Because the internet delivers sound and imagine it can be used not only to distribute content, but to present it: video clips, streaming movies, novel-length text, music — virtually every kind of content imaginable can be experienced on a computer of any size. Turning the internet to the end of storytelling is something else entirely, even as the end product will also be communicated through sound and image.
Imagine a single story told through these mediums: stage, screen, novel. While the characters and plot would be the same in all instances, the techniques used to dramatize the story — to convey the narrative to an audience in a way that supports suspension of disbelief in each medium — would necessarily be different. It’s also possible, if not likely, that for any particular story one medium might be better than the others, because the strengths of that medium aid the cause of dramatization. Novels are excellent at putting you in the mind of a character, and lend themselves wonderfully to narrated tales. Movies excel at the visceral and the visual, at replicating reality, and now, through CGI, bringing fantasies to life. Theater excels at intimacy and at communicating the reality and complexity of human emotion.
The strength of the internet is communication and conversation. To approach the internet as a storytelling medium without acknowledging and embracing that aspect of the medium would be like using motion picture technology to film theater productions — which, oddly enough, is exactly what was done in the early days of film. The techniques that defined film as a medium came later, and only as a result of experimentation with the technology and form.
While many people have presented fiction on the web, and some people have tried writing dedicated character blogs, my survey over the past year suggests that many of these efforts replicate craft techniques from other mediums, rather than emphasizing techniques unique to the internet itself. In my own character blog at NeilRorke.com, I’m particularly interested in embracing and leveraging the strengths of the internet to the greatest possible extent.
Comment and Conversation
For authors, blogs are a means of expression. But it’s more or less accepted these days that blogs should also allow for and foster conversation. There are some notable high-profile exceptions, including Andrew Sullivan’s blog at TheAtlantic.com, but those exceptions tend to exist for reasons of scale. (Fighting spam and trolls on a high-traffic blog could easily consume all available resources. Even at that, Andrew regularly revisits the issue, and is particularly fair about validating and including reader reaction to his posts.)
On small blogs, however, refusing to allow comments, or forcing people to register in order to comment, or even moderating comments, is generally considered bad form. Among other things, posting without allowing for comments smacks of speaking without being willing to listen, which is impolite to say the least. Still, the medium continues to evolve. Defeating spam by requiring authentication through captcha has become accepted. Even editing or deleting comments is tolerated if the rationale is clear, and particularly if the comment is outside the realm of the site content.
Embracing such real-world issues and expectations in a fictional blog means treating them as craft problems. Here are the questions I wrestled with in deciding whether and how to offer comments on NeilRorke.com:
Should fictional blogs have comments?
The question is relevant to the character writing the blog, not the blog format itself. Is the character a prima donna or thin-skinned, or are you writing the fictional blog of a famous person? Then you might not want to have comments because those characters probably wouldn’t have comments.
Would Neil Rorke have comments on his blog?
Yes, no question. He’d welcome comments, and couldn’t care less about other people making idiots out of themselves on his site, or about dealing with spam/trolls. If somebody posted hate speech he’d delete it without apology.
Is allowing comments problematic in terms of storytelling?
Yes. Even allowing for who Neil is as a character, and understanding how people generally feel about comments in real-world blogs, allowing unmoderated comments on a fictional site risks destroying suspension of disbelief. Because I use a pop-up to let readers know the site is fiction as they arrive, I need to make sure content on the site doesn’t defeat the intent of that portal. If I promise that readers can suspend disbelief when they enter the site, I can’t allow other readers to post comments that break that promise.
In order to protect the fourth wall, then, Neil must moderate all of his comments, and I see no way around this. This is a concrete example of how the constraints of a medium may affect not only how a story is told, but the story itself. I think that Neil as a character wouldn’t moderate contents, as I don’t on Ditchwalk.com or this site. But because of the need to preserve suspension of disbelief, Neil needs to do so.
How will readers know what they can or can’t comment about?
In the future I imagine readers visiting a fictional blog will know in advance that their comment will only be posted if they play along with the world of the story. Even now I think this isn’t a very big step to take, but there simply isn’t an established norm. (That’s one of the goals of this site: establishing norms for this kind of storytelling.) Because there’s no norm I feel obligated to explain how a reader can participate, but doing so only serves to weaken the fourth wall, and might make the site seem like a stunt or gimmick. That’s not what I want. Neil is writing honestly about issues he’s interested in. If a reader is interested in those issues it’s possible to have a dialogue. Relative to the reader there’s no difference between Neil’s words and a real-world blog author’s words, and as long as I’m open about the fact that Neil is a fictional character I think I’m being fair to the reader. It may take a while for readers to learn what the options and constraints are, but I think that’s to be expected.
Anything else? (He asks, setting the stage for something else.)
Yes, and it’s easily the most difficult question I’ve wrestled with. As a storyteller, and understanding that Neil’s site is fiction, everything in me screams that the comments section should include comments from other fictional characters, and perhaps even recurring characters. The problem — and until there is a norm established it is a big problem — is that doing so smacks of sockpuppetry, which is a hanging offense on the internet. The only certain crime here, however, would be to lie about my intent — to actually say no, all comments are real, when in fact I was writing some of them myself. The only sure way to avoid the problem is to choose: either all comments are from real-world respondents, or they’re all fictional — but I hate being forced to make that choice. If Neil’s site is going to fail, I want it to fail because I tried to push the envelope too far too fast, not because I was timid.
So my answer right now is simply to disclose what I’m doing: to add a note to the intro screen that comments are from both real-world and fictional characters. My thinking right now is that even though I’m writing something that can be widely read, the experience I’m creating is an intimate one, to be experienced individually. To any particular reader, fictional comments and comments written by real people will be indistinguishable. Moreover, not knowing which is which shouldn’t detract from the storyworld. I’m not sure of this, of course — I’ll have to revisit this question as I go — but that’s where I’m at right now.
That’s a nuts-and-bolts example of how a strength of the internet can be turned toward the goal of storytelling. In the next post, I’ll tackle the question of linking.
— Mark Barrett