> classes > interactive narrative, fall 2021

21W.765 / 21L.489 / CMS.618 / CMS.845
Interactive Narrative
MIT · Fall 2021

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

Posted Sep 8, 2021. Syllabus updates during the semester will be noted here. Sep 22: Curveship assignment is given earlier with the same deadline (more time is available for the project.)

Instructor: Nick Montfort,, 14N-336
Class meets in 4-249 Wednesdays, 2pm–5pm
Office hours: Regular office hours are 10am–11am Wednesdays in 14N-336, with some exceptions and a possible change of room during the semester
I am also available, via videoconference, by appointment

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. (The excpetions are the standard ones: for legitimate medical reasons, religious observance, etc., and in those cases a student still needs to catch up by discussing a missed class session with a student who was there.) 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. I will do my best to make these books available for students to read. However, my lab/studio at MIT is in storage, I have not been able to retrieve all of these books, and I currently have only a regular-sized office that can accomodate me and one other person. I am never able to allow my books to circulate.


Work is distributed over several assignments:

Participation (Including Attendance)

Participating in class is necessary to respect your fellow students, who, along with you, are important parts of the workshop community. Participation starts with physically being in the classroom for the whole class session, but also includes your willingness to respond and to initiate discussion.

Absences for medical reasons, or personal or family emergency, or religious observance, will of course be excused. In such cases a student must work with another student who participated in the session to catch up. If you will be absent and can possibly let me know, please do, so I can request that a student help fill you in on what we did.


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 not only your sentence-by-sentence writing, but also the code you are writing for your digital project. Based on your preliminary work for your print 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 this set 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 print 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. Specifically we will be learning about what some now call a pan-narrator theory, which holds that there is always a narrator (more or less overt) for any narrative. And we will stick to a two-part story/discourse or context/expression distinction, although others such as Mieke Bal argue for three levels. One may eventually settle on a different specific narratology, but one needs to start somewhere, and I have chosen what has proved to be a very useful starting point. It facilitates our conversation and collaboration in class and allows authors to understand the possibilties of narrative.

The basis for learning about narrative theory will be class discussion and the textbook The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. 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 in-class instruction in narrative theory will be offered in response to these questions. In-class exercises, which determine part of your grade, will be required to determine your understanding of narrative theory and guide our further discussion. These exercises are quiz-like in many ways but require you to do short amounts of creative writing, too. 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, generates text in response, 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 — some of you may know the recent ones as “Twines.”

Students are assigned to each give a brief presentation on a particular work of e-lit that they select and describe. Because we our topics of conversation will be digial objects, students are expected to show the narrative e-lit work itself, having set up appropriate bookmarks or save points, rather than preparing a slide presentation.

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 particular length requirement. This paper can relate to graduate student projects being undertaken outside the class.

During this unit students will each create two works of electronic literature, one shorter (in Curveship) and one longer (in Twine or Inform). 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 in Print

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 — with a focus on Cortázer’s Hopscotch — and comics along these lines by Jason Shiga (mainly Meanwhile) and others.

Students are assigned to do a thorough study of one particular book that the class as a whole is not reading, writing a paper on this book. This will require checking out such a book from MIT’s Hayden Library or a an area public library, or requesting such a book via interlibrary loan, or the purchase of such 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 almost twice as long as the typical undergraduate paper to do this.

Students are also assigned to write two short multisequential stories. The first is to be made using a single sheet of paper, and so will be limited in size. 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, or using a printer at MIT, or by employing the services of Copytech. 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.


1 · September 8

Narrative questionnaire distributed. Students are required to complete it for use in class discussion; this is not a graded exercise.

Discussion of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books.

Review of the syllabus, major required readings, assignments, evaluation.

Rapid introduction to narratology and the distinction between discourse/telling and story/content.

Read and closely study for the next class 1. Narrative and Life, 2. Defining Narrative, and 3. The Borders of Narrative from The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. Read at least halfway through Exercises in Style, understand the concept, and pick out some of your favorite and least favorite sections.

(4%) Narrative exercise/quiz covering concepts in today's lecture and discssion. Yes, there is a graded quiz at the end of class on the first day.

2 · September 15

Today's video: “Drop” by The Pharcyde, dir. Spike Jonze.

CYOA book discussion.

Discussion, in terms of narratology, of this music video and several very short narratives, presented in class.

Introduced in class, soon available for your use in your study of narrative: Curveship.js 0.4.

Is narrative hard to define? Discussion and review of chapters 1–3 of Abbott. As will always be the case, it is students’ responsibility to bring specific questions about the readings.

Read and closely study for the next class 4. The Rhetoric of Narrative, 5. Closure, and 6. Narration from The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. Complete your reading of Exercises in Style.

(4%) Narrative exercise/quiz, in class.

3 · September 22

Today's video: “California” by Wax, dir. Spike Jonze.

Discussion of Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau.

Questions about chapters 4, 5, and 6 from the Abbott book?

Read for the next class: “Going for a Beer,” Robert Coover. Or we’ll discuss it next class.

Read and closely study for the next class 7. Interpreting Narrative, 8. Three Ways to Interpret Narrative, 9. Adaptation across Media, and 10. Character and Self in Narrative from The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. Also read the glossary of this book by Abbott. This is to make your study easier, not harder!

Creative Project 1, in Curveship-js, is assigned. Create a variable narrative with three (3) different narrator files (and corresponding HTML files) and no more than ten (10) events. Due October 6 at 12noon.

(4%) Narrative exercise/quiz, in class.

4 · September 29

Read and closely study for the next class 11. Narrative and Truth, 12. Narrative Worlds, 13. Narrative Contestation, and 14. Narrative Negotiation from The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative.

(4%) Narrative exercise/quiz, in class.

5 · October 6

Our main discussion of the foundations of narrative theory concludes today. Of course, we will be discussing narrative theory throughout the course as we also deal with issues of materiality, interface, expectation, riddle and solution, etc. But this will wrap up our study of the Abbott book and of the fundamentals.

Each of us will share our Creative Project 1 in class.

Interactive fiction will be assigned for you to experience outside of class: Watch this space.

(10%) Creative Project 1, in Curvship, is DUE before 12noon this day.

(4%) Narrative exercise/quiz, in class.

6 · October 13

In-class reading/play of interactive fiction. Some will also be assigned for you to experience outside of class: Watch this space.

Creative Project 2, in Twine or Inform, is assigned. A working draft/prototype is due October 20 at 12noon. The completed project is due October 27 at 12noon.

7 · October 20

Workshop for Creative Project 2.

For next week, read and solve Meanwhile.

A working draft/prototype of Creative Project 2 is due before 12noon this day.

8 · October 27

Discussion of Meanwhile.

Each of us will share our Creative Project 2 in class.

Begin your reading of Hopscotch. We will likely start at the standard beginning, with “From the Other Side,” chapters 1-36, but these instructions may be revised.

(15%) Creative Project 2, in Twine or Inform, is DUE before 12noon this day.

9 · November 3

Discussion of Hopscotch.

Continue your reading of Hopscotch. We will figure out how to proceed; it may or may not be with “From the Other Side,” chapters 37-56.

Both the Critical Report and Creative Project 3 are assigned. Both assignments are due November 17 (on paper) at the beginning of class. These are assigned together because what you learn from studying a print multisequential narrative should inform you as you make a print multisequential narrative, and vice versa.

10 · November 10

Discussion of Hopscotch.

Continue your reading of Hopscotch and be ready to discuss the whole book, including the “Expendable Chapters,” and different reading experiences of it, next class.

11 · November 17

Discussion of Hopscotch concludes.

Each of us will share our Creative Project 3 in class.

Each of us will also briefly discuss what we learned in writing the Critical Paper.

Creative Project 4 is assigned. A working draft/prototype is due next week, December 1, at the beginning of class. The completed project is due December 8 at the beginning of class.

(10%) Creative Project 3, one-sheet print multisequenial literature, is DUE at the very beginning of class (2:05pm) this day.

(15%) The Critical Report is DUE at the very beginning of class (2:05pm) this day.

12 · December 1

Workshop for Creative Project 4.

A working draft/prototype of Creative Project 4 is due at the very beginning of class (2:05pm) this day.

13 · December 8

Each of us will share our Creative Project 3 in class.

(15%) Creative Project 4, booklet-length print multisequenial literature, is DUE at the very beginning of class (2:05pm) this day.

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.

Facial covering policy. At all times all class participants (including the instructor) must wear a close-fitting face covering over their noses and mouths.

Perceptive students will notice that the instructor wears a neck gaiter as his facial covering. Although an August 8, 2020 study has been misinterpreted by some, leaing some to beleive that neck gaiters are not a safe face covering during the current pandemic, an August 20, 2020 study by a respected aerosolologist demonstrated their effectiveness, see The New York Times, Yahoo! News, and presentation slides from the researchers.

The following is not specific to Interactive Narrative but may still be very important!

Standard 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 appointments at the WCC tend to fill up quickly.

Information Systems & Technology (IS&T)

As an enrolled MIT student you can access a variety of proprietary software at no cost, and, given my advocacy, use, and produciton of free software, I’m not going to tell you more about that or link to such things. You should use free/libre/open source software instead. However, IS&T also loans laptops to students: If you have any technical questions about hardware, software, or anything IT-related, you can contact IS&T 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at: