The Form and Function of We Tell Stories

So far I’ve been very, very impressed with the way Penguin has been doing We Tell Stories. I thought week one was a nifty idea, presenting a narrative on Google Maps, but it wasn’t something mind-blowing because I’d seen it done on a blog before. My lack of faith was exposed two weeks later, with week 2 and week 3’s stories. Both blew me away. Here’s a look at the various forms We Tell Stories has been done in the past few weeks.

Week One’s story is a thriller built around Google Maps. This presentation style allows Charles Cumming the freedom to dispense with lengthy setting description and focus on the action. It works. I found myself impatiently watching the main character moving from point to point on the map, and the snappy, sparse narrative kept me glued to my seat. There’s a plus side to all of this: Google Maps has provided Cumming with a visual element and an easy level of realism not available to normal books. I could see how the main character escapes from the police in a dinghy, I could tell how far away the locations were from each other, I could even follow the character on a (very lengthy) train ride around London. Promising stuff, this. Technology used: Ajax, the Google Maps API, lots and lots of javascript.Slice - Penguin We Tell StoriesWeek Two is done in a medium familiar to Novelr: blogs and twitter. Nothing particularly revolutionary going on here – both the blogs had cookie cutter templates and weren’t very enjoyable to read, and the story wasn’t good. But the interesting thing about these two blogs were the way the characters interacted with the readers. Some twitter posts were made in response to reader questions, and comments were answered in the blogs, in character. Since Lisa (the daughter) went missing in the middle of the story we had a few readers helpfully pointing out her blog and giving suggestions as to where to look for her … which they responded to. Technology used: Twitter, WordPress and Livejournal.Once Upon A Time - Penguin We Tell StoriesWeek Three is where I started really taking notice. I was confused when prompted by the story to input a name for the Princess, so I entered the first name that came to mind (Samantha). Then I realized the story was interactive. It reminded me of the Choose Your Own Adventure novels I read as a kid – though it’s weird that they wanted to do one here in the project. The story was lightweight, fluffy (none of the choices you make have much effect on the way things play out), but it was all very enjoyable. I had a smile on my face as I reached the options for the ending – all of them unhappy ones. Technology used: CSS for the styling, javascript, some backend code which I suspect to be CGI.Your Place And Mine - Penguin We Tell StoriesWeek Four is the latest story so far, and its presentation isn’t as interesting as to how it’s being written. Live, for the next four days, Nicci French will be writing the story 6:30 pm London time (1:30 am for me, or so the site says) and you’ll get to follow them as they work their craft. It’s too early in the morning for me to tune in and see how it’s being implemented (does the page update itself Ajax-style when the authors post?) so I can’t really comment on the technology behind it. And it’s a love story. Don’t we all just worship love stories?

Last week James Smythe wrote a hilarious post retelling how one of the readers of We Tell Stories contacted him, thinking he was a fictional character connected to the secret, 7th story. It’s worth noting that the ARG (Alternative Reality Game) part of We Tell Stories is alive and kicking behind the scenes – I’ve found a forum full of dedicated people hunting down Alice (yes, that Alice of Looking Glass and Wonderland fame) on the Internet. They’ve progressed quite a bit – so far the clues have led them to a statue, a blog and a list of train station names. I’m very happy following their hunt from the comforts of my armchair.

PS: on the We Tell Stories front page, click the rabbit for a little trip down the rabbit hole.

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Category: News · Publishing
  • http://mortalghost.blogspot.com Lee

    And I’ve stopped reading. If this is the future of online narrative, it’s got a looong way to go before it becomes an art form. I’m a bit discouraged.

  • http://www.thinkartificial.org Hrafn

    I love the idea of using Gmaps for storytelling. ‘ll have to check it out! Thanks for the overview, great write-up.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Lee: why ever so?

    @Hrafn: You’re welcomed. Glad to see you like it.

  • http://obtrusive.blogspot.com Sebatinsky

    I’m very glad that you’ve gone ahead and written this review, because, frankly, I wasn’t terribly intrigued by “We Tell Stories,” and probably wouldn’t have read them at all otherwise. I’ve now gone ahead and read “The 21 Steps,” and I’ll probably continue on to read the others.

    I admit that I enjoyed the use google maps as a medium, especially as I’ve been spending a lot of time there researching a story of my own.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    I’m glad to hear that, Sebastianky. Didn’t actually want to write this review, because I thought it’d be a waste of time, but now I see it’s at least done some good.