An Open Letter to John Truby on Branching Stories: Field Report from the Internet
Dear Mr. Truby,
I’ve been experimenting with what you call “branching stories” in your book The Anatomy of Story (I call them “fractured stories”; same idea) for the last couple of years. I recently launched this website to house them, and after a few years of noodling, plus feedback coming from readers, I’ve learned a few lessons and had some new insights.
Here’s what I’ve found.
If a story is branching in this “fraxtory” medium such that it can be read in any order, there is a significant writing challenge involved: that of maintaining narrative tension throughout any given path a reader takes. This is what I discovered as I pieced the scenes for “Denouement” together on a large sheet of (real) paper tacked to the wall. I realized I would have to “sew” them together in such a way as to keep from spoiling the so-called ending of the story in any single branch. Instead of building tension in a single branch, I’d have to spread it out across multiple branches.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that this diagram represents your traditional, linear story arc:
If so, then this diagram represents “Denouement” (my story by that title, not the element in a story arc):
And this one represents the other story on this site, “Frit”:
Maintaining narrative tension across all arcs simultaneously was a fun and worthwhile challenge because…
Item #1 above effectively forces all unnecessary sections of the story out. It’s a built-in editor: if a “page” isn’t serving some kind of connecting purpose, it simply won’t be connectable, and out it goes. “Denouement,” for example, weighs in as a Word doc at about 18,000 words. In earlier drafts, it had as many as 30,000 words.
Now that I have built this site and experimented with writing and receiving feedback on these two fractured stories, I have some thoughts on how to evolve the format. Right now, we have a pretty literal website structure in each of the stories that are live on the Fraxtory website: here’s the home page, click the links, and follow the story. There is even an information architecture to use as a story map (example here), which is exactly how your standard website, such as for a business or brand, is organized.
However, I now see that this literal linking style may not be necessary at all, and even that an improved UX could be realized with a map like this:
in which each green rectangle symbolizes a page, and which serves as the map with which you, the reader, actually interact. In other words, there are no links from page to page, but simply this map that serves as the reader’s diving board from which s/he can jump into the pool, climb out, and jump in at a different spot, still in any desired order. (By the way, there is no reason one needs these icons to be rectangular or in any way reminiscent of a paper page; they could be little pictograms or “chapter titles” or anything at all.)
So that’s what I’m planning for the story I’m currently working on. Of course, this raises the bar yet again w/r/t items #1 and 2, because now the narrative tension will have to be maintained not just along a controlled number of paths, but throughout any random exploration of the story.
Ironically, my commitment to the fractured story over the last few years gave me deep respect for the screenplay of Her, which maintains the narrative tension effectively along a single strand, with only a small subplot and no veering from the main character’s experience. That’s a skill I suspect I’ll want to explore in the coming years, as my own little pendulum of artistic exploration is likely to swing back someday.