I’m not, just yet, going to go into reviews and analysis of individual Blogfics that I’ve been reading – though I plan to do that soon. My reading of Blog Fiction so far has been more about exploring the structure of the narratives than the narratives themselves, and I’ve been thinking about the way that fictional blogs are read, or at least the way I find myself reading them. This differs from the way I read real blogs.

When I find a new blog, it’s normally because I’ve followed a link to a specific entry. If I like that entry, I read the latest one, perhaps the latest couple, and then subscribe to the feed and read new entries as they appear. If it’s the blog of a friend, or if I really like it, and if it hasn’t been updated every day for 5 years, I might go back and read it all from the beginning. If they’ve blogged on a topic that particularly interests me, I might click on the tag and see what else they have to say about that topic, ignoring the rest of the blog. But generally, I read as they write, starting from the point I added them and not really looking back, because life doesn’t go that way. Fictional blogs are different: I’m aware that there’s a narrative, and narratives have a beginning, middle and end, so I naturally want to see the beginning and the middle. Because of the way blogs work, my first click brings me in at the end. At first, I deleted that last thought, because unless somebody has died or very conclusively decided to blog no more, there is no real end. You come in somewhere amongst a hazy and structureless eternal middle. Then I put it back, deciding that, actually, you come in at a hazy and structureless eternal end. This is provided the writer a) is trying to make the fiction seem credible as a real blog and b) is any good at it. There are plenty of blog fiction writers, even those who are writing Blog Aware Blogfic (see Mineau’s definitions), who just tell a serialised story cut into chunks, using the blog more as a publishing tool than a medium, and these lack a certain credibility. People use their blogs to reflect on their lives and relate recent events, not to serialise an ongoing narrative, and they certainly don’t leave cliff-hangers (unless a villain comes in mid-sentence and

Which isn’t a very effective way to create tension or curiosity, because it shatters the illusion that this is a real blogger trying to write about their life. If they got cut short in the middle of typing, who posted the entry? Real bloggers, and credible blog-fiction writers, write in self-contained episodes. The fact that those episodes may be referred back to in later self-contained episodes doesn’t make them a narrative middle, it makes those later episodes a form sequel. A Blogfic is a peculiar combination of novel and short story collection. It’s somewhat like a TV series, except that the episodes are less formulaic, or perhaps just have a more varied range of formulae. It is a type of epistolary form, obviously, but it has its own characteristics beyond this. For a start, it introduces a non-linear or multi-linear element to the narrative, even when it doesn’t intend to, by having choices of reading order inherent in the structure. The reader comes in at the end – that’s just how most blogging tools work – and probably reads the latest instalment before deciding whether they can be bothered to go back to the beginning and read from the start. Or they may choose to read it in reverse-chronological order, like Memento. Whichever they decide on, they may choose to keep reading this way, or if, like me, they have a short attention span and no self-control, they may get through the first (or last) few entries before getting distracted by the list of entry titles in the margin and randomly clicking on something that sounds interesting. If the author has been thoughtful enough to provide tags, that’s another way of navigating. If the Blogfic is multiple character, this adds even more possibilities. Do you read through each journal in turn, An Instance of the Fingerpost-style, or do you create a custom friends list and read all the characters’ blogs on a single friends page? Either way, do you read them forwards, backwards, randomly or tagwise? Does it matter?

I’ve come to the conclusion that due to the self-contained nature of each entry, it probably doesn’t. Even if you don’t read the cause before the effect, the effect will have evidence of the cause within itself, and when you later read the cause it will add to the effect retrospectively. I’ve been trying to think of narrative devices that only make sense when read in a certain order, but I’ve come to realise that actually I don’t need to be anywhere near that clever. Clues, whether detective-style or just ordinary narrative pointers, will work when the reader has read them all, no matter what order they are read in. This is not due to the cleverness of the author but the sophistication of the reader, who already recognises the possibilities being offered and the allowances being asked by this new medium.

A Blog Fiction narrative relies less on suspense and the gradual exposition of plot than on a knowledge of the facets of the characters and their relationships. While my fictional bloggers may well have the odd action-packed escape or conflict, when they write it up they won’t be aiming to entertain or excite (except one of them perhaps, but he’ll mostly be exaggerating). There certainly won’t be much true suspense, as the very fact that the character is blogging rather gives away the outcome of any perilous encounter. Blogs deal with mundanity, not adventure; the pleasure of reading a blog is in how interesting the character’s life is and how well they write about it, and the latter can easily make up for any lack of the former (though categorically not the other way around). I think the interesting thing about Bad Influences will not be in what the characters do, but in how it changes them, and the way they see themselves, each other and the world around them.


9 Responses to Navigating Blog Fiction

  1. Wildbow says:

    Reading Bad Influences thus far (From WFG forums) I read the story by reading certain characters all the way through (insofar as they have entries), starting with the ones I was most interested in (Mei, Ash), moving on to the others (Elaine, Jack).

    Here’s the thing, though. One can have tension without cliffhangers. Tension in a reader is generated by the unresolved. Cliffhangers are an easy way to do this – you leave a situation dangling, and the reader experiences a degree of emotion as they find themselves reaching for the continuation that isn’t there. They also experience psychological tension, as they imagine possibilities.

    But as you say, you can’t have regular cliffhangers in a blogfic. You can have someone walk away and promise to post later with a continuance/explanation of something. But not with regularity. To create tension, you have to leave other things unresolved.

    There’s the unanswered questions. What’s going on, how is X possible? What happened to this character?

    There’s also more subjective forces. The reader may desire for certain characters to form a relationship, or for two characters to reunite or meet. They might want a certain conclusion, either to the conflict in the short term (I want Y to get killed) or to the story as a whole.

    And finally, there’s, given how we don’t know the story’s outcome in advance, the tension as we wonder whether a given character is going to make it out okay.

    I think you do yourself a disservice by saying it doesn’t matter which order the story is experienced in. The ordering of the chapters may be more ambiguous (Is Mai’s thread read through standalone, followed by Ash’s or does a reader read it through chronologically, starting with the oldest chapters?), but without cliffhangers you’re far more reliant on pacing.

    Vonnegut writes that every sentence of the story should do one of two things – reveal character or advance the story. I like to extend this idea to expanding setting, and for something as long running as a serial, it’s important to keep in mind that a given chapter needs to do these things. The rate and degree to which you provide these various elements defines the story’s pace.

    As a writing teacher, naturally, you’d be aware of this. You’ve likely given this very advice.

    However, where I think (as of the present) Bad Influences struggles, is that the balance is off, and the tension just isn’t there.

    Balance: As it stands, in terms of what each chapter achieves in offering something to the reader, you’re giving up a heck of a lot of A (shedding light on who the characters are), no real B (advancing the story), and some C (info on the world at large – your epidemic). Even in terms of what the posts are about, it tends to repeat. The intro post, the ‘taking an online quiz’ post, it exaggerates the feeling of a/a/a/A, A/a/a/A, A/a/a/a parallels between the stories (using capital/small letter A to signify major/minor info). If it were mixed up with regularity, the story would be able to maintain interest independent of the searching out of clues or the particular order of chapters. You have to seize that interest if you want the reader to stick around long enough to look for the clues or the facets of the characters you’ve mentioned, and the tension is essential to that.

    Tension – As it stands, as of February 5th, 2013, Bad Influences doesn’t grab me. It’s a story with a slow start, to the point that I wonder if it wouldn’t be better served by starting somewhat later into the epidemic. More probelmatic is that the slow start is multiplied by four. Further, because of the way things are structured, the fact that it’s a blogfic, I can guess that things won’t get past the point where the internet service goes. Or if they do, then it pushes the limits of credibility.

    Tension insofar as it exists in the story is limited to bad things happening to characters we care about. But that feels very distant (there’s no immediate danger, so tension is mild), and it presumes we care about the characters.

    Mei’s story is the strongest thus far, and her character is too. This, in part, is because it’s easiest to shed light on characters when things are happening to those characters. There’s a fair amount of material posted about Jack, Elaine and Ash, but it doesn’t achieve much because nothing’s happening to them. They exist in a vacuum.

    • Wildbow says:

      To clarify on the a/a/a/a stuff, I meant that you should mix it up in terms of a/b/a/c, followed by c/a/a/b, etc (Where a = character info, b = plot advancement and c= key info/setting info).

  2. Emma Pooka says:

    Hi Wildbow – thanks for reading and making such a considered analysis – it’s given me a lot to think about.
    Since I started posting the story I’ve changed my mind a little about how the tension and pacing work, and I’ll post more extensively about that when it’s progressed a little further. Although I always tried to think of Bad Influences in real-time, until I was actually posting it I had no way to gauge exactly what that would feel like, or how it would affect pacing. When I edited the beginning I couldn’t help treating it like a novel – I cut out the filler to quicken the pace, snipping entire entries. Once I started posting it up, I realised this had very little effect on the pace – the pace is determined far more by the real time element than I’d imagined. A gap of a week is a gap of a week, whether the posts on either side of that gap are 200 words long or 2,000. It seems counter-intuitive, but I’m beginning to think the way to make a blogfic pacier is to have more entries, though obviously they all need to be doing something for character, background or plot.

    I agree about tension coming from the unrevealed, but I stand by the idea that, in this kind of character-based epistolary narrative, there are as many revelations in character development as “action” (of the things-happening kind). I’ll admit I didn’t intend the pace of the plot to be as slow as it now appears, but at the same time I wouldn’t have wanted to come into it too much later. I’d rather have sped up the advance of the pandemic, but for logistical reasons I can’t change that much at this point. I am making small changes of order and timing as I go, mostly breaking up longer entries so that there can be more of them, trying to find a balance between not leaving Mei as the only character posting and posting too much of the other characters before their stories really get underway (because there’s only so much a and c you want to see from each character before their B kicks in, so to speak.) That said, the vacuum the three as-yet-unaffected characters are in is, I hope, more like a calm before the storm, though hopefully not so calm as to be dull! A lot can happen in thirteen years – I’d crave the reader’s indulgence for a few more entries while I show them the world the characters are living in, before I smash it to the ground. Incidentally, there’s more C to come on the credibility of a reliable internet past the collapse of civilisation as we know it, so maybe it won’t all be over as soon as you think. 🙂

    If this makes it so slow it’s just not grabbing readers, that is problematic, but I’m interested to see that you got into Mei’s story, which is obviously the main and the most frequently updated story at this time. I’m hoping it can carry the others (along with their own character development and their humour and foreshadowing) for a little longer. Rather than the slow start being multiplied by four, I was hoping to vary the focus as each character takes their turn at setting the pace (so it sort of goes A/c/a/c, c/A/c/a, B/A/A/A, b/B/a/a, A/b/B/c and the letters progress down the line and then vary much more until a crescendo of B/B/B/B towards the end…) Of course, that probably only works if you’re reading in real time, whereas the character by character approach will keep you waiting for the action until that character reaches it. I am trying to make sure there’s at least one capital letter going on at all times, but perhaps that’s not enough.

    Thanks for your ideas and feedback – it’s much appreciated, and I hope you’ll enjoy the story more as it progresses!

    • Wildbow says:

      Beginnings are hard. Everyone I’ve talked to has had their issues with their story’s beginnings. I know Worm’s start is a little clunky and I do have eventual plans to go back and rewrite it, because it drags on just a little, and sort of misleads the reader about what the story is about later. GSW has expressed irritation and I know he rewrote the start of No Man an Island.

      On your characters: I think a key thing to keep in mind is that each of your characters is -people-. Maybe that sounds a little simplistic, but each of them has real lives with stuff happening to them, and each of them has motivations.

      Reading the early entries, I’m not sure I get why they’re even blogging. And I don’t know if I fully understand how they know each other or what their collective story is. Mei, again, sort of makes sense. She’s spooked, and these people she knows are willing to hear her out. But the other three feel more like props or background noise, with her story being the only real one.

      I could see the story having more ‘grab’ if they each had their individually compelling stories, but that’s a hard thing to wrangle.

      I’m glad you mentioned the notion of increasing the pace with more content. I’d had similar thoughts, but didn’t get into it because I was already running sorta long and couldn’t really frame it right. Again, it’d have to cover stuff that the reader’s interested in, maybe less words, more events, but I think it’d work.

      As it stands, I don’t know that I’ll keep reading, as it’s tricky to really follow four individual pseudo-blogs, and I wasn’t convinced thus far. I’m not saying I’ve give up on it 100%, but I’ll probably be checking in at a later point to see how it’s evolved/evolving. Sounds like you’re on the right tack with how you’re talking about varying the focus.

      Good luck. I’ll probably post a review after the story goes up on WFG.

  3. Emma Pooka says:

    Thanks – just as a guide on where my exposition’s failing, did you read the character profiles and the comments on the early entries? I originally had a lot of the “How we met and why we’re blogging” stuff in the characters’ first entries, but I thought that was one of the things that was clogging up the beginning, so I moved it to the profiles and comments. I didn’t want to be too “As you all know, we are here because…” about it, but perhaps I went overboard on the subtlety, if that’s not a contradiction.
    I hope that each of the characters will have their individually compelling stories, but obviously they begin to become more compelling at different points, and it’s a matter of taste which voices you find compelling enough to stick with until then. Thanks for taking the time to give me your take on it, and see you over on the WFG forum. 🙂

    • Wildbow says:

      I didn’t read the character profiles. I skimmed the comments. I suppose in that respect I read it like I might any other blog.

      That said, if these -were- blogs, I expect there’d be somewhat more of an attempt to provide the details for new readers. Perhaps something early on like, “Because people have been asking, and not everyone reads the full comments, I just wanted to clarify-”

      Maybe that’s too forced.

  4. Emma Pooka says:

    Ah, I see, that makes sense then. You’re only reading half the story, really. Maybe I’ll put in some allusion to past discussions at some point for those who are just sticking to the posts, but what I like about the multi-blog format is that you can either just take in interest in a character’s main story or, if you develop an interest in the background and want to know things like how the characters met and why they’re blogging, you can dig a little deeper. I don’t want to do too much of the work for the reader, it’s all in there if you’re interested enough (and if you’re not, that’s fine, you can stick to skimming the surface).

    I think a lot of blogfics work that way, but I don’t know if they’re intended to. The most intricate and clever use of multiple blogs I can recall, which is unfortunately no longer available, was The Germaine Truth, which consisted of a number of connected blogs, forums and even sort of podcasts, giving the background on the town, but only really one telling the main story. You didn’t have to read everything, and the Applegate Trail made sense without the Germaine Truth News or the Diary of Little Germaine, but if you didn’t read those then you would be missing the background to some of the mysteries being woven by Susie’s blog. It was a stunning piece of multi-linear narrative – I hope it comes back online one day.

  5. Wildbow says:

    I’ll be sure to check the comments before I review, so I have the full story.

  6. […] that said, the beginning is too slow. As I noted when I was discussing it with Wildbow here, I misjudged just how much impact the real-time scheduling would have on the pace of the early […]

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Bad Influences by Emma Pooka is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.