Interactive storytelling: an oxymoron

Craig Mod is psyched about the future of literary storytelling. “With digital media,” he writes in “The Digital Death of the Author,” an article that’s part of New Scientist’s “Storytelling 2.0” series, “the once sacred nature of text is sacred no longer. Instead, we can change it continuously and in real time.” E-storytelling is to storytelling, he says, as Wikipedia is to a printed encyclopedia. And that’s a good thing:

The biggest change is not in the form stories take but in the writing process. Digital media changes books by changing the nature of authorship. Stories no longer have to arrive fully actualised … [Ultimately,] authorship becomes a collaboration between writers and readers. Readers can edit and update stories, either passively in comments on blogs or actively via wiki-style interfaces.

Sound familiar? It should. In the 1980s and early 1990s, when personal computers were new and their screens appeared to literary theorists as virgin canvases, there was enormous excitement over the possibilities for digital media to revolutionize storytelling. The enthusiasm back then centered on hypertext and multimedia, rather than on Internet collaboration tools, but the idea was the same, as was the “death of the author” rhetoric. By “freeing” text from the page, digital media would blur the line between reader and writer, spurring a profusion of new, interactive forms of literary expression and storytelling. As George Landow and Paul Delany wrote in their introduction to the influential 1991 compendium Hypermedia and Literary Studies, “So long as the text was married to a physical media, readers and writers took for granted three crucial attributes: that the text was linear, bounded, and fixed.” The computer would break this static structure, allowing text to become more like “a network, a tree diagram, a nest of Chinese boxes, or a web.” That in turn would shift “the boundaries between individual works as well as those between author and reader,” overthrowing “certain notions of authorial property, authorial uniqueness, and a physically isolated text.”

Then, as now, the celebration of the idea of interactive writing was founded more on a popular ideology of cultural emancipation than on a critical assessment of artistic expression. It reflected a yearning for a radical sort of cultural democratization, which required that “the author” be pulled down from his pedestal and revealed to be a historical accident, a now dispensable byproduct of the technology of the printing press, which had served to fix type, and hence stories, on the page. The author was the father who had to be slain before culture could be liberated from its elitist, patriarchal shackles.

The ability to write communally and interactively with computers is nothing new, in other words. Digital tools for collaborative writing date back twenty or thirty years. And yet interactive storytelling has never taken off. The hypertext novel in particular turned out to be a total flop. When we read stories, we still read ones written by authors. The reason for the failure of interactive storytelling has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with stories. Interactive storytelling hasn’t become popular – and will never become popular – because it produces crappy stories that no one wants to read. That’s not just a result of the writing-by-committee problem (I would have liked to have a link here to the gruesome product of Penguin Books’ 2007 wiki-novel experiment, but, mercifully, it’s been removed from the web). The act of reading a story, it turns out, is very different from, and ultimately incompatible with, the act of writing a story. The state of the story-reader is not a state of passivity, as is often, and sillily, suggested, but it is a state of repose. To enter a story, to achieve the kind of immersion that produces enjoyment and emotional engagement, a reader has to give up not only control but the desire to impose control. Readership and authorship are different, if mutually necessary, states: yin and yang. As soon as the reader begins to fiddle with the narrative – to take an authorial role – the spell of the story is broken. The story ceases to be a story and becomes a contraption.

What we actually value most about stories, as readers, is what Mod terms, disparagingly, “full actualization” – the meticulous crafting of an intriguing plot, believable characters and dialogue, and settings and actions that feel true (even if they’re fantastical), all stitched together seamlessly with felicitous prose. More than a single author may be involved in this act of artistic creation – a good editor or other collaborator may make crucial contributions, for instance – but it must come to the reader as a harmonious whole (even if it comes in installments).

I agree with Mod that the shift of books from pages to screens will change the way we read books and hence, in time, the way writers write them, but I think his assessment of how those changes will play out is wrongheaded. (See also Alan Jacobs’s take, which questions another of Mod’s assumptions.) A usable encyclopedia article can, as Wikipedia has shown us, be constructed, “continuously and in real time,” by a dispersed group of writers and editors with various talents. But it’s a fallacy to believe that what works for an encyclopedia will also work for a novel or a tale. We read and evaluate encyclopedia articles in a completely different way from how we read and evaluate stories. An encyclopedia article can be “good enough”; a story has to be good.

23 thoughts on “Interactive storytelling: an oxymoron

  1. Kevin Marks

    The original hypertext theorists were wrong, but to say that stories don’t inspire writing is missing an even larger point. The internet is thronged with writing about stories, from tweets and blogposts to novel-length fan-fiction written within another author’s fictional world.

    Powerful stories attract retellings, and strong world-building and characters do too.

  2. Dticoll


    Interactive or collaborative texts are as old as, well, the Bible. In the early 20th century the Dadaists experimented with “automatic writing” – they passed texts around and challenged each other to add bits with spontaneity. A cynic (as the Economist might say) might suggest that the Internet is automatic writing taken to the absurdest conclusion.

  3. Mike

    I agree with your sentiments, Nick, but I’m afraid that the sort of people who like to envision this kind of collective authorship are the very same ones pushing for the overthrow of intellectual property regimes. Copyright laws don’t just protect an author’s ability to profit from his work; they allow him to define the work and preserve its integrity for a period of time. If the web anarchists get there way, for example, W.W. Norton would be only one of a thousand equally legitimate sources of your latest book. If texts were accessed through interfaces that rank the most popular bookmarked passages and enable users to select favorite passages and delete others before “re-mixing” the contents and sharing the book to others, then the author’s original intent could be lost. It would be something like a return to the oral tradition, in which narratives were reshaped through successive retellings, over generations. I don’t mean to sound alarmist–I doubt that copyright laws are going to collapse anytime soon. But I do think it’s fair to point out that there’s a growing movement pushing hard in precisely that direction. If your thesis is that only an individual author can possibly write a great story, then who wrote the Illiad, or Beowolf?

  4. Gordon Fischer

    Look to Hollywood for verification of your argument. How many shows truly benefit from a large group of writers rather than a core group of writers? Shows that are lauded usually involve one author with a small crew. There are shows that are successful without them (eg. Law & Order) but that’s a different style of show – just like wikipedia is a different style of writing.

  5. Mike


    Think of the film Casablanca. That was a free adaptation of two writers’ mediocre stage play by a succession of screenwriters (including a pair of twin brothers) with different specialties. (But sure: It wasn’t like Wikipedia. There wasn’t a blurring of the line between author and audience.)

  6. Kelly Roberts

    “As soon as the reader begins to fiddle with the narrative – to take an authorial role – the spell of the story is broken. The story ceases to be a story and becomes a contraption.”

    Contraption or video game, Nick? Isn’t the latter the form interactive storytelling has taken, the future of popular “narrative”?

  7. Keith Murphy

    Perhaps not interactive storytelling for authors, but certainly interactive storytelling for receivers: the popular “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels and video games allow for varied pathways to be chosen, changing the narrative experience. It is the notion of ‘story’ that has changed in the intervening years: in addition to my experiencing (longish) textual prose, I now can experience the hyper-story. Does this not make me, in some way, a interactive story-teller?

  8. Storyteling

    Thanks for writing this post, I was starting to think I’m the only person on cyberspace who has these thoughts… coming from oral storytelling – collaborative re-molding of a plot is possible along time through many different tellers retelling the story. But, at the moment of telling there can be only one mind in charge. That is because telling requires skill – way beyond the “natural” level of “everybody has a story” and “everybody is a storyteller”. Comes down to how storytelling is defined.

    In oral telling it’s much simpler though to put to test – if someone thinks collaborative works and creates the highly praised marvel I somehow fail to see – go out there in front of an audience, do it and come back to tell me how it worked out.


  9. Tony Comstock

    This “death of the author” thing is the thing that’s dead — dead like a zombie that keeps walking even as it’s flesh rots away.

    Anyway, people who thrill to the idea of interactive story-telling would do well to remember that most people can give themselves an orgasm with relative easy; but it’s some trick to tickle yourself. I sure can’t do it, and luckily I don’t have to!

  10. John Medamana

    Friday’s WSJ has an article with the title “A Kindle for Christmas? Spare Me”, by Dan Newman. It raised a question in my mind. Who would you feel more sorry for? A child who does not have children’s books or a child who reads “Goodnight Moon” in a phone?


    I mostly agree with you, Nick. That said, I’d love to get your take on this: …..

    Would you call that interactive storytelling? Doesn’t it break the “static structure” of traditional stories? Doesn’t it allow the text to become more like “a network, a tree diagram, a nest of Chinese boxes, or a web”? Doesn’t it overthrow “certain notions of authorial property, authorial uniqueness, and a physically isolated text”? ….

    Most of all: Don’t you find this true story to be a heartwrenching one?

  12. Markcmarino


    Since you are turning your attention to interactive storytelling (here and in previous posts), I invite you to explore works identified by the Electronic Literature Organization ( in the Electronic Literature Directory (a newly forming collection) as well as the Electronic Literature Collection, volume 1. (Volume 2 is forthcoming.)

    It seems you have begun to explore a few of the more well known, popular, commercial experiments and would no doubt enjoy diving deeper.

    It’s not clear what you are calling failures. Even to take your earliest example, the first literary hypertexts have a kind of force not found in print. Take “afternoon” or “Patchwork Girl.” (Have you read them?) Remember, Landow was identifying the participant as the reader who assembled the story. Now to create this space for the reader does not take less work on the part of the storyteller but more, another layer of planning beyond the arrangement of paragraphs. Granted, not all readers are ready to take a more active role. Reading already requires a lot of attention. Nonetheless, I cannot see any cause to call these works failures except to say that most print-bound, linear authors are not ready to follow suit. That is hardly an argument against innovation.

    But if you want to see more accessible innovation, start with Facade by Andrew Stern and Michael Mateas. The interactor supplies a missing character and co-directs the course of the action.(

    As to the 2.0 model, take a look at Chris Joseph and Kate Pullinger’s Flight paths: Not the Flash pieces but the collaboratively authored netvibes pages.

    I see in your writing a continued interest in these new forms. I hope you will explore the continuing developments by the Web’s most innovative artists. But don’t give up on cleaner energy just yet. And before you announce the death of interactive storytelling, take a look at the work of the artists who are pushing past the limits of conventional monosequential tales.

  13. John Hobson

    I was thinking about hypertext fiction writing the other day. Wasn’t the selling point that you change the ending or have multiple versions of a story branching all over screen like ivy?

    These ideas are usually put forward by people who don’t much read/watch fiction and have little insight into the effort required to produce a finished story.

    Inception was written over 10 years to produce the mutilayered end result. Imagine asking Christopher Nolan and his brother to come up with more multiple endings, storylines and other meanderings. Would it have improved the experience one jot? In fact it’s discussing its meaning that’s the fun, not having them explained or watered down in another version.

    Think of all The Shrek films combined as one interactive experience for vision of ennui that would result.

  14. Robert P. Kaye


    I’ve worked in IT for 30+ years and I’m also a published writer of short stories, flash fiction and novels. I generally agree with your assessment of Craig Mod’s article – stories constructed by committee are likely to be crap. However, my own fiction has gotten shorter over the years and more web based. And I believe that the Law of Unintended Consequences will take hold and we’ll end up someplace unanticipated.

    Very interesting discussion. Thanks.

  15. Jonathan Baer

    All this talk of ‘interactive’ story telling puts me in mind of one of my favortites writers, John Barth. His collection, Lost in the Funhouse, first published in 1969 contains one of the first author- reader interactives I can recall. The first story in the book is titled Frame-Tale. It’s only two pages and ten words (not including instructions). Printed vertically along the right hand margin of the first page are the words: “Once upon a time there”. On the other side of the page, along the left margin are the words: “was a story thta began” The simple instructions for the reader detail how the ‘reader can turn the story into a Mobius strip (a onesided-plane). The tale then spins endlessly., “…once upon a time there was a story that began once a upon a time…” The book’s other stories are presented in the more traditional matter but IMHO are hardly conventional.

    Barth’s point? I’ll tell you something. That’s a writer’s job, not to have a conversation although conversations are often wonderful and illuminating but to tell you something. Telling the story is the writer’s gift.

  16. an691

    Good post ! And I’m suprised that somebody would still come up with this stuff … However, some collaborative wrting do exist, especially on forums, a forum thread is basically collaborative writing, and can be sometimes interesting to read, depends on the forum of course. Some could say it isn’t fiction, but I do know some forum where playing make believe is part of the game and can lead to interesting stuff.


    I agree. Many of the attempts to change the way books are written tried removing the division of labor in book writing (“We are all writers!”). And that is exactly why they failed.

    The future of the book lies in how to (better) divide, not undivide, labor. I am working on that kind of future of the book.

  18. dbslims


    Unfortunately I do not have your gift for writing. So here is my very rough summary of a similar thought:

    All communications is storytelling (in some medium or another).

    Storytelling is a shared human experience.

    It occurs when the individual transcends Self to connect with Other’s experience shared.

    The “connection” is interactive by definition, prompted by Other’s experience yet re-created by Self’s own experience.

    The question then is what medium most effectively delivers a shared human experience? Or more exact, what medium transmits a story where the audience/self can best transcend itself through use of its own experience?

    I think that medium is text or literature. Media alternatives span the spectrum of full to little audience interactivity. Text requires the greatest use of the audience’s own experience through prompting of the author’s words, while full motion picture completes that experience for them, and multimedia interrupts it. Additionally text preserves the author’s words. Further the one common denominator of human experience is natural law and the time space constraints we are all subject to. Sequence therefore is fundamental to our communications, thoughts, days, and universe. All mediums must have some degree of sequence to communicate shared experience but text provides the best tool to control it.

    Lastly the idea that the value of interactive multi-media due to is capability to tailor storytelling per what best appeals to thereader/audience would only confirm the reader/audience experience, and undermine the experience that the author seeks to share. Its destruction of the human experience through self-indulgence, and the result is repulsive.

    Nick please keep the writing coming. Your work inspires and clarifies so much good thought and conversation for me and as I see a wide audience.

  19. Tdparker

    I think the article is right on. I wasn’t familiar with the “author is dead” arguments, but I think Nick has it right as to why they are wrong headed. I won’t put it as eloquently as him, but as a reader, I want to become immersed and I am going to find it presumptuous that I should contribute. I would also suspect that the outcome won’t be very good if I am involved (in fiction).

    The only clarification I would like to add is that a story need not be fictional. We (in our work) are forever telling stories about real people and companies for a business audience. They are still stories, and they still need to be told well. But they don’t have to be created from nothing.

  20. an691

    “All communications is storytelling (in some medium or another).

    Storytelling is a shared human experience.”

    Not at all, that would be truly sad, true art is never about story telling, and science, a new theorem or theory for instance, isn’t story telling at all.

  21. cathryn fairlee

    Nick, You are obviously a good writer with good ideas. As a professional oral storyteller, I would love it if there was a word like “storywriter” used for literary authors and all who use text to present their stories. So, good writer, how about coming up with a separate title to clarify your skill? We storyTELLERS are swamped by the word being used for so many other crafts while our craft remains misunderstood. Sigh. Hope your creative juices will ferment on this and come up with a term.

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