The Pause Problem
Suppose that you and your seventh-grade class are reading aloud, in Chapter 9 of Catherine Patterson’s famous young adult novel, Lyddie. Perhaps you’re using old-school round-robin techniques, or maybe you’ve moved on to approaches like choral reading or echo reading. In any case, you know that most of the students in the class don’t especially like to read, but, for now at least, the group seems quite caught up in the narrative, as the main character goes to visit her new friend, who, according to her housemates, is a notorious labor agitator. Around the middle of the chapter, the class encounters the word, “phrenologist,” complete with sufficient context to enable the students to make a very reasonable guess at its meaning. You know that, according to recent high-stakes, high-profile statewide testing, students in your school are not especially good at determining meaning from context; and so you are tempted to interrupt the reading process here to do a little direct teaching, or perhaps just to remind students to use techniques that they already know to glean the meaning of the unfamiliar word. If you don’t stop now, you know that you’ll lose an opportunity to do some good teaching – the occasion just won’t be as fresh if I wait until you reach the end of the chapter. But, of course, if you stop the process now, when the students are enjoying a real aesthetic encounter with the printed word, you may lose in motivation more than you gain in skill-building.
“Wouldn’t it be great,” you might muse, “if the author of this story had built into the story’s design lots of good stopping places – places that occur frequently, not just at the end of chapters, and places that work aesthetically, not just pedagogically?” But, of course, novels are not built that way.
Perhaps you decide to take the phrenology pause. The kids are pretty patient and attentive, and you manage a bit of clear, direct teaching, but nobody likes breaking the story up this way, and the rest of the chapter is just not as powerful, though you may decide to keep subsequent interruptions to a minimum.
The next day, the same class is reading a passage in Arthur: the Quest for Excalibur (1989), a novel-length work of computer-based interactive fiction by Bob Bates. As the main character, the youthful, pre-coronation Arthur, approaches a peasant’s cottage, he finds something called a “slean.” Does the class pause in its reading process to figure out what a slean is? In the context of interactive fiction, the question is absurd. Of course we have to figure out what a slean is. If we don’t, we probably won’t be able to continue reading the story at all, at least not for very long. Unlike the Lyddie class, this group doesn’t mind the pause at all. Indeed, the author, in constructing his story, has made an aesthetic judgment that just such a pause belongs at this point in the tale.
How IF Pauses
Interactive fiction, of course, is a literary form in which authors must build pauses into their stories. Since the reader plays the part of an important character, deciding, within limits, what action that character will take, the story must pause, quite frequently, to give the reader a chance to contribute to the narrative.
The way kids take to interactive fiction is really quite striking. Since 1985, the author of this website has introduced about a thousand students, mostly aged eleven through nineteen, to the genre. A clear majority of them like it. In fact, it quickly becomes the most popular form of literature with most of them, especially when it’s read orally, in a large group. Students like interactive fiction mainly because it’s an exciting way to read a story, a way that lets them feel very active and involved. They enjoy using IF to gain experience with all of the major elements of literature, such as plot, setting, and point of view. Many young people also like the problem-solving that comes with the IF experience. These kids appreciate interactive fiction because it challenges them to recognize and solve problems in ways that no textbook seems able to match.
Given the choice of reading conventional literature or interactive fiction, most of the students in the author’s classes choose IF, especially for reading aloud. This result may seem unremarkable at first. After all, most people, old or young, like to try something new. However, even after numerous opportunities to choose over a period of months, and even when the available hard-copy reading includes highly motivational books, magazines, and newspapers, most students prefer to work with the always-challenging computer-based form.
Elements of Conventional Literature
Beyond its motivational effect, a second important advantage of IF is that it offers a straightforward way for students to learn about the elements of conventional literature. For example, though the IF reader has great control over what the main character of a stories tries to do, a work of IF still has a largely conventional plot, with an exposition (often in the form of conventional text), a rising action (albeit one in which the order of events can vary somewhat from one reading to another), a climax, and a denouement (or, occasionally, more than one possible ending). Unlike many other electronic storytelling environments, such as Multi-User Simulated Environments or Habitats (MUSEs or MUSHes), interactive fiction does not present itself as a way for students to create their own stories by interacting with other authors within a digital mini-world. In IF, students do get some sense of building their particular readings of the stories. However, IF remains quite close to the experience of reading a well-constructed novel or short story.
Pausing in Interactive Fiction
An important advantage of IF in the classroom, as outlined at the beginning of this section, is its way of providing – and, indeed, forcing – aesthetically-valid pauses in the reading process. Of course, not all interactive fiction works equally well in offering the pedagogically-best pausing points. In truth, many early, and, in some ways, primitive works of IF, such as a well-known series by Scott Adams (not the cartoonist) offer little evidence that the author has made literary calculations about the placement of pauses for puzzles. In these stories, there are no extended passages of text to interrupt, just a series of interrelated problems, connected with a tight little plot; and the reader soon comes to expect that the solution to one puzzle will lead immediately to the next problem-solving exercise. Several of these pieces, such as Pirate Adventure and Adventureland (1978), can certainly engage and entertain a puzzle-loving reader, but they offer little in the way of theme and character development.
But works of interactive fiction in its more mature variations offer a dramatically different set of opportunities for literature teachers. Some of these, such as Adam Cadre’s brilliant interactive short story Photopia (1998) move away from lengthy problem-solving altogether.
In literarily complex stories like Photopia, the reader must still pause often, sometimes briefly and occasionally at greater length, to decide on what action a character should take, but the appeal of the tale stems almost entirely from conventional literary elements, especially an intricately woven plot and highly engaging characters. In one scene, for example, a father and his precocious little daughter look up at the sky outside their garage and talk about one of their common interests, astronomy. The reader has no real problems to solve, but must stop to make some choices about what one of the characters, in this case the father, will say, and these pauses offer a literature teacher some remarkably teachable moments. Gradually, the thoughtful student reader, with the right kind of help, comes to see that the astronomical concepts that emerge from the a touching father-daughter dialogue illuminate another subplot of the story, one in which the daughter, some years later, weaves a tale of space travel for a younger girl who idolizes her.
Other mature IF stories, however, such as Arthur: the Quest for Excalibur and Once and Future by Kevin Wilson (1998) take a different approach, maintaining an extensive puzzle-solving dimension, but adding rich narrative elements. Often, in these stories, some of the puzzles are far less mechanical than those in the earliest IF, depending more on a good, clear sense of plot, character, and theme. At one point in Arthur, for instance, the reader, in the role of the title character, encounters a knight who challenges the young Arthur to a joust. Before the combat begins, the knight shows a gentlemanly sense of fairness, insisting, for instance, that Arthur wear the appropriate protective equipment (“Knight in shining armor and all that, don’t you know?”). But as the mock combat progresses, the knight feints in a way that suggests that he may be about to cheat. If the reader accepts the feint as sufficient evidence of duplicity, the knight will always win the joust. If the reader understands the knight’s character well enough to see that he would probably not cheat, Arthur will win, gaining fighting skill and a useful trophy. Here, once again, the teacher has an excellent opportunity to guide students in the operation of an important literary element, with the help of a pause that the author has structured into his narrative.
IF, then, helps teachers to focus on whatever instruction they need to be doing, whether in response to read needs of students or to the more artificial and oversimplified demands of standardized tests.
Getting Organized for Teaching with IF
Other sections of this website discuss, in some detail, particularly useful interactive fictions. These sections offer ways to organize instruction to maximize the educational effects of these specific works, with their highly-productive pauses. For now, let’s have a look at some more general tools for structuring our work with students.
Generally, it is helpful for each student to have an interactive fiction folder to keep together print materials, such as background information and maps, which are necessary for most of the stories. Of course, electronic folders will work fine for this purpose, when the necessary technology is available. If, however, like most of us, the teacher has limited access to computers, manila folders are excellent, too. The cover of a manila folder makes a good place to have each student record class goals for studying IF, such as learning about a new form of literature, learning to manage his or her thinking more effectively, and learning about a variety of literary techniques, such as plot, character, setting, and point of view.
Some of the numerous pauses in a typical interactive story introduce puzzles or problems for the reader to solve. Typically, a classroom full of interactors will be working on several of these problems at the same time, and so will need to keep track of which problems are current and which are solved. For this reason, each student’s IF folder should contain lists of problems or puzzles encountered in each story, perhaps in a small “blue book” of some sort. Each puzzle should probably have a page of its own, to allow room to record restatements of the problem, possible solutions, and confirmed solutions.
If students are to work on stories individually, whether in or out of the classroom, they will generally need a more generous supply of printed aids than those who have a teacher always at hand. These materials may include more detailed hints, maps, or even “walkthroughs,” which present solutions to a story’s problems. It’s often quite fascinating, and surprising, to see how much careful reading and problem-solving a student must do to complete a work of IF, even if he or she has a walkthrough in hand.
Self-Evaluation in IF
IF, then, with its unique structure of narrative pauses, offers special opportunities for direct teaching. However, it also adds an evaluative dimension of considerable instructional power, an element that operates even when the teacher isn’t around. How many teachers have felt exasperated at a student’s declaration that he or she has completed the reading of a work of literature without understanding it at all? And how many students, at least the more conscientious ones, have felt even more frustrated in the same circumstance? With most IF, though, it is simply impossible, short of getting the problem solutions from someone else, to finish a story without understanding it in some depth. The careless or unskilled reader will become “stuck” on one or more of the problems and will thus be unable to continue beyond a particular point. The aesthetically-placed pauses for problems thus become, among other things, compelling and integrated reading comprehension tests, perhaps the only such tests that most students will take voluntarily.