December 1996

Root Page of Article: Going Into the Woods, by Christine Boese

What Role for Linearity in Hyperfiction?

Multimedia or hypermedia has the potential to accommodate many different thinking styles at the same time, provided the creators understand and incorporate different levels of interactivity into the design of their products.

Different levels of interactivity doesn't mean simply scattering choices all over the screens, on the vague whims of the author(s). Even if the links look haphazard or effortless, they should be made deliberately, as part of an overall structure or design. I believe there is as much of an art to hypertextual design as there is to visual design.

It also does not mean pseudo-nonlinearity. Don't take linear print documents and break them into chunks ("lexias") with one or two gratuitous choices at the end of the hunk. (You could argue that I am guilty of pseudo-nonlinearity in this document.)

The effect of this illusion of choice seems pernicious to me. If nonlinearity represents an opportunity to break the tyranny of authorial mind control, then making choice an illusion (the equivalent of channel-surfing, up up, down down, 500 channels and nothing on) seems more like an underhanded, linear mass media trick.

I believe the hyperfiction author should work twice as hard to understand and anticipate different thinking styles and navigational pathes in order to incorporate elements into the product that will make it a dynamic and rewarding experience for many different kinds of thinkers. Look at the following as the beginnings of a list of thinking types. I just made it up, and of course few people will be of one type or another.

  • linear thinkers
  • associational thinkers
  • visual thinkers
  • verbal thinkers
  • aural thinkers (affected by sound foremost)
  • gestural thinkers (affected by physical co-presence)
  • abstract thinkers
  • concrete thinkers
  • metaphorical thinkers
  • rationalists (prove it!)
  • contextualists (situate it!)
  • idealists (make it better!)
Without this attention to the structure of design, we will continue to see haphazard use of screen buttons and navigation tools, or multimedia products that are fancy versions of linear slide shows, or lower-level imitations of Hollywood effects. And Hollywood will always be able to do it better. It has bigger budgets, more memory space, and years of experience in making magic.

On the other hand, disregarding linearity altogether leads to a different kind of peril.

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