Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Spiders and trolls: writing the internet part 2

Dan Holloway continues his look at incorporating the internet into fiction by exploring the possibilities for creating tension through using online communication and how to create the literary equivalent of spit screen TV.

So, last time I trixily and rather tritely made the case that “writing the internet” is actually just the same as writing regular dialogue. Which is true. But that’s not quite the whole story, and I thought the best way to illustrate the subtle differences between internet communication and dialogue is to take the most prominent features of difference and look at how to work them into a conversation.

I want to break this down into three areas.

1. virtuality. This may seem obvious, but it is massively important. When we converse online, or by text, we are not actually with the person we are talking to. This can be difficult enough when we’re trying to figure out all the nuances of meaning on the telephone, but online (OK, I’m not talking about Skype or videochatting) there is neither body language nor tone of voice to offer us non-linguistic clues.

Just think about that – no rising pitch to signal a playful question, winks or visual cues to sarcasm, no hesitation to show wariness, no scowl to show displeasure, no avoidance of eye contact we can latch onto to unmask a lie. The last of these points isn’t something that you can work into the way people converse, but is important to mention because you need to bear in mind not only how people consciously communicate across these hurdles, but what nuances they can and can’t draw – especially if, for example, you have a detective who needs to catch the villain out in a lie.

We might make fun of the use of emoticons in forums and text messages, and of those daft little acronyms like LOL and ROFLMAO, but far from stating the bleeding obvious, they can actually play an essential role in conveying emotion when there are no clues outside of the language itself. People who wouldn’t normally be seen dead drawing smiley faces will use them for clarity, and many of us use acronyms simply to save time and space. Do get to know a site like to help you get on top of these, but just like anything else, authenticity is the key. And that means there’s no real substitute for hanging out on a forum and seeing how people use emoticons and acronyms in real conversation.

Communication in this language-only world tends to devolve (this is something we will come to later, the pretty much universal rule that all online conversation spirals down or up into a formulaic steady state) in to one of two extremes, either extremely formal or extremely informal, with very little middle ground. Imagine this kind of exchange between two mid-ranking detectives at the end of their first long shift working on a new team together. Suppose they were relaxing over a pint following a debrief:

“Well that went well.”

“Yeah, nice to feel appreciated.”

“Aye, you can feel the love oozing from his pores.”

“Is that what it was?”

There are all sorts of things that make sense because the conversation is face to face. We don’t need to be told about the raised eyebrows and sarcastic faces because we know that’s what’s happening. We can see their visual cues and the way those interrelate.

Now suppose that one of the pair had been sent overseas, of down from Yorkshire to London, and after a long conference call with their superior they were catching up by text. It may be that each is raising their eyebrow, but the dynamic isn’t the same. They’re not feeding off one another, working themselves up into a mood bubble. And they certainly won’t refer to their boss’s physical appearance, so any sarcastic jokes will have a different frame of reference. The result is that the conversation will either tend to

-That was helpful ;)

-Empathy personified :p

Where the visual cues have entered into the language, or

-Slave driver

-Worse than bloody useless.

Where the implicit meaning has disappeared altogether and been brought wholly into the foreground

2. Minor characters

Remember those old Doris Day and Rock Hudson movies from the 1950s where people made calls on party lines and the screen would split and merge as people joined and left the conversation? The internet is like that only more so. More so in the sense that not only do some arenas such as chatrooms, blogs, and forums allow for parties that are more like an early 1990s warehouse rave than some genteel pillow talk but often these arenas are like bars. Along with whoever’s talking at any given time, there are the regulars. Those who sit around shooting the breeze at all hours, easing their way into every conversation. And realistic online communication needs to account for that.

Now, you don’t need to be a Beckett or a Stoppard to see the huge potential to be mined from chatrrom regulars and their quirks. They are the potential Falstaffs of the literary world. Of course, it’s not appropriate to many conversations, or whole genres, to start creating this kind of character. They would get decidedly in the way of a pacy thriller – although the sullen, sometimes thoughtful sometimes spiteful person on the fringes of conversation is a great candidate for a prime suspect in some kinds of thriller, and the everyday folk of a chatroom provide a perfect cast in which to hide them. Agatha Christie would, I am sure, have just adored internet forums and if she were writing today would have relocated all her vicarage tea parties there.

3. Dynamics of conversation

Most conversations we see in fiction follow a basic structure of back and forth. Of course there are group conversations as well, but even there a basic principle is at work, which is that – rather like those “I’m holding the pillow” management training exercises – the energy of the conversation moves around the group following the speaker.

Online conversations are more complex than that. OK, real life conversations are more complex too – the rule of following a single source of energy is by and large a fictional construct that is essential for being able to transcribe things in a way that is both interesting and coherent. But fictional online conversations don’t have those constraints. It is quite possible, by thinking about how you format things, to follow the way things actually work. And, more important, to do so not only without losing attention or coherence, but whilst heightening both.

There are two ways in which having multiple centres of conversational energy can work really well. The first is the forum/blog/chatroom thread in which there are multiple conversations happening at once. In real online conversations, these are delineated by the use of the @ sign at the start of comments, so it is always clear who is talking to whom. This translates to the page very well, and avoids the need for endless he said/she said tags. It is also a very good way of avoiding having two scenes when that would be inappropriate for dramatic reasons (back to backing similar scenes with similar arcs is always dramatically bad unless you have a very good artistic reason for it) but you have two sets of related characters who need to have similar conversations.

The second is the “aside”. This is something that can be done wonderfully on television by using split screen. In fiction it is a nightmare, and that’s a real shame, because as shows like 24 and Trial and Retribution have shown, it can be used to devastating effect to convey a scene from two angles when one or more characters is not party to the information that their companion/interlocutor and someone else, or the audience, is party to.

The printed page (ironically not so much, as technology currently stands, the ereader screen) is perfect for this. Simply use the right and left hand side of the book as a split screen. On one side you can present a group chat on a forum or chatroom. On the other side, using line spacing to convey the exact moment at which something is said, you can follow a side conversation that is going on between either two participants or one participant and a third party either in a private chatbar or by direct message.

The dramatic possibilities are manifold:
  • The sting. A group of people, as on Hustle or some such, may be buttering up a mark ready to strike. On one side the conversation to manipulate the mark carries on. On the other side they discuss tactics together. 
  • The agony aunt/uncle. In one chatbar someone undertakes “that conversation” with a lover whilst nestling on the shoulder of a best friend in another chatbar. 
  • The spider’s lair. Similar to the sting but more sinister. Perfect for psychological thrillers where a group is grooming a victim. Potentially terrifying. 
  • The trap. Similar to the lair only in reverse. This time some of the members of the ring aren’t what they seem – they’re police officers. 

And so on. The basic principle is always the same. One or more members of the conversation is playing more than one role, whilst others are playing only one. Usually the latter group will somehow be vulnerable to the manipulation of the former. It really is a marvellous dramatic device.

Dan Holloway's new novel, Evie and Guy, is one of the few books about which it can be truthfully said that it really is unlike anything else - a heartbreaking love story written wholly in numbers, it is free to download from his website ( Dan is a multiple slam winning poet and former winner of Literary Death Match. He runs the Open Up to Indies campaign for the Alliance of Independent Authors and writes about self-publishing and independent culture for the Guardian. You can see him performing poetry at Stoke Newington Literary Festival on June 8th, in Oxford on June 22n, and as a feature act at the leading London spoken word event Forget What You Heard (about spoken word) on June 22nd. Details on his website.


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  2. Awesome writing. I am a regular visitor of your blog. Adore your posts!