Experimentation and Innovation in Storytelling

Writer and artist Connor Sansby takes a look at how storytelling can be presented in unusual ways.

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The title “writer” is a prized one. For many, the idea of having a novel published is the ultimate mark of success – it isn’t based on sales or chart positions, it’s the simple accomplishment of having completed the arduous task of writing 300 pages of prose or 60 pages of poetry.

In my own practice, I’ve come to find the term “writer” limiting – I use “artist”, which is far more pretentious and far broader. It speaks of pen to paper and little else. The reality is, writing can be utilised in a myriad of ways. In the digital age, worlds of possibilities have opened up. One could become a writer without ever seeing ones work in traditional print.

Firstly, we must address the issue of narrative. The human brain is designed to pick out patterns – its why we see faces in woodgrain, and why we see stories within a series of individual poems. In order to present experimental writing, it’s sometimes necessary to break the pattern. These resulting puzzles can be assembled by the reader, and while it may seem less rewarding for the writer, the engagement readers have can be even more valuable. Consider House of Leaves, the debut novel by American author Mark Z. Danielewski. Instead of clean prose, House of Leaves combines a first person narrative, an academic study of a documentary that never existed, and a series of letters. Danielewski plays with layout – some pages have very little text, while others are crammed, creating a claustrophobic effect. House of Leaves also uses around 6 different fonts to indicate which narrator is speaking at time, physically creating different voices within the text.

The book also references Danielewski’s sister, a musician known as Poe, whose 2000 album Haunted tells a similar story, described as a parallel take on the same events.

While House of Leaves is presented as a book, a project like this could perhaps be easier to express as a website – the ability to create hyperlinks, embedded media such as video and sound. This is something ARGs have been doing for years.

ARGs, or Alternate Reality Games, are mutlimedia stories told as if they are 100% real. While the medium has become rife with tropes and cliches, such as cults, there are some truly brilliant stories such as Nine Inch Nails Year Zero Experience, the marketing campaign behind their 2007 album Year Zero. Through a series of websites, ostensibly sent back in time by a resistance movement engaged in active warfare against a tyrannical theocratic government while the biblical apocalypse looms, the story combined comic, diary extracts, video, parody adverts and more. Many ARGs also include real world elements, acting as giant scavenger hunts, where the reward is more story.

Another famous example is the early YouTube ARG “lonelygirl15”, which began as the vlogs of a young teenager and ended up evolving into a complex story in which the central character’s parents were revealed to be part of a cult and disappeared after she refused to attend a ritual. “lonelygirl15” relinquished a tremendous amount of control over the narrative, using fan-made content to inform the real-time evolution of the story. Launched in July 2006 and concluding in August 2008, the story has generated a number of spin-offs and led to the creation of LG15 Studios, an interactive digital media studio to manage the stories.

These approaches to storytelling are quite labour intensive, and rely on having an audience willing to engage with challenging content or to follow a story across platforms, but not all innovation needs to put so much onus on the reader. Joey Comeau, co-creator of photo-webcomic A Softer World has serialised several of his stories through the comic’s website, including his debut novel Lockpick Pornography in 2005, and the sequel We All Got It Coming in 2012. These novels were funded by the advertising revenue generated by the website’s advertising and donations from readers. Comeau also has a novel titled “Overqualified” told through a series of absurd CV cover letters, using the format to drop hints and clues about the character, slowly evolving them through the sequence. While the novel is available for traditional purchase, it’s available for free in it’s entirety.

Digital commerce has evolved at a fascinating pace, but it seems many writers are afraid to follow, relying instead on a traditional model of sales-based royalties. Platforms like Patreon allow fans to support creatives based on a “per-release” formula or a monthly plan. Donations start from around $1 but have been known to be as high as $1000 – in return for these donations, creatives offer early access to their work, or merchandise, even calls with the artist, it just depends on the creative and the fandom behind them. This takes time to build up of course, and for any it might never reach the target to make it worthwhile but do royalities differ? Many writers find themselves earning pennies off the book, with no room for a full-time wage. This is why experimentation is essential.

Perhaps instead, a single writer isn’t the answer – there are dozens of collaborative tools that enable people to work on projects together, and while a co-writer isn’t unheard of, collectives writing are a rarity. In 2013, the reading group known as Booksluts published their first novel, “The Painted Sky”, written by a core group of five women of varying writing experience. Originally concieved as a way to raise money to enable the group to travel on the Trans-Siberian Express, the group kept working on the book because “it was fun”. However, the “Alices”, taken from the final “author’s name, Alice Champion, are not the first attempt at a collaborative novel – The Luther Blissett Project set out to do the same in 1995, publishing the thriller “Q” in 1999. Soon after, a fifth member was added to the group, and the collective renamed themselves “Wu Ming” a name used by Chinese dissidents, and if pronounced differently, translates to “Five Voices”. Even before that, “The Floating Admiral”, published in 1931, was written by the thirteen members of The Detection Club, including Agatha Christie and G.K. Chesterton.

The homogeneous voice that emerges from writing groups is an often heard critique but that seems perfect for the process of writing a collaborative novel. Members can rely on each other to support their writing, help get the best out of it and hold each other to account because everyone benefits from the finished product.

Writing is an art, but it’s one that praises innovation while shunning it. We want to not just take inspiration from our heroes but to actively become them, a practice which ultimately stagnates us and creates unrealistic self-expectation. All creativity should contain somewhere within it the element of fun, and continuing to experiment with form and methodology can lead to unpredictable, exciting results. So, how do you plan on innovating?

Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.

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