Malleable narratives and digital tools

Yesterday I went to hear Bob Stein, director of the Institute for the Future of the Book, speak at Stanford. One of the things he was talking about is the idea of creating documents with a canvas or desktop layout rather than a linear sequence. He’s working on an open source program called Sophie that aims to give even novice users the tools to develop multimedia documents that include video, sound, graphics, and text. The program looks interesting to me, but the thing I was thinking about during the presentation is how the tools available to authors might affect ideas about narrative.

Sophie is aiming to enable lots of interactivity between authors, books, and readers; in thinking about how I might like to interact with some of my favorite novels if they were available in formats more malleable than traditional books, I started to think about what we do with narratives once we walk away from the actual reading of a book. In remembering a story, I tell myself a very short version of that story, with emphasis placed on the parts that made the biggest impression on me. I tend to think of certain parts first, and then skip around– back to the beginning, to a part that had visual impact, to a particularly gruesome or beautiful scene, to the almost-end, or back to something that happened in the second chapter. I almost never remember a story in the order it was told to me, and I’m certain that what I remember as important passages are different from another reader’s. I remix the story into my own new narrative, just like I might narrate a dream to myself after waking up. The story is slightly different every time I recall it.

Earlier this week I watched a video of a panel discussion called Migratory Narratives: Why Some Stories Replicate Across Media, Cultures, Historical Eras. The speakers described how narratives are constantly shifting through retelling, and how the same story can be used over and over for a different purpose each time. Thomas Pettitt showed how each iteration of a medieval murder ballad emphasizes a different point of view– from the judicial documents and journalistic reports that the song is based on, to the broadside version, to the oral tradition. Richard Howells lectured on the migration of the Titanic’s history across media, highlighting the political and cultural uses that story has been put to. Both of these lecturers asked what the essential element is to these stories that they get used over and over, and they both pointed out that all popular culture has some narrative facility. It seems like the basic skeletal events of a story are all that’s required to allow us to recognize it. I’m not sure how this ties in with the questions I have about how creative tools might affect the use of narrative, but they seem connected to me. If readers are rearranging narratives in their heads already, what is the difference when they do it with digital tools, and when authors are planning for the remix?

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