Hypertext and Interactive Fiction

Fordham University, Fall 2015. Mondays and Wednesdays, 11:30am–12:45pm. We meet in Lowenstein, Room 1118.

Your instructor is Allison Parrish, Digital Creative Writer in Residence. E-mail me here.

Office hours: Mondays, 4pm-5:30pm, Lowenstein 403B. (E-mail me ahead of time if you’d like to see me at a particular time during office hours. Also happy to meet at other times.)

Please turn in homework assignments using this form.

Course description

What possibilities exist for storytelling in a world of expanded and hybrid technologies? In this course, students will have the opportunity to become creative writers in new media, as well as in more traditional formats. Experimenting with a range of platforms, digital and otherwise (including websites, blogs and social media), students will generate work in exciting new forms, while also developing traditional techniques essential to any writer.

In this course, students will learn the basics of reading, writing, and manipulating hypertext documents, with the goal of creating and distributing original works of experimental writing. The course consists of three parts: first, an in-depth tutorial of HTML and CSS, the layout languages that form the foundation of the web; second, an introduction to appropriating proprietary platforms on the web as a location for creative writing; and third, an introduction to Twine, an easy-to-use visual tool for creating hypertext work. Along the way, students will read and discuss important works made with these tools, or that otherwise engage relevant technologies. No programming experience is required to take this course.

Course methodology

This is a creative writing course, but it is also an engineering course. Most class sessions will take the form of tutorials, in which I introduce you to a technology and its particulars. You’ll apply these skills in a creative way, engaging your own writing practice, and present the results to the class.

We’ll be working very close to the technology in this class—maybe closer than you some of you are comfortable working! The goal of the course is not just to provide you with an opportunity to do work that exists on the Internet, but to better understand how the web works, and to create work that engages the web, challenges it and subverts it.

I’m a poet, a computer programmer and experimental writer, so while the name of this course is “Hypertext and Interactive Fiction,” I don’t really care if your work is narrative in nature. The constraints on assignments will usually be technical (rather than thematic), and it will certainly be possible to create work that meets only those minimal technical requirements. But remember: this class is time that you have decided to set aside to be on the hook for making work that is interesting and helpful for you. Take advantage of it!

Projects and assignments

The class has four assignments, a midterm project, and a final project. The schedule below dictates when these are assigned and when they’re due (assignment descriptions and due dates may change as the course progresses—I’ll let you know when changes take place). The assignments are designed to give you a chance to show mastery of the technical concepts we’ve discussed in class, and to give you an opportunity to use those concepts in making work that is useful to you.

The midterm and final project are both free-form—you’re expected to take some of the technical concepts we’ve talked about in class and create a project of your own choosing.

You’re welcome to collaborate on the midterm project and final project, but each student must complete their own assignments. (This is negotiable; ask me in person if you have an idea for an assignment that you’d like to collaborate on with another student.)

Assignments and projects must be turned in some time before class on the day they’re due. Since all assignments and projects take the form of publicly accessible documents on the Internet, “turning in” the assignment consists of you sending me the URL of where I can find the assignment.

Please turn in homework assignments using this form.

We’ll dedicate time in-class on each assignment and project due date to discuss and critique student work in-class.


You’ll be required to read a number of works of hypertext and web-based literature throughout the course. The assigned reading is in the schedule below, along with the dates on which we will discuss the reading in-class. Participating in reading discussions is the main way that you’ll earn the “participation” part of your grade—please come prepared to talk!

The class does not have an assigned textbook, but you may want to purchase Head First HTML and CSS from O’Reilly Media, as a second resource for learning HTML and CSS. I’ll suggest other resources for learning the technical content of the class as suggested readings in the schedule and in the notes.

I’d also like you to read The Cave of Time by Edward Packard. It’s available used on Amazon for very cheap! Please order it ahead of time so you’ll have it when it’s time to discuss.

Laptops and computer access

You will need to have access to a computer running a desktop operating system (like Mac OS X, Windows, or Linux) in order to do the work for this course. I expect most students will bring laptops to class and follow along with the tutorials as I give them. Every effort will be made to supply written or screencast copies of the tutorials after they’re presented, for those who are unable to (or prefer not to) bring a laptop to class.

Note: It won’t be possible to complete the work in this class using only a tablet running Android or iOS. (Actually, it may be possible, but it will be very difficult.)

If you don’t have access to a computer that meets the above specifications, avail yourself of Fordham’s computer labs.

Attendance and lateness policy

You are expected to attend all class sessions. Absences due to non-emergency situations will only be cleared if you let me know a week (or more) in advance, and even then only for compelling personal or professional reasons (e.g., attending an important conference, going to a wedding). If you’re unable to attend class due to contagious or incapacitating illness, please let me know (by e-mail) before class begins.

Each unexcused absence will deduct 3% from your final grade. If you have five or more unexcused absences, you risk failing the course.

Be on time to class. If you’re more than fifteen minutes late, or if you leave early (without my clearance), it will count as an unexcused absence.

In-class behavior

Laptops must be closed during class discussions, and while your fellow students are presenting work. You’re otherwise welcome to use laptops in class, but only to follow along with the in-class tutorials and to take notes.

Attendance at Creative Writing Events

As part of their participation grade for this course, students are asked to attend the following three creative writing-related events at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus:

  • The Long Game: Building Your Life as a Writer/Editor, Thursday September 17th 2015, 7pm-9pm. 113 W. 60th Street, New York, NY (12th Floor Lounge).
  • Poets Out Loud Reading, Tuesday September 29th 2015, 7pm-8pm. 113 W. 60th Street, New York, NY (12th Floor Lounge)
  • Golden Gloves Literary Competition, Wednesday December 9, 7:00pm–8:30pm. 113 W. 60th Street, New York, NY (12th Floor Lounge)

Grading policy

Component Percentage
Attendance and participation 25%
Assignments (4 × 10%) 40%
Midterm project 15%
Final project 20%


Week 1: September 2

Syllabus and schedule review. Chrome Developer Tools demo.

READING #1: To be discussed September 9th. These readings primarily concern the history of the web and of hypertext structure in general. What is hypertext? What can it do, potentially? What does it actually do? Why does the web look the way that it looks now, instead of some other way? How can the structure of hypertext be used to create interesting works of writing?

Week 2: September 9

Introduction to the web (web browsers, web servers). Using a text editor. HTML introduction. Uploading files to the web.

Notes: What is the web, Chrome Developer Tools

ASSIGNMENT #1: Due September 14. Use Developer Tools to creatively modify a web page on the internet. Tell a story. Satirize. Be intentionally banal. Take a screenshot and upload it (somewhere publicly accessible). Tell us in-class about what you did and why you did it.

Week 3: September 14 and 16

HTML: style and structure, hyperlinks, embedding documents and media.

Notes: HTML: An elementary introduction

READING #2 (to be discussed September 21): Some classic and representative works of hypertext fiction, poetry, and criticism. Read all of My Body and Darnielle; spend a good amount of time with Paths and The Unknown but you don’t have to exhaust them! What’s the effect of the hyperlink in these works? Do they accomplish anything that couldn’t be done through non-“ergodic” means?

Week 4: September 21 and 23

Introduction to CSS.

Notes: CSS with style

ASSIGNMENT #2 (Due September 28): Write a piece (or adapt an existing piece) for the web. Your work must span across several pages; incorporate some kind of embedded document (like images, videos, etc.); and include CSS to style one or more elements.

Week 5: September 28 and 30

CSS introduction, continued.

READING #3 (to be discussed October 5): Hypertext works that don’t just live on the web. (Books, graffiti, maps, Instagram, Twitter). How do these works comment on the platforms/media that they use? Could the work have been accomplished in a different way?

Week 6: October 5 and 7

CSS: Positioning. Midterm project pitches.

Notes: Your position is clear.


Week 7: October 14

(class cancelled)

Week 8: October 19 and 21

Midterm project presentations.

HTML: Simple strategies for interactivity.

Notes: Simple interactivity

READING #5 (to be discussed October 26): Recommended works made with Twine.

Week 9: October 26 and 28

Platform tutorials: Appropriating platforms: Google maps, Twitter, Instagram.

Notes: Telling stories with Google Maps

ASSIGNMENT #3 (due November 2): Create a work on an appropriated platform. You have two options:

  • Create a location-based work with Maplace.js and Google Maps. Write about where you grew up. Write an alternate history scenario. Write a sci-fi story. Write about places and people that are important to you. Write an interactive travel guide or guidebook. Or do something else entirely!

  • Create a social media “performance” using words and writing. This should be a writing project that necessitates a sustained effort over time (say, an entire day). Optionally, include your writing in the world: inscribe your words on a real world surface (without breaking the law, of course), and document the results. Ideas: A Twitter account with nature poetry (like River Dart). Make a Twitter satire account, adopting someone else’s persona. Write in an unusual medium (snow, dirt, water, street signs, pizza slices, whatever) in unusual places (parks, sports events, public transit, tourist traps, underpasses, office buildings, etc.) and document the results online. Make sure to think about the question of audience: who are you writing for, and how does the form your writing take relate to that audience?

Week 10: Noveber 2 and 4

Twine: Introduction and basic macros. Formatting text (incl. custom CSS)

Notes: Twine, an introduction

Also, consult these:

READING #6: More works made with Twine (to be discussed November 9)

Week 11: November 9 and 11

Twine: Macros, variables, expressions and functions.

Notes: Twine: Macros, Variables, Expressions

ASSIGNMENT #4 (due November 16): Create a Twine game. Some ideas:

  • Write a parody of Choose Your Own Adventure.
  • Write a simulation of an activity—something that you’re familiar with
  • Imagine an autobiographical story (something that really happened to you) as a “what-if” scenario: what would have happened if you’d made a different decision?
  • Write something outlandish.

Week 12: November 16 and 18

Twine: More on macros, variables, expressions and functions.

Extra credit assignment, worth 3 points (due November 25th): Modify one of your existing Twine stories, or create a new Twine story, that makes use of macros, variables, expressions and/or functions.

Please come prepared on November 23 with an idea for a final project and a rough prototype.

Week 13: November 23

Final project pitches. Twine: Installing and using custom macros.

Week 14: November 30 and December 2

Lab/workshop days; selected topics as desired.

Week 15: December 7 and 9

Final project presentations.