Initial Thoughts about Narratives

Results of a a brainstorming session.

Body of Language
A late-night series of thoughts on names.
Tuesday, July 10, 2001
The Perfect Sentence
Can the perfect sentence be defined? Can you arrive at it? I took a trip to find out.
Sunday, January 11, 1998
Characters and Simulation
A brief idea about characters in Web-fiction
Monday, July 2, 2001
Blocks and unblocks
Monday, May 28, 2001

Narrative, (or story, or tale, or yarn), as a noun, is "an account describing incidents or events," at least according to the ever-faithful WordNet

The Mighty Wordnet Project has created a sort of "cognitive thesaurus" that deals with words in a brilliant, structured fashion. .

For several years, I've been trying to make sense of narrative's place on the web, while creating web narratives during late evenings. I've come up with some basic thoughts, which I will now spew.

Narrative is an interface. In all the linked lists and nicely-constructed graphics that show up online and in multimedia products, with the tendency to bullet-point and encourage skimming (as no one reads), it's easy to forget that narrative is the original interface to enormous databases of cultural, economic, and historical information. Stories, from the Illiad to articles in Harper's and episodes of The Sopranos, are first and foremost an efficient way of conveying news and discovery. There's as much discover in The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton as there is in an article in Science. Stories with high topical news value - bestsellers, newspaper articles, those texts that mirror the cultural moment, usually fade over time, as cultures change and adapt, but those with deeper news value, those where the storyteller has contextualized their work within a larger, 'universal' framework of human values, endure. But stories are always news. They are our interface into the data-storage computers in our skulls. What Ftrain is trying - going to try - to do is mirror some of that process in the design and interface on the site, to make the whole site a kind of story, a collection of stories large and small.....

Navigation is narrative. The links on RobotWisdom.com, the buttons on MSN.com, the emphasis on certain categories over others on Yahoo! all can be told as stories; in the case of RobotWisdom, they're a personal story of Jorn Barger's interests and intellectual life. For the other sites, they're reflective stories, emerging out of a sort of inverse-narrative process where the needs of the audience are analyzed and predicted in focus groups and usability testing, and the "narrative" crafted out of that, with little divergence from the predictions. Yahoo.com varies between cultures - different sports take precedence, etc. They try to get match the visitor's cognitive state, to provide a kind of blank story that the visitor can tell themselves.

The standard ethic of web development suggests battering the reader to death. Get their attention and make them click. But this only teaches bad habits, and means that narrative online is destined to go the same way as television.

Folks is confused about money. "Content online is all well and good, but it doesn't pay. What's the point?"




Ftrain.com is the website of Paul Ford and his pseudonyms. It is showing its age. I'm rewriting the code but it's taking some time.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

If you have any questions for me, I am very accessible by email. You can email me at ford@ftrain.com and ask me things and I will try to answer. Especially if you want to clarify something or write something critical. I am glad to clarify things so that you can disagree more effectively.


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© 1974-2011 Paul Ford


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