Linear no more, stories have branched out in cyberspace

By Ty Burr
Updated October 11, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

Once upon a time, stories began ”Once upon a time…” and made a beeline for ”…and they lived happily ever after.” But the narrative form is beginning to morph from a one-way street into an interconnected highway system, with some readers building their own routes. Storytelling is giving way to story making.

There are many new kinds of fiction in the multimedia world, and they take different shapes. The most publicized (and conventional) are Web soaps. Regularly updated online dramas range from the grainy Real World-goes-Web stylings of T@P Virtual Dorm to full-blown extravaganzas such as GrapeJam. If there’s a formula for online storytelling, no one has discovered it. ”It’s a weird medium — you’re trying to balance literature and media,” says East Village cocreator Charles Stuart Platkin. ”It can’t be entirely plot driven. It’s not Melrose Place.”

But what’s really pushing the narrative envelope is hyperfiction, the developing genre of ”multi-tree” stories. David Blair’s uniquely strange WAXweb, for example, takes readers through photos, text, video footage, and virtual-reality space as it tells the fantastical tale of several generations of honeybee keepers and their travels from Antarctica to Alamogordo.

Then there’s collaborative hyperfiction, whose roots go as far back as the tribal campfire. One of the spookiest examples is The Hypertext Hotel, begun in 1993 by novelist Robert Coover and maintained by his Brown University students: Every room in this online edifice has a story, and you just keep clicking deeper and deeper…

The hyperfiction movement, backed by college courses, scholarly treatises, and a central Web source (Hyperizons), has even begun leaching into the literary equivalent of hardware: books. ”Cybernovels,” such as the recent Nearly Roadkill by Kate Bornstein and Caitlin Sullivan, mix fictional E-mails, chats, and other Net flotsam into many-sided, well-written stories. It may be that cybernovels are the best way for readers to get a feel for the kaleidoscopic genre; they certainly let writers keep their hands on the steering wheel. ”I’m too much of a control freak to let it be designed by others,” laughs Sullivan. Such statements indicate that hyperfiction won’t be replacing the paperback any time soon. But for now it’s a growing, if subterranean, genre that gives new meaning to ”reader’s choice.”