Stories Don’t Branch

I’m still reading The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future by Robert Darnton. In part of it he talks about his dream of writing a definitive work on French publishing during the Enlightenment. He thinks electronic medium may offer a way to do this and he envisions a layered book where you start with a general introduction/coverage with links going deeper on particular topics and subtopics, eventually leading the reader to raw material, primary source documents, and the like. It is an interesting idea, but it is flawed.

It’s biggest flaw is not technological, but in his craft. It is all but impossible to write a definitive work on anything. Even if you could, no one would want to read it. For something to be definitive, it has to cover every possible detail. How much fun is it to listen to someone try to tell us a story and busy themselves with trying to recall minute details that don’t matter for the part of the story they are attempting to share. People like stories and stories are linear.

I’ve read a branching story before. Several, in fact. They were popular in the 1980s as Choose Your Own Adventure books. They are unusual in that they are written in the second person—you are the protagonist of the story. At the end of each section, usually a page or two, you are given a choice which directs you to turn to a certain page to continue the story.

These books were fun entertainment, but after a time or two, it became more about exploring the maze than following the story. Surprisingly, I never graphically mapped out any of my choose your own adventure books as flowcharts. Maybe because I didn’t know what flowcharts were when I was 12. If I had, I bet I would have.

The stories were generally fairly shallow—there isn’t much character development because you are only presented with binary options. The advent of the computer and the ability to make much richer role playing games spelled the decline of Choose Your Own Adventure. The ability to engage richer worlds with more choices is what the readers wanted. It highlighted that these really weren’t stories, but simple single-player games.

Another strange attempt to tell a story in a nonlinear fashion was the 2000 movie Memento. It jumps back and forth between scenes, one sequence going forward, the other backward in time. It’s interesting to watch and then discuss with a group of friends, but it is a confusing way to tell a story.

Stories are linear. They have a beginning and an end. Sometimes the end is lousy, but you know when they are done—there are no more pages or the credits roll. Good stories are rarely comprehensive. We join the action in progress. We may learn some historical details along the way from before we joined, but few stories start with birth. Even if they do, that isn’t the beginning, just the beginning for a certain character.

Even nonfiction must tell a story to be effective. That’s why no one enjoys reading manuals—there is no story. It’s not personal. It needs a start and and finish. It also needs a clearly defined scope. We can’t cover everything.

I suppose Robert Frost foresaw the choose your own adventure in his famous poem—he had two paths, but knew he could take only one. Life is like that. It’s linear. We don’t get to live multiple branches at once. We make choices, which eliminate other choices from play. We may recall our story nonlinearly, but we live it in one direction: forward. Our story has a beginning and an end. What makes the story interesting is that we don’t know when the end will be. There is no progress ribbon on the bottom of the screen, no shrinking stack of pages still left at the back of the book. I plan to read all the way until the end.

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