Modular stories?
May 12, 2016 3:15 PM   Subscribe

Which authors (or directors) have experimented with modular storylines - that is to say, brief stories, whose parts could be re-ordered, yielding new storylines? I'm looking for examples that actually work - either in poetry, in short stories, or in (short) films.

It seems at least theoretically possible to imagine a simple story which, when its parts are re-ordered, reveals a new, and possibly very different story. While there's obviously a wealth of non-linear stories, or deconstructed narratives, both in literature, films and even in computer games, has there been any actual attempt at this that managed a neat, complete modular composition that is readily, freely re-orderable, while staying coherent?

(It seems like something Oulipo might have gotten up to... but I'm not finding any actual texts, theirs or by others.)
posted by progosk to Writing & Language (21 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
This isn't literally an answer to your question, but you might be interested in Json Shiga's Meanwhile, a comic book that runs along colored "pipes" and tabs that make you flip the pages back and forth like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book -- despite being able to read the story's events/scenes in different order, you still more or less make your way toward the same conclusion. (Not counting sudden "game over" character deaths/ends, of course.)

It's ostensibly a kid's comic (there aren't a lot of words on the page, so it's readable at all sorts of literacy levels), but it gets into some deep stuff about quantum reality.
posted by The demon that lives in the air at 3:32 PM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Jedediah Berry's The Family Arcana attempts this, but IMO does not succeed exceptionally well.

Dictionary of the Khazars is designed to be read in almost any order, since it's arranged as a dictionary; the introduction suggests several approaches. But the order doesn't really change the story, just the way you experience it -- the only thing that changes the story is the 17 lines that differ between the male and female versions.

Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch is not completely modular, but is kind of approaching this idea.
posted by babelfish at 3:48 PM on May 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

The canonical Oulipo one is probably Cent mille milliards de poèmes but it's a poem rather than a story as such. There's an interactive version here.

(on preview was also going to mention Dictionary & Hopscotch as being worth a look)
posted by juv3nal at 3:50 PM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

McSweeney's 16 includes a story by Robert Coover written on playing cards designed to be read in any order.

(Not quite writing, but there's an album released in 2000 by Michel Banabila, Hannes Vennik & Bobby called "Cards on the Table" which contains 28 short audio tracks, designed to be played on random and sync up into a single song.)
posted by j.edwards at 4:07 PM on May 12, 2016

There's the cut-up style used by the Dadaists, Burroughs, Bowie, and Kathy Acker. I intentionally read Naked Lunch last chapter to first when I first read it, knowing that it was composed using the technique and choosing to reorder it myself.

Perhaps hypertext fiction is closer to what you're looking for?

Chuck Palahniuk released a second version of "Invisible Monsters" with the chapters in a different order.

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabakov.

Composition No. 1 by Marc Saporta .

The Unfortunates by B. S. Johnson.
posted by Candleman at 4:14 PM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

The first book I read in that style was Don't by Elly Danica; it had a huge impact on me.
posted by saucysault at 4:24 PM on May 12, 2016

Intimate Exchanges, is a play by Alan Ayckbourn which opens with a single common scene, then the narrative splits* four times over the course of the play leading to one of 16 different possible endings (there are 31 possible scenes, comprising a total of 16 hours of dialogue, and 10 characters, all performed by only two actors).

*The choice of which branch to take is supposed to be made on the spur of the moment, but I heard somewhere that the actors, probably for their own sanity, would sometimes agree in advance what path they would take on any given night.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 4:45 PM on May 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

Ali Smith's How To Be Both is a novel in two parts. They can be read in either order - half the hard copy books were printed in one order and half in the other. The ebook gives you a choice of where to start. It's an oversimplification to say that each of the two parts tells a chain of events from different points of view, but to say much more would give away the pleasure of discovery.
posted by une_heure_pleine at 5:13 PM on May 12, 2016

(Just realised that the review I linked is pretty full of what I'd consider spoilers, sorry.)
posted by une_heure_pleine at 5:15 PM on May 12, 2016

I came in to recommend Shiga's Meanwhile and was glad to see it's the first answer.
posted by ejs at 5:23 PM on May 12, 2016

Came in to share BS Johnson's The Unfortunates, and ALSO, Chris Ware's Building Stories, which comes in a big beautiful box and you just start thumbing through the various bits and somehow it all comes together. Really a treat.
posted by notyou at 5:48 PM on May 12, 2016

Two more near misses for you ...

Geoff Ryman's 253 is a novel available freely online. It's mostly composed of re-orderable vignettes, each focused on a passenger on an underground train. Even if you take that as just what you're calling a non-linear rather than a modular story, the pattern it follows in each section perhaps suggests a conceivable way that a more thoroughly modular story could work--e.g. if the character descriptions or motivations (this character is lying, this character is actually bored with their interlocutor, etc.) were randomized relative to the narrative segments to change their significance even more than the reversals/revelations built into 253 already do.

And Once Upon a Time is a story-telling game in which players try to narrate connections between story motifs until they can play their "Happy Ever After" card that actually has a tiny bit of narrative text on it that concludes a possible story ("So she was reunited with her family," "So he forgave his brother," etc.).
posted by Wobbuffet at 7:35 PM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Junkie Quatrain by Peter Clines
posted by OrangeDisk at 7:53 PM on May 12, 2016

Only Revolutions can either be read 8 pages at a time in alternating voices or straight through in one voice, then another. The story is a bit different depending on which narrator you start with.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:29 PM on May 12, 2016

I think one place you'll find this kind of thing is in some of the more complex computer fantasy role playing games, at least the ones which avoid putting the player on rails.

If the player is free to go where he wants, and visit parts of the game out of order, then as a practical matter what one player experiences can be quite different than what another player experiences, who takes a different path.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:42 PM on May 12, 2016

As an aside, these notes from a Brian Moriary talk about the history of interactive narrative may be of interest.
posted by juv3nal at 9:48 PM on May 12, 2016

Ok, that's a lot of places to start looking at - keep 'em coming! (I'll be back with relevant thoughts from along the exploration.)
posted by progosk at 10:11 PM on May 12, 2016

Theatre company Coney recently did a performance calledRemote, where there were a number of branching plot lines, and which branch was taken depended on votes from the audience.
posted by Jabberwocky at 1:01 AM on May 13, 2016

Strong second for Chris Ware's brilliant graphic novel Building Stories; it does exactly what you're looking for. It's a large box with 14 different pieces of printed material on various papers and card stocks, all of which are interesting in themselves but, read in any order you like, combine to tell a rich story about the occupants of a single building over many years. It's an amazing, highly successful example of modular storytelling. For instance, one piece is a Golden Book-style hardback which you see a child in the building reading in another piece. It's really a fantastic work, and got stellar reviews when it came out in 2012.
posted by mediareport at 5:26 AM on May 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

There’s some overlap between what you’re looking for and the notion of ‘shuffle literature’.
posted by misteraitch at 6:05 AM on May 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

"Riding SideSaddle is a is a fragmented memory written on 250 interchangeable index cards — following a cast of friends as they navigate fluid genders, relationships, and bodies that resist order, category, or completion." I copy and pasted because that's the most succinct way to describe the "book." I saw a stage adaptation of it that was also very interesting. The index cards have # so you can order them by theme or character to build the story however you want.
posted by LKWorking at 7:54 AM on May 13, 2016

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