Dinosaur Comics panel from comic 415- Turn to page 32 to be spooked by the spooky ghost! Turn to page 14 if you'd rather see the same ghost and be TERRIFIED!

A recent episode of Dinosaur Comics wittily mocks tell-not-show writing styles, with main character T-Rex reformatting his poorly written story as a CYOA “if that is the format I have to use to tell my readers that they’re scared!”

CYOA is not the only format for instructing one’s readers on how to feel, of course. Even without counting distinctive second-person passages like Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night, A Traveler, ruptures out of third person into direct address to the reader occur comonly throughout the history of the novel (Kinbote’s instructions to the reader in Valdimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire are some of my favorites). Yet there is a paradox that may be unique to straight second-person narration: On the one hand, it is the narrative mode of interactive media and of agency, liberating the reader from linear narrative into a world of choices. On the other hand, it enables authors to engage in direct instruction on the reader-protagonist’s internal state (declarations of feeling, motivation, etc.) in a way that would be appear unacceptably domineering and controlling in another genre.

CYOA and IF share two main characteristics - each genre has an interactivity mechanism, and each genre is predominantly comprised of second-person narratives. By contrast, every other genre of fiction is dominated by third-person narration. The problem of enabling interactivity or agency and the problem of dominating or dictating to the reader seem inextricable. This may boil down to the problem of Choice itself - to provide choice is simultaneously to constrain and limit the terms and conditions under which the chooser may act.

This problem of personal choice is precisely what Hypertext Fiction escapes through a link mechanism that emphasizes blind navigation (rather than participatory action, as was emphasized in CYOA links) and the corresponding predominance of third-person narration - a traditional mode that helped make Eastgate “serious” - which is to say, recognizeably literary.

For a great essay that focuses more on the distinctions between IF and Hypertext, read “Do you want to hear about it?” The Use of the Second Person in Electronic Fiction (1999), by ssf and hyperfiction author Ruth Nestvold. While we have perpendicular approaches, this post and that article are in many senses complimentary.

For a more general survey of the second person, Dennis Schofield’s fantastic thesis project The Second Person: A Point of View? The Function of the Second-Person Pronoun in Narrative Prose Fiction (1998) is available online. It is focused on print, but the bibliography alone is worth checking out.

Transcript of Dinosaur Comic: September 7, 2004

Panel 1

T-Rex: I have written the spookiest ghost story ever! It is called “The Man Who Died And Came Back As A Ghost.”

Panel 2

T-Rex: It’s spooky! It says so in the first sentence!

Panel 3

T-Rex: It says, “It was a spooky night, with a ghost! The ghost was the spookiest ghost in the world, and he was so spooky that if you saw him you’d be scared, for real!”

Dromamicus: (unimpressed look)

T-Rex: The, um

T-Rex: The next paragraph is “BOO!”

Panel 4

Utahraptor: T-Rex, you have to make your readers feel scared! You just can’t tell them they’re scared.

T-Rex: Sure I can!

Panel 5

T-Rex: “The ghost explains that even if you were just reading about these events later, you’d still be scared. You realize with a chill that he is right.”

Utahraptor: It’s a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book?

T-Rex: It is now! It is if that is the format I have to use to tell my readers that they’re scared!

Panel 6


T-Rex:Turn to page 32 to be spooked by the spooky ghost! Turn to page 14 if you’d rather see the same ghost and be TERRIFIED!

2 Responses to “Interactivity Culture Watch: Dinosaur Comics and CYOA”

  1. 1 Christy Dena

    I really like what you talk about here Jeremy. I’ll be back with some considered comments. But for now, I’ll add to the POV links with this online test.

  2. 2 Mark Marino

    I wonder if first and third person shooters don’t tell the user how they’re feeling. I seem to remember a game, was it James Bond, where as my character got weaker, control and visuals changed, indicating that my character was feeling week. This is different than print telling you something, yet somehow the same.

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