> classes > interactive narrative, fall 2019

21W.765 / 21L.489 / CMS.618 / CMS.845
Interactive Narrative
MIT · Fall 2019

This course is a CI-M for 21W/Writing majors and CMS majors.

Syllabus updated 2019-10-04

Instructor: Nick Montfort,, 14N-233
Class meets Wednesdays, 2pm–5pm, 66-160
Office hours: Drop-in times are Tuesdays 5pm-5:30pm in 14N-233; I am also available by appointment

Attending All of the First Class is Required

Interactive Narrative has been significantly overenrolled in recent years. The hard limit for a writing course, particularly a CI-M course, is 18 — and even that class size is challenging. Additionally, we have three-hour class meetings that are filled with discussion and activities: There is no way to “make up” what we do as a community in the classroom. For these reasons, students must attend all of the first class to enroll or remain enrolled in the class. Until I have made an announcement that the class size is within bounds and we have finalized enrollment, anyone who elects to miss a class will not be able to stay in the course.


This course does not use Stellar or other course management software. Work is to be submitted on paper (in-class quizzes, the critical paper, your “forking paths” ink-and-paper story), by email to the instructor (for one assignment, the digital interactive narrative project), and via in-class presentations.


A list of the multisequential books available in 14N-233, by appointment or during my office hours, is available. The list indicates which books are also held by the MIT Libraries.


The percentages in parenthesis give the value of the quizzes and the other assignments in computing the final grade.


You should attend class, in part out of respect for your fellow students, who, along with you, are important parts of the workshop community.

Students are required to attend class on workshop days (when your and your fellow students’ work is being workshopped) and on days when you or your fellow students are presenting. An unexcused absence (or arriving late) on one of these days will result in a significant reduction in the grade of the corresponding presentation or project being workshopped. If a student misses any of the quizzes given during the first six classes (except for a medical reason or similar excused reason), there will be no opportunity to make them up.

Absences for medical reasons, or if a student is traveling because of a family emergency, will of course be excused.


What type of substantial feedback (aside from quantitative grading along the way and a final letter grade) should you expect from me?

I will provide extensive feedback when it is explicitly requested. The ideal way of getting detailed feedback is via your presence in office hours. For instance, if you come to office hours I am willing to review the code you are writing for your digital project. Based on your preliminary work for your ink-and-paper project, I can suggest ways to better print and bind that work. I can also explain in office hours how to approach writing a critical paper, how to prepare a presentation, and how to draft and revise interactive narrative work, giving you specific pointers based on what you have done so far. I can explain aspects of narrative theory in greater depth and suggest ways to strengthen your particular creative writing. I can and will arrange to meet you by appointment; the 5pm–5:30pm Tuesday time is mainly there as a default time when you can be sure to find me. My preference is to meet with small groups of 2–3 students at once so we can benefit from each other’s questions and perspectives, but I can also meet with you individually. However, you must initiate the request!

Please understand that I cannot offer extensive feedback of all of these sorts routinely, on a weekly basis, to every student. Because of this, the main sorts of feedback I will provide to everyone, based on assignments, is intended to answer these questions: Do you understand the basics of narrative theory? Do you see how narrative theory offers you new possibilities as a writer? Can you identify interesting aspects of existing interactive narratives? Can you exploit the different dimensions of narrative to go beyond the most obvious possibilities in your own interactive narrative work? Are you making good use of material properties and formal possibilities in both your paper and digital projects? Is your writing (and oral presentation) in a good and appropriate style and framework given the projects you are undertaking?

Required Books

Strongly Recommended Books

Narrative Theory

Throughout this course, and particularly in the first unit, we will learn the basics of narratology, also called narrative theory, a body of thought related to narrative that is, perhaps surprisingly, quite precise. It facilitates conversation and collaboration and allows authors to understand the possibilties of narrative.

Instead of teaching narrative theory as the first of three units, it is taught mostly during Forking Paths (unit I) with discussion continuing during Electronic Literature (unit II). There is significant reading to be done on narrative theory, and quizzes to be completed in class, during all of the first half of the course (the Forking Paths unit).

Short classroom lectures on narrative theory will elaborate on and help to better explain your (required) reading of The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. There will be in-class exercises/quizzes for each of the first seven classes.

I · Forking Paths

We will study non-linear print pieces of different sorts. The books in the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure series are probably the most famous of these, but we will also consider other juvenile fiction books of similarly unusual structure; parodies of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books such as You Are a Miserable Excuse for a Hero; literary works along these non-linear lines by Saporta, Queneau, Mathews, Pavić, Coover, and others; and comics along these lines by Jason Shiga and others.

Students are assigned to do a thorough study of one particular book, writing a paper on this book. They should also become familiar with the other books that are being studied in class, so that they can at least usefully compare their own book and the most relevant other books.

Graduate students taking the class for credit as CMS.845 are assigned to write a paper on two thoughtful selections, both of which should be thoroughly studied and compared in detail against one another and the other works being examined in class; the graduate paper will probably need to be about twice as long as the typical undergraduate paper to do this.

Students are also assigned to write their own multisequential story, in print, to be proposed by email, developed, revised, and handed in during class on paper. This does not have the be in the fiction genre, in the sense of being written like a novel or short story; it could be poetry, non-fiction, or something else.

1 · September 4

Narrative questionnaire distributed. Students are required to complete it for use in class discussion; this is not a graded exercise.

Discussion of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books.

Review of the syllabus, major required readings, assignments, evaluation.

Rapid introduction to narratology and the distinction between discourse/telling and story/content.

Read for the next class 1. Narrative and Life, 2. Defining Narrative, and 3. The Borders of Narrative from The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. Read at least halfway through Exercises in Style, understand the concept, and pick out some of your favorite and least favorite sections.

(5%) Narrative exercise/quiz covering concepts in today's lecture and discssion. Yes, there is a graded quiz at the end of class on the first day.

2 · September 11

Today's video: “Drop” by The Pharcyde, dir. Spike Jonze.

Additional reading: “Netflix's Carla Engelbrecht Chooses Her Own Adventures,” from the current issue of Wired. Wired limits you to reading three articles per month (unless you are clever).

Discussion, in terms of narratology, of a music video and several very short narratives, presented in class.

In-class reading and discussion, based on principles of narratology, of “Yours for the Telling” (also translated as “Story as You Like It”) by Raymond Queneau.

Preliminary discussion of Exercises in Style. How to describe what is varying between the 99 sections?

Is narrative hard to define? Discussion and review of chapters 1–3 of Abbott. As will always be the case, it is students’ responsibility to bring specific questions about the readings.

Read for the next class 4. The Rhetoric of Narrative, 5. Closure, and 6. Narration from The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. Complete your reading of Exercises in Style.

(5%) Narrative exercise/quiz.

3 · September 18

Today's video: “California” by Wax, dir. Spike Jonze.

Complete the discussion (if necessary) of Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau.

Questions about chapters 4, 5, and 6 from the Abbott book?

Class visit to The Trope Tank. The main purpose is to allow you to select a multisquential book that will be your focus for the critical paper. Some electronic literature (interactive fiction, etc.) will be available for you to try out, too.

Read for the next class 7. Interpreting Narrative, 8. Three Ways to Interpret Narrative, 9. Adaptation across Media, and 10. Character and Self in Narrative from The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. Also read the glossary of this book by Abbott. (This is to make your study easier, not harder!) Read Meanwhile and at least make an effort to solve it.

(5%) Narrative exercise/quiz.

4 · September 25

Today's video: “Come into my World” by Kiley Minogue, dir. Michel Gondry.

Introduced in class and available for your use in your study of narrative: Curveship.js. This is a very preliminary version of the system, with sevearl examples provided. If I am able to develop it further and get it to a stable state, Curveship.js will be released as free software — but the incomplete system, which has several known bugs, is not ready for release now and is provided just for this class to use.

(10%) First draft of multisequential stories due. A draft should be a working prototype with the minimum amount of writing, 6 pages in this case, but it need not be complete or polished. We will discuss drafts in class.

Preliminary discussion of Shiga’s Meanwhile. Choice and destiny, comics, form and structure of multisequential books, the material qualities of books and multisequentiality.

Read for the next class 11. Narrative and Truth, 12. Narrative Worlds, 13. Narrative Contestation, and 14. Narrative Negotiation from The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. Solve Meanwhile.

(5%) Narrative exercise/quiz.

5 · October 2

Today's video: “Like a Prayer” by Madonna, dir. Mary Lambert.

(10%) Papers analyzing specific non-linear book pieces due (6 pages minimum). You are assigned to focus on a book (or, for graduate students, two books) that we have not discussed in class; also, due to overexposure, Neil Patrick Harris's Choose Your Own Autobiography is not an option this year. You should compare the book or books that are your focus to others, perhaps ones we discussed in class. An excellent paper will show a thorough engagement with the chosen multisequential story and will use appropriate concepts from class readings, mini-lectures, and discussion (of narrative theory, of the materiality of texts, and otherwise) to discover one or more insights about the selected work.

Full discussion of Shiga’s Meanwhile. Choice and destiny, comics, form and structure of multisequential books, the material qualities of books and multisequentiality.

Our discussion of draft work on multisequential stories will extend to today, at least.

(5%) Narrative exercise/quiz.

6 · October 9

Today's video: “Like a Prayer” by Madonna, dir. Mary Lambert.

Review of narrative theory. In-class reading and discussion of short texts. Discussion of critical papers.

(5%) Last of the narrative exercises/quizzes, which may cover any aspects discussed in class/presented in lectures or in the Abbott book.

[NO CLASS] · October 16

Work on your ink and paper multisequential story projects.

7 · October 23

Today's video: “Let Forever Be” by The Chemical Brothers, dir. Michel Gondry.

For half the class, we will have a focused workshop on problem areas/open questions within our particular multisequential story projects. This means that those who wish to raise questions about particular aspects of their work in progress can do so; we will not, however, plan for everyone to have workshop time.

II · Electronic Literature

We will focus on electronic literature that has narrative as an important component. Often, the “user” or “reader” is the one who gets to produce the narratives by interacting. A narrative electronic literature work can be a structured document that the interactor can traverse in many ways or a more complex computer program that simulates a world, accepts English input, and/or does other interesting things. Many computer and video games, including interactive fiction works (a.k.a. text adventures) are certainly in this category (although their narrative aspects may not be their most interesting ones), as are classic and more recent hypertext fictions.

Students are assigned to each give a somewhat formal presentation about a particular work of electronic literature.

In addition to completing the other course requirements, graduate students in CMS.845 are required to submit an additional critical paper during this time that deals with electronic literature or another aspect of the course topic. There is no length requirement, and this paper can relate to graduate student projects outside the class.

The major project for the term is to create (write and structure or program) a work of electronic literature of some sort. The choice of platform is open. Quality of writing, suitability of the structure/program and the writing to the theme, and the quality of the interface will all be factors in the final grade.

8 · October 30

(15%) Multisequenital stories are due. The minimum length of writing, again, is 6 pages. We will not present the individual projects, but we will briefly discuss what issues came up in completing this project. Finished multisequential stories will be made available for students to read in 14N-233.

In-class play and discussion of electronic literature: Varicella, by Adam Cadre, 1999; The Unknown, by William Gillespie, Scott Rettberg, Dirk Stratton, and Frank Marquardt, 1998-2002.

For the next class, read “The Garden of Forking Paths” by Jorge Luis Borges and my article “Riddle Machines.”

9 · November 6

In-class play and discussion of electronic literature, specifically, completing Shade by Andrew Plotkin and Mastaba Snoopy by gods17. Having completed this, you might be interested to read reviews of Shade and writing about Mastaba Snoopy in Boing Boing and on Metafilter.

Assigned: Before next class—but this week would be ideal—email me with a very brief general idea for a creative electronic literature piece. Just explain your basic idea in a sentence and describe what platform you plan to use. I am mainly trying to help students who are planning something too elaborate. Feel free to ask questions of me in this email, if you like.

10 · November 13

(10%) Oral presentation (with projection) on an electronic literature work. These should explain what is interesting about the work you selected with reference to narrative theory and to some of the existing creative work we have discussed. The presentation should give the class a better understanding of the electronic literature work and lead the class through some of the more interesting aspects of it, in terms of how it works as writing and as a program or structure.

Because of the large class size, it will be necessary to use a strict format. Students are required to prepare 15 slides (PDF format, assuming an HD screen) which each presenter may advance at their own rate. However the total presentation time will be strictly limited to 6 minutes per person. There will be a brief Q&A between presentations; students will also be given index cards on which to write reflections, comments, and questions, during the presentation. These will be immediately be given to the presenter after the talk as the next presenter prepares. Students need to have slides ready and submitted by email to the instuctor by 5pm on Tuesday November 12.

All student presentations will take place this day.

11 · November 20

Workshop with class discussion of preliminary prototypes of electronic literature projects. Bring a working version of your electronic literature project with at least the initial situation implemented. The due date for drafts is next week, November 27.

12 · November 27

(10%) Draft electronic literature works are due. They must be working prototypes (not just notes) and have the required minimum 6 pages of writing, but need not be complete or polished.

Workshop with class discussion and/or desk critiques of specific projects, and specific aspects thereof. Bring a working version of your electronic literature project. Our focus will be on open questions, whether they relate to material or formal, narrative or non-narrative aspects of a project.

13 · December 4

Workshop with class discussion and/or desk critiques of specific projects, and specific aspects thereof. Bring a working version of your electronic literature project. Our focus will be on open questions, whether they relate to material or formal, narrative or non-narrative aspects of a project.

14 · December 11

(15%) Electronic literature works (creative project) due. Again, these have a minimum of 6 pages of writing. Brief final presentations of each project in class, emphasizing how your perspective and ideas chaged as you developed your project. If possible, one or more guests who are experts in digital narrative systems will join us.

Minimum Page Counts

The “minimums” are not suggested lengths for papers and creative projects. They are the absolute minimums as required by the standards for MIT’s CI (communications intensive) requirement in the major. The minimum length may be generally suitable for the critical paper. In the case of the creative projects, those absolute minimums will probably not suit your purposes and goals as a writer. They may, but many people will probably want to write more. For instance, a six-page multisequential story would be very short in most cases, but if you develop a story in which numerous short texts can be recombined in a number of interesting ways, six pages of writing may be adequate to your purposes, and could do well at satisfying the assignment.

Standard MIT Statement on Plagiarism

Plagiarism—use of another's intellectual work without acknowledgement—is a serious offense. It is the policy of the CMS/W Faculty that students who plagiarize will receive an F in the subject, and that the instructor will forward the case to the Committee on Discipline. Full acknowledgement for all information obtained from sources outside the classroom must be clearly stated in all written work submitted. All ideas, arguments, and direct phrasings taken from someone else's work must be identified and properly footnoted. Quotations from other sources must be clearly marked as distinct from the student's own work. For further guidance on the proper forms of attribution, consult the style guides available in the Writing and Communication Center (E39-115) and the MIT Website on Plagiarism.

The Writing & Communication Center

The WCC at MIT (Writing and Communication Center) offers free one-on-one professional advice from communication experts (MIT lecturers who all have advanced degrees and who are all are published writers). The WCC works with undergraduate students, graduate students and post-docs.

The WCC helps you strategize about all types of academic and professional writing as well as about all aspects of oral presentations (including practicing your presentations & designing slides). No matter what department or discipline you are in, we help you think your way more deeply into your topic, help you strategize to convey your message more effectively to particular audiences, help you polish your style, and help you see new implications in your data, research and ideas. The WCC also helps with everything from understanding genre conventions to analyzing what particular journals require. We also help with all English as Second Language issues, from writing and grammar to pronunciation and conversation practice.

The WCC is located in E18-233. To register with our online scheduler, to make appointments, and to see detailed directions, go to To access the WCC’s many pages of advice about writing and oral presentations, go to The Center’s core hours are Monday-Friday, 9:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m.; evening hours vary by semester–check the online scheduler for up-to-date hours.