Technology and Story-Telling

Novel-writing bothers me, even though I’ve written three novels of my Vigilante Quartet

Cover for The Devil in the Bottle

The Devil in the Bottle: Dan Stark faces his most desperate choice — whether or not to hang a man who has not committed murder.

and I’m working on the fourth. My problem with writing novels is that the chain of cause and effect is so linear. A causes B which leads to C.

Linear Writing

As I write along in the main story, I often think of what else is going on, with the antagonist, or the characters in Subplot B. Because they are active; their stories don’t stop just because another character is moving and talking and acting in the main story. But to work in Subplot B I have to interrupt the main story.

Then there’s backstory. The main character feels guilty about something in his past for which he wants to make amends. Without stopping the action, how do I clue the reader in (supposing I should clue her in)?

Maybe a piece of music puts the main character in a certain frame of mind, or foreshadows an event. I could print the words to the song, but that’s not as good as hearing the music. What if it’s not a song, but a snatch of Bach and it’s perfect for the mood but I’ll lose readers if I mention the “Adagio from the Sonata No. 1 in D for Violin and Harpsichord”?

For as long as people have told stories, they have proceeded in the order of cause and effect, tidily and clearly, so readers can “see” what happens. (Writing that sentence, I thought of Og telling hero-stories around the campfire in the cave at night. His audience does not sit quietly. Gog jumps up and mimes the beast attacking or throws spear-shadows on the cave wall. Mog sings.)

With HTML5 and CSS3, the structure of story-telling can change. It doesn’t have to, because we’re free to choose to stay with the linear mode if it bests suits the story we tell.

Oh, the possibilities, though.

The Meaning of All This for Stories

HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) is the language of the World Wide Web (W3). It’s how website builders construct web pages and connect them in (we hope) a logical fashion. CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) determines how the content of those web pages looks. Whether pictures have rounded corners, or shadows behind them. With HTML5 I can link one thing to another, open up web pages that do not belong to my own website. That’s old stuff, going back to the beginning of the W3, but what’s new about it is the ability to incorporate audio (music, explosions, etc.) and video into the story anywhere.

Think of the ramifications for story-telling. Suppose Dan Stark, my protagonist in all four of the Vigilante Quartet novels, slips on a frozen pile of road apples (horse manure) in the street. Instead of a long weary sentence that describes his whirling flailing attempt to regain his balance, a few frames of video show a swirling building settling down — on its side if he falls, straight up if he catches his balance. As he falls (or not) the reader is directly inside Dan’s mind, falling with him.

Dan’s grandfather has been the family tyrant all his life. Occasionally, Dan seems to hear the old man’s voice. Inserting an audio clip into the text, the reader can eavesdrop on the internal argument Dan carries on with his absent grandfather. Or perhaps during one of the hanging scenes in The Devil in the Bottle I had been able to insert audio of a crowd of men arguing over whether or not to hang the miscreant, chaotically yelling, screaming at each other. And then a deathly silence followed by weeping.

While writing , I came across the song by Hank Williams, Jr. titled the same. If I’d been able to have the song played in the story, I would have sought Mr. Williams’s permission to use it. (Titles are not subject to copyright, and I had thought of the title before I found the song.)

Or perhaps cast the novels in the form of games and let the audience choose the preferred mode of receiving the stories. The possibilities are, well, unlimited. Almost.

Web-based Stories

Stories enhanced by audio and video cannot be played on the dedicated e-readers like the first generation of Kindles or the early EPUB readers like the first Nooks.

They need tablets like the Kindle Fire, or other computer-based devices that will support them. Most of the technological advances will probably be beyond the reach of most novelists and short story writers because learning the skills and keeping up with technical advances comprise a full time job in themselves. Not only that, but novel-writing is a right-brain endeavor, and writing HTML5 tags and learning CSS3 is left brain. I find it very difficult to switch between the two sides of my brain to do something as simple as building my website.

I won’t soon be writing my own stories for the Web this way.

But oh, how I’d like to.

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