Rethinking the novel in a digital age

As digital technology grows and changes, the art of storytelling is being forced to adapt. Film and TV seem to be doing so readily and creatively – so why has the novel fallen behind? Today I’m discussing the limitations of the novel in the digital age, the ways in which we’re already seeing the written word adapting to digital technology, and the role that digital technology might play in the future of the novel.

How is film & TV using digital technology?

When it comes to incorporating technology into film and TV, we’ve come a long way from Kelly Rowland trying to send a text using Excel. While many films are still stuck using the static, over-the-shoulder shot to show characters using phones, some are making great leaps in incorporating these technologies into their shots in a way that engages the audience. One recent example is the 2016 film, Nerve.

If you’ve not seen the film, it’s about an app that challenges ‘players’ to increasingly dangerous dares for money, whilst the ‘watchers’ pay to watch. Since the film’s plot relies heavily on digital technology, it was necessary to find a practical and creative way in which to display these elements so as not to disjoint the whole film.

nerve-images-app-use-on-screen-v2

The above pictures show how Nerve displays the use of texting and app-use in the film – whether as a floating pop-up on screen, or as a view of the characters from the point of view of those watching on their phones. These methods are becoming increasingly popular in film and TV these days, and makes for much more seamless storytelling than previous methods.

One particularly interesting aspect of Nerve was the way it displays the network of players across the city. Rather than, say, a montage showing each of the players in action, the film uses shots like the one below, which plots the locations of players as they move around the city.

NERVE-app-11

As the camera pans, these names move and flicker, while some disappear and new players appear.

So what does all this have to do with novels?

Well what we can see with novels is that the format is generally unchanging – if you think about it, novels look much the same today as they did hundreds of years ago. Even eBooks follow the same structure, just on a screen rather than paper. Things are described rather than shown. Text messages, if used at all, are more often than not displayed similarly to dialogue. And part of this, perhaps, is due to the restrictions created by the structure of the novels – there simply isn’t the option to include sound, image and video in the same way. After all, the novel is possibly the least digital medium of all.

So how has the form of the novel adapted so far?

We’re already seeing a few examples of novels adapting to digital culture. We’ve got the eBook of course, but the merits and downfalls of this medium have been discussed over and over, so let’s skip over that. There’s websites like Wattpad, which allow writers to publish novels online, chapter by chapter, and allow readers to comment, share and interact. Then, as Andrew Fitzgerald discusses in his TedTalk, ‘Adventures in Twitter Fiction’,  there’s twitter, where Jennifer Egan’s ‘Black Box’ was told in a series of tweets; just one a night, every night.

hooked-app-screenshotOne particularly innovative way in which the written word has adapted to the digital age is through the app Hooked. This app tells stories as a series of texts, which are tailored to grab attention, and get the user, well, hooked. This use of digital technology is twofold: not only does the format of the story mirror digital technology in its display of content, but that content is also consumed on a digital platform. Don’t be confused into thinking this is the same thing. This text-style content could also have been presented on paper, and traditional novels can also be consumed on digital platforms – such as Kindles and eBook apps. But combining the two has certainly created something new and fresh, and while I don’t expect to see any ground-breaking novels on Hooked anytime soon, I’m impressed at the creative use of technology.

What uses of digital technology might we see in the future?

There are plenty of avenues that authors and publishers could explore, some more viable than others.

One could be the use of QR codes and similar apps dotted around pages to link to additional content such as videos, images, apps, or even social media profiles for characters. A bit clunky, perhaps, but if used sparingly in a way that doesn’t interrupt the flow of the story, it could provide some enrichment.

In today’s digital age, Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality could massively enrich the experience of the novel. We’ve already seen AR appearing in Marvel comics – to mixed reviews – so a similar approach could, technically, be applied to novels. Static images could become moving images, apps could be designed that place characters, objects and scenes in the world around you, text conversations could come to life on paper. We’ve seen the huge success of Pokémon Go – what’s to say that similar apps couldn’t be created for novels?

The case for transmediality

Connected to this is the idea of transmediality. Transmediality is basically the telling of a single story over multiple platforms in order to expand or enrich that story or world.

“most often, transmedia stories are based not on individual characters or specific plots but rather complex fictional worlds which can sustain multiple interrelated characters and their stories” – Henry Jenkins

When it comes to adapting the novel to a digital age, this is the future I imagine. Incorporating digital technology into novels themselves would be interesting, but would, I think, distract from the flow of the story in a frustrating way. Transmediality allows the reader to consume additional content as and when they choose – whether chapter by chapter or when they finish the novel. A perfect example of the use of transmediality to enrich a novel is, strangely enough, Harry Potter. The original story, of course, is told on paper, but readers can also access previously unpublished content about characters, locations and events using the online platform, Pottermore. There are various tests and quizzes that allow users to be sorted into a Hogwarts house, choose a wand, and find out their Patronus. Users can also take classes, duel, earn points and interact with other ‘students’. This platform didn’t exist when the novels were published, but future novels could easily provide unobtrusive links to these types of platforms as they are being read.

Finding a balance

Now all this being said, I am a big believer in the traditional form of the novel. I don’t want every book I read to be interrupted with interactive elements, QR codes and complicated apps. The very point of novels is that they are immersive, and these elements only end up pulling you out of that place.

However, within the genre of experimental literature there is definitely room for these digital developments – and hopefully over the coming years authors and publishers will find more and more ways to incorporate digital elements into mainstream literature in a way that is seamless and enriching.

Have you seen any great uses of the digital in novels recently? Let me know!

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