Judy Malloy
Artist's Note


The original version of this paper was published in 1998 in
NEA - Art Forms on the National Endowment for the Arts website,
and this artist's note reflects the World Wide Web environment of that era.


With hundreds of works of computer mediated fiction or poetry available either on disk, largely through the Eastgate Systems catalog, or on the net, hypernarrative, its construction as diverse as the many-faceted reading experiences it engenders, is a primary way of storytelling in the era of the World Wide Web.

Making the contrast between interactive fiction, a term generally used for works with a branching structure where the reader continually makes choices between sequential plot paths, I called my hypertext narrative a "narrabase" (for narrative database) when I wrote Uncle Roger in 1986. But I now use what has become the commonly accepted terminology -- "hyperfiction", "hypertext fiction" or "hypernarrative" -- to describe this work.

I thought of Uncle Roger as a "pool of information into which the reader plunges repeatedly, emerging with a cumulative and individual picture...to build up levels of meaning and to show many aspects of the story and characters, rather than as a means of providing alternate plot turns and endings." [1]

"....hypertext fiction offers narratives that operate as networks rather than linear sequences," Katherine Hayles writes in her introduction to Technocriticism and Hypernarrative. [2]

"I wanted, quite simply, to write a novel that would change in successive readings and to make those changing versions according to the connections that I had for some time naturally discovered in the process of writing and that I wanted my readers to share," Michael Joyce wrote about his hyperfiction afternoon, a story. [3]

Hypernarrative on the Web

The creation of the novel, with its cumulative buildup of narrative detail, development of characters, and structured sequential plot progression, is no less rigorous than the creation of a hypernarrative, but because we grew up reading novels, their structure is second nature.

A new generation is growing up reading cybertext on the World Wide Web where commercial sites are intermingled with literature, hyperactivity engenders a diffuse contemplation, and (with a resultant rich chaos) everyone has the opportunity to be a publisher. It is likely that the interactive ways of reading and writing that they are experiencing on the net will become second nature to this generation.

This web environment, with its elegant HyperText Markup Language (HTML) and internationally available browser interfaces, has facilitated many kinds of computer mediated story telling -- from collaboratively created works, such Karen O'Rourke's Paris Reseau; to intricately pathed hypertextual soap operas such as The Company Therapist; to works with intertwined words and images such as Eric Dymond and Chiyoko Szlavnics' The Doorway.

Every cyberwriter approaches the medium differently.

Some elements integral to my work are screen sized building blocks that can be combined in many ways; seductive words visually arrayed; female narratives told in the first person; and computer manipulated, circularly pathed, associative memory patterns.

When I write on the web, I think of my words as "public literature". I am also aware of the work's existence in the wider whole of the web and of the "browsing" way of reading that is prevalent in this medium.

Building Blocks of Narrative Information

My hypernarratives are written with screen sized narrative building blocks that can either stand alone or be combined with each other in multiple ways. Each "screen" represents a complete, fully expressed and often visual "memory picture".

From Uncle Roger to The Roar of Destiny, my hypernarratives are collections of small intensely written building blocks of narrative information that can stand by themselves but can also be combined with other screens to make a whole with greater meaning. Somewhat like the process a composer goes through in composing four different streams of music that will eventually be heard together by the listener, when writing individual screens, I keep in mind the many ways in which a reader might combine them.

On the web, I can not expect the reader to read more than three or four screens before moving restlessly on to another url. So, it is particularly important in that each screen ("lexia" [4]) of a web hypernarrative be memorable in and of itself.

"Why do you bother to write that many screens for an online work?" someone asked.

"Because the work is generally not sufficiently developed otherwise," I answered. "because I hope that the depth is apparent even to the casual reader, because the reader returning to the work will be constantly surprised, because that is the nature of my writing."

From Bluegreen Canvases to Bluegreen Screens

Framed by the computer monitor, hypernarratives and hyperpoetry are inherently visual -- incorporating visually represented navigational devices, integrating graphics with words, using image map interfaces, or arranging text visually.

In l0ve0ne (Eastgate Web Workshop, 1994) a visual array of the names of each of the 129 screens serves as one of several entry ways to the work.

In The Roar of Destiny Emanated From the Refrigerator, characters, locales and moods (that diverge, combine, diverge) are virtually represented using a combination of color and screen design shifts. Bluegreen backgrounded screens, situated beside mountain streams, suddenly shift to black scenes of disturbing events. Purple Arizona desert heat moves to a white backgrounded virtual workplace.

"The user may follow a chain of links as part of a process of exploration that may or may not prove to be fruitful." Jim Rosenberg has written. "Simply following a chain of links does not necessarily make these visitations cohere into a tangible entity." Using the terminology of actemes ("a low-level unit such as link- following") and episode ("a collection of actemes that cohere in the reader's mind"), he continues that "The episode is not simply a unit of hypertext history --where any act is necessarily part of some episode; rather the hypertext experience consists of executing multiple actemes, some collections of which will resolve into episodes, and some of which may not be part of any episode at all. Indeed part of the hypertext experience may be described as foraging for episodes." [5]

On the Web, a writer must keep in mind that opposed to CD based hyperfiction, where, as in a reading a book, the reader is moving within one work, on the web, an exploration is likely to contain actemes from several web sites of different origin. These "foreign" actemes may be of a highly visual attention grabbing nature -- animations; image maps; multicolored frames; sounds.

In the Mind of the Narrator

Perhaps plot and character development have been satisfying story telling devices for so long because they provide a framework that seldom exists in real life.

In contrast and/or in augmented narrative depth, hypernarratives imitate the associative, contingent flow of human thought and the unpredictable progression of our lives. Using the computer's capability of mimicking our disordered yet linked thought processes, I strive to put the reader in the narrator's mind. I want the reader to have the feeling of looking at the world thru her eyes, of exploring her memories.

Humans see the world through a process that is not as sequential as is often portrayed in works of fiction. In works such as its name was Penelope, I have tried to convey human experience in this way. Like an actor studying a role, I put myself into the mind of a narrator as I write. It is place I will be for several years.

In much of my work, I use the first person because it is a way of connecting the reader to the narrator and because it allows me to focus on the details of the narrator's immediate environment -- the small things, the seemingly inconsequential events that trigger memories and thoughts.

"The post colonial and the hypertextual represent two manifestations of the topology of postmodern information culture where grand narratives are being replaced by local narratives and local knowledges" Jaishree K. Odin writes in "The Edge of Difference: Negotiations Between the Hypertextual and the Postcolonial." [6]

The Roar of Destiny

In The Roar of Destiny, the narrator's name is Gweneth. For several years, she has been working online with co-workers in other parts of the country whom she seldom sees. She is steeped in the culture of the net, and it permeates her narrative which is as diffuse and as "distributed" as the virtual environment in which she works.

I was her when I am writing her words. However, she is not me. This is a work of fiction.

The Roar of Destiny is characterized by a dissolving and reassembling interface that leads to hundreds of dense lexias composed of relevant words that sometimes run rigidly, under control down the sides and across the bottom of the primary text and sometimes fragment and merge uneasily with the primary text.

Although, at times I have preferred to make links implicit as I did in its name was Penelope, or to deemphasize them, as I did in the final version of l0ve0ne, navigation in The Roar of Destiny is entirely link driven. Partially this is a recognition of the importance of links in web reading practice; (a public artist's acknowledgement of the way the medium has developed) partially it is a way of emphasizing Gwen's complex thought processes.

Four primary strains run through the work -- a series of flashbacks to the home of a sculptor somewhere in Arizona; the cabin in the Colorado Rockies that is Gwen's home at the time of the telling of the story; Gwen's virtual workplace; and a disordered series of flashbacks that are characterized by a black background.

Beer, the pleasure of drinking beer, the way it tastes, the way it looks, is a reoccurring theme.

Public Literature

A print novel is likely to be written in seclusion. It is selected by a publisher and then printed and distributed to readers, whose contact with either the author or the author's process is traditionally nonexistent. It is possible to replicate this model on the Internet, but on the Internet, other models are also possible.

I have long been intrigued by the performance aspects of telling a story in the Homeric tradition, while in a modern electronic community or "town square" of people with many and varied interests. When I began publicly writing Uncle Roger in 1986 on the WELL, it was in a conferencing system similar to what is now called "threads" on some web systems. Like any audience, the audience reacted. I was aware of their presence and the telling of the story was in itself interactive because audience members made comments and sometimes even contributed to the story.

As is common in any community storytelling situation, the audience reacted. I was aware of their presence and the telling of the story was in itself somewhat interactive because audience members made comments and sometimes even contributed to the story. Indeed, Howard Rheingold, the host of the "Mind" conference on the WELL, responded by setting up a separate topic to discuss Uncle Roger.

Howard's introduction to "Topic 15: Feedback re: Uncle Roger was: "Yow! What else can we say about Uncle Roger as he unfolds:"

A decade later, in 1995, when I began writing The Roar of Destiny, I posted each lexia on the World Wide Web in a similar way -- ie I "published" each screen shortly after it was written.

Every week I wrote and uploaded several lexias -- usually in the form of a three or 4 lexia "loop". I also rewrote and replaced earlier screens. Each lexia was woven onto the existing ones with a complex system of links. Like the changes in a continually tended and planted public garden, the changes and additions that I made in The Roar of Destiny were probably not always obvious to the observer. The reader did not encounter a series of chapters of a serialized story, but rather was continually aware of a changing environment.

Public web writing is less "immediate" than writing within a conferencing system. (such as the Interactive Art Conference on Arts Wire where l0ve0ne and the collaborative name is scibe were initially written) Gone, on the web, is the instantaneous audience reaction and the small town feeling of knowing who your audience is, of sometimes playing to that audience in a performance sense. Web writing is also less immediate than the performative narratives that are possible in Moo's -- such as the Ocatillo Files that I performed in LambdaMoo in 1993. [7]

On the plus side, because the goal is hypertext, web told public literature evolves in a more natural way -- ie the work can grow without the sequential constraints inherent in posting to a conference. And the reader who wishes can easily communicate by email with the author.

Although no one commented on my changing of the narrator's name from Sarah to Gweneth in the midst of the story, I did receive email about The Roar of Destiny. Also, wonderfully, I sometimes discovered linked references to it -- for instance in a web tutorial as an example of purposeful circular linking.

Virtual Adventures/Virtually Told

It has been predicted that as the web becomes more of a "push" medium, large entities will throw huge streams of multimedia at docile users who will visit their sites and remain there as television viewers do.

I prefer to believe web users are becoming accustomed to the freedom to wander interactively, to discover unusual, unexpected information, and to self publish in a globally distributed medium where many kinds of writing that take advantage of the computer's ability to manipulate narrative data, are continually emerging.

The Internet is a far more speech-enhancing medium than print, the village greens, or the mails," wrote judge Stewart Dalzell, one of three Federal judges who declared the Computer Decency Act (CDA) unconstitutional on June 12, 1996." ......It is no exaggeration to conclude that the Internet has achieved, and continues to achieve, the most participatory marketplace of mass speech that this country -- and indeed the world -- has yet seen." [8]


1. Malloy, Judy "Uncle Roger, an online narrabase", Leonardo 24 (2):195-202, 1991

2. Hayles, N. Katherine, "Situating Narrative in an Ecology of New Media", Technocriticism and Hypernarrative, MFS Modern Fiction Studies 43:3, Fall 1997.

3. Joyce, Michael, Of Two Minds, University of Michigan Press, 1995 p. 31. Written in 1987, afternoon, a story was published in 1990 by Eastgate Systems.

4. G. P. Landow, Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992 Landow refers to screens of text -- the basic hypertextual building blocks -- as "lexias".

5. Rosenberg, Jim, "The Structure of Hypertext Activity", Hypertext'96, The Seventh ACM Conference on Hypertext, Washington, DC, March 16-20, 1996 pp. 22-30

6. Odin, Jaishree K., "The Edge of Difference: Negotiations Between the Hypertextual and the Postcolonial." MFS Modern Fiction Studies 43:3, Fall 1997. pp. 598-630

7. Malloy, Judy "Narrative Structures in LambdaMOO" in: In Search of Innovation: The Xerox PARC THE PAIR PROJECT. MIT Press, 1998, ed. Craig Harris.

8. Malloy, Judy, "CDA Overturned", Arts Wire Current, June 17, 1996

last update January 18, 2013