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Incremental Storytelling: A Critical Introduction to Calypsis: A Hypertext Fiction

I. Introduction - Creative Writing Pedagogy and Incremental Storytelling

II. Progressive Creative Writing Course Design

III. Role-Playing Games and Incremental Storytelling

IV. Theory in Practice: Gaming, World Building, and Narrative

V. A Return to Rivertown: Calypsis: A Hypertext Fiction

Works Cited

I. Introduction - Creative Writing Pedagogy and Incremental Storytelling

This paper proposes a radical departure from the traditional workshop method commonly used to teach undergraduate fiction writing courses. While the traditional creative writing workshop can be useful for helping students craft work intended for submission to literary magazines, I argue that creative writing programs can and should expand their scope of practice beyond the considerations of literary publishing. As an academic discipline, creative writing programs should make full use of the institutional space, time, and resources available to them by introducing students to different types of writing projects and engaging students in critical discussions about creative production, which are activities they are unlikely to find outside the university’s walls. These activities include experimenting with digital tools, creating multimedia compositions, and producing collaborative work. Rather than reaffirming the romantic notion of the lone literary genius transcribing the whispers of the poetic muse, we can instead situate creative writing as an embodied act within specific historical, political, and material conditions, and where collaborative efforts can lead to more diverse and complex representations of fictional people and worlds than what novice fiction writers typically produce when working on individual projects.

Instructors using the traditional workshop method often have students read published stories from which they are encouraged to model their own work, but this approach can overwhelm beginning writers attempting to simultaneously create detailed settings, well-rounded characters, and comprehensible plots. As a result, workshop stories often feature wooden characters acting against white backdrops as the author attempts to expound some universal truth about the human condition. Also, students working within their own hermetically (and hermeneutically) sealed fictional worlds often need to be coaxed into engaging with each other’s work and providing feedback. In this critical introduction I address these concerns with my theory of incremental storytelling, which is informed by both creative writing pedagogy and gaming theory. Using this methodology, students learn the craft of fiction writing in smaller, discrete bits that, in aggregate, create something much greater than their constituent parts. This progressive approach puts students in immediate contact with each others’ writing throughout the entire creative process and opens space for critical discussions about the fictional characters and the shared world they create.

In the first step of incremental storytelling, students build a fictional world from the ground up, populating a map with a diverse set of people, places and things, giving them a detailed setting for their stories. Next, students create well-rounded characters complete with personalities, strengths, skills, flaws, fears and motivations. Third, they set their characters into motion by having them explore the fictional world via tabletop role-playing, where the combination of collaborative storytelling and the aleatory aspect of dice rolls produce an inherently unpredictable narrative. Finally, the students recount their characters’ experiences by writing vignette-length fictions, attempting to retell the most resonant moments of the sessions from their characters’ unique perspectives. Incremental storytelling not only emphasizes discrete issues of craft, it also reveals the power of collaborative writing practice as the stories students write could not come into being without the significant contributions of their peers.

In this discussion that follows I describe the course I designed entitled “Gaming, World Building, and Narrative” and share student responses to this experimental approach. I also connect the theory of incremental storytelling and role-playing narratives to my creative dissertation, Calypsis: A Hypertext Fiction, and how it might serve as inspiration for others to experiment with creating a collaboratively built world. While the traditional writing workshop will likely always remain a cornerstone of creative writing pedagogy, I propose that creative writing as an academic discipline has much to gain by promoting experimental writing that requires students to think critically about their creative production, and to reap the benefits of using digital tools and networked writing.


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