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Penguin Pushes the Envelope

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Penguin Books, Ltd. has launched an innovation in story telling — "We Tell Stories." The purpose of the site is to tell six stories — stories that have already been published as normal books — in another format. The authors of the "new" stories are challenged to use more creative ways to tell their stories. Just two stories in, and the idea is really catching on with readers.

The first story up was The 21 Steps, a retelling of John Buchan's classic tale The Thirty-nine Steps, by Charles Cumming. Cumming tells the story using Google Maps, showing off the features of Google Maps while giving a geographical context for the story. When the narrator describes a statue of Sir John Betjeman, for example, a green placemark shows up on the map. lick on it, and you see the statue. This is a remarkable way of telling a story, and an intriguing use of Google Maps. I saw some potential for KML and Google Earth in this example as well.

The second story is "Slice," which is a retelling of M.R. James' Haunted Dolls' House and Other Ghost Stories. Author Toby Litt is telling the story through two blogs(Slice's and her parents'), a Flickr account, two Twitter accounts (again, Slice's and her parents', a MySpace page, and an email address. This story will fascinate fans of chaotic fiction and Alternate Reality Games, while drawing others into a more immersive experience.

I don't think that "Slice" is quite chaotic fiction, though it seems like the definition is still in a bit of flux. The reader isn't actually influencing the narrative. But it is far more immersive than standard fiction — especially if the reader decides to interact with the characters via Twitter. This is a great example of the potential of new media, especially social media, to tell a story.

The four other books on the list are Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales, Charles Dickens' Hard Times, Therese Raquin by Emile Zola, and the ever popular Tales from the 1001 Nights. There are also rumors of a seventh story accessible by a secret hyperlink on the We Tell Stories page. AND, for readers in the UK, Penguin is having weekly prize drawings for material from the author of the new story.

This project promises to be a fascinating look at how new technology can be used by fiction writers. We already have many authors who are podcasting their books; now we may see an increase in authors registering MySpace pages for their protagonists as well!

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About Warren Kelly

  • Some friends of mine are working the “seventh story” angle. It would appear to be a full-blown ARG, and possibly connected to the other stories. Judging from the reputations of the folks behind this one, it should be a fun ride.