HYPERNARRATIVE IN THE AGE OF THE
The original version of this paper was published in 1998 in
NEA - Art Forms on the National Endowment for the Arts website,
and this artist's note reflects the World Wide Web environment of that era.
With hundreds of works of computer mediated fiction or poetry available
either on disk, largely through the
catalog, or on the net, hypernarrative, its construction as diverse as
the many-faceted reading experiences it engenders, is a primary way of storytelling
in the era of the World Wide Web.
Making the contrast between interactive fiction, a term generally used
for works with a branching structure where the reader continually
makes choices between sequential plot paths, I called my hypertext narrative
a "narrabase" (for narrative database) when I wrote
in 1986. But I now use what has become the commonly accepted
terminology -- "hyperfiction", "hypertext fiction" or "hypernarrative" -- to describe this work.
I thought of Uncle Roger as a "pool of information into which the
reader plunges repeatedly, emerging with a cumulative and
individual picture...to build up levels of meaning and to show many
aspects of the story and characters, rather than as a means of providing
alternate plot turns and endings." 
"....hypertext fiction offers narratives that operate as networks
rather than linear sequences," Katherine Hayles writes in her
Technocriticism and Hypernarrative. 
"I wanted, quite simply, to write a novel that would change in
successive readings and to make those changing versions according to the
connections that I had for some time naturally discovered
in the process of writing and that I wanted my readers to share," Michael
Joyce wrote about his hyperfiction afternoon, a story. 
Hypernarrative on the Web
The creation of the novel, with its cumulative buildup of narrative
detail, development of characters, and structured sequential plot
progression, is no less rigorous than the creation of a
hypernarrative, but because we grew up reading novels, their structure is
A new generation is growing up reading cybertext on the World Wide Web
where commercial sites are intermingled with literature, hyperactivity
engenders a diffuse contemplation, and (with a resultant rich chaos)
everyone has the opportunity to be a publisher. It is likely that the
interactive ways of reading and writing that they are experiencing on the
net will become second nature to this generation.
This web environment, with its elegant HyperText Markup Language
(HTML) and internationally available browser interfaces, has facilitated
many kinds of computer mediated story telling -- from
collaboratively created works, such Karen O'Rourke's Paris Reseau;
to intricately pathed hypertextual soap operas such as The Company
Therapist; to works with intertwined words
and images such as Eric Dymond and Chiyoko Szlavnics' The Doorway.
Every cyberwriter approaches the medium differently.
Some elements integral to my work are screen sized building blocks
that can be combined in many ways; seductive words visually arrayed;
female narratives told in the first person; and computer
manipulated, circularly pathed, associative memory patterns.
When I write on the web, I think of my words as "public literature". I
am also aware of the work's existence in the wider whole of the web and
of the "browsing" way of reading that is prevalent in this medium.
Building Blocks of Narrative
My hypernarratives are written with screen sized narrative building
blocks that can either stand alone or be combined with each other in
multiple ways. Each "screen" represents a complete, fully
expressed and often visual "memory picture".
From Uncle Roger to
The Roar of Destiny, my hypernarratives are collections of small
intensely written building blocks of narrative information that can
stand by themselves but can also
be combined with other screens to make a whole with greater meaning.
Somewhat like the process a composer goes through in composing four
different streams of music that will eventually be heard together by the
listener, when writing individual screens, I keep in
mind the many ways in which a reader might combine them.
On the web, I can not expect the reader to read more than three or
four screens before moving restlessly on to another url. So, it is
particularly important in that each screen ("lexia" ) of a web
hypernarrative be memorable in and of itself.
"Why do you bother to write that many
screens for an online work?" someone asked.
"Because the work is generally not sufficiently developed otherwise,"
I answered. "because I hope that the depth is apparent even to the
casual reader, because the reader returning to the work
will be constantly surprised, because that is the nature of my
From Bluegreen Canvases to Bluegreen
Framed by the computer monitor, hypernarratives and hyperpoetry are
inherently visual -- incorporating visually represented navigational
devices, integrating graphics with words, using image map interfaces, or
arranging text visually.
In l0ve0ne (Eastgate Web Workshop, 1994)
a visual array of the names of each of the 129 screens serves as one of several entry ways to the
In The Roar of Destiny Emanated From the
Refrigerator, characters, locales and moods (that diverge, combine,
diverge) are virtually represented using a combination of color and
screen design shifts. Bluegreen backgrounded screens,
situated beside mountain streams, suddenly shift to black scenes of
disturbing events. Purple Arizona desert heat moves to a white backgrounded
"The user may follow a chain of links as part of a process of
exploration that may or may
not prove to be fruitful." Jim Rosenberg has written. "Simply following a
chain of links does not necessarily make these visitations cohere
into a tangible entity." Using the terminology of
actemes ("a low-level unit such as link- following") and episode ("a
collection of actemes that cohere in the reader's mind"), he continues
that "The episode is not simply a unit of hypertext
history --where any act is necessarily part of some episode; rather the
hypertext experience consists of executing multiple actemes, some
collections of which will resolve into episodes, and
some of which may not be part of any episode at all. Indeed part of the
hypertext experience may be described as foraging for episodes."
On the Web, a writer must keep in mind that opposed to CD based hyperfiction,
where, as in a reading a book,
the reader is moving within one work, on the web, an exploration is
likely to contain actemes from several web sites of
different origin. These "foreign" actemes may be of a highly visual
attention grabbing nature -- animations; image maps; multicolored
In the Mind of the Narrator
Perhaps plot and character development have been satisfying story
telling devices for so long because they provide a framework that seldom
exists in real life.
In contrast and/or in augmented narrative depth, hypernarratives imitate the associative,
contingent flow of human thought and the unpredictable progression of our lives. Using
the computer's capability of mimicking our disordered
yet linked thought processes, I strive to put the reader in the
narrator's mind. I want the reader to have the feeling of looking at the world thru her eyes,
of exploring her memories.
Humans see the world through a process that is not as sequential
as is often portrayed in works of fiction. In works such as
its name was Penelope, I have tried to convey human experience in this way. Like an actor studying a role,
I put myself into the mind of a narrator as I write. It is place I will be for several years.
In much of my work, I use the first person because it is a way of connecting the reader to
the narrator and because it allows me to focus on the details of the
narrator's immediate environment -- the small things,
the seemingly inconsequential events that trigger memories and thoughts.
"The post colonial and the hypertextual represent two manifestations of the topology of postmodern
information culture where
grand narratives are being replaced by local narratives and local
knowledges" Jaishree K. Odin
writes in "The Edge of Difference: Negotiations Between the Hypertextual
and the Postcolonial." 
The Roar of Destiny
In The Roar of Destiny, the narrator's name is Gweneth.
For several years, she has been working online with co-workers
in other parts of the country whom she seldom sees. She is steeped in the culture of the
net, and it permeates her narrative which is as diffuse and as "distributed" as the
virtual environment in which she works.
I was her when I am writing her words. However, she is not me. This is a work of fiction.
The Roar of Destiny is characterized by a dissolving and reassembling
interface that leads to hundreds of dense lexias composed of relevant words that sometimes
run rigidly, under control
down the sides and across the bottom of the primary text and sometimes
fragment and merge uneasily
with the primary text.
Although, at times I have preferred to make links implicit as I did in
its name was Penelope, or to deemphasize them, as I did in the final version of
l0ve0ne, navigation in The Roar of Destiny is entirely link driven. Partially this
is a recognition of the
importance of links in web reading practice; (a public artist's
acknowledgement of the way the
medium has developed) partially it is a way of emphasizing Gwen's
complex thought processes.
Four primary strains run through the work -- a series of flashbacks to
the home of
a sculptor somewhere in Arizona;
in the Colorado Rockies
that is Gwen's home at the time of the telling of the story;
virtual workplace; and a
disordered series of flashbacks that
characterized by a black background.
Beer, the pleasure of drinking beer, the way it tastes, the way it
looks, is a reoccurring
A print novel is likely to be written in seclusion. It is selected by
a publisher and then
printed and distributed to readers, whose contact with either the author
or the author's process is
traditionally nonexistent. It is possible to replicate this model on the
Internet, but on the
Internet, other models are also possible.
I have long been intrigued by the performance aspects of telling a
story in the Homeric
tradition, while in a modern electronic community or "town square" of
people with many and varied
interests. When I began publicly writing Uncle Roger
in 1986 on the WELL, it
was in a conferencing system similar to what is now called "threads" on
some web systems. Like any
audience, the audience reacted. I was aware of their presence and the
telling of the story was in
itself interactive because audience members made comments and sometimes
even contributed to the
As is common in any community storytelling situation, the audience
reacted. I was aware of their presence and the telling of the story was
in itself somewhat interactive because audience members made comments and
sometimes even contributed to the story. Indeed, Howard Rheingold, the host of
the "Mind" conference on the WELL, responded by setting up a separate
topic to discuss Uncle Roger.
Howard's introduction to "Topic 15:
Feedback re: Uncle Roger was: "Yow! What else can we say about Uncle
Roger as he unfolds:"
A decade later, in 1995, when I began writing The Roar of Destiny, I posted each lexia on the World Wide Web in a similar
way -- ie I "published" each screen shortly after it was written.
Every week I wrote and uploaded several lexias -- usually in
the form of a three or 4
lexia "loop". I also rewrote and replaced earlier screens. Each lexia was
woven onto the existing
ones with a complex system of links. Like the changes in a continually tended and planted public garden, the
changes and additions that
I made in The Roar of Destiny were probably not always obvious to the
observer. The reader did not
encounter a series of chapters of a serialized story, but rather was
continually aware of a changing
Public web writing is less "immediate" than writing within a
conferencing system. (such as the
Interactive Art Conference on Arts Wire where l0ve0ne and the
collaborative name is scibe were
initially written) Gone, on the web, is the instantaneous audience
reaction and the small town
feeling of knowing who your audience is, of sometimes playing to that
audience in a performance
sense. Web writing is also less immediate than the performative
narratives that are possible in
Moo's -- such as the Ocatillo Files that I performed in LambdaMoo in
On the plus side, because the goal is hypertext, web told public
literature evolves in a more
natural way -- ie the work can grow without the sequential constraints
inherent in posting to a
conference. And the reader who wishes can easily communicate by email
with the author.
Although no one commented on my changing of the narrator's name from Sarah to
Gweneth in the midst of the story, I did receive email about The Roar of Destiny. Also, wonderfully, I
sometimes discovered linked
references to it -- for instance in a web tutorial as an example of
purposeful circular linking.
Virtual Adventures/Virtually Told
It has been predicted that as the web becomes more of a "push"
medium, large entities will throw huge streams of multimedia at docile users
who will visit their sites and remain there as television
I prefer to believe web users are becoming accustomed to the freedom
to wander interactively, to discover unusual, unexpected information, and to self publish in a
globally distributed medium where many kinds of writing that take advantage of the computer's ability
to manipulate narrative data, are continually emerging.
The Internet is a far more speech-enhancing medium than print, the
village greens, or the mails," wrote judge Stewart Dalzell, one of three Federal judges who
declared the Computer Decency Act (CDA) unconstitutional on June 12, 1996." ......It is no exaggeration
to conclude that the
Internet has achieved, and continues to achieve, the most participatory
marketplace of mass speech
that this country -- and indeed the world -- has yet seen." 
1. Malloy, Judy
"Uncle Roger, an online narrabase", Leonardo 24
2. Hayles, N. Katherine, "Situating Narrative in an Ecology of New
Technocriticism and Hypernarrative, MFS Modern
Fiction Studies 43:3, Fall 1997.
3. Joyce, Michael, Of Two Minds, University of Michigan Press, 1995 p.
31. Written in 1987,
afternoon, a story was published in 1990 by Eastgate Systems.
4. G. P. Landow, Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical
Theory and Technology, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992
Landow refers to screens of text -- the basic hypertextual building blocks -- as "lexias".
5. Rosenberg, Jim,
"The Structure of Hypertext Activity", Hypertext'96, The Seventh ACM
Conference on Hypertext, Washington, DC, March 16-20, 1996 pp. 22-30
6. Odin, Jaishree K., "The Edge of Difference: Negotiations Between
the Hypertextual and the Postcolonial." MFS Modern Fiction Studies
43:3, Fall 1997. pp. 598-630
7. Malloy, Judy
in LambdaMOO" in: In Search of Innovation: The Xerox PARC THE PAIR PROJECT.
MIT Press, 1998, ed. Craig Harris.
8. Malloy, Judy, "CDA Overturned", Arts Wire Current, June 17, 1996
last update January 18, 2013