Plotting the Database
"Database narratives" – narratives that embrace or at least flirt with database logic – can certainly draw on the cultural knowledge of plots and plotting for story effects. But the usefulness and pleasures of plot, as a structural and unifying device, is significantly weakened in a computer’s networked and modular environment. Search, fast retrieval, user control of temporal ordering – the qualities that make databases unique – leave standard plot effects, such as foreshadowing and suspense, ineffective. A plotted fictional narrative, such as a novel or movie, holds attention by focusing on delineated characters, motivations and actions through a series of events in time. Sequential order is essential for setting up narrative schemas, reversals, McGuffins and red herrings. Non-fiction forms – narrative journalism, the documentary or the narrative essay – though less dependent on artificial plot structures, still rely on schemas (such as the quest) to bring order to a temporal experience. A database, on the other hand, holds attention primarily through spatial arrangements. An interface foregrounds relational aspects of data and datasets and provides macro and micro views of those relations. The temporal relations of events, that which plot works to structure as linear narrative, is just one of many structural relations available in a database narrative.
What holds a database narrative together as a conceptual and experiential whole? What is narrative without plot devices, cause/effect chains and central conflicts? This Scalar text will examine features of interface design that might translate or reformulate the more familiar narrative techniques of plotting. What are the models of narrative construction, in contemporary and past forms, that can help us reinvent a more affective-expressive poetics for the design of narratives on a computer? Plotless narratives, or forms that explode, ignore or diminish the structural role of plot, can also engage the attentive mind as single entities (stories). Cohesion comes less through the codes of mimetic construction – the propping up of a continuous world – and more through the patterns in the semiotic surface of the work. Plotting the database is designing the interface.
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