Story Shapes for Digital Media

Katherine Phelps


Writing can be a difficult enough task as it is when telling a story in the form of a novel, play or film. From the outset the author has to think about plot development, character development, theme, climax, resolution and any number of other artistic considerations, in order to form a consistent whole and provide a satisfying experience for the audience. These creative challenges can increase dramatically when authors have to face storytelling within digital media.

As a first step in coming to grips with this problem, it occurred to me that if I could make the basic story structures for digital media visible, then I could more easily keep them under control and I would be in a better position to examine how standard storytelling elements can be mapped onto the media. Others have made rudimentary essays into pinning down these basic structures. Michael Shumate in his Hyperizons [Shu95] site on the Internet touches on what he describes as linear, annotative and tree-branching shapes. Darryl Wimberly and Jon Samsel in their work, Interactive Writer's Handbook [WS95] go into more depth with a broader variety of shapes, but fail to reach a truly atomic level with them in that a number of their shapes overlap, and they do not divorce these shapes from the specific genres from where they found them. The results are models that fall short of simplifing the process of developing stories for digital media.

Through my investigations into various CD-ROMS and hyperfiction sites, I have explored and discovered pathing structures stories can take within digital media. Using my results I developed models for seven basic digital story shapes, which should clarify the process of creating a computer-mediated story. I did allow that some computer-mediated fiction was likely to be a combination of shapes. Those seven story shapes are: single path, enhanced path, multi-pathing, braided multi-pathing, sequential sets, tree-branching paths, and omni-directional pathing.