Moving Through The Narrative: Spatial Form Theory And The Space Of Electronic Literature – Lai-Tze Fan

Geoff Ryman’s 253.

The way that a narrative unravels has traditionally been understood to occur over time: the time that it takes to read words on a page and to process meaning, and the time frame of events as depicted in the narrative. As we increasingly encounter electronic literature, which are narratives that operate on the computer and through computer systems, it becomes necessary to examine how the facilities of new media offer different methods of communication and therefore different methods of storytelling. We must account for qualities unique to new media: the screen, for example, is a space in which the status of text is subordinated by the image.[1] In fact, the screen can hold a variety of representational modes that may be utilized in electronic literature, causing a reader to move among narrative spaces. This possibility raises the question: what does it mean to navigate through these spaces in storytelling? To answer this, my paper offers an understanding of how space operates in the electronic narrative and how it may be mediated through the electronic narrative in a self-reflexive, metanarrational manner.

One approach that can be used to inform an understanding is an examination of how space has been described in a branch of narratology related to reader-response theory. Spatial form theory is the perception that “a degree of spatiality may be achieved [in narrative] through leitmotifs or extended webs of interrelated images.”[2] The structures and modes of operation described in spatial form theory are directly aligned with how they occur in electronic literature. For example, a person reading a hypertext must explore a network of webpages in order to generate enough content for a narrative. So too in spatial form narratives is the reader “confronted with an open-ended array of thematically interrelated factors he must weld into a picture – into a ‘spatial form.’”[3] I will use spatial form theory to examine electronic literature as a spatial reading experience as well as a temporal experience. Following a theoretical exploration of reading literature on the computer, I will demonstrate the execution and mediation of spatial reading through a pioneering hypertext, Geoff Ryman’s 253.[4]

Reading into the “Jump” of Electronic Literature

To begin, I will examine how the spatial qualities of hypertext can be approached by reader-response theory, particularly by spatial form theory. Hypertext differs from print text in its incorporation of hyperlinks, which are embedded upon each webpage, and through which a reader may jump from page to page. These jumps point toward aspects of digital media that dictate the production and execution of digital communication. That is, through the novelty of electronic literature, we recognize that as digital media operate in an ephemeral medium, they inevitably possess unique characteristics of time and space.

In order to better understand these characteristics, I turn to new media theorist Lev Manovich, whose foundational text The Language of New Media proposes five principles of new media.[5] In attempting to distinguish new media from old media, these principles describe methods of communication that are identified in computer-based media. Of concern to my argument are the second and fourth principles: modularity and variability. The principle of modularity describes how the structure of new media is formed through separate parts: as each part is stored independently, the deletion, substitution, and addition of new parts is made simple.[6] The principle of variability explains that, in correlation with modularity, new media artefacts possess branches in their programming; with regards to new media, a user must navigate through these branches to operate the media.[7] As hyperlinks allow a hypertext to operate through branching-type interactivity, Manovich states that a hypertext reader must follow links to retrieve a version of the document.[8] The phenomenon that he identifies is multilinearity, a style that is not common in the traditional narrative. The narrative as defined by print culture has followed the customs of linear storytelling: whether a story begins in the beginning, middle, or end of a narrative, all facets of the story are revealed to the reader. A multilinear narrative, however, possesses more than one narrative trajectory, and the interweaving of these trajectories is what Espen J. Aarseth calls a multicursory narrative.[9] Multicursory storytelling adds an element of interactivity to reading that can be found in hypertext, digital film, and video games.[10] A reader must choose which sections to read first or which to read at all, thereby changing the reader’s experience of the story so that he or she is indeed left with a version rather than a whole.

Therefore, hypertext is unlike print because it is has a modular structure and is prone to variability. Also, it does not possess a material form except in the technological machine within which it operates. Despite these unique structural and operative techniques, “hypertext theorists frequently employ spatial imagery to describe the relations made possible by links and textons … This rhetoric fails to hide the fact that the main feature of hypertext is discontinuity – the jump – the sudden displacement of the user’s position in the text.”[11] The jump must be accounted for, as it is inherent in the hypertext form; with adequate understanding, the jump of the hyperlink provides for hypertext fiction a claim to being a literary genre in its own right.

The jump has in fact been identified as an important element of reader-response theory. The mental processing of a jump in literary narratives has been explored by Wolfgang Iser, who posits that in any given text, meaning is not derived solely from the explicit statement, “but aims at something beyond what it actually says. This is true of all sentences in literary works, and it is through the interaction of these sentences that their common aim is fulfilled.”[12] Iser proposes a theory of the Implied Reader, whose act of reading is “a dynamic, transcendent, meaning-making activity negotiated through the gaps or indeterminacies of a text by the reader.”[13] We may situate Iser’s readerly gaps by recognizing that, in the context of computer-based media, they are reified as hyperlinks. Through the selection of hyperlinks, a reader is able to jump between Iser’s gaps – or the cyberspace between webpages – in order to fill in the text’s meaning.

Manovich’s alignment of new media operations with cinematic principles allows us to examine aspects of film under the terms of modularity and variability,[14] and by extension, under the terms of Iser’s Implied Reader. The cinematic technique of montage follows that elements are also organized in separate sections, each with its own meaning and figurative agency for meaning-making. While variability does not exist for traditional cinema in the way that it may for new media, one may argue that digital cinema, in engaging a viewer with different trajectories of a film narrative, operates in a multicursory manner. Digital film can be understood as interactive because the Implied Reader must, as over the space of celluloid, fill in a text’s meaning frame by frame, shot by shot. The possibility of the digital montage’s direction, however, has now been multiplied over cyberspace.

The Implied Reader also becomes the writer of the hypertext, so that readers of hypertext fiction may also be referred to as “users,” in that they control the sequence of the narrative through the activation of hyperlinks. This paper will hereafter refer to hypertext readers as reader-users. Sarah Sloane explores the way in which hyperlink gaps are filled by re-assessing the act of reading in the face of hypertext. Drawing from Andrea Lunsford and Lisa Ede’s theory of “writing types,” Sloane considers the readerly counterparts to these types. Reading up is how she describes content-based reading, the process of cramming and regurgitating information.[15] Reading out and back are akin to reading aloud or to repeating information to an audience, thus engaging a reader with others.[16] When reading into and between, one reads into a text and between the lines;[17] that is, to read into and between is to have a deep engagement with and absorption of the text. From an internal mediation of content, a deeper meaning can be extrapolated. From each of these types of reading, there occurs the reader’s externalization of him or herself towards the text – a uni-directional movement.

Conversely, hypertext fiction functions in a medium with its own operative logic and is therefore able to engage with the reader-user. We concern ourselves with a different type of reading: reading across, whereby the reader and text reciprocate each other’s actions. There exists a permeable border of which reader-users are the gatekeepers and the decision-makers of how a text unfolds, and these decisions are executed as hyperlinks are chosen. I liken reading across to media guru Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism, process over product, as, in a reader-user’s process of interaction with a text through hyperlinks, he or she will execute the imagination and make mental connections between webpages.

Spatial Form Theory and the Implied Reader-User of Hypertext


Spatial form theorist David Mickelsen describes the reading of spatial form narratives in a way that could be interchangeable with the exploration of a hypertext: “Transitions are perfunctory or entirely ignored, and the arrangement of episodes is apparently not governed by a developmental principle. The chapters are blocks that might have been arranged at random without significantly altering the outcome – either for the protagonist or the reader.”[18] Regardless of the outcome of transitions, the human mind is able to configure elements of a text (whether static or fluid, whether print or hypertext) into a larger whole. The formation of this “whole” is the product of the act of reading, where

to complete the process of telling a story – of exchanging a narrative – the receiver must be constructive and produce or reproduce a coherent understanding of the message. Meaning is never contained or guaranteed by the text alone but requires the reader’s engagement and creative relationship to the text. The user relates to the given parts and generates a whole that makes sense in the receiving context.[19]

Mickelsen draws upon the Implied Reader’s style of reading for the purpose of articulating the act of reading spatial form narratives, as, “the reader’s collaboration and involvement, his interpretation [to fill in the gaps]. If ‘exploration’ is to be winnowed to ‘assertion,’ the reader must do it. Thus the ‘implied reader,’ in Wolfgang Iser’s phrase, in spatial form is more active, perhaps even more sophisticated, than that implied by most traditional fiction.”[20] The eagerness of spatial form theory to adopt Iser’s notion of the Implied Reader mirrors that of hypertext theory, and both have turned to metanarrative theory to describe the reader-user’s experience of interacting with a text.

Metanarratives, as described by Ann Daghistany and J.J. Johnson, are especially sensitive to relationships of fragmentation, which encourage reference and connection:

The reader of a spatial-form narrative cannot perceive the characters of their actions as he does in a traditional narrative – that is, he does not perceive separate, individual characters developing and interacting in a linear time frame, because this linear temporal development is largely missing. Instead, as he grasps the relationships between the parts through reflexive reference, the attentive reader of spatial form begins to perceive a pattern or whole form.[21]

By appropriating the notion and discourse of the Implied Reader, hypertext theorists may explain the self-reflexive processes by which the reader-user is able to make sense of the text. Other hypertexts that may also be examined through spatial form theory include Mary Flanagan’s theHouse, which simulates a three-dimensional space in which text can appear, and Lance Olsen and Tim Guthrie’s 10:01, which is a multimodal narrative utilizing images, text, sound, and multilinearity in its methods of storytelling.

253’s Self-Reflexivity of Spatial Movement

In this section, I will offer an example to demonstrate how electronic literature and hypertext operate through and are reflexive of digital space. I have chosen 253 because it is widely considered a pioneering hypertext. Published online in 1996 by Geoff Ryman, the hypertext demonstrates self-referentiality of the digital medium’s use of time and space.

253 is a hypertext that takes the form of a website with constituent webpages. 253 tells the story of a London Underground subway train travelling on the Bakerloo line and heading toward its destination of Elephant and Castle station. The reader-user is told that the train will not brake at Elephant and Castle, but instead, will hurtle past the station and crash in 7.5 minutes. The title of the hypertext refers to the fact that at full capacity, an Underground train carries two-hundred-fifty-two passengers across seven carriages – two-hundred-fifty-three including the driver. The “narrative” of the text consists of two-hundred-fifty-three passenger profiles, which reveal the following information about each passenger: “outward appearance: does this seem to be someone you would like to read about?”; “inside information: sadly, people are not always what they seem”; and “what they are doing or thinking: many passengers are doing or thinking interesting things. Many are not.”[22]

Each profile contains hyperlinks that reveal relationships between and among passengers, thereby allowing reader-users of 253 to form mental connections – figurative links – between people, and these links are explicit, provoked by Ryman, or arbitrarily conceived by the reader-user. In this way, 253’s theme of linking exists in its two related types of reading: reading through webpages as a reader-user explores links and jumps from page to page, and reading relationships between passengers. As such, linking exists in both the text’s form and content. In order to draw the reader-user’s attention to the theme of linking in form and content, the profiles are coupled with a series of false advertisements and explanatory hyperlinks, which the reader-user may access at any time, providing the possibility that these advertisements and explanations may also become part of the narrative. These additional links accompany and frame the profiles, making tongue-in-cheek references to the theme of linking in form and content, and referring back to the interactive style of reading 253. Whether the advertisements and explanatory links are accessed prior to, during, or after reading the passenger profiles, they serve as self-reflexive commentary on Ryman’s theme.

Self-Reflexivity of Medium

Geoff Ryman’s 253.

First, 253 is self-referential of its structure by calling attention to the medium in which it operates. In the text’s introduction, “253? Why 253?” Ryman states, “Numbers [sic] are reliable. So that the illusion of an orderly universe can be maintained, all text in this novel, less headings, will number 253 words.”[23] The illusion of 253 as an orderly, static, and autonomous object is not actually maintained, as Ryman illustrates the artificiality of the text’s structure through its rigid numerical structure. The “End of the Line” page refers to the temporal novelty available to 253 as a hypertext, as one may choose this option at any point of the narrative. Should a reader-user tire of reading profiles, he or she may go the route of “sensationalism and violence,”[24] and discover the fate of all seven cars. This section has the opposite temporal effect of the majority of the text, as, rather than expand 7.5 minutes of travel into the time it takes to read two-hundred-fifty-three passenger profiles, the reader-user may instead skip to the ending, jumping from A to B, and engaging in a temporal ellipsis. In this way, the linearity of a traditional narrative is shattered as the reader-user is allowed to explore different spaces and times of the narrative.

Self-Reflexivity of Structure and Operation

The advertisements are perhaps the most self-referential aspect of the 253 reading experience, as they call attention to the structure- and content-based linking of the text, while at the same time presenting both as “natural.” Advertisement 7 encourages the reader-user to make connections between passengers, whether they are explicitly stated or need to be arbitrarily created by the reader-user. The text becomes self-reflexive of the branching-type interactivity offered through new media structure when Advertisement 7 promotes the binary-based Ascii Code as a way of forming relationships between passengers. Ascii Code – American Standard Code for Information Interchange – is a numerical code system that uses the numbers one and zero to represent letters on computers. Whether the reader-user realizes it or not, 253 as a text is an exercise in using Ascii Code to form relationships, as all computer data – including hypertext and hyperlinks – are composed of binary code. When a reader-user jumps from page to page, he or she does so through binary code. His or her exploration of passengers and consequent relationships are formed through the use of code, and what appears to be a random means of association is in fact integral to the process of reading a hypertext.

Ryman suggests using Ascii Code in order to select a profile, so that a reader-user may begin the process of forming relationships. He suggests flipping a coin repeatedly to generate the numbers one and zero into a pattern, landing at a number that will dictate which passenger the user considers reading about next. In titling this webpage “The 253 Way of Knowledge,” it is suggested that, like the Ascii Code system, the “knowledge” that the reader-user gains of passengers may be as arbitrary as flipping a coin. The knowledge is based on chance, on the likelihood of the reader-user choosing a particular hyperlink and arriving at its specific code. Unless a reader-user explores the entirety of 253, those passengers whom he or she gets to learn about is based on chance as well. Chance, then, is a subtheme of how one explores the space of the hypertext.

Self-Reflexivity of User-Generated Content

Following the logic of filling in Iser’s informational gaps, the reader-user similarly makes connections between and across profiles in 253. The text becomes self-reflexive of the act of reading in hypertext, and especially of the role of the reader-user, which 253 likens to that of a Godlike observer. New media studies have long emphasized user-generated content as having a huge stake in the production of online information. By calling the reader-user a Godlike observer, Ryman reveals two things: first, that the reader-user’s choices of links will shape the outcome of the text, and second, that in this series of choices, the reader-user moves through the narrative, from subway car to car, from character to character. The reader-user weaves through different elements of the text.

On the first link of the hypertext, Ryman explains the position of the reader-user: “do you sometimes wonder who the strangers around you are? This novel will give you the illusion that you can know. Indeed, it can make you feel omniscient, Godlike.”[25] The illusion offered is one of omniscient power over a text; the reader-user is situated as an observer of the passengers. The role can be best described using literary critic William Spanos’ formalist treatment of metanarrativity: “the critical act begins for the formalist not at the beginning … but only after the reading or perceptual process terminates; at the vantage point, that is, from which, like an omniscient god.”[26] The omniscient Godlike role is reiterated on a second webpage, in which Ryman describes a hypothetical situation in which the reader-user has an omniscient knowledge of others. This webpage functions as a reminder of the reader-user’s “vantage point” in the space of 253, where, similarly to spatial form narratives, “the reader is encouraged to identify not as a particular human being with particular characters but as a human mind experiencing a form, such as a square or a labyrinth, created by the interaction of fictional beings with one another and with their environment.”[27]

Interestingly, the agency of the reader-user in directing the time and space of the hypertext is also counterbalanced by Ryman when he urges, “Please remember that once you leave 253, you are no longer Godlike. The author, of course, is.”[28] While he ascribes to the reader-user a seemingly powerful role, in fact, the reader-user is only “user” insofar as he or she may activate preordained links. The non-diegetic reader-user of 253 has no control over the direction of the links, which all lurch, temporally and spatially, towards the inevitable ending.

Concluding Statements

As reader-users of hypertext, what we encounter is a literary form that may play off of expectations of print narrative, and then invert them so to upset expectations of genre and medium. When asked by journalist Leo Winson, “Do you think hypertext fiction has to break away from traditional concepts to be effective in this new form?” Ryman responded, “Sure do. I’m not sure the word is effective, though. Justified is more like it. Why waste time and energy if the same thing could be done in print?”.[29] With the intention of justifying the hypertext as a unique method of storytelling, Ryman sets out to teach the reader-user as much about the “new form” as possible. The communication is different, the exploration of plotline or plotlines are different, the execution is original, and the reader navigates through the narrative in more than one way. Therefore 253 reveals its own underbelly: the text is conscious of what it and its genre offers the reader-user. It is not the passenger profiles of the text that mediate the hypertext’s form and style, but everything that couples those profiles: the additional links, which shake the reader-user into awareness – awareness of the novelty of digital space. By engaging with this space through electronic literature, the reader-user may recognize that the hypertext engages actively, and forces him or her to make choices and read in a different way. In drawing attention to its interactive nature, hyperlinks and the readerly jump become their own instruction manual. 253 is thus a crash course on hypertext fiction, where the reader-user learns the genre by doing the genre.



Aarseth, Espen J. “Nonlinearity and Literary Theory.” Hyper/Text/Theory, 51-86. Edited byGeorge P. Landow. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Aarseth, Espen J. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Daghistany, Ann, and J.J. Johnson. “Romantic Irony, Spatial Form, and Joyce’s Ulysses.Spatial Form in Narrative, 48-60. Edited by Jeffrey R. Smitten and Ann Daghistany. New York Cornell University Press, 1981.

Iser, Wolfgang. “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach.” New Literary History Vol. 2 (1972): 279-299.

Jewitt, Carey, and Gunther Kress. “Introduction.” In Multimodal Literacy, 1-18. New York; Berlin: Peter Lang Publishing, 2003.

Liestøl, Gunnar. “Wittgenstein, Genette, and the Reader’s Narrative in Hypertext.” In Hyper/Text/Theory, 87-120. Edited by George P. Landow. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2001.

Mickelsen, David. “Types of Spatial Structure in Narrative.” In Spatial Form in Narrative, 63-78. Edited by Jeffrey R. Smitten and Ann Daghistany. New York: Cornell University Press, 1981.

Page, Adrian. “Constructing Xanadu: towards a poetics of hypertext fiction.” The Question of Literature: The Place of the Literary in Contemporary Theory, 174-189. Edited by Elizabeth Beaumont Bissell. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.

Ryman, Geoff. 253. 1996.

Sloane, Sarah. “The Materials of Digital Fiction.” Digital Fictions: Storytelling in a Material World, 65-106. Connecticut: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 2000.

—. “Muddy Readers, Malestreams, and Splitting the Atom of “I”: Locating the Reader in Digital Fiction.” In Digital Fictions: Storytelling in a Material World, 147-184. Connecticut: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 2000.

Smitten, Jeffrey R., and Ann Daghistany. Spatial Form in Narrative. New York: Cornell University Press, 1981.

Winson, Leo J. “A Reactive Interview with Geoff Ryman author of 253.” Dark Lethe. Reactive Writing. Web. 10 June 2012.



[1] Carey Jewitt and Gunther Kress, Multimodal Literacy (New York; Berlin: Peter Lang Publishing, 2003), 16.

[2] David Mickelsen, “Types of Spatial Structure in Narrative,” in Spatial Form in Narrative, ed. Jeffrey R. Smitten and Ann Daghistany (New York: Cornell University Press, 1981), 68.

[3] David Mickelsen, “Types of Spatial Structure in Narrative,” in Spatial Form in Narrative, ed. Jeffrey R. Smitten and Ann Daghistany (New York: Cornell University Press, 1981), 78.

[4] Geoff Ryman, 253, 1996,

[5] Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2001).

[6] ibid., 30.

[7] ibid., 38.

[8] ibid., 38.

[9] Espen J. Aarseth, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 44.

[10] ibid., 48.

[11] Espen. J. Aarseth, “Nonlinearity and Literary Theory” in Hyper/Text/Theory, ed. George P. Landow (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), 69.

[12] Wolfgang Iser, “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach.” New Literary History Vol. 2 (1972): 282.

[13] Sarah Sloane, “The Materials of Digital Fiction,” in Digital Fictions: Storytelling in a Material World (Connecticut: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 2000), 76.

[14] Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2001), 141, 142.

[15] Sarah Sloane, ““Muddy Readers, Malestreams, and Splitting the Atom of “I”: Locating the Reader in Digital Fiction.”,” in Digital Fictions: Storytelling in a Material World (Connecticut: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 2000), 158.

[16] Sarah Sloane, ““Muddy Readers, Malestreams, and Splitting the Atom of “I”: Locating the Reader in Digital Fiction.”,” in Digital Fictions: Storytelling in a Material World (Connecticut: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 2000), 158, 159.

[17] ibid., 160.

[18] David Mickelsen, “Types of Spatial Structure in Narrative,” in Spatial Form in Narrative, ed. Jeffrey R. Smitten and Ann Daghistany (New York: Cornell University Press, 1981), 66.

[19] Gunnar Liestøl, “Wittgenstein, Genette, and the Reader’s Narrative in Hypertext.” In Hyper/Text/Theory, ed. George P. Landow (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1994), 98.

[20] David Mickelsen, “Types of Spatial Structure in Narrative,” in Spatial Form in Narrative, ed. Jeffrey R. Smitten and Ann Daghistany (New York: Cornell University Press, 1981), 74.

[21] Ann Daghistany and J.J. Johnson, “Romantic Irony, Spatial Form, and Joyce’s Ulysses.Spatial Form in Narrative, ed. Jeffrey R. Smitten and Ann Daghistany. (New York: Cornell University Press, 1981), 53.

[22] Geoff Ryman, 253, 1996,

[23] ibid.

[24] Geoff Ryman, 253, 1996,

[25] Geoff Ryman, 253, 1996,

[26] Ann Daghistany and J.J. Johnson, “Romantic Irony, Spatial Form, and Joyce’s Ulysses.Spatial Form in Narrative, ed. Jeffrey R. Smitten and Ann Daghistany. (New York: Cornell University Press, 1981), 50.

[27] ibid., 53.

[28] Geoff Ryman, 253, 1996, .

[29] Leo J. Winson, “A Reactive Interview with Geoff Ryman author of 253,” Dark Lethe, accessed June 2, 2012.



Lai-Tze Fan is a Ph.D. Student in the Communication & Culture Program at York University, Canada. Her dissertation focuses on the influence of new media poetics on contemporary print literature. As such, she is invested in the critical evaluation of an emerging and experimental body of literary texts, and in how literary, new media, social, and cultural scholars negotiate these texts in relation to – and while we are still in – the information age.