Mark Bernstein asks some basic questions of craft as he tries to write a hypertext page turner. Now, I don’t know Bernstein so it’s probably presumptuous for me to chime in on this and also foolish given how little I know of the hypertexts that have been written in the past twenty years or so. I’m also not a fiction writer. 1
But I do know a fair bit about traditional poetics and am interested in the problem. So I’m going to take a risk and share a few thoughts and ideas I’ve come up with as I’ve made my first stab at writing an argumentative hypertext, a different but I think oddly analogous task. 2
In a rough way, I think a page-turning plot (or argument) is one that creates a desire to know. But it is also a plot that delays or frustrates that desire in a measured, carefully paced, and pleasurable way. Hypertexts create a problem for telling these kinds of stories because they pass control of sequence and, to an extent, narrative focus off to the reader. How do you elicit desire to understand or create suspense without controlling what readers know and when?
I have three ideas.
“Why?” or “How?” may be more powerful than “What next?”
Mysteries, one of the most heavily plotted, page-turning genres around, introduce the corpse early and spend the rest of their time working to figure out what happened before the book began (i.e. when the victim was still alive). By the same token, three narratives that I have begun to think of as “proto-hypertexts”–Citizen Kane, Rashomon, and Absalom, Absalom!— all begin with the ending of the story. In each case, the narrative is driven by a desire to know why or how something happened rather than what will happen next. And the only way to find out is to get mixed up in and explore the stories of various standers-by. (Something similar happens in the otherwise very different Pale Fire, although it is less ferociously plotted.)
I think this same trick–starting with the end and working backwards–is suited to hypertext plotting.
We may desire most those things we can’t have
All three of my proto-hypertexts abstain from presenting the protagonist’s story except insofar as it is revealed through the smaller-scale “mini-plots” of the characters caught in its wake. All of them enforce this choice by making their protagonists dead before the movie or novel begins. In a sense this places the page-turning story in a black box, making it the only story that the reader can never choose to read, no matter how much they want to. They can only access it through numerous, equally minor stories that cling to its edges, each of which reveals it only partially and (perhaps) with bias.
Bouncing a protagonist’s otherwise inaccessible story off other characters seems like a good way to make readers want to click on links recounting minor characters’ lives.
Saying “no” to readers.
Much of the very limited commentary I’ve read about hypertext celebrates the fact that authorial control recedes and readers “make” or “create” their own reading. This is true in many, many ways. In the various collage, archival or a performance hypertexts that I’ve seen, writers seem to have abdicated authority and simply (!) to have created possibilities to be explored or enacted. Readers are left to experience insight or not, to draw conclusions or not. But there is rarely any “end” to be understood. 3
Plots and arguments cannot be so open-ended and cannot be left up to the reader; only the choice of which mini-plots they will read in order to understand the story as a whole can be. And because reader choice eliminates the distinction between foreground and background, all of the mini-plots they will choose from have to be written. This includes those mini-plots they will choose to read as well as all of the mini-plots that they will choose not to read! And all of these mini-plots have to, in their own ways, point toward the end we are “turning pages” to discover.
Creating these coordinated options is a lot of writing and a lot of work. To be successful, it seems to me there have to be limits. In fact, I’m tempted to say that the most important question related to plot or argument in a hypertext is going to be “what options are the readers not going to have?” followed closely by “This choice lets the reader get away. How do I close it without seeming to close anything?”
These questions strike me as contrary to the ethos of hypertext as I’ve understood it from the limited commentary I’ve read. I mean really: is there anything more authorial than “Thou Shalt Not!”? And yet, saying “no” seems essential to conveying story.