Digital Narratives

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English Department, Duke University | Instructor: Whitney Trettien ( | @whitneytrettien) | Fall Semester, 2013

For as long as anyone can remember, novelists like Gore Vidal and Phillip Roth have been sounding the death knell of narrative, killed off (we hear) by the rise of screen-based digital media. While it’s true that the sale of printed novels has declined, other forms of interactive storytelling – from video games to “netprov” and virtual reality fiction – have demonstrated how narrative persists , even prospers, in new media. In fact, in Japan, SMS technology has breathed new life into the novel through “cell phone literature,” a popular genre written and distributed in text-message-sized snippets.

This course considers what it means to tell stories in an age of digital media. We’ll begin by writing a traditional short story (fiction or creative non-fiction), focusing on plot and structure. We’ll then experiment with “translating” this narrative into a variety of new media forms. How does your story change when told as an interactive fiction? as a video game? as a hypertext novel? or on different platforms like Twitter, YouTube, Facebook or Second Life? With each “translation,” we’ll read relevant texts on narratology and media theory as a way of giving us a shared vocabulary for discussing these new genres, and we’ll explore some of the best examples of creative writing in them.

This course will be run as a workshop. While there will be a significant amount of reading (or playing, or watching, or listening) each week, emphasis will be on 1) learning some basic skills necessary to work within new media genres and 2) playfully, creatively experimenting with these skills. You’ll leave this course with a deeper understanding of the architecture of new media, including the World Wide Web and audiovisual forms like digital film and video games, as well as with a suite of basic technical literacies applicable across all disciplines.


The core assignments of this class are:

  • a weekly remediation, or rewriting, of your story
  • and a final project that significantly augments or expands one week’s remediation, paired with a short “artist’s statement” contextualizing your work.

Think of the weekly remediations as series of experiments in form. How does your narrative change when told only in images? or audio? What is your story like as a first-person interactive game? The goal is not to create, e.g., the perfect hypertext – indeed, some of your stories won’t fit well in certain media – but to test the limits of narrative under strict conditions, while expanding your horizon as a storyteller (and gaining a few useful skills along the way).

In the final project, you will transform one of these prototypes into a polished, ready-to-publish piece. You will contextualize this work with a brief (4-6 page) artist’s statement, drawing on some of the critical literature and examples we’ve looked at all semester. This project is an opportunity to apply what we learned about different forms under strict experimental conditions to a mixed-media narrative. You will be graded on how effectively you use different media to tell your story; a more detailed rubric will be forthcoming.

Begin thinking about the final project very early in the semester – as early as the first week, while you are writing your story.


All readings are either available online (links provided in the schedule) or via our class blog.

Most of the readings are offered as examples of storytelling within a given week’s medium, or descriptions of how someone has used the medium effectively. Explore them for inspiration. Although you won’t be tested on the content of the readings, I will refer to them frequently in class and will expect you to be able to discuss them.


Each of the 8 iterations of your story account for 7% of your grade each, for 56% of your total grade. If you complete a given week’s story on time and show a thoughtful engagement with the task, you’ll receive all 7 percentage points for your story. I will deduct 2 percentage points for every day your story is late, and reserve the right to deduct percentage points if your work shows that a lack of time or attention when into it. If you don’t turn an assignment in at all, you’ll of course receive 0 percentage points for that week.

Participation in class workshops (10%) and our class blog (9%) accounts for another 19% of your total grade. “Participation” means not only showing up for class but thoughtfully and attentively taking part in our discussions of each other’s work both online and in person. If you do this, you’ll receive all 19 percentage points. If you have any concerns about whether your in-class participation is adequate, please get in touch with me.

You’ll turn in your sketchbook and a portfolio collecting all 8 of your stories at the end of the semester. This is worth 5% of your total grade.

Your final project is worth 20% of your total grade. A more detailed rubric on how I will be grading these projects is forthcoming.

On Attendance

Because this class only meets once a week, it is imperative that you attend every class. This class is run like a workshop; your classmates are relying on your attendance to receive feedback on their work.

That being said, I understand emergencies. You may miss one class this semester, no questions asked. Each additional unexcused absence will result in a reduction of 3 points from your participation.

If you find yourself needing to be absent and you’ve already used your one freebie, notify me as soon as possible to arrange for an excused absence. In the case of excused absences, you’re still responsible for turning in any assignments on time. I reserve the right to require additional work from you in the case of an excused absence.

Late Policy

As I note in the “Grading” section above, each day that one of your weekly remediations is late will result in a 2-percentage-point reduction from your 7 points possible for that assignment.

Except under emergency situations, I won’t accept late final projects. If you anticipate needing to turn your project in late, be in touch with me as early as possible to make an arrangement with me.

As for being late to class: don’t. It will result in a deduction in your participation grade; but, more importantly, it’s just rude.

Technology Policy

Please bring your laptop to class. We may be using it to look at different examples together. However, know that I know when you’re looking at your time-wasting website of choice (trust me, it is really obvious to every one of your professors), and will probably ask you to put it away. It’s really rude to hover behind a screen when one of your classmates is sharing work he or she may have sweated over for hours.

Please turn your cell phones to silent during class.

Creating Community

Our class is a semi-private community, brought together by the shared goal of creating knowledge together while improving each other’s work. Be prudent in how you discuss your classmates’ work outside the classroom. We each write with the knowledge that it will be shared with 15 classmates, not with each person’s Twitter followers, Facebook friends or lunchmates. If you want to share some aspect of someone’s work, ask her permission first.

Respond to your classmates with openness and courtesy. Sharing one’s writing is difficult. We’re practicing not only our storytelling, but the art of giving, receiving and responding to criticism.

Don’t plagiarize. If you’re unclear about what counts as plagiarism, talk to me.

Approach me with any concerns. You can review Duke’s Community Standard here:

Getting in Touch

I’m here to help you learn and improve as a writer and as a critical thinker. Please approach me with any questions, comments or concerns. The best way to get in touch is through email ( I’m also available to you on Twitter (@whitneytrettien). I don’t hold office hours but am happy to make an appointment with you.