> classes > interactive narrative, fall 2020

21W.765 / 21L.489 / CMS.618 / CMS.845
Interactive Narrative
MIT · Fall 2020

This course is a CI-M for 21W/Writing majors and CMS majors.

Syllabus updates during the semester will be noted here.

Instructor: Nick Montfort,, 14N-336, teaching from NYC in Fall 2020
Class meets via videoconference Wednesdays, 2pm–4pm Eastern Time
Office hours: I am available, via videoconference, by appointment; I encourage several students (2-3) to sign up for one offered session, and will provide the opportunity for students to do so during our class meetings

Attending All of the First Class is Required

Interactive Narrative has been significantly overenrolled in recent years. The hard limit for a writing course, particularly a CI-M course, is 18 — and even that class size is challenging. Additionally, this is not a lecture-based class. We have class meetings that are filled with discussion, activities, and the sharing of student work. There is no way to “make up” what we do as a community when we gather (virtually or otherwise). For these reasons, students must attend all of the first class to enroll or remain enrolled in the class. Until I have made an announcement that the class size is within bounds and we have finalized enrollment, anyone who elects to miss a class will not be able to stay in the course.


A list of the multisequential books in my personal collection is available. The list indicates which books are also held by the MIT Libraries. Under normal circumstances I make these books available for students to read in my lab/studio at MIT, although I am never able to allow them to circulate. Unfortunately, this cannot be the case in Fall 2020.


Work has been distributed over several more assignments, which are each more limited in scope, this semester.

Participation (Including Attendance)

Participating in class is necessary to respect your fellow students, who, along with you, are important parts of the workshop community.

Absences for medical reasons, or personal or family emergency, will of course be excused.


What type of substantial feedback (aside from quantitative grading along the way and a final letter grade) should you expect from me?

I will gladly provide extensive and detailed feedback when it is explicitly requested. The ideal way of getting detailed feedback is via your communication with me in office hours. For instance, if you come to office hours I am willing to review the code you are writing for your digital project. Based on your preliminary work for your ink-and-paper project, I can suggest ways to better print and bind that work. I can also explain in office hours how to approach writing a critical paper, how to prepare a presentation, and how to draft and revise interactive narrative work, giving you specific pointers based on what you have done so far. I can explain aspects of narrative theory in greater depth and suggest ways to strengthen your particular creative writing. My preference is to meet with small groups of 2–3 students at once so we can benefit from each other’s questions and perspectives, but I can also meet with you individually. Remember that you must initiate the request!

Please understand that without your individual requests, I cannot offer thi soet of detailed and extensive feedback routinely, on a weekly basis, to every student. Because of this, the main sorts of feedback I will provide to everyone, based on assignments, is intended to answer these questions: Do you understand the basics of narrative theory? Do you see how narrative theory offers you new possibilities as a writer? Can you identify interesting aspects of existing interactive narratives? Can you exploit the different dimensions of narrative to go beyond the most obvious possibilities in your own interactive narrative work? Are you making good use of material properties and formal possibilities in both your paper and digital projects? Is your writing (and oral presentation) in a good and appropriate style and framework given the projects you are undertaking? This is the feedback necessary for this particular subject and for a subject fulfilling the CI-M requirement.

Required Books

Narrative Theory

Throughout this course, and particularly during the first half of it, we will learn the basics of narratology, also called narrative theory, a body of thought related to narrative that is quite precise. Some students are surprised to learn that there are studies in the humanities that are so precise! It facilitates conversation and collaboration and allows authors to understand the possibilties of narrative.

The basis for learning about narrative theory will be class discussion, a chapter from The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, a fine online resource, Manfred Jahn’s Narratology: A Guide to the Theory of Narrative, and possibly other selected short articles. During class discussions, the instructor will be ready to answer questions and clarify all the concepts, and time will be allocated for this during each of the initial class sessions. After the very first class meeting, students need to come prepared with questions that they have, as the instruction in narrative theory will be offered in response to these questions. Exercises/quizzes, which determine part of your grade, will be required to determine your understanding of narrative theory and guide our further discussion. Anything we have covered in discussions or assigned readings is fair game for these.

I · Narrative Electronic Literature

We will focus on electronic literature that has narrative as an important component. Often, the “user” or “reader” is the one who gets to produce the narratives by interacting. A narrative electronic literature work can be a structured document that the interactor can traverse in many ways or a more complex computer program that simulates a world, accepts English input, and/or does other interesting things. Many computer and video games, including interactive fiction works (a.k.a. text adventures) are certainly in this category, as are classic and more recent hypertext fictions.

Students are assigned to each initiate a forum discussion about a particular work of e-lit that they select and describe. After some online discussion, each student will briefly provide a video presentation with a summary of the discussion and the conclusions they have reached.

In addition to completing the other course requirements, graduate students in CMS.845 are required to submit an additional critical paper during this time that deals with electronic literature or another aspect of the course topic. There is no length requirement. This paper can relate to graduate student projects outside the class.

During this unit students will each create two works of electronic literature, one shorter and one longer. Creating such a work requires writing, design, and structuring; depending upon one’s choice of platform it may also require programming. Quality of writing, suitability of the structure/program and the writing to the theme, and the quality of the interface will all be factors in the final grade. Neither of these have the be in the fiction genre, in the sense of being written like a novel or short story; they could be poetry, non-fiction, or something else. They should just be interactive narratives.

II · Forking Paths on Paper

We will study non-linear print pieces of different sorts. The books in the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure series are probably the most famous of these, but we will also consider other juvenile fiction books of similarly unusual structure; parodies of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books such as You Are a Miserable Excuse for a Hero; literary works along these non-linear lines by Saporta, Queneau, Mathews, Pavić, Coover, and others; and comics along these lines by Jason Shiga and others.

Students are assigned to do a thorough study of one particular book, first discussing (in the forum) and then writing a paper on this book. In Fall 2020, this will require the online purchase of a multisequential book. Many interesting ones can be obtained for less than $10. Students should also become familiar with the other books that are being studied in class, so that they can at least usefully compare their own book and the most relevant other books.

Graduate students taking the class for credit as CMS.845 are assigned to write a paper on two thoughtful selections, both of which should be thoroughly studied and compared in detail against one another and the other works being examined in class; the graduate paper will probably need to be about twice as long as the typical undergraduate paper to do this.

Students are also assigned to write two short multisequential stories. One will be submitted as a document via Canvas, although it will of course have a special multisequential structure. The other is to be produced as a print booklet, set of cards, or other material artifact, which can be produced using ordinary office supplies and a home printer. As with the electronic literature projects, neither of these have the be in the fiction genre, in the sense of being written like a novel or short story; they could be poetry, non-fiction, or something else. They should just be interactive narratives.

Minimum Page Counts

The “minimums” should not be considered maximums. They are required by the standards for MIT’s CI-M requirement (communications intensive within a major). The minimum length may be generally suitable for the critical report. In the case of the longer creative projects, those absolute minimums may or may not suit your purposes and goals as a writer.

Standard MIT Statement on Plagiarism

Plagiarism—use of another's intellectual work without acknowledgement—is a serious offense. It is the policy of the CMS/W Faculty that students who plagiarize will receive an F in the subject, and that the instructor will forward the case to the Committee on Discipline. Full acknowledgement for all information obtained from sources outside the classroom must be clearly stated in all written work submitted. All ideas, arguments, and direct phrasings taken from someone else's work must be identified and properly footnoted. Quotations from other sources must be clearly marked as distinct from the student's own work. For further guidance on the proper forms of attribution, consult the style guides available in the Writing and Communication Center (E39-115) and the MIT Website on Plagiarism.

The Writing and Communication Center

The Writing and Communication Center offers free one-on-one professional advice from communication experts with advanced degrees and publishing experience. The WCC can help you further develop your oral communication skills and learn about all types of academic and professional writing. You can learn more about the WCC consultations at and register with the online scheduler to make appointments through Please note that the WCC hours are offered via video-conference platforms on Monday-Friday, 9:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m., and fill up fast.