Hypertext and narrative workshop at Hypertext’11

This is a quick write-up of the Hypertext and Narrative workshop workshop, which I attended at Hypertext’11 yesterday. The workshop was pitched as an interdisciplinary forum for people from the humanities and science communities to discuss narrative research from technical and aesthetic perspectives.

I’d say it met that goal: there was certainly a great dialogue between the ‘tech people’ and the ‘lit people’. Intriguingly, I felt at times as though (as a techie) I was perhaps in a minority in the room — a fellow literary participant described feeling that in fact he was in the minority! Perhaps, then, it was balanced…

The workshop structure was spot on for the goal. It was split into six sessions: two for formal presentations, two for panels, and two ‘unstructured’ unconference-style sessions. This was modelled on the success of Web Art and Science camp, in which open sessions were filled according to proposals and interest levels from participants on the day.

In this case, that structure worked an absolute treat: it coupled more formal elements with ad hoc sessions in which we could follow up on the more interesting aspects that came up during paper and panel sessions.

K. Faith Lawrence describes the Bechdel-Wallace test

Topics were many and varied, from narrative cohesion to the difference between stories and games, from types of immersion to location-based storytelling… not to mention a challenge being raised to automate the Bechdel-Wallace Test!

I was especially encouraged by the closing of the workshop. It goes like this:

A point that came up during the day is that we’ve had decent technology to support interesting storytelling mechanisms for a long time, and yet they aren’t in general use. There appears (to me, as a technologist) to be something of a gap between techies (saying “Hello! We’d love to provide XYZ mechanism to help you tell stories”) and storytellers (who understandably are perhaps more interested in authoring content, and are unbothered by under-the-covers technological gumph).

So can we bring techies and authors together to create exciting hypertexts?

We think so. Our anecdotal evidence includes the quality of discussions at the workshop, but also the success of an informal ‘narrative hackday’ held in London last month. As such, we hope to continue the conversation post-workshop and look into organising another hackday (perhaps a ‘Strange Hypertext Festival’), not to mention putting together some kind of bid for funding further work in this area.


9 responses to this post.

  1. Your mention of an informal hack day held in London last month: what event was this? I only ask as I attended a (possibly entirely separate) Book Hackday last month. It was organised by a few people, including those from Perera Media (based in Oxford).

    A lot of the themes spoken about (and ideas hacked on) seem to chime in with your general coverage of the above conference, and it was also an interesting mix of people from the publishing industry (including some authors), and hackers (I totally felt outnumbered at times, and then felt sorry for the publishing folk, as they seem to be outnumbered too).

    The had a website for the event: http://bookhackday.com , and a website to encourage further collaboration: http://bookhackers.com .

    The most clear thing to me from the whole event was as you describe: the disconnect between what is possible now with technology, and what authors/creators are aware of and using. It feels like it’s going to be a hard thing to solve, especially as part of the problem now is the diversity of the media available. We can’t ever make an author completely unaware of the media to which they are publishing, as that media has an effect on the narrative experience (although how much is an interesting question), but we surely can’t expect a given author to a) be aware of all the available media or b) to have all the tools to effectively publish to their selected media.

    Whaddya reckon?


  2. Hi Clare

    I ended up here after following the Netcrumb trail from the StorySpinner site 🙂 I had a question about a missing file from the StorySpinner zip (the Help file appears to be absent) but that has drawn me into something I hadn’t been aware of: the disconnect between storytellers and storytelling technology.

    I sent a query through the web form at storyspinner.ecs.soton.ac.uk, so that may make its way to you eventually, if you still have any connection to/responsibility for StorySpinner, but now as both a techie and a storyteller I’m curious about the technologies that may be available to assist people like me (and also because I’m exploring a possible story path guidance tool that arises from my personal (i.e. non-academic) research into the Dorabella Cipher (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorabella_Cipher)).

    I’d be grateful – if you have time and the inclination – for some pointers to those technologies you mention.

    Kind regards,

    Peter Brooks
    LA, CA, USA


  3. Sorry both for the delayed response — conferences have this effect…!

    James: the ‘narrative hackday’ was also last month, but was relatively unpublicised so as to limit the numbers (it was a small venue). We have a discussion group on Google (http://groups.google.com/group/narrative-hackday — I’m not sure if you need to be a member to access it, I am told not).

    Anyway, it IS a tough problem, this disconnect between authors and techies. I want there to be Cool and Neat Authoring Tools, but I’m more techie than author and I’m not certain of what authors necessarily want. I think the solution may begin with events such as those we are discussing — anything informal that encourages communication and lowers barriers between the communities. Thoughts?

    Peter: hello! I’m glad you found me, and I am indeed the same Clare. Good sleuthing! (I have a strong suspicion I need to update the email address linked with that web form on storyspinner.ecs, so thank you for the heads up on that!)

    I’d be very happy to help out with the storyspinner query, and with the query on storytelling tools. I’m probably better able to provide useful information if you could give me a little more information about this story path guidance tool. Perhaps it’s best if you drop me a line? You can reach me on cjh06r at ecs.soton.ac.uk.



    • Hi Clare

      Thanks for the feedback and I’ll email you in due course. I checked out the Google group you mentioned to James and it does require membership approval from the group admin; I’m not sure whether it’s directly relevant to my interests but I’ve applied for membership anyway. We’ll see whether I have anything useful to contribute.

      Originally I had an interest in a possible method for guiding the direction of each path in a set of such paths comprising a story, based on the use of a representation of one or more melodies as the guide, but in the light of your blog and some other reading I’m inclined to expand my interest into a wider arena – specifically an analog to the idea of a one-stop-shop for creating and publishing technical documents (write once, publish many).

      The parallel would turn an author into more of a puppet master supervising the behavior(s) of puppets/players in stories that ensue from the responses of the players to one or more instigators (so each player is the analog of an object with properties and methods, some of which are exposed to other objects, responding to triggers/messages). Something akin to a cast consisting of intelligent agents, perhaps.

      The editing process would be closer to applying a series of nudges (for want of a better term) to the players and story path(s) and observing the result – the less interesting (yet to be quantified) responses being discarded, and the eventual result(s) being output in a variety of forms – novel/other narrative form, script for screen or stage, and so on.

      It may be sky-resident pie but I think it’s worth exploring as long as I’m not reinventing any wheels.


      • Interesting ideas, Peter — probably easier to talk about in a threaded context like email, but definitely intriguing stuff! Thanks, and I look forward to continuing the conversation off-blog 🙂

    • Yep, I feel the same way regarding tools and authoring, and in the large sense, the communication between authors/creators, publishers and tool makers is the important first step.

      For me, it feels wrong to impose new tools on authors from afar – what do I know about the professional creative process? It doesn’t make sense to me to create these tools without input from the creators. Also, it would be a mite foolish to repeat the same mistakes, or at least create an experience with the same pain points as previous ones. So: dialog is important.

      However, as a tool maker rather than a professional creative, I think we *are* able to look at new experiences from the consumer’s point of view. As in, can we craft either a new version of narrative experience, or a totally new narrative experience that is vital and engaging? It’s all well and good coming up with novelties, but if they are evidently naff, then what’s the point.

      Two examples in contrast: the iOS application Instagram. It’s picture taking and sharing, but with a new UX and some unique constraints (and don’t we know that constraints are a useful creative mechanism). Thus it’s not entirely novel (you’ve been able to do similar things on phones for at least 10 years), but is certainly a new engaging, experience. It’s an enjoyable experience as a consumer (and then also works for creators).

      Contrast this with the early-to-mid 90’s CDROM FMV games on rails. These were tightly scripted narrative experiences within the reasonably new graphical gaming format. But as I user, they were not only frustrating, but nigh-on-unplayable, and so didn’t inspire much consumption or new creation.

      Err..does that make sense? I feel like I might need to blog this myself, and get my thoughts more together.


      • James!

        You posted this while I was away, then I failed to reply to it for a bit longer again. Apologies.

        So, I absolutely agree about it feeling wrong to impose tools on authors from afar — that has to be a fast route to nowhere.

        The latest post on HTlit is in this area (http://htlit.com/archives/June2011/ConferenceSeason.html), and like us notes that there is a strong urge in various communities to establish a dialog. We need to talk!

        I think you should blog this yourself, too 🙂 The more conversation, the better!

  4. […] a ‘Strange Hypertext Festival’ (as per the Narrative and Hypertext workshop) […]


  5. […] a ‘Strange Hypertext Festival’ (as per the Narrative and Hypertext workshop) […]


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