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Database | Narrative | Archive

Seven interactive essays on digital nonlinear storytelling
edited by Matt Soar & Monika Gagnon

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The Plot and The Interface

No database can function without a user interface, and in the case of cultural materials the interface is an especially crucial element of these kinds of digital instruments. Interface embeds, implicitly and explicitly, many kinds of hierarchical and narrativized organizations. Indeed, the database – any database – represents an initial critical analysis of the content materials, and while its structure is not narrativized, it is severely constrained and organized. The free play offered to the user of such environments is at least as much a function of interface design as it is of its data structure...
           – Jerome McGann

According to Earl Miner, narrative plot is a "continuation in sequence of a sustained group of people in places and times." Plot arranges events to take shape in the mind as a single entity; a contemplative whole made of structurally related parts: cause and effect chains, points of tension and release, beginnings, middles and ends. Each significant “plot point” in a linear narrative provides a kind of virtual interface for the developing story world, a map of the conflicting and harmonious energies  moving through the whole of the text. While plot and interface perform similar roles of providing interaction and cohesion in their respective domains (time and space), they are at odds when it comes to the pleasures of story. Plot focuses the attention of a mostly passive listener/viewer held captive by an illusion. Plot delights, puzzles, frustrates and excites through a selective revealing and concealing of information over time. 

Sergei Eisenstein's diagram of Alexander Nevsky translates the sound/image development of a sequential film into a database-like table with rows and columns. Visualized in this way, we can see montage relationships at many levels of abstraction. On a computer, a graphical user interface  is typically designed to be useful. It provides the database user with access, fast retrieval and manipulation of stored data and metadata. An interface that frustrates any of these is said to be poorly designed. Primarily a spatial narrative device, an interface is more than a map. It is a map that changes with the user's navigation in time, offering multiple interpretive paths and levels of abstraction. But a plotted interface – to a database narrative or fiction, for example – withholds as much as it reveals. A plotted interface provides micro and macro views, but also limits and delays access to those views. 
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