Designing Story DNA

Pic of Alice brain represented as spiral. Reprinted with kind permission of Richard Wallace, 2001.For those who follow the comments threads of this blog, you’ll know that Richard Wallace posted about “territories of language” and the visualisation of Alice’s brain. The various images display the categories of the Alicebot brain (the AIML) according to the amount of categories, how the patterns are linked, the same word start points and so on. This post is about an idea that I’ve been experimenting with for a while and am keen to find out about other examples…What if dialogue were input to Alice with the aim to create a particular shape in the visual representation? Or, to bring it back to stories in general (and they way I started on this mode of content creation), what if you plotted a story according to the shape a visual representation of it looks like?

Screenshot of Diane Greco's Cyborg: Engineering the Body Electric from Eastgate website.Before I continue, I’ll outline a few related concepts. Jeremy’s recent post about flowchart art explores the telling of stories through images that are displayed in a flowchart style. Many of the readers of this blog would be familiar with spatial hypertext works and software such as Eastgate’s Storyspace (see pic). You may also be familiar with what has become known as Freytag’s Triangle (see pic) and Brenda Laurel’s interactive extrapolation (Laurel, 1993). These are visual representations of the abstract structures of a story — how the drama should “rise”.

Freytag's Triangle representation by Barbara F. McManus

There is also the many plot graphs created to illustrate how a hypertextual story is mapped: maze, nodal etc. Marie-Laure Ryan describes seven ways in which the user can traverse plot (Ryan, 2001). Ryan’s “directed network or flow chart” is picture here (ibid., 252).

Marie-Laure Ryan's

There is also the visual mapping of the screens in work documents for CD-Roms and games. Many would also be familiar with mind mapping software and visualisation software (see these amazing resources: Visual Complexity & Infosthetics). These visual representations are usually functional: seeing hyperlinks and abstract connections, seeing the relationships and hierarchy and order of (story) nodes. They assist in the story creation but don’t usually impact the story design as such. [Take the argument that the means of creation influences the creation process and therefore the end result, as a given.]

What I’m interested in how visual elements influence the writing directly, a form of constrained writing. CW, is when the writer’s output is constrained by rules the writer imposes. Usually these rules are to do with language. For instance, George’s Perec’s 1969 novel, La Disparition, has no letter “e”, which is the “lipogram” technique. One can play with alliteratives, reverse-lipograms, and acrostics. Noel Arnaud played with phonetics, J. Queval created “isosyntatic novels”, J.Bens’s played with numerals (Berge, 1973). A extreme example of constraining with numerals is Mike Keith’s 1996 short story, Cadaeic Cadenza, where pi is the ruling algorithm. And of course, there is the Oulipo movement, exemplified by Francois Le Lionnais and Raymond Queneau (and his pivotal work: 100,000,000,000,000 Poems).What about constraining with images, with geometry? Some examples:

  • The internal journey of the character is scripted according to the points on a real map, along a certain path to a location in the story or just resonating with the writer’s own memories. A curve in the road on the map could dictate twists in the story; the distance between towns could dictate length between plot points and so on.
  • Characters in a scene could move around a room according to a particular crystal structure; or interact with each other according to some fractals.
  • I’m writing a story in which events in the story, their nature and order, are dictated by the Kabbalist’s Tree of Life.

Story DNAThe picture to my left is an illustration of the last example. Each section of the Tree of Life influences the theme, concern and order of sections in the text. Obviously, one’s choices are arbitrary, it is a creative, improvised set of rules the writer assigns to the image map. And, the reader never sees this background work, it is something purely for the creator and what you create. I like to think of this interaction-design as an artwork in itself though. I also see it as a kind of story DNA, akin to computer code in its “invocational” nature (ala Chris Chesner).

I’m interested in other examples of this approach being used. I’m sure there is plenty throughout time, and many I’ve read about, but have forgotten.


Berge, Claude. “For a Potential Analysis of Combinatory Literature” in Motte (1986), 115-125. From the French “Pour une analyse potentielle de la litterature combinatoire.” La Litterature potentiaelle, Paris: Gallimard, 1973. Sourced from: Wardrip-Fruin, N. and N. Montfort (2003) The NewMediaReader, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.
Laurel, B. (1993) Computers as Theatre, Addison-Wesley Pub. Co., Reading, Mass.

Ryan, M.-L. (2001) ‘Can Coherence be Saved?’ in Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media (Ed, Ryan, M.-L.) Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, pp. 242-270

5 Responses to “Designing Story DNA”

  1. 1 Christy Dena

    Mark Bernstein responds on his blog:

    Christy Dena explores spatial hypertext with respect to constrained writing — things like the Oulipo game of writing stories without the letter ‘e’.

    The obvious work to turn to in this area is Deena Larsen’s Samplers: nine vicious little hypertexts. Each of Larsen’s stories is arranged in the form of a traditional American quilt, and each turns conventional American life inside out in very strange ways. A young American, teaching English in Japan, is assaulted and her experience with the police is not what she expects. A former nun returns to the convent school and sits on a bench where she used to sit all the time with her best friend, a Jew. Here’s one of the Storyspace maps, from “Century Cross”:

  2. 2 Jeremy Douglass

    Christy, this concept of a story as having “DNA” (atomic units, nodes, chunks, lexias, etc.) really compliments the concept of a story as structured, and as traversed through flow - it is hard to think of the matter of story DNA absent the energy and movement of pattern or flow, just as it is hard to think of that energy absent the matter.

    Is your Kabbalist-structured story a hypermedia or crossmedia work? What are you planning on doing with it when it is done?

  3. 3 Christy Dena

    Hey Jeremy. Thanks for taking an interest in my project. It is a cross-media work that is in print and online, with a chatbot. It was intended as a larger peice and so that is why it has taken so long. I have also felt an uncanny obligation as a science-fiction writer to ensure I pave the way for a good future, where robots are friends and helpers, not foes, and where I outline ways to helping the planet stay alive and well and not disintegrate. I feel that science-fictions writers, because their ideas are so helpful to scientists and those contemplating what to do in circumstances only the writers have forsee, have an obligation to give good advice on right action in future dilemmas. But that is another story. :)

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