Creating Digital Fiction, Part 1: Why Create Digital Fiction?

I recently received an email from a colleague asking me about digital fiction workshops. (FYI, while I don’t have workshops scheduled at the moment, Dreaming Methods does.) While I do think in-person workshops are ideal, let’s face it: writing retreats aren’t offering courses in DF yet, and the few of us who write and teach it can’t be everywhere! A quick Google search showed me that the only articles written on the topic were written by yours truly, and never in sufficient how-to depth.

So here goes.

This is Part 1 of what will be a planned 9-part series on how to write digital fiction. Currently, the outline of the series is:

  1. Why Write Digital Fiction – why is it so cool?
  2. How to Write Digital Fiction – focusing on currently available technologies, and advice on where to start
  3. What Can Digital Fiction Do? – a brief look at the evolution of DF, established conventions, and common themes
  4. Choosing Platforms and Media for Digital Fiction – tips on choosing the right technology, media, and design for your narrative
  5. Structuring Digital Fiction – a look at the narrative structures possible in DF, and how they can best be put to use
  6. Creating Characters in Digital Fiction – how characters change in digital environments, including perspective and characterization, and advice for constructing DF-friendly characters
  7. The Role of Puzzles in Digital Fiction – how gameplay and puzzles, common elements of DF, can enhance certain narratives
  8. The Digital Fiction Reader/Player – consideration of the interactive, participatory role of the reader/player in DF, and how that can change your narrative
  9. Crafting Metaphor in Digital Fiction – advice on using the interface, multiple media, and reader/player interactivity to deepen the metaphorical meaning of your narrative

As each part goes live, I’ll update the links here. Bookmark this post for organized access to the rest.

Also, if there are aspects that you (as either a new DF writer or an experienced one) think should be covered or added, please drop a comment at the end of this post, and I’ll see what I can do!

Why Write Digital Fiction

Here’s what I love about writing digital fiction. Got an item to add to the list? Post it in the comments!

  • I get to actively explore many, if not all, narrative possibilities. When writing prose, unless you’re going postmodern or otherwise experimental, you don’t necessarily get to write all the possible choices and outcomes for a character and their story. You think them up, maybe, and might change options from draft to draft, but in the end you have one story. Any character-driven narrative has multiple points where the character could go a different way (at least, if it’s any good) — in digital fiction, you get to treat all paths as equally as you like.
  • I can play more with narrative perspective. It wasn’t that long ago that present-tense narration was considered unconventional and awkward. Second-person perspective for anything longer than a short story is almost impossible to maintain. Yet in digital anything goes; perhaps one day conventions will be set, and many of them originate from game standards. For the moment, however, digital fiction is still in a liquid phase that allows many different approaches to telling the story, and play is not only welcomed, it is expected.
Gaff’s origami unicorn makes us question whether Deckard’s unicorn dream was implanted.

I can convey story on multiple levels. I always use the film Blade Runner to make this example. The reason BR became a cult classic was not because of its script, the words the characters actually speak to one another. It was because of the script plus the music, plus the tremendous depth in the visual storytelling. It’s visuals alone that ask the question “Is Deckard a replicant?” With digital fiction, I can do the same thing (or at least try), but add in additional layers of reader participation and interactivity. The fact that a word is a link, or that a link is a certain color, or that a word is a link that is a certain color in contrast to the background image — all of these layers create additional meaning that I can manipulate and craft. (More on this in Part 9). The process is collaborative — even if I create my work entirely on my own. I borrow images and music from Creative Commons repositories. I copy code from other sites and libraries. I set my reader/players loose on the narrative and let them find their own path through it. These interactions, both planned and unplanned, can have enormous effects on the story, the narrative, the reader/player’s response, and on my own understanding of what I’m doing. It’s exciting to be building something that is new, to see and craft its evolution. I’m doing things with DF that absolutely no one ever has. So is Anna Anthropy, and Mez Breeze, and Andy Campbell. So is almost everyone who is working in digital fiction. One of the reasons it’s so hard to pin down what it is and what it does, what it looks like and what its conventions are, is that no two DFs are the same. We haven’t settled on any formulae yet. There is no “bible” a la Syd Field to tell us in what minute to have car chase scene #43 or sex interlude #19. We are making digital fiction, right now, what it is and what it will be. Perhaps because it is (not yet) a strongly commercial genre, it offers plenty of room for underrepresented voices. Twine gained its footing as a platform where LGBTQ and other minorities, shut out of the overwhelmingly white male-dominated games industry, could craft heartfelt and personal indie games. Because DF is largely shared with communities of like-minded people, rather than being wrung out by a dominant (misguided) marketing system, it can play a role in culture and society. It’s fun. Do we really need more than that?

Walter Benjamin noted that as each new technology arises, artists will make use of it to create new art. We did it when we invented theatre, moving from oral storytelling to enacted drama. We did it when we invented the printing press (yes, Virginia, the book is technology!), and when we invented film, and again when we invented the computer. Some of the earliest computer games (text adventures) are now considered a key genre of digital fiction (interactive fiction).

Early computer experiences all gave us broken limbs and dysentery. methodshop .com/flickr CC-BY-SA

It’s just part of our human and artistic urges to play with new toys. For a while, the new toys (computers) were pretty complicated, and only highly trained people could make anything truly novel with them — the rest of us were pretty much just dying on The Oregon Trail and trying to pluck the sprocket margin off our novels printed on dot matrix printer paper. Now, though, there are tons of tools that make writing DF as easy as using MS Word, so even the numptiest of us (technologically speaking) can have a go.

The reason I came to write digital fiction is complicated. I got a Master’s degree in creative writing, but found it impossible to break into publishing with literary fiction (which is all most programs will allow you to write…rant on that another day). I was bored in my (very good) job of being a professional writer and editor. I was just…bored and tired and frustrated. Life moves in weird ways, and I found myself with an opportunity to do a PhD in creative writing in the UK, something the US hadn’t cottoned on to. Through this, I not only got my groove back in terms of being interested again in my own work, but also in pushing technological narrative boundaries: in digital fiction.

My eclectic PhD digital novel

Out of either hubris, naïveté, or just sheer stupidity, I decided my PhD work would be a digital fiction novel that incorporated as many different technologies as I could reasonably find. I do not recommend you try this at home. For one, I didn’t know how to use any of these technologies when I started. Flash was the big thing at the time, and I wound up learning it, using it, and teaching it, and I still don’t feel like I actually know it. I learned Inform7 for an interactive fiction chapter, CSS and JavaScript for another, animated GIFs for another, blogging and Twitter, and so on and so forth. Just one of these would have been sufficient, but no, I had to get all big for my britches.

Anyway. At least it shows you that everyone starts from nowhere, eh? Even better, there are tools like Twine and Choice of Games now that were specifically designed to write DF, so you’re already ahead of the game.

What I learned from my experience is this: writing DF blows your mind. For real. It’s like the first time you see Carl Sagan lay it out about how many stars and planets there are in the universe, and does the math on how likely it is there are other intelligent species out there. Possibilities open that you not only never considered, but that were never before imagined.

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