Into the Unknown

We’re pulled into stories because of unresolved questions. As Ira Glass demonstrates, even a story about nothing, an average man in a quiet house, can be made compelling if it is framed and structured in a way that makes the audience ask questions. By calling the silence in the house unnatural, it primes the audience that there’s something intriguing, something unusual about the silence. And if the silence is unusual, then logically there should be a reason for why it’s so quiet. The very fact that a story is being told suggests (but doesn’t guarantee) that there is a point, a reason, as Ira Glass says “for wasting their time.” So the audience wants to know what that reason is, and it gets reinforced by the reiterations of how silent the house is.

The story remains interesting for the rest of the example as the man gets out of bed and goes down stairs in part because that question is reinforced but also because there is a sense of progress (the man moving through the house) which assures the audience that they will get an answer to their question. Of course, there is no resolution in Ira’s example, but we can see how even something unassuming as a man in an oddly quiet house can be made intriguing.

J.J. Abrams expands on that with his talk about The Mystery Box. Just like they always say with horror movies, the less you show the monster the better, and similar to McClouds theory about how we can project more onto simplified, iconic faces, giving the audience the room to start wondering about their questions allows them to get themselves involved in the story.

I find that digital literature both excels and struggles with this, especially with hypertext fiction. The work usually begins in medias res and due to the non-linear method of storytelling becomes fragmented: the audience isn’t given all the information they need in the order in which is most convenient for them to get it. Instead, the user needs to either seek out that information or wait for it to be presented. In works like afternoon, a story the pieces at first lack context to such a degree as to being almost meaningless, but as the user reads more and more lexia, they start to make connections. Characters begin to be recognized, themes emerge, and a causal narrative can begin to be pieced together.

This initial disorientation can be great, because it leaves the audience with questions and the desire for answers which makes them more engaged. However, this also needs to be tempered with assurance that the resolution will be satisfactory. If Ira Glass continued his story with the man exploring his quiet house and nothing happened, eventually the audience will get bored. I experienced this with J.J. Abrams’ show Lost, where I was very engaged during the first couple seasons because I wanted my questions answered, but by the third season the answers the show provided felt unsatisfactory and were quickly replaced with new questions, which resolved just as disappointingly.

It’s a balancing act in the end, keeping the audience intrigued by raising questions without becoming frustrating or confusing, but keeping them invested by providing just enough answers so that it doesn’t feel pointless. This can be difficult in interactive media because the author has given up the tailored experience for the audience to be able to interact with the story, and the cycle of questions and answers becomes more delicate. However, it could also allow the audience to choose whichever lead intrigues them most. This is why, even though I love combinatory poetics and storytelling and their emergent aspects, the self-driven aspect of hypermedia I think is a better fit for my final project.

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