Telling Stories the Online Way

Google Maps can do a lot of things, like find the nearest Starbucks or calculate the driving time to an amusement park. But can it tell a story?

Charles Cumming, a British spy novelist, hopes so. His latest project, "The 21 Steps," is a re-imagining of a classic pre-World War I espionage thriller by John Buchan called "The 39 Steps." Among the many differences between the two versions, however, is the unignorable fact that "The 21 Steps" is told entirely through Google Maps. There's still plenty of text to read, but the fun of "The 21 Steps" is in clicking the colorful pointer bubbles—the same ones that show the nearest Starbucks—that mark each scene, and watching the path traced by the protagonist as he races from London's St. Pancras train station to Heathrow Airport and then to Edinburgh. The experience is still much like reading a short story, but the impact of seeing real-world places in their context, and catching the sly changes in pace and scale as the protagonist passes through them, makes it unlike any book you've ever picked up.

Which, of course, is exactly the idea. In fact, "The 21 Steps" is part of a larger project by the U.K. branch of Penguin Books, in collaboration with Six to Start, an online media company. Dubbed "We Tell Stories," the project's aim isn't anything so grandiose as the reinvention of the novel. But it is a conscious effort by authors and publishers to find new ways to tell stories in the age of Web 2.0. "We wanted to do something you wouldn't have been able to create five or 10 years ago," says Dan Hon, a cofounder of Six to Start. "This is about seeing what potentials lie in online publishing."

The six-week-long project, which began March 18, debuts a new story every week, each loosely based on a different classic novel and taking a different form. In the second story, for example, Toby Litt's "Slice," the main character uses blog entries and Twitter text messages to convey her discoveries about a haunted house. The third story, which will be released this week, is a customizable fairy tale, and future stories could utilize anything from Flickr photosets to online calendars (the publishers won't say exactly what form the unreleased stories will take). In short, each week is a different exercise in imagining the future of storytelling.

So far, the experiment is popular—We Tell Stories received nearly 50,000 unique visitors in its first week, with little to no marketing push. That's a reassuring sign for Penguin, which, like all publishers, has watched in dismay as people abandon print media and opt for the Nintendo Wii over Elie Wiesel. Most publishers have tried to capitalize on the Internet revolution by embracing e-books, digital editions meant to be read on special electronic readers like the Amazon Kindle. E-books, however, "are pretty much the same thing as the print book but delivered in a different way," says Jeremy Ettinghausen, the digital publisher for Penguin Books UK, who came up with the We Tell Stories project. "We thought we'd try something a little more ambitious and actually develop stories designed for the Internet, not adapted to it."

It's not the first time someone has tried to modernize fiction-writing. In 2006, the online magazine serialized a novel by Walter Kirn, which explicitly tried to utilize the advantages of the Internet, like hyperlinking and multimedia. In the last few years, Japanese readers have been swept away by a tidal wave of novels written and read on cell phones. And Penguin itself has a history of digital innovation: in early 2007, Ettinghausen invited people to participate in the world's first "wikinovel," a book-length story written by the masses.

Efforts like these usually end unsatisfactorily. Japan's cell-phone novels fly off the metaphorical shelves—they made up the country's top three best sellers last year—but critics deride the short, text-message-like prose and say they should be grouped with comic books, not serious literature. And the wikinovel is nearly incomprehensible, and most of its prose atrocious. (A sample sentence: "His CD began to jump, then skip, then play hopscotch.") As Ettinghausen admits, "I think it's safe to say that we didn't produce a coherent work of fiction."

We Tell Stories is the most ambitious project yet, although it too may end with a whimper, or achieve success only as an ingenious marketing device. But it may also uncover something about the way we'll be telling stories to one another 10 or 20 years from now, especially as we dedicate more and more of our attention to electronic screens instead of printed paper. One fact that the project highlights is the increasing difficulty of compartmentalizing and segregating forms of entertainment. Six to Start, for instance, was founded to create "alternate reality games," which blend multiple forms of media, both online and off, into interactive narratives. And, in fact, We Tell Stories includes a seventh, hidden story that works more like a digital scavenger hunt than an experiment in interactive storytelling. "Publishers aren't competing against publishers anymore," says Hon. "They're competing against anyone who produces entertainment—they're competing for your time."

And what do the writers think of the attempt to update their medium? Both Cumming and Litt say they enjoyed the collaborative process of working with technologists and software engineers, a welcome break from the cloistered life of a novelist. And Litt says the hyperconcision of Twitter, which limits messages to 140 characters, helped him realize "just how little you need in terms of obvious storytelling if people buy into the characters." But neither one worries that blogs or Twitter or online maps will render paperbacks obsolete. "I can't imagine 'War and Peace' told in the style of a Google mash-up," says Cumming. Of course, to Hon and Ettinghausen, that might sound less like a statement of fact and more like a challenge.