Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Temporal Order & Narrative Design

One of the biggest challenges in writing for transmedia narratives is figuring out how to handle the contradiction between the inherently linear nature of narratives and non-linear nature of transmedia. Understanding temporal ordering as it relates to narrative design is an important aspect of the overall transmedia narrative design process.

Most definitions of “narrative” and “story” refer to a sequence of events. This implies a temporal order to the events – this happened, then this happened, and then this. A defining characteristic of narrative is that there is a sense of the precedence of the event; that the event or events occurred prior to the telling of the story and that the story was already there, in place to be rendered (Abbott, 2005, p. 535).
As a form of telling, narrative exists in time; a narrative takes time to tell and tells about a sequence of events in time. (McClean, 2007, p. 193)
Because traditional narrative has been structured on the sequential recounting of events, the traditional narrative form is essentially linear.
Although some have considered the notion of nonlinearity as a narrative form, the dominant structure in commercial feature-length film remains faithful to Aristotle’s beginning-middle-end, even if in some instances the syuzhet is such that only in the last frames is the spectator in a position to make the linkages form the whole. In commercial cinema, the whole itself, however its problems are presented, most often will conform to the classical narrative structure. (McClean, 2007, p. 29)
A variety of techniques have been developed to modify the apparent temporal ordering of events and manipulate the sense of time in both written and cinematic forms of narrative. These techniques include the “flashback” and “flashforward” used in both novels and film. Film, a linear form of narrative because its very nature requires the projection of a sequence of frames at a specific number of frames per second, has developed a number of techniques for manipulating the sense of temporal ordering in a narrative. In addition to flashbacks and flash forwards, these techniques include (Van Sijll, 2005):
  • Slow motion (time expansion)
  • Fast motion (time compression)
  • Freeze frame (stopping time)
  • Intercutting (showing simultaneous events in sequential time)

Source: Peter von Stackelberg
Events in a linear narrative are in a fixed temporal order.

The flexibility of transmedia narratives makes it possible to present events in any order. Interfering with the linear sequencing of a narrative, however, can impede the viewer’s ability to understand the meaning of the narrative. Issues of temporal ordering in narratives are tightly linked with user interactivity. Ryan stated: “Interactivity breaks the linear flow of narrative and removes control from the designer.” (Ryan, 2005, p. 515).
Nonlinear narratives give readers options of where to go and what to do within the narrative. There are two main categories of nonlinear narratives – open world (see Figure 5) and branching (McIntosh, Cohn, & Grace, 2010) – that are often incorporated into games.
The open world often means the player is able to encounter different parts of the overall story in whatever order they choose, or the player is able to access smaller, more isolated side stories in whatever order they choose (McIntosh, Cohn, & Grace, 2010).
The open world approach is typically used in “quest” type games in which missions can be carried out in any order.
Branching nonlinear stories are generally thought of as one of two styles: 1) a tree that branches out with different end points; or 2) plot lines that converge or diverge like parallel roads to the same destination (McIntosh, Cohn, & Grace, 2010).
Stories that branch to different end points are difficult to implement because the combination of possible endings rapidly multiplies as the number of decision points increases, causing significant programming and asset management challenges (McIntosh, Cohn, & Grace, 2010). Stories that use the parallel narrative approach can provide users with numerous options but because the story lines converge back to key plot points, the number of possible paths and end points are more easily controlled, making programming and asset management significantly easier (McIntosh, Cohn, & Grace, 2010).
Nonlinear narratives have a number of inherent challenges. From a production perspective, nonlinear narratives require more time and resources to design and develop because they need to accommodate every possible choice made available to the user, resulting in more difficult development and greater expense (McIntosh, Cohn, & Grace, 2010). Experiments with hypermedia in the 1980s and 1990s produced a number of attempts at non-linear narratives, but as a form of writing they were not a great commercial success.
Hypertexts sacrifice [a] dimension of literary narrative, namely the reader’s immersion in the stream of narrative time. The fragmentation of the hypertext format stands in the way of the feverish anticipation that we call ‘reading for plot’. There are no thrillers, no suspense stories, no dramatic curves of rising and falling tension in hypertext fiction. (Ryan, 2005, p. 522)

Source: Peter von Stackelberg
Open worlds allow readers to access the events in the narrative in any order.

Source: Peter von Stackelberg
Branching narratives have a temporal sequence but users are able to make choices at certain decision points.

Source: Peter von Stackelberg

Parallel narratives allow users choices but eventually converge back to key events.

The creation of suspense in narrative is “highly dependent on the management of what the reader knows and does not know at each moment of the reading experience” (Ryan, 2005, p. 522). When the reader decides the sequence in which the narrative is read, the author loses the ability to control the disclosure of information and the revelation of the story’s plot.

Since it is regulated by the one-directional relations of causality, psychological motivation, and temporal sequence, narrative meaning cannot be freely created by the reader, and it cannot emerge from a partially random combination of textual fragments. (Ryan, 2005, p. 523)
The control of information – what is disclosed to the reader and when – is considered a key aspect in the creation of interesting transmedia experiences.
The key to an interesting transmedia experience is to not give anything away. Rather than providing the entire website, begin by reading the book. Then provide the website and see if they can figure out the password to get in. Once they learn about shipbreaking today, get them to think of other topics that could be used as the foundation for a story. (Lamb & Johnson, n.d.)
Spatial ordering of events is an important aspect of creating a narrative. Spatial ordering entails the creation of places, entities, and paths of motion in space. In order to make sense of the story, use spatial information to build and update cognitive maps of the storyworld (Ryan, Introduction, 2004, p. 64). Ryan said that authors of narratives need to rely on the reader’s “basic capacity for spatial navigation and their general knowledge of how to navigate particular aspects of the world” (Ryan, Introduction, 2004, p. 66).

While games give users considerably more flexibility in terms of interactions, temporal ordering is still an important consideration. Games are almost always structured to play out chronologically.
Flash-forwards are highly problematic, since to describe events-to-come would mean the player’s actions did not really matter. Using cut-scenes or in-game artifacts, it is possible to describe events that led to the current fictional time, but an interactive flashback leads to the time machine problem: The player’s actions in the past may suddenly render the present impossible. This is the reason why time in games is almost always chronological. (Juul, 2005, p. 148)
Richard Saul Wurman said there was a finite number of ways – five specifically – to organize information: time, location, alphabetically, by category, and in hierarchies (Wurman, 2001, pp. 40-41).
Each way of organizing permits a different understanding; each lends itself to different kinds of information; and each has certain reassuring limitations that will help make the choices of how the information is presented easier. (Wurman, 2001, pp. 40-41)
Time works best as a way to organize information about events that happen over fixed durations. Time is also an easily understood framework from which changes can be observed and comparisons made (Wurman, 2001, pp. 40-41). Location is “the natural form to choose when you are trying to examine and compare information that comes from diverse sources of locales” (Wurman, 2001, pp. 40-41).

When you arrange information, the structure you create will save you the frustration of juggling unconnected parts…Understanding the structure and organization of information permits you to extract value and significance from it.” (Wurman, 2001, p. 42)
Jenkins said that any given product in a transmedia storyworld should be able to serve as a “point of entry into the franchise as a whole” (Jenkins, 2006, p. 96). However, he notes that too much may have been made of the “non-linear nature of the transmedia experience” (Jenkins, Purushotma, Weigel, Clintion, & Robison, 2009).

Although transmedia technology makes it possible to express a story in any temporal or spatial order, the demands of narrative may push many transmedia narratives to a more linear structure.

If you are going to take a world and express it through multiple media at the same time, you might need to express it sequentially. You may need to lead people into a deep love of the story. Maybe it starts with a game and then a film and then television. You are building a relationship with the world rather than trying to put it all out there at once. (Jenkins, 2006, p. 126)

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