About River Run

Notes on a New Kind of Novel

New forms will continue to evolve along with ever-more powerful technology. There have always been many ways to tell a story. Soon there will be many more.

It’s been a long time since the novel was actually novel.


The last significant innovations occurred in the early twentieth century, and though there have been notable, even wonderful, books since that time, the form itself, whether printed or encoded in a computer file, has remained largely the same.


We have for some time now reached the limit of storytelling in book form. Yet some writers keep at it, producing brilliant narratives of dazzling complexity—but often at the cost of limiting their readership to those with superhuman levels of patience. There has been some earnest talk of “digital narratives” coming to the rescue. To date, however, not much has been done to produce anything worth talking about. Someone who has made a game attempt is the English writer Iain Pears, famous for his love of structural complexity. He is, if not prolific, thoroughly indefatigable. One of his books tells the same story from four different points of view, another tells three different stories all at once, and a third also tells three stories all at once, but backwards. The three books, as Pears admits, put “quite heavy demands” on his readers. Realizing early on that his next novel was going to be “vastly more complex than anything that could be done in an orthodox book,” Pears thought a computer program might be just the ticket. Working over several years with professional developers, and after “a lot of anguish,” Pears managed to come up with a serviceable app.


As well-designed and interesting as the app turned out to be, it’s basically a kind of roadmap to help the reader navigate levels of complexity that go far beyond anything Pears had attained previously (an “assault on the very nature of narrative itself,” as one reviewer put it). The book becomes a puzzle that may or may not be solvable, or perhaps even meant to be solvable. For his own part, Pears was quite content with limiting the app “to help the business of reading, not to make the reader go ‘wow.’”


Fine. But why not make the reader go “wow”? Why not make the app an integral part of the reader’s experience? Why not construct a narrative form that combines the analogue and the digital, the linear and the nonlinear, the holistic and the particular, in a new kind of novel that allows the reader to be both a passive observer of the story and an active participant?


Seems like an interesting project.


Moreover, the tools are already there to make it possible. All that’s required is someone with the creative drive to pick up those tools and use them. It’s not necessary to hire a programmer. It’s not necessary even to have an app. A website will do just fine. In fact, it might be preferred.


Let’s be clear about what I’m talking about. There are two possibilities. One is a novel in which the text and all the digital information we associate with computers and the Internet are closely connected and bound up in a single electronic package—an app. That’s not what I’m talking about. That will surely happen sooner than later. What I’m talking about is a traditional novel in either paper or electronic form that is separate from electronic material specially designed to extend and deepen the reader’s experience of the book. In my own version of this, it’s important for the reader to read the novel first and then go to the website. The two are complementary and additive, with the website being a “behind the curtain” view of the story.


I don’t mean to write a manifesto, but let’s begin with the unshakeable intention of keeping the essential element of the novel at center stage—that is, the kind of well-wrought, evocative prose that is precisely engineered to set fire to the reader’s imagination and in that act of creation, manifest an entire world inside the reader’s head. Needless to say, the same high-quality prose found in the novel should also be found on the website. No web developers, no hired hacks allowed. The author’s hand should be everywhere.


Now let’s do more. Whereas traditional novels compress reality, the use of a website allows the author to expand it in any number of interesting ways. Done poorly, of course, it could quickly turn tiresome and arbitrary, but carefully designed and calibrated to work as an important part of the story, it can be both entertaining and compelling.


Film and television have had a huge infuence on how people prefer to take their fictional narrative. The steady decline of the traditional novel is a good indication of their preferences. Neither an ordinary book nor an ebook is a very good vehicle for images. But a website is an enitrly different matter. There, it’s absolutely required, as are compositional and visual-design elements. To be successful, images need to play a functional role in a story where lengthy expostion and description can get in the way of narrative momentum. In the case of actual locations, realia solves that problem and allows the writer to spend words shaping the image to the moment, the event, the character, or the theme. More subtlely, which images are provided and how they are altered by the author (using image-editing software) can add new levels of meaning. Similarly, the use of “unrealia”—fictional images, like fictional text, can be an important component of related “artifacts” like newspaper stories, magazine articles, or the written communications of the characters.


Where the website becomes especially useful is the in the use of secondary texts, not just as backstory but as “side story,” elaborations of plot or characters occurring within the same timeframe of the primary story. Other possibilities, familiar in movies, include texts similar to flash forwards and texts describing hypothetical or imagined incidents—either as part of the primary story or totally outside it (for example, in the form of “outtakes”).


Iain Pears’ books might have benefited by having a website to help him deal with multiple points of view, multiple plot strands, multiple tones (comic, tragic, ironic) and multiple levels of meaning. To some extent, that’s what his app tries to do, but without the “wow.”


How might that “wow” look?


It’s really up to the author to fashion any sort of fictional reality she finds interesting. The web material might be designated as the work of a character or characters, in this or some other reality, or as the work of the real author or an imaginary one. Finally, the website might incorporate some of the devices found in games, where readers have an opportunity to affect the story in some way (for example, by having the ability to choose a different ending). Similarly, readers would also be able to physically interact with the story in the process of navigating through the website in the pursuit of a goal—in the same way, say, as the protagonist might be pursuing his or her own goal in the narrative. Unlike an app, a website uses the hyperlink as a navigation device, and this offers yet another creative opportunity to highten the reader’s experience. If the author chooses, the hyperlink can become more than just a way to get around. It can become an issue of choice (with good or bad consequences) or a means by which the author can directly manipulate the reader.


It’s time for the novel to be novel again. These are just a few ideas. Others will emerge as writers apply their creative imaginations. New forms will continue to evolve along with ever-more powerful technology, including specially designed platforms for creating and composing web-based novels. There have always been many ways to tell a story. Soon there will be many more.