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Sunday, February 4, 2007

Welcome to Narrativity

When I joined the CFC Media Lab as Narrative Consultant in 2001, what I found in the world of new media was a view of narrative as the either/or of story and plot. As an English PhD, it took me a little while to understand this narrowed field and then to backtrack the origins of the debate.

It seemed that much discussion of ‘narrative’ relied on the work of structuralists such as Vladimir Propp and Aristotle’s still influential assertion that plot is the most important element of the well-made tragedy. This emphasis on the importance of action, and characters being defined by their actions, produced a skewed understanding of narrative that seemed to dominate critical thinking on narrative in new media at the time. The discussions that we at the CFC had during this period tended to focus on this question of ‘what is the story?’ and how to tell it. What was left out was an approach to narrative that acknowledged the multiple layers of meaning generating elements that was common place to the design and analysis of written and cinematic texts.

In my workshop on narrative theories and forms, I began to place an increasing emphasis on the deep structure of narrative (genre, symbols, themes, patterns and repetitions, tone, voice, and juxtaposition) and to thinking about the central, essential experience that designers wanted the user to experience in a given narrative piece. Given that the first challenge to anyone designing interactive narratives is how to create a coherent, affective piece once the interactions of the user throw Aristotle’s carefully constructed plot out the window, we talked increasingly about how to create rich narrative experiences that leveraged the cognitive interactivity of the user.

Designing for the engaged cognitive interactivity of the user shifted the ‘action’ away from the screen and brought in the limitless sphere of what each individual user might perceive and construct as a meaningful narrative from the elements brought into play.

As I played with this model, I realized that conceptual equivalent was a mobile wherein elements exist in dynamic changing relationships to other elements. That there was no single ‘plotted’ structure, but rather, multiple recombinant possibilities that users will perceive and construct variations from.

Key to this understanding was, from the outset, my conviction that rather than being frustrated at the way interactivity disrupted the ‘plot’ was the counter idea of designing for that interruption. Capitalize on the human need to create coherent narratives out of fragments and let the user create connections and causalities, which repeatedly has proved to be the case. One can trust in the user to ‘bridge the gap’ and when the focus of narrative design is no longer on the plot, focus naturally falls on other elements within the narrative field.