Traditional versus Hypertext Fiction

by , under Narrative writing

The majority of narrative structures we read are linear. Traditionally, there is a beginning, middle and an end, with the story following a unidirectional timeline. The reader interacts with the text in a limited and predictable way, by reading the words on the page, by turning the pages, and by imagining the characters, actions, and settings as they are described. Two readers may interact with the meaning of a text differently because of the way readers import meaning into a story, interpreting scenes and actions differently, making connections to personal experiences and other books they have read. Nevertheless, they interact with the plot structure of the story in exactly the same way. It is fixed. No matter who the reader is, the story in the novel always follows the same linear path from its beginning to its end.

linear narrative structure diagram

A linear narrative structure

In contrast, the stories in video games can sometimes be non-linear. Some video games experiment with narrative structure by giving the player choices. These recent games allow for various branching storylines, even if the ultimate story ends up being the same. For example, in some games, the player begins by choosing a character and the setting of the story. Those choices can lead to a radically different narrative experience, such that two players playing with different characters can encounter two very different storylines–a type of inter-activity that is rare in traditional storytelling.

hypertext narrative structure diagram

In video games, multiple plot structures are possible

A cross between traditional linear narratives and non-linear gameplay is a relatively new genre of storytelling called hypertext fiction. As with traditional narratives, the reader must read and imagine the characters, settings, and events. But in contrast to traditional narratives, the path from the beginning of the story to its end in hypertext fiction can change depending on the choices the reader makes.

Here is how it works. The reader begins by reading the first scene of the story. At the end of that first scene, instead of turning the page to the next scene, the reader of a hypertext narrative is presented with a number of choices. Each choice leads to a different scene, which leads to new choices and new possibilities for the characters in the story. Likewise, each successive scene presents the reader with multiple plot possibilities. Picture it this way. Imagine a squirrel climbing a tree. In a tree, there are different branches, and each branch leads to a different part of the tree with a different nut to enjoy. Like a tree, a hypertext narrative presents the reader with a number of choices, each choice leading to a different branch in the story and a different ending to enjoy.

To illustrate, here is an example of an opening scene from a hypertext narrative. Notice how at the end of the first paragraph the reader is presented with three choices: Choice 1, Choice 2, and Choice 3. Read the paragraph in the box below and then continue reading one of the choices below it to find out what happens next. What you will notice is that each choice leads to a different development in the plot. That’s the idea behind hypertext fiction. The reader gets to choose the direction of the story.

It was my final year of high school, and I was perplexed. “What should I do with my life?” I asked myself. “What kind of a career am I going to have?” I applied to a number of colleges in the area, and luckily I was accepted at three of them. Now, I had to make a decision.

Choice 1: I decided to go to Granby College.
Choice 2: I decided to go to Ahuntsic College.
Choice 3: I decided to go to Dawson College.


Choice 1: Granby
I decided to go to Granby College. I am so happy I did because sitting next to me in my first English class was the most exciting person I had ever met. We hit it off immediately, and that night we fell into each other’s arms. Unfortunately, I slept through my alarm the next morning and missed my first Philosophy class. I made a hasty decision.

  • Choice 1: We broke up.
  • Choice 2: I visited the teacher in his office and explained what had happened.
  • Choice 3: I dropped Philo.
Choice 2: Ahuntsic
I decided to go to Ahuntsic College. It seemed like a great choice until the first day at 8 A.M., when I went to my English class. After only 10 minutes, I was lost. The teacher was droning on about a hypertext narrative project, and I got the sense that this was going to be the most boring course imaginable, so I made a decision I now regret.

  • Choice 1: I dropped English.
  • Choice 2: I raised my hand.
  • Choice 3: I closed my eyes and went to sleep.
Choice 3: Daws
I decided to go to Dawson College. At first, I was nervous because I wasn’t sure that my English would be good enough, but on the first day of the semester at 7:45 A.M, I met a group of gamers sitting at a table under a banner that read “Dawson’s Original Gamer Society: We are the DOGS!” They looked fun, so I made a decision.

  • Choice 1: I took out my elven power sword and challenged the biggest gamer to a duel.
  • Choice 2: I kept walking.
  • Choice 3: I asked to join.

The example given above is an excerpt from a much larger hypertext narrative. Here one scene branches into three. If we were to add the next layer of the story, these three scenes would lead to another nine story branches, then 27, and so on. Obviously, there is not enough space on this page to present the whole story using a tree diagram. An alternative way of presenting a hypertext narrative on paper and solving the space problem is to tell the reader to turn to such-and-such page for one branch and another page for a different branch. This approach has been successfully employed in the past, but it requires readers to do a lot of thumbing through the pages of a paperback to find the next branch and readers can get lost in the process. A third solution is to use hyperlinks and publish their hypertext story online. On a computer or smartphone, the reader can move through a hypertext narrative effortlessly just by clicking hyperlinks, so this is the direction hypertext fiction is going these days and where it gets its name. For some writers, web-publishing remains a challenge because they do not know how to create hyperlinks. However, a short hypertext narrative writing how-to is often all it takes to get aspiring hypertext authors up to speed.