onto a unique approach to plotting that had not yet been investigated in media outside of the computer.

Not long afterwards others also began writing what became known as "Interactive Fiction", though its practitioners were rarely thought of as part of the literary continuum. Their fame lays within the computing community as some of the founders of computer gaming. Though perhaps overstated, Interactive Fiction writers and game reviewers at times liked to point out Interactive Fiction's connection with the world of literature, such as this quote from Steven Levy, "Playing adventure games without tackling this one [Colossal Caves] is like being an English major who's never glanced at Shakespeare," [Lev] or this quote from the San Francisco Chronicle concerning Roberta Williams' text adventures, "Williams could become to multimedia what Edgar Allen Poe was to literature." [Unk]

It was not until the middle of the eighties that a group of people began making digitally based literature with the intent being to create "serious" art. It is interesting that this event is recorded by Howard Becker in his article "A New Art Form: Hypertext Fiction" (1996) in this fashion:

Beginning in the mid-1980s, a number of people began to create computer based fictions. Most of these authors took advantage of the computer's possibilities to write what have been called, generically, hypertexts... The idea of hypertext fiction is older than the computer, but computer-based implementations of the idea are as new as the personal computer.
[Bec96, para. 7]

Though he does acknowledge hypertext precursors and ongoing practitioners in print literature, such as Julio Cortazar and his book Hopscotch [CtGR66] or George Perec and La Vie: Mode d'Emploi (Life: A User's Manual) [Per78], and these are really part of the tradition of anti-fiction, he omits the work of the Interactive-Fiction writers of the seventies who were creating on mainframe computers.

This has come to form the truncated history of digital fiction as recorded in a number of critical works. The results have been that much critical observation of what is possible within the realm of digital storytelling has been constrained to that set of hyperfiction authors who have been writing primarily for Storyspace since that time such as Stuart Moulthrop, Michael Joyce and John McDaid. This becomes a problem when the early adopters of this technology for literary expression largely came from prose poetry and anti-fiction traditions, which are characterised by their disjointed and usually plotless works. Though their work is an interesting facet of digital narrative, it is not a representative sample and does not address the issue of how to deal with plot very broadly.

Although they use familiar narrative strategies to make beginnings easier, hyperfictions challenge readers by avoiding the corresponding devices for achieving closure. It is up to readers to decide how, when and why the narrative finishes. In Afternoon, Joyce makes closure the responsibility of the reader. In a section entitled "work in progress" readers are advised that "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."
[Sny96, p. 100]

If a primary function of the plot is to order events into a beginning, a middle and an end, then hyperfiction would seem to preclude the possibility of plot. And yet, upon returning to the work of the Interactive-Fictionists, articles are available such as "Plot Vs. Interactivity" [Whi93] which deals with how to integrate puzzles with plot; "The Craft of Adventure" [Nel95] which in part addresses how to deal with the narrative elements of the prologue, the middle game and the end game; "The Whizzard's Guide to Text Adventure Authorship" [Wil94] which includes a summary of the book The 36 Basic Dramatic Situations by Georges Polti [PtLR77] and how to use these to structure plots for Interactive Fiction; and "Crimes Against Mimesis" [GS96] which deals with how to maintain a believable fictional world where the mechanics of the game do not interfere with the flow of the plot.

Perhaps it is useful to see these approaches to digital fiction as two points on a continuum. On one end are tightly organised story systems that give the audience space to organically and interactively play within them and on the other, organically arranged story segments that require the audience to create their own mental organisation and understanding of the work. However, I would like to expand even further than that and see them as two sub-sets of a larger set of digital storytelling, which encompasses a number of plotting methods not included in these groups' early attempts, such as the plotting of collaborative fiction and Web serials. This would seem likely when storytellers are only beginning to experiment with what is possible in this medium. Therefore, finding ways to entertainingly and movingly present what has been mainstream in other media, may be equally avant garde as anything anti-fictional.