Academic Exchange Quarterly     Fall   2005    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  9, Issue  3

To cite, use print source rather than  this on-line version which  may not  reflect print copy format requirements or   text lay-out and pagination.


Teaching the Hypertext Novel


Matthew Roberson, Central Michigan University


Dr. Roberson is Assistant Professor of English at Central Michigan University.



How can students learn to negotiate the non-linear structures, multiple, divergent readings, and open-ended narratives of hypertext fiction?  How can they study electronic texts to understand narrative elements and their effects on readers?  This paper discusses pedagogical strategies for helping beginners read this genre, as well as how new media texts encourage creative inspiration, growth of writing craft, and students’ understanding of cultural effects of technology.



However intimidated my students feel anticipating our study of a hypertext novel, it takes no more than a little description of what we’ll engage to make them comfortable. [1]  After all, a hypertext novel is exactly what it claims to be: a novel that’s built with hypertext—the very same sort of text that they and you and I surf on the internet.  Once reassured, they then typically have the same question.  You mean we’re going to read this entire book on the computer screen? 


It’s not that uncomfortable, and it is worth it.


Let me take one step back and explain the hypertext novel more fully.  As described, such a novel is a text with links throughout.  The text is not an extended document, but rather a series of interconnected writing spaces—autonomous text windows that typically run less than a page.  Each writing space is titled and contains from one to several of the links mentioned above.  The links tie each writing space to another, and sometimes several others.  In some cases, one link will lead in different directions at different times, depending on how the initial link was reached.  But no more on this.  Suffice to say, a hypertext novel takes shape in the reading in part through the linking choices a reader makes as she moves from writing space to writing space.  It’s probably also important to mention that most hypertexts nowadays are hypermedia texts, complete with still and moving images—which are sometimes interactive—and sound.


There are also a few important differences between the hypertext environment of a web page and that of StorySpace, the application with which most hypertext novels are written and read.  Many of these differences make the hypertext novel reading experience more manageable and productive.  For example, the StorySpace “save” function allows readers to preserve any given path they’ve traced through a hypertext novel and assign it a distinctive name.  This path can be restored and continued, or restored for any other function, such as comparison to other paths the reader carves into the novel.  The “notes” function allows readers to append marginal comments to any writing spaces to which they’d like to add specific notes.  Search functions allow readers to locate key words or phrases in the novel’s complete set of writing spaces, and roadmap functions allow them to create a variety of “maps” (as outlines or trees or flow charts) of the text’s fragmented bits. 


Once I provide my students with a description of hypertext novels similar to the one just offered (with a visual demonstration of StorySpace), they have more, and valid, questions.  Without page or chapter markers, how will they know how much to read for a given class?  Won’t each of them be reading different parts of the text, and how will we possibly talk about a text when we’re not really talking about the “same” text?  When will they know they’ve finished the novel?


In response, here’s what I ask them to do: Read for time periods, rather than page limits.  For example, I’ll ask them to read for three hours before every class meeting.  Assuming there’s not that huge a difference in their reading speeds, we’ll cover roughly the same number of writing spaces, even if they’re not the same writing spaces.  For the first and second class meetings, their readings should follow a relatively random form; students should take whatever links draw them along as they click through writing spaces.  After some time with this approach, they should focus their reading experiences through guidelines or constraints.  For example, they might perform several keyword searches (of particular character names, for example) and follow the writing spaces that emerge in relation to the keywords.  Or they might explore only certain paths grouped in an image.  For example, in Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, a contemporary, feminist telling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the reader confronts an image of the nude female body.   The different body parts link to different story paths.  I’ve had students focus on appendages and digits. 


In every instance, I ask that students keep detailed logs of the directions of their reading experiences and the constellations of literary elements they encounter.  I ask them to produce the first so that, when they describe the literary elements they’ve found, a narrative quality emerges.  In other words, as they come to terms with hypertexts, the students don’t only describe the relevant material they’ve found in the text, but tell a story of their readings of the “story.”  More on this, and its advantages, later.


So this is the reading process.  What happens in class, when we convene to discuss our reading experiences?  There is always, to be sure, at first, some confusion.  After that, there’s also always a fair amount of summary as students compare notes.  In this, though, there is less overlap than you’d expect; typically, one student’s recollection of what she encountered will trigger other students’ connected but often fairly dissimilar recollections.  That is, one student will have encountered character x in certain settings and situations; another student will have also encountered character x, but in wholly different circumstances, and discussion comes to sound like bystanders discussing a larger scene they’ve all witnessed differently.  And as students reveal different views of the text, their contributions come across not as spoilers but as intriguing hints of what other students will encounter—most often, I think, pushing students to speculate on how the story they’ve seen will connect to the stories others have found.  In all, this stage of discussion comes to resemble the piecing together of a jigsaw puzzle, with students offering up pieces that all hope to join together eventually. 


A couple of things worth noting: First, as students puzzle through the text in these conversations, they inevitably provide information about textual elements that only they have yet encountered, and they take temporary possession of these elements.  It’s as if, while they are the only ones privy to certain information in the novel, they own it, and are responsible for representing it to the class.  I can only sing the praises of this type of personal investment in a text.  Second—as mentioned earlier—students typically present their knowledge of the text in narrative form.  That is, they’ll let the class know that “I started here, and pursued link Z for this reason, and here’s what I discovered before following link Y, etc.”  Students listening can, first of all, easily follow this method of presentation.  But, more important, this process draws the class’s attention to the different reading methods one can bring to a text—or, in a larger sense, the process by which our minds engage and sort through data.  We learn not only about what’s been read, but how we read.


What else does hypertext literature offer the classroom?  It provides new vantages from which to study the discrete workings of both electronic and conventional texts, as well as the narrative potential inherent in every writing process.  It encourages analysis of the relationships of reader to texts and the relationships of texts to culture.  How does it do so?  The following points outline five ways:


A)  The hypertext novel gives readers a spatial model of narrative.  Rather than the mostly linear model provided on the printed page[2], it offers writing made of parts or pieces that can be manipulated and layered and organized and re-organized according to the reader’s interests or needs.  If, for example, a particular student wishes to see every instance of character L in a text, as well as the ways those instances link to each other and writing spaces not immediately about L but immediately connected for some reason (as in one link away), she can do so.  She can have all the relevant writing spaces open simultaneously on her screen, if she wishes, and she can choose from several different charts that will illustrate the ways the writing spaces circulate around each other.  And she’s not limited to character, but can track down plot points, settings, allusions, and so on.    What’s the value here?  The student can literally take a finished, polished text apart to see its constituent elements and where they emerge in the work as a whole.  She can perhaps also speculate on different ways this element could have been developed and connected to other parts of the text. 


B)  The hypertext novel invites and encourages different reading experiences that lead to different conclusions.  I mean this literally, and not as a way of saying different readers interpret the same text in multiple ways.  For example, it’s possible to read through Michael Joyce’s afternoon: a story in one instance (to a writing space from which there are no outbound links) and encounter the tale of a narrator who believes he has—driving to work one morning—seen the bodies of his estranged wife and child in a roadside accident, but is unwilling in the end to find out what he has truly seen.  A second reading introduces many of the same characters and story points, but also suggests the narrator’s guilt over an ongoing love affair has prompted the vision of his wife and son in the accident—again without resolving the “truth” of the matter.  And so it goes, with variations in every visit readers make. [3]  The benefit here emerges in the novel’s enactment of its potential—of the many ways it can satisfyingly unfold—which illustrates to students, for one thing, the dynamic possibilities of plot.  It’s as if they have, again, a finished, polished text, but one that branches off in many different ways on different readings and suggests the many ways the text—and any text—can be written.  Even more, it helps students see the vital junctures where multiple paths and plots and endings might diverge.  I’ll often push students to pursue this potential by asking them to write new narrative lines into the existing hypertext—to build their own “branches” from a particular juncture where readings of the text diverge significantly.


C)  As already mentioned, studying a hypertext novel encourages metacommentary—a student’s discussion of not just the text, but how she or he has engaged the text.  What does this provide?  In my experience, it generates an important critical standpoint from which students can view not just their reading positions and processes, but start to think about readers in general.  My creative writing students, in particular, carry this perspective to their own writing, broadening and deepening their understanding of and concern with how their narrative techniques will be received.  I don’t mean to suggest that it encourages them to write always with their possible audiences in mind.  I don’t either mean to suggest that it leads students to a focus on strategies or “tricks” with which they might manipulate readers, though I suppose this could be an outcome.   Rather, in the best possible world, it opens their eyes to the variety of ways readers engage characters or character types, for example, or the ways readers follow plot points onward through a narrative, or how readers have both good and bad responses to triggers in setting (for example, taking up a mood created by scene or feeling deadened by one), or—not to neglect those who might have an interest in confounding both readers and traditions—how readers feel enraged by certain characters, or how they feel intrigued or completely turned off by the lack of plot points.  This awareness, I would hope at least, can sink in with students, maybe even become what some like to call a writer’s instinct, and bubble up again un-self-consciously when necessary. 


D)  The hypertext novel requires a reader’s engagement.  Progress through a hypertext novel only occurs through a series of deliberate choices on the reader’s part.  She or he must decide what links to pursue to allow movement through the novel.  Even if, at worst, the reader defaults her way through the text (hitting return at every writing space, which will lead through a specific chain of links and writing spaces), a choice has still been made—one of laziness, maybe, or one of resistance to the hypertext project—and this still opens the door to consideration of the active relationship of reader to hypertext.  I use this consideration to open another conversation, the upshot of which is that the relationship between reader and hypertext is only an exaggerated version of a necessarily interactive relationship between a reader and conventional print texts.  Readers of all texts, after all, choose elements upon which to focus and consider.  What’s the point of this conversation?  On the one hand, this conversation helps undermine authorial intention by emphasizing that the final effect of a text exists in the connection between it and a reader, and, in the creative writing classroom, this helps shore up the necessary workshop agreement that a text must by itself succeed in its intentions, regardless of the author’s hopes for it.  More important, I argue to students that the most successful writing will often be that which contains the sort of richness, complexity, and multi-dimensionality (in character and plot and theme, to name a few things) that will not only draw a reader’s sometimes fickle, sometimes demanding attention, but draw from it serious thought about the text’s concerns and possibilities.


E)  And, of course, the hypertext novel brings our attention to the medium, which is, in no small part, the message.  Students need to recognize that the form and content of a work will inevitably be shaped by the technology of its production.  Why?   I believe that, on one level, every student must realize the incredible impact technologies—perhaps especially new media—have upon our lives.  We should all recognize this.  More practically, an understanding of the effect a medium has upon its texts can be of great use for the ever-increasing number of my students who plan to make their significant fortunes writing for television and film.  Finally, and most idealistically, I believe that an understanding of medium can be liberating for students.  Yes, new creative writers, for example, must attend to the traditions of literature, as well as to the rigors of their craft.  They need not, though, be slaves to these forces, or work slavishly to fulfill traditional forms, as often happens.  Opening their eyes—and the eyes of all students—to the historical, material, and contingent factors that created traditions can sometimes help students see through them, perhaps so they can feel freer to disrupt and modify them in the pursuit of something new, in a new medium perhaps, or perhaps so they can slip past them into who knows what, exactly.



I first taught hypertext literature, with some trepidation, because it seemed novel, and I wanted to introduce students to the innovative impulse that often drives strong, creative work.  After this first experience, I realized that hypertext literature would become a staple in my classrooms both because it works on the forward edge of fiction and poetry and technology and culture and, also, because it points back, in often surprising and extremely productive ways, to the traditions and conventions of literature, reading, and writing.



[1] Little scholarship exists to comfort the instructor.  Only a few articles discuss practical methods with which instructors can help students engage unfamiliar hypertext and hypermedia literature:  Kevin Brooks’s “Reading, Writing, and Teaching Creative Hypertext” outlines how genre can enable teachers of hypertexts to “start from what they know and to provide them and their students with concrete terms and models” that offer guideposts in the unfamiliar territory of electronic literature.  Robert Kendall’s “Minding the Frontier” suggests that students can best cope with this new form of literature if guided through its theoretical underpinnings before learning how to trace grounding themes in the non-linear, “geometric,” hypertextual structure.  Jennifer Bowie’s “Student Problems with Hypertext and Webtext” argues that the “problems students . . . have with hypertext, including navigation and disorientation, closure, a higher cognitive load, link structures, and concerns over missing information” can be lessened if they understand hypertext as akin to the “webtexts” they surf daily.


[2] There are what we might call “3-Dimensional” qualities, such as footnotes and endnotes, on the printed page; these qualities break the linear flow of text to suggest other places and spaces and layers and levels.


[3] For more on possible “readings” of afternoon: a story, please see J. Yellowlee Douglas’s “‘How Do I Stop This Thing’” and Rasmus Blok’s “I Try to Recall...: A Sense of Narrative in the Digital Novel-afternoon, a story.”



Blok, Rasmus.  “I Try to Recall...: A Sense of Narrative in the Digital Novel-afternoon, a story.” Reinventions of the

Novel: Histories and Aesthetics of a Protean Genre. Rodopi, Amsterdam: Netherlands Publication, 2004: 301-320.

Bowie, Jennifer. “Student Problems with Hypertext and Webtext: A Student-Centered Hypertext Classroom?”

Kairos 6.2 (Fall 2001).  <


Brooks, Kevin. “Reading, Writing, and Teaching Creative Hypertext: A Genre-Based Pedagogy.” Pedagogy 2:3

(Fall 2002): 337-356.

Douglas, J. Yellowlee. “‘How Do I Stop This Thing’: Closure and Indeterminacy in Interactive Narratives.”

Hyper/Text/Theory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994: 159-188.

Kendall, Robert. “Minding the Frontier: Teaching Hypertext Poetry and Fiction Online.” Kairos 3:2 (Fall 1998).