Writing Digital Fiction

What did we do?

We conducted a creative writing experiment, asking experienced writers to write digital fictions (specifically, hypertexts, interactive fictions, or Twine games). We were interested in:

  • how creative writers’ processes are affected by shifting into new techniques and tools offered by digital media
  • how the participants’ responses to reading digital fiction were affected by writing digital fiction

Why is this important?

Contemporary writers have a great deal of opportunity in the modern digital era to write across many different media, from novels to screenplays to video games to digital fiction. Even non-fiction writers have digital tools and techniques to play with, incorporating video, audio, and interactivity into online and digital texts, such as interactive textbooks and multimedia news articles.

It’s important to understand how digital composition spaces, techniques, and tools affect writers, so that we can continue to develop methods and softwares for them to work in. Further, we can extrapolate this information about creative writers to the general population; after all, most people and students are immersed in digital environments these days. How we compose and communicate our stories and our selves is deeply affected by the tools at hand – thus we need to understand these processes on a deeper level.

In terms of reading digital fiction, given today’s participatory culture, it seems people are more likely to be favorable toward something if they’ve done it, and can share the experience. Digital fiction’s history is one of creative experimentation, which is exciting to experienced digital readers (who are usually digital writers), though often alienating to the uninitiated. If more readers can play with the tools of digital narrative, it’s possible they might be more open to its alternative methods of storytelling. 

How did we do it?

One of our researchers, Lyle Skains, had previously conducted a practice-based research project into this question. We took her research method, which involved writing digital and prose versions of the same novella, keeping a research log throughout her creative process, and analysing the log and the novellas once they were finished.

This study expanded that method into an undergraduate creative writing module in which all students on the module were also participants in the study. Over the course of 12 weeks, 13 students in their 2nd or 3rd year of a creative writing BA completed an initial questionnaire about their entertainment habits and writing processes, maintained research logs about their activities on the module, completed required assessments, and filled in a final post-experiment survey about their writing process. The module instructor, Lyle Skains, also completed an ethnographic research log, recording observations about in-class discussions and impressions of student assessments.

The students each had three assessments to complete:

  1. Write a 2000-word digital fiction using Twine
  2. Adapt that digital fiction into a 2000-word prose story
  3. Write a 1500-word analysis of the process of writing both pieces, comparing and analysing them

The students also completed questionnaires about their writing process after each of the first two assessments.

The study yielded a great deal of documentation, including the questionnaires, the research logs, and the students’ assessments. The questionnaires are compared for differences pre- and post-module in the students’ writing practices. The logs and assessments can also be analysed qualitatively, though currently the analysis consists of researcher review, analysis, and observations.

What did we find?

These students are comfortable reading on digital devices, and were generally familiar with digital fiction (though few had ever written any) before starting the module. Most preferred to write in speculative genres, such as science fiction or fantasy.

In terms of their writing process, about half write using a combination of pen-and-paper and word processor (such as MS Word), and about half write solely on computer. While writing their Twine hypertexts, students indicated that they used a combination of either Twine & paper, or Twine & word processor. Once they began their prose pieces, over a fourth of them reported integrating Twine into their prose writing process.

Prior to starting the module, participants reported focusing primarily on character, storyworld, narrative, and creative expression in their writing. In creating their Twine hypertexts, however, their focus shifted more strongly to plot and storyworld. By their final survey, they emphasised character, though less so, and strongly indicated a shifted focus to plot.

Participants' Writing Strategies

These results indicate that writing digital fictions shifts the writing focus from character & narrative structure to plot & event sequences. This may help to explain why some criticise games and digital fiction for a lack of “narrative quality”, if such quality is determined primarily by characterization.

Likewise, we see a more disciplined approach to writing necessary for writing digital fictions. Digital writers have to manage multiple storylines and interwoven pathways. They have to make sure there aren’t any technological “bugs” that could derail their story, and they have to outline and plan more because of these considerations.

These elements indicate an altered cognitive approach to writing in digital fiction. Because the writer is considering multiple potential outcomes for their story, including more than one ending and various options at different points in the story, their cognitive approach to writing has to occur on multiple levels, keeping multiple strands and stories straight. They also have to remain flexible in where they (and their readers) may take the story, and more open to revisions due to bugs, unforeseen narrative expansion, and reader interaction.

Digital writers are also more likely to engage in unnatural narration, implementing logically or physically impossible elements into their stories. This supports the findings of Skains’s initial practice-based study.

In terms of reading digital fiction, the participants’ survey responses indicate an increase in their favourable attitudes toward digital fiction, and intent to continue reading digital fiction on a voluntary basis outside of classroom settings. Anecdotally, several of the study participants have gone on to complete dissertations in the field of digital fiction, even continuing to postgraduate study in the field.

Where have we published the research?

We have presented our research at several conferences.