Linear or Non: Which is Better?

One of our readings last week was Afternoon: A Story, by Michael Joyce. While this was in some ways a very unusual and innovative story, I don’t know if I could say it had any advantages over a more traditional storytelling method.

In a traditional story, it’s generally expected that the reader will follow a linear path, page by page, from beginning to end. This might seem limited by modern standards in the digital age, but I think there are many advantages to it. In a traditional linear story, the tale is being told in a coherent, straightforward way. There is a beginning, a sequence of events, and an ending; the same ending every time. This means that the reader, if they ever read the story again, knows what to expect. It also means that two people can both read the story and discuss it, knowing they’ve both read the same story.

“Afternoon,” on the other hand, is different every time you read it. I’ve read sections of it four separate times now, and each time I’ve had a different experience. There doesn’t seem to be anything predictable about it.

Does this nonlinearity make it better, or worse?

I can see some entertainment advantages to a nonlinear story. When I was a kid, I frequently enjoyed Choose Your Own Adventure stories, which allowed you to take the same story down a different path each time you read it. A reader is more likely to re-read such a story, knowing they can enjoy a different experience each time. Other similar nonlinear media includes certain video games, and DVDs where the movie has multiple endings.

These nonlinear stories have just as much disadvantage, however. Sometimes, a reader might WANT to experience the same story again. The more complex the divergent paths in a story become, the less likely it is that the reader can ever experience the same story again.

This would become even more pronounced in a code poem that utilized a randomizer. In that case, odds are the reader will NEVER experience the same story again.

I think one of the big differences here is the difference between storytelling and entertainment. Both qualify as “art,” but one is vastly different from the other. I don’t think “Afternoon” qualifies as a “story” in the way one is traditionally defined. It doesn’t have a clear plot or ending. While it is still entertaining, and still artistic, it doesn’t have the same effect on the reader. Is it even possible to say what it is “about”? I have a hard time, after multiple divergent readings, really understanding what was going on in the story. Many of the individual “pages” seemed so disconnected from each other that it was hard to follow what was happening from one to the next. It seems like this is the price to pay for a more “artistic” piece; it becomes more unusual and unique, but at the same time harder to really understand.

In a way I’d compare that to the ideas of abstract art. A piece of art with no defined form can be interpreted differently by each person who views it. A more defined piece of art, however, simply is what is is (setting aside deeper analysis of symbolism and metaphor within a work).

I don’t know if it’s fair to say either a linear or nonlinear story is “better” or “worse.” However, it definitely has disadvantages that make it more complex and harder to understand.

Categories: information architecture | Tags: , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “Linear or Non: Which is Better?

  1. Pingback: #IAMondays: Interactive Movies | Raiders of the Lost Architecture!

  2. I think the crux of the problem I have is the transference of one genre’s preconceptions to another genre, which was a big discussion we had in class, though I think you missed that one.You write that you do not think afternoon could be defined as a story, but the qualifiers come from a different body of work. Another point is that readers cannot experience the same story twice. I would argue that the same could be said about traditional fiction. You can read any novel, and the more you re-read it, the different it will be. Just as in elit, the same words will be there, but now perhaps you read something about the writer, or you notice a specific word choice that changes the reading. I think the two an exist together without looking for a better of the two.

  3. I don’t know if it’s okay to say a user will NEVER experience the same story again in regards to generative poem. Sure, they likely hood of someone seeing the exact same line twice is pretty skim, but you have to remember, the poem is still created using the same bank of words. For instance, I’ve read mine a few different times, and it always says different sentences, but somehow, the sentences seem to tell a similar story in a different way, if that makes sense. And that is because it’s pulling from the same word bank. Think about it, if you could only tell a story with specific words, it’d still sound similar.

  4. Devon

    It is hard to decide how to exactly define what makes a story, a “story.” In the sense that a story has a plot and characters, “Afternoon” qualifies as a story. But it is certainly a nontraditional form of storytelling because, like Jason said, it lacks linearity. I am not so sure, however, that a story needs to be linear to make it a story. I think a pro of E-Lit like “Afternoon, a story” is that it is nonlinear, and therefore provides a unique experience every time. “Afternoon” allows readers to interact with it, to pick options, and to be, in part, a collaborator. So it is different from a traditional story, but its differences, to me, make it all the more interesting. In a way, I don’t think having different outcomes each time the story is read is a bad thing. I would argue that the outcomes aren’t so different, after all, and that the purpose of E-Lit like this may be to give readers a certain feeling or emotional response, rather than a cut and dry conclusion. I think that is what makes “Afternoon” feel not quite like a story in the way we are used to stories being defined. It’s interesting, and maybe it should be a caveat or subset of the general “Story” umbrella.

  5. I agree with Tom: a novel can stir different emotions within a person from reading it at one point to reading it 10 years later. The person changes, but not the story. “Afternoon” isn’t so different, really. A reader can choose different paths, perspective to unfold the story.

    I agree that one form of storytelling isn’t necessarily better than the other. There’s something to be said for dissonance in storytelling, something code poems do very well. Because they are seemingly nonsensical, we try to make sense of them based upon our experiences. Such is human nature. Again, it probably depends what kind of mood your in whether you want to engage in one genre or the other.

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