Why Hasn't Story Itself Changed With The Web?

This post, from Jeremiah Tolbert, originally appeared on his blog on 5/19/09.

The structure and nature of short stories haven’t really changed in the digital age, as far as I can tell.  They’re still told the same way mostly, same perspectives, in roughly the same amount of time ( around 3-7000 words). 

E-zines are for the most part  straight forward adaptations of the print magazine format, to varying degrees.  PDF magazines are identical to print magazines, except they’re read on a screen instead of on paper, or even printed off by some. E-zines like Strange Horizons make use of basic hypertext features, but the stories themselves do not take advantage of of any of those features except in rare occasions.

Flash fiction, or stories under 500 words, has seen a boom online, with electronic magazines such as Brain Harvestspecializing in them exclusively.   Personally, I don’t find such short stories very satisfying very often, despite my involvement with the Daily Cabal, (which you should check out if you do like flash fiction).  I don’t think I’ve ever written a really successful flash fiction story.   I would argue that flash fiction is even less popular than regular short fiction, which is pretty unpopular in the first place.


You might think that the internet would lend itself to shorter stories, on the assumption that the internet has shortened our attention spans.  I don’t really believe that. I think we have mostly the same attention spans we did before the web began to dominate our entertainment time, but we’re a lot better about evaluating content quickly to determine if it’s worth our attention.  Scanning is the new reading of the 21st Century.

Early on in the web days, there was a lot more experimentation with the idea of hypertext fiction, which in my experience is basically a glorified “Choose Your Own Adventure” (CYOA) made with links rather than “turn to page X” instructions.   I’d argue that for “choose your own adventure” stories, the web is a better format than print, but– choose your own adventure stories were just a relatively crude form of interactive storytelling, and video games are a more evolved form of the same thing.  CYOA  books are not printed in nearly the same quantities as they were when I was a kid in the 80s.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the rise of video games has corresponded with the fall of CYOA books. Wikipedia’s article on CYOA references a company called Chooseco that purchased the rights to the original CYOA books, but when I tried to visit the site for said company, all I found was a GoDaddy redirect. I think it’s fairly safe to say that the Choose Your Own Adventure format is effectively played out.

Stories told in an e-mail-like format are really no different from the epistolary format, which has been around since the letter itself.   Wikipedia puts the first epistolary novel appearing in 1485 or so.   Over 500 years old.  So the e-mail format nothing much new, just a slightly different take.  The language might be a bit different, but that same back-and-forth exists, generally written in alternating or single-thread first person present or past-tense.

Some have experimented with Twitter and its 140 character limit.  “Twitter zines” like Thaumatrope publish these stories regularly.  I wrote a serialized story in the twitter format, using the nature of Twitter itself as an aspect of the story, called #futurejer, to what I think was probably varying degrees of success.  Ultimately was the form of story changed by this?  Not very much, I suspect.  It’s just an extremely serialized tale, probably.

Read the rest of the post on Jeremiah Tolbert’s blog.