A new story/experiment, as promised:
A little introspection about how it was written follows, but play the story first if you don’t like spoilers.
This story was originally written while in a sleep study centre last year as part of The Subjects, and it contains a lot of associations with that space and even fragments from some of my dreams while I was locked in there (we were allowed to sleep in short bursts, with electrodes in). I originally wrote it in a linear fashion, and I wasn’t sure what sort of structure it would have when it was finished. As I came close to the end of the initial draft, I realised I wanted it to have a circular narrative, not in the sense of a story that begins at the last scene, but in the sense of a story that has no beginning or ending – like a trap that you can’t escape.
This presented a very basic logistical problem, given the linear nature of text and reading, so I shelved the story for a while. At one stage I considered exhibiting it on the inside of a circular frame, so that the reader would have to duck and enter the circle, and could begin anywhere. Or somehow creating a looping zine. (I also thought about making a circular ebook. I still don’t know if this is possible.)
Then I found Twine. Twine is a gift for anyone who, like me, grew up reading Choose Your Own Adventure books. It’s designed to make those kind of branching narratives easy to see and work with; basically it makes your story look like a flow chart, with boxes for passages and arrows linking them. I downloaded it and played around with it for a while before I realised it could be a way to solve my circularity problem.
I often use story structure maps in my work; in a novel they can get very complicated and messy. I usually make these kind of maps when I’ve already written my way into the story, so after the first rough draft, when I start thinking about shape and structure and logic. Some stories take a long time to find their shape and require several stages of what I call “structural engineering.” I really like solving these kind of large-scale narrative problems; they are part of why I keep returning to the novel as a form, even though it’s not as satisfying for me as writing short fiction. My most recent novel, as yet unpublished, is particularly perversely constructed. I may be mad, or just a nerd. But I think story maps are an amazing tool.
I rarely use them for short stories, but occasionally it helps if I am working with a more unusual structure, which is something I’ve been increasingly interested in. This one took a few tries, and I enjoyed doodling story structures that look like lanterns, or pumpkins, or the ravings of a lunatic:
What Twine allowed me to do was not just to make a circle, but to make a neat little pattern within it – a double circle. There are seven chapters or passages to the story, and each has two links at the end. The links take you either one step forward, or two steps backward. It doesn’t matter what direction you go in this story, you will keep coming back to passages you’ve already read, rooms you’ve already been in. It shouldn’t take long to realise you are trapped in there forever.
The more sleep-deprived I got in the lab, the more I felt like I was trapped in an infinite loop. Having no time cues at all – no daylight, no clocks, no-one saying ‘good morning’ – was extremely disorienting, and made me quite delusional. This is a work of fiction, but I hope it gives you a sense of what that was like.