November 21, 2001
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Natural hypertext

We often think of hypertext as new, special, extraordinary. Anja Rau recalls our romance with hypertext -- the good times ("This was what I had been looking for most of my writing life") and the bad: " But how do I get across messages of multiple threads and voices and possible readings when I lose my reader between the 3rd and 4th node?"

Not long ago I was asked to compose a story. It had to be short -- too short, as it happened, for what I really wanted to attempt. It had to be linear. It had to be finished quickly.

I wrote it as a hypertext because that was the fastest, best way to work. I knew the characters, some of the locations, and the overall plot arc; each element became a Ceres note, just a placeholder in a big map. I spent an hour or two identifying issues (because it was that kind of story); these, too, became notes scattered across the map. Issues turned red, character notes blue, plot points black.

Then I gathered the plot into a container and started to flesh out individual sections. At the same time, I played with narrative order: what should be told in flashback? What could be skipped entirely? This is where the Nakakoji view turned out to be very handy; I could drag plot sections around in the outline and instantly see the new, linear narrative.

I always knew that the end of the story would seem arbitrary. My original idea was to establish multiple endings held in mutual suspension, playing with alternative endings much as The Babysitter did. I wasn't striving for metafictional effect, and I wasn't interested in metaphysics or experimentation; I simply didn't want the impact of any particular ending to swallow the rest of the story, since all my issues were established before the end and the end merely grows from those issues.

On deadline, I found that I simply didn't have the word count to pull it off. I trimmed and trimmed, and eventually I saw that the only way to make the piece fit was to choose one ending. So, once more, I swapped endings in and out to discover the least unsatisfactory compromise. (In one alternate ending, Hueckel borrows a sub. In another, everyone dies pathetically and the politicians vow to do better)

Now that we are able to write hypertexts, we'll never be completely happy writing flat, linear arguments. Even our linear texts will be refracted through the filter of hypertextuality, and we'll always be sensitive to patterns and interaction. Yes, sometimes it might seem that nobody wants to read hypertext. But everybody reads hypertext all the time, and hypertext is what we all write.

(This page is interesting only because it's part of an interlinked, global discussion. That's new, and important; when Winer says web logs are "like academic writing", he's not going far enough. This is where scholarship is happening -- in the links and in the correspondence (hi, Espen!) that follows. Suddenly, hundreds of people are reading it every day -- including many of the best people in the field. It's all in the links.)

Faith Manages.