March 15, 2012
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Another Layer of Indirection

Narrating in “free indirect style,” we adopt the distance and objectivity of an outside narrator while still seeing into the character’s mind. Moretti gives a nice example from Mansfield Park:

It was the abode of noise, disorder, and impropriety. Nobody was in their right place, nothing was done as it ought to be. She could not respect her parents, as she had hoped.

This is not told us by the character. Someone else is telling us that she could not respect her parents. But who else could know, really, whether Fanny could respect them or not, or what she had hoped?

This is a subtle and powerful technique. We all understand it.

In a hypertext, when can we change the focus of free indirect style? Let’s look at an example:

On the first page, we were privy to Amy’s thoughts, on the next, Eric’s. Is this a sign of sloppy writing? Or is it a showy technique, to be used with care and discretion and typically reserved for episode boundaries? Or is this simply the sort of thing that hypertext narrative lets us do well? Film does this all the time: two-shot, close-up, reaction-shot.

This question of technique confronts everyone who writes a narrative with links – fiction or nonfiction, artistic or utilitarian – in the third person. We’ve been writing with links for twenty years. There might not be a lot of money in hyperfiction, but there’s plenty in Web writing and there’s plenty in game design. I believe this question has never been raised, much less answered, in the research literature or in criticism.


I think I can find people who know the answer, or some answer. Greco, Moulthrop, Joyce. Sarah Smith. I’ve never heard Coover talk about technique at this level, but I bet he’d have an opinion. I believe Mary-Kim Arnold uses this technique throughout “Lust”, but then so much of “Lust” is concerned with frustration, with not really sharing or penetrating, that it’s hard to know whether it’s an example or a warning. Shelley Jackson’s voice is predominantly first person, though she shifts that person a lot. So does Geoff Ryman. Andy Campbell’s technique seems closer to the first person, too. (Though it can be done, indirect discourse doesn’t sit will with IF, because reader-protagonists don’t really want to be told what they’re thinking.)

But as far as I can see, there’s nothing on this in two decades of The Hypertext Conference, or at Web Sci, or IA Summit, or MLA. Eskilinen has an interesting new book on Cybertext Poetics , but it seems to be silent on this. I don’t find much help in Alice Bell’s admirable Possible Worlds of Hypertext Fiction . We can go right down the bookshelf: Landow, Gaggi, Hayles, Douglas, Harpold, Aarseth. So it goes.

It seems to me that everyone who writes (or grades) a non-trivial third-person hypertext narrative would need to have an answer.

It seems to me that we ought to have written it down, discussed the answer, tested it.

It seems to me that we have not.