Navigating Narrative. We Tell Stories — The 21 Steps

In 2008 Penguin Books released We Tell Stories, a digital fiction project consisting of six stories told by six writers and released over a period of six weeks. Each of the stories used interactive devices to re-tell classic stories from the literary backlist Penguin is famed for, and The 21 Steps was the first of the digital fictions to be released. Unfortunately, because of developments in Google Maps technology, the site is no longer in action but the clip shown above demonstrates how it operated.

The 21 Steps is based on John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, an adventure story published in 1915 (though probably better known as the 1935 Hitchcock film adaptation). We Tell Stories invited British thriller writer Chris Cumming to devise a new way of telling the story. It is a classic detective tale made more dynamic by the ability to track the protagonist through Google Maps. Just as The 39 Steps is about a man being tracked and followed, in The 21 Steps the reader becomes an interloper in Google’s real/unreal landscape. The 21 Steps pays homage to the peripatetic nature of The 39 Steps, taking the readers across locations all over the UK such as King’s Cross Station and Edinburgh Castle. Richard Hannay, the protagonist of The 39 Steps, becomes Rick Blackwell in this re-telling, and the reader followed Rick’s trajectory using the technology of Google’s satellite imagery.

The project was made in conjunction with Six to Start, a company usually associated with alternate reality computer games. The reader was ‘led’ by real time click-throughs that travel to the locations themselves, as shown an embedded Google Map and the story took around an hour to read. Cumming’s story is told in chunks of text in dialogue boxes, following a blue line across locations to map the journey. By clicking and scrolling through, the reader is in effect turning the ‘pages’ of the book. In this way, digital media provides a level of immediacy and interaction that cannot be achieved through print. Author Charles Cumming likened the process to film-making, saying it was more like ‘writing a screenplay, where producers and script editors and directors all have a say in the structure of a script. With novel writing you’re more or less left to your own devices’ [1]. This is perhaps where the practice of re-telling a story through a different platform begins to both enhance and limit the possibilities for the author. Cumming lamented the fact that he could not explore the protagonist’s character in any great detail while telling the story through Google maps, but he attests to enjoying the heightened sense of suspense and movement that came through telling the story in this way.

Six to Start CEO Dan Hon said he was interested in using the Google interface for ‘dramatic information’ [2] and indeed the plot was enhanced visually by this method of storytelling, especially when dramatic scenes –such as the protagonist running across the roof of Edinburgh’s Waverley Station – could be seen by the reader. We Tell Stories provided a modern-day ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ story, where the reader was placed in an omniscient position. However the pace was determined by the programmers – a feature unique to this kind of storytelling. It is not a case of folding the page and coming back to it later, therefore handing control over to the author and the platform rather than leaving it entirely in the hands of the reader.

‘Talk to Me’, a show on interactive design held at New York’s MoMA in 2011, noted that ‘contemporary designers do not just provide function, form and meaning, but also draft the scripts that allow people and things to develop and improvise a dialogue’ [3]. This is certainly true in the case of The 21 Steps. The publishers found a way to showcase emerging talent and bring classics to the attention of readers who might otherwise eschew the traditional printed book. It is also worth bearing in mind that The 21 Steps was written in 2008, in the very early days of Google Street View. If the story was re-written today, we would be able to follow the characters point of view at street level, even follow them in and around buildings.

While plenty of artists, such as Mishka Henner and Doug Rickard, are using Google Maps as part of their work, this is a field still relatively untouched by writers and The 21 Steps was one of the first to experiment with the medium as a landscape for written narrative. There are some exciting new projects emerging, such as poet Martin Jackson’s site Resident in Maps [4] where poems are written in response to locations found while exploring Google Street View. Visual Editions have a new project due later this year, which asks writers to write their own personal map using Google Maps (more on this to follow on The Publishing Lab soon).

The 21 Steps is a fantastic example of what editor Andrew Losowsky referred to when talking about hybrid editions on this site [5]. He said it is vital we have an ‘understanding [of] what each medium brings to the story, how each medium changes the story, because the medium is part of the story itself’. Using Google Maps to tell your story can be limiting when it comes to developing characters or using language to create a landscape in the reader’s imagination, but it can also be used to exciting and dynamic effect, where both the author and the reader take on a whole new position beyond the printed page.


[1] Doug Black. Charles Cumming: The 21 Steps
[2] Holly Willis. We Design Stories: The Digital Fiction Of Six To Start
[3] Talk to Me
[4] Resident in Maps
[5] Visual Editors and Literary Designers: An Interview with Andrew Losowsky. The Publishing Lab

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