The “interactivity is killing narrative” debate is, well, kind of silly.
At The Children’s Bookseller’s Conference in London, book critic and author Nicolette Jones sparked a debate when she mentioned her reservations about “the kind of apps that replace a book.” (I wasn’t there, but her comments were covered in The Guardian, and in responses by publishers like Nosy Crow.) “I’ve never seen a picture book-app that does something that a book doesn’t do better,” she said.
Similar arguments have been popping up elsewhere. The Atlantic recently ran an article with the headline “Tablets Make It Nearly Impossible For Kids To Get Lost in a Story.” Skim down the page to find the ominous subheading How interactivity is killing narrative.
The crux of these arguments seems to be twofold: First, that interactivity distracts from a good story; and second, that animation and sound rob children of the chance to use their imaginations.
“Children see magic because they look for it.”
As a developer of interactive book apps, it’s maybe a little predictable that we don’t agree with everything said. But we spent a lot of time thinking about these very questions when we were developing Loose Strands, our first book app.
Let’s address the second point first. Jones gives the example of a picture book where tapping a character triggers an animation of them walking; tapping it again repeats the animation. “In a picture book, if a child is drawn running, in your head they run over to the next page where something else is happening. In a peculiar way, the technology interferes with the story in most of the apps I see.”
This, it seems to me, is kind of like arguing that colour illustrations leave less to the imagination than black and white drawings, and that they somehow make for an inferior storytelling tool. Or that Maurice Sendak’s textured illustrations in Where The Wild Things Are can’t ignite children’s imaginations in the way Quentin Blake’s simpler line drawings do in Charlie And The Chocolate Factory.
Imagination is a wonderful thing. It fills in gaps large and small. Detail—creative detail—doesn’t starve imagination, it feeds it. An animation of a character’s peculiar gait, for example, can have you extrapolating all kinds of information about his history and personality. What happened to his left leg to make him favour it? Or: If she walks like that, what would she look like when she runs?
To be clear, we completely understand where Jones is coming from. We’re not arguing that there aren’t poorly thought-out apps. If all the characters in a book app walk in exactly the same way, there’s not much to spark wonder. The key here is creative detail. (More on that later.)
“Imagination means nothing without doing.”
Is interactivity distracting? It certainly can be.
In a comment on the Guardian article, Chris Haughton (creator of the Hat Monkey app) echoed the interactivity-is-killing-narrative argument: “The art of telling a good story is, I think, by building up tension in a narrative. Interactivity distracts from this, and any tension built up in the narrative is deflated by the incidental interactivity.”
And this is a good point. It’s very hard to argue. Is all that tapping really necessary? Are all those bells and whistles and whizzbangs and whirligigs truly contributing? (After all, whistles are designed to steal your attention.)
But it’s worth remembering that interactive books weren’t invented with digital. Touch-and-feel books and pull-tab pop-up books were around long before the iPad. The best ones made their furry textures part of the story.
That’s something that not all book apps are doing well. The form is in its early years, and some remind me of early web design. Just because you can make text blink doesn’t mean you should.
The key here is Haughton’s wording: incidental interactivity.
Isn’t there a way of making interactions intrinsic, not incidental?
When we created Loose Strands, we made a conscious decision not to make the animations tappable. Loose Strands is a little different than the apps Jones is describing, because it’s a chapter book for readers 9+, not a picture book. Although it has 30-odd illustrations and animations, it is more reliant on words to pull the user through the story.
With a few notable exceptions at the very end, readers don’t tap on anything that isn’t a menu. There is, however, lots of interactivity. Readers swipe up, down, left and right as they “turn” pages to make choices about what’s going to happen next in the story.
One of the interesting things about writing a story that gives readers choices is how at-odds it is with traditional, linear writing. There is nothing more satisfying when writing than getting pulled into that trance-like state where the story and characters take on a life of their own. Writers often talk about the thrill that comes from that rarest of things—a story that writes itself.
That feeling turned into my worst enemy when writing Loose Strands.
As a writer of interactive stories, you’re constantly forcing yourself to interrupt that flow. You take the agency away from your characters—who are doing just fine making their own decisions, thank you very much—and hand it over to the reader. As a creator, it’s incredibly frustrating.
But here’s the point: While interactivity is by its nature distracting—a fact that is pretty much inarguable—it doesn’t necessarily deflate tension. Some of the comments we got from test readers: “These choices are getting much more difficult!” and “I’m surprised at how much these decisions tell me about myself.” (Spoiler: It’s a choose-your-path novel about regret.)
So can interactivity create tension? Absolutely.
But more than that, interactivity can be something that develops over the course of the story, just as we develop characters or themes. Kirkus Reviews said of Loose Strands that “by its final sections, when stakes are highest, the way the app balances an engaging interactive experience with a deep narrative becomes truly impressive.” In Loose Strands’ climactic scene, it becomes apparent that all that swiping up and down, and all those disappearing pages, were there for a reason. The interface becomes part of the story.
That’s not to say that we didn’t make mistakes. In our effort to retain what we loved about linear chapter books—a satisfying story arc that pulls together the various characters’ journeys and the story’s themes no matter how you read it—we limited the choices in the text to three, or four, or five per chapter. Maybe we should have included more. And we’ve disappointed some book-app readers, who expect animations to respond to their touch.
But there are other ways of doing interaction in a thoughtful way. Kate Wilson from Nosy Crow—who, it should be noted, Jones gave as an example of a company doing book apps right—writes about how, in every scene, they push the narrative forward first, then enable interactivity. There is lots of gorgeous sound and wonderful animation in Nosy Crow’s apps—and lots of tapping. But narrative is the priority.
Still, she writes: “My heart sinks when I see young children presented with a standard ebook (or a poorly thought-through app) on a touch screen: in my experience, they tap, with increasingly disconsolate randomness, at anything and everything, before giving up. I have said it before, and I will say it again: I do not think reading should be the most boring thing (i.e. least competitive with other media) that children can do on a touchscreen.”
The challenge for developers of book apps is to be both creative and selective in the interactions we create.
This is an exciting time—the possibilities are beguiling. We need to find ways to feed the imaginations of the children we’re developing for, whether that means more richly creative detail, or more gaps for their minds to fill in. It’s up to us to explore and find that balance. But we do need to ask ourselves: Is this interaction as creative and imaginative as it could be? Does this multimedia element advance the story? And does it provide children with a launching point to a more imaginative universe?
When my cousins were younger, I told them bedtime stories whenever I visited. I used fairy-tales as the base, but always included my cousins as characters, and they got to make choices as to what was going to happen next.
So I can tell you from that experience that children love—love—to be involved in stories. Done properly, interactivity gives readers agency, and engages them in the tale. The argument that it disengages them from the narrative seems, well, silly.
It’s important that we don’t underestimate our readers’ imaginations, but “done properly” is the key phrase here. Figuring out how we do that is going to take an equal amount of imagination on our part.