We Design Stories: The Digital Fiction of Six to Start

Filed Under: Article , Voice

One of the worst things you can do to a book is drag it online and just put it there, with no attention to web-based reading habits, possibilities for interaction or innovative design. One of the best things you can do, though, is acknowledge these three things and craft what the London-based company Six to Start calls experience design with respect to reading. The company, known for its work with alternate reality games, worked with Penguin UK to produce six web-based interactive stories by six contemporary authors, who used six classic titles from the Penguin library as starting points. Continuing the “six” theme, they used six different Web 2.0 platforms through which to tell the stories, which were released across six weeks.

Homepage for the We Tell Stories website.

Dan Hon and Adrian Hon lead Six to Start. Prior to creating We Tell Stories for Penguin, they did design and production for the popular ARG Perplex City, and indeed, the pair was interested in deploying the techniques that make ARGs so compelling in the six interactive fiction projects. However, they also had a number of needs to satisfy: Penguin hoped to reinvigorate interest in the six classics selected as starting points, but also wanted to showcase six contemporary authors with upcoming projects as a way of building attention. The publisher wanted to investigate new storytelling methods while also reaching people who might not read traditional books at all, but could find their way to the classic titles via the interactive projects. “We weren't interested in this as only a marketing project,” explains Six to Start CEO Dan Hon. “We wanted to experiment and see if we could genuinely break new ground online.”

A screenshot from The 21 Steps.

The most compelling of the six projects is The 21 Steps, written by Charles Cumming and based on the 1915 novel The 39 Steps by John Buchan. The story is a fast-paced account of intrigue and deception told through Google Maps. “Google has such a terrific interface,” says Hon, “but people have only been using it with data and annotation. What if we used it for dramatic information?” The Six to Start team decided to literally “map” Cumming's story, using the small annotation boxes for snippets of text and then illustrating movement of the main character with a blue line. As users click through bits of the story, the blue line traces the protagonist's trajectory, and the result is a story that is at once text-based but includes a temporal dimension—we watch in real time as movement takes place—as well as an information dimension as the Google tool is, in a sense, hacked for storytelling. One of the pleasures of the project is precisely in recognizing the original Google Maps framework as it is reinvented through narrative.

A character's blog from Slice.

Three voices make up Slice—written by Toby Litt and based on The Haunted Dolls' House by M. R. James, first published in 1923—to tell the story of a young girl, recently relocated to London with her mom and dad, who finds an unusual doll house in her new bedroom. The story is perhaps the least visually interesting as it is told via blog entries and Twitter posts that appeared during the project's presentation week. However, like The 21 Steps, the story's pleasure comes in how it reinvents a common networking tool as a storytelling practice, and during its “live” presentation, allowed a kind of interaction with the characters that has great potential for narrative. “To be honest, we hadn't really thought through what to do when people began interacting with the characters,” admits Hon. “We had a production assistant respond, and being able to interact with the characters this way was very powerful for the audience.”

Each of the other stories adopts a different storytelling mode. For the story titled Your Place and Mine, which is based on Émile Zola's Thérèse Raquin and was written by the duo known as Nicci French, Hon says the idea was “to think about storytelling as performance art.” In this case, the story appeared “live” on a website as the authors typed it, with the two characters—a man and a woman with very different takes on a relationship that blossoms and then quickly fades —each offering their version of the story. Fairy Tales by Kevin Brooks, based on the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, opts for interactivity in allowing readers to customize the story and to make choices about how the story unfolds, while The (Former) General, by Moshin Hamid and based on Tales From the 1001 Nights, uses a choose-your-own-adventure structure, allowing readers to see the diagram of the story as they opt for different paths. Finally, Hard Times, written by Matt Mason and based on the novel by Charles Dickens, reports on contemporary times with a focus on statistics and factoids represented graphically through the vision of designer Nicholas Felton. Part comic book and part infographics, the book is perhaps the least reliant on its web-based delivery—in fact, it would be beautiful as a printed object—but reflects new modes of writing and design that are definitely inflected by our immersion in a networked milieu. A seventh story, Alice, plays out as an alternate reality narrative that emerges through clues interspersed in the other six stories; the idea here was partly to unite the six stories in an integrated way, as well as to bring in an ARG audience.

(clockwise from top left) Screens from Fairy Tales, The (Former) General, Your Place and Mine and Hard Times.

Ultimately, each story is an experiment and reflects the ways in which publishing is reinventing itself, rethinking business models, emerging forms, cultural needs and, perhaps most significantly, design issues as the book blossoms from its traditional format as text on pages into new, experience-based explorations. For Six to Start, the experimentation centers on an attention economy and the ways in which traditional media forms need to consider how to gain and hold the interest of busy people. “Like every other industry that is focused on people's time, the book industry has to work much harder to capture readers,” says Hon. “Publishers are competing with anyone else who takes up your time and they're asking themselves how to stay relevant.” These six digital fiction experiments point to the integration of design in—and as—writing, suggesting their inseparability and at least one potential direction toward new relevance.