Image: Matthew Loffhagen
If your social media includes a few literary types, you’re probably already aware of ‘17776’, the digital short story written by Jon Bois. Composed of twenty-five chapters ‘transmitted’ from July 5th to July 15th, the sci-fi story uses text, sequential art, short videos, and music to tell a gripping, relatively simple story that has rightly been greeted as a sensation.
In this article, I’ll be looking at the first chapter of ‘17776’ and exploring the lessons it offers to authors who want to improve their craft and win readers. I’ll be avoiding spoilers as best I can, but the first chapter only takes minutes to read (and if you don’t even have that, a literal minute will give you the gist of a lot of what I’ll focus on.)
So what’s the big deal?
Not long ago, in Writing For Digital Publication: The 3 Things You Need To Know, I discussed the various options open to authors who want to write with digital publication in mind – rather than primarily writing for physical copy and then converting their work – and ended on this sentiment:
It’s a time and a medium for trailblazers, and it won’t be long before the writers of physical books start to feel jealous of all the things their digital cousins can do.
At the time, I was talking about eReaders, but as a browser-based reading experience, ‘17776’ more than fits the bill, allowing a practical discussion of what digital publication of any type can offer authors.
While the work as a whole employs a range of techniques suited to its medium, sticking to the first chapter gives us more than enough to work with and will avoid spoiling a great read for those who don’t yet have the time to dive in.
This chapter follows the protagonist ‘Nine’ as they awaken into a world they know nothing about. They’re not sure who or where they are, and even their senses and knowledge are suspect. Contacted by another entity, they begin to ask questions about their world, instigating a desperate dialogue that invites more questions even as it reveals surprising answers.
The most immediately unusual thing about the chapter is its presentation – the discussion takes place across calendar pages, beginning in a ‘March ’43’ of the far future. Speech is displayed across days, indicating a timeline to the discussion. As things progress, time restraints become apparent; there’s a delay between when messages are sent and when they’re received, and various reasons to either keep things short or wait before communicating.
As the reader scrolls down through the calendar pages, the two voices – one in red, one in green – play out a story of desperation, frustration, and hope.
What can we learn?
Form and content
If we only take one thing away from ‘17776’, it should be how perfectly it marries form and content, and how it depends on the possibilities of digital publication to do it. At the beginning of the chapter, and for most of its run, Nine is frantic. They don’t know what’s happening, or why, or even if the answers will be worse than the wondering. Days pass, and Nine repeats ‘Please answer.’ again and again to no response. It’s a process designed to grab the reader’s sympathy, and it does, leaving them similarly desperate to see what happens next, both out of curiosity and out of concern for the character.
What’s so perfect about the story is that it literally puts this progression in the hands of the reader. New content is accessed by scrolling down, a process of variable speed, and thus the reader is given partial control – they can make time pass faster, but only to a certain extent. They’re primed to feel desperation and then given a way to express that desperation by the text, scrabbling at their mouse or screen to make the calendar flick past faster. Empty months fill them with the same dread and frustration as the protagonist, with new text eliciting the same hope.
This marriage of form and function isn’t unique to digital publication. For example, The Fall of Fergal contains an illustration with a hidden detail the reader is intended to miss first time. Later, the book directs them back, pointing it out as evidence that – while they’ve only just become privy to the secret behind it – it’s been true all along, and is something the characters always knew. It’s not just a twist, but a twist that focuses on the emotional content of the book, telling the reader that they missed something in a way that also recreates that experience.Digital publication offers new ways to marry form and content.Click To Tweet
Where the first chapter of ‘17776’ differs from this usage is that its marriage of form and content is in its DNA. There’s no trick pulled out for a single use, but an unexpected approach to storytelling that infuses the whole piece.
Even there, it’s not unique, and there will be readers queuing up to explain how other media has pulled off the same thing. They’re not wrong, but they are missing the point. This is that the boundaries of digital media are ever-expanding, new, and relatively unexplored. If it’s true that there are no new stories to tell (and that’s debatable), it’s certainly untrue that there are no new ways to tell them.
Matching form to content can be a great way to heighten the effect of your story, but it may also be a way to tell your reader a story in a way they’ve never experienced before. It’s also not as difficult as it sounds. ‘17776’ tells an interesting story, and it’s packed with well-observed ideas, but in terms of bare content, it’s just a well-written story presented in a fresh way. It’s the type of thing that’s absolutely within the reach of ‘normal’ writers (whatever one of those might be), and should inspire many to ask what more they can do with their narratives.
The first chapter of ‘17776’ is a two-character scene. Many readers may be surprised that a written work that reveals so little can be so compelling. Beyond the varying fonts of the calendar pages, there’s no visual gimmickry to distract the reader, so why does it work so well?
Playwright Stephen Gregg is a frequent cheerleader of the two-character scene, as he explains in his article ‘You Should Write a Play’.
The two-character scene is the proton of playwriting, the basic unit.
In a two-character scene one character wants something and the other character wants her not to have it. That’s all there is to it. At some point, probably early, Cora declares what she wants and Abba opposes her. They use verbal tactics (charm, deception, intimidation) and physical ones (punches or kisses, for example) to get what they want. The scene is over when one of them wins.
The two-character scene is simple but powerful. There are lots of full-length plays that use only two characters or only two-character scenes.
And learning to write a two-character scene teaches you the basic model for any story: a character wants something but things get in his way.
In ‘17776’, things aren’t even so dramatic – one character wants something and the other wants them to have it, but outside forces mean it’s not an instant process. The lesson here is that a story doesn’t need to be complex to be compelling. ‘17776’ offers a great, extended scene in which two characters share a goal and work towards it. It’s compelling, tense, and it holds the reader’s interest.
That’s not to say that complex stories don’t work, but it does reveal that complexity and busyness aren’t inherent goods. If you think your story isn’t working because the premise is too simple or there isn’t enough happening in the scene, consider that the problem may be simpler in nature. Does the reader know what the protagonist wants, and do they support them in their pursuit of it? Do they appreciate their emotions, do they empathize, and do they truly understand the barriers?
Remember, two characters just trying to communicate can be so compelling that you’re punishing your mouse to see more. If your story is letting you down, check that your basics are rock-solid before deciding to add more details.
Something that becomes more apparent as the story goes on is Bois’ appreciation for realistic dialogue. The familiar voices, punctuated by the mundane concerns of the characters, make every discussion feel real. This is even more impressive when you realize that Bois doesn’t use dialogue tags, or even describe how anything is said.
There’s no ‘he spat’ or ‘she giggled’ – the reader has to (and can) appreciate the tone and mood of everything said simply by context and content. It’s common advice for authors to let verbs do the work and avoid adverbs wherever possible, to choose ‘he growled’ rather than ‘he said threateningly’. In ‘17776’, though, we can see that even the verbs aren’t the be-all and end-all. The reader is primed to pick up on meaning, and if you tell them who’s talking and in what circumstance, they don’t need a lot of clues to discern the emotion and intent behind dialogue.
Again, this invites readers to be aware of their fundamentals. If your dialogue isn’t clear, it may be something to fix with dialogue tags or more direct phrasing, but first you should check that the reader fully understands the character, the listener, and the situation.
The use of color will also interest authors who have a long-running frustration with dialogue tags; when to bother with ‘he said’ and when to assume the reader can follow the rhythm of conversation. Many writers consider them cumbersome features of written language – an apology for something the medium isn’t ideally suited to describe – but Bois simply does without.Could dialogue tags soon be a thing of the past?Click To Tweet
It may seem like a quirk, but it’s worth considering that using color is a real option in a reading space where ink costs aren’t a factor. In fact, it also makes multi-character discussions easier, even before looking at how placement on the page can indicate multiple conversations happening in tandem. Given these benefits and the dwindling nature of the costs, when we look at Bois’ dialogue, we might be looking at the future of the form.
Titling and marketing
It may sound as if I’m evangelizing for ‘17776’ as the greatest thing ever written, but that’s not the case. Rather, it’s packed with examples of experimentation, some successful and some unsuccessful, that any serious writer should be eager to unpack.
One area where ‘17776’ misses the mark is in its titling. Touted as both ‘17776’ and ‘What Football Will Look Like in the Future’, the piece has yet to find a title that does much work to attract readers. While football appears later in the piece, it’s not a work that requires a love of the sport (or even real knowledge of it) to enjoy, but that isn’t readily apparent, especially as the story is hosted by SBNation.com, who specialize in sports writing. This problem is compounded in an international market, where ‘football’ is far less likely to be understood, and may not even mean the same thing.
‘17776’ doesn’t have the same problems, but it also doesn’t offer much by the way of benefits. Intended as the year in which the story is set, there’s an issue with immediate recognition, partly because of the repeating numbers and partly because ‘17’ is immediately less than ‘20’. While the implication of a far distant future is there once you consider it, it doesn’t take the form of the immediate appreciation you’d ideally want from a title. (It’s also tricky to pronounce.)
There are lessons about titling here, but there’s also a lesson of hope for writers who want to make it big. The story has done phenomenally well despite arguably poor titling, spreading more or less by pure word of mouth. It would be easy to call this an example of the work speaking for itself, but there is a little more to it than that. The story’s opening is immediately novel and gripping, grabbing the reader as soon as they decide to take a look, and it builds momentum quickly.
Not everything about your work has to be perfect. While a great title and an amazing cover can help, ‘17776’ has neither, but a mixture of sheer quality and appreciation of the reader experience picks up the slack.
It’s worth noting that ‘17776’ was released as a serial over the course of nearly two weeks. Again, this shows fantastic judgement, as it’s something that suits the ‘slow reveal’ nature of the story. When you know that the reader really wants to know what happens next, you can afford to make them wait a little while to get it.
It’s an approach that could inform how you release a project, but it also has a lot to say to digital authors and even those writing a series. The gradual release model allows for some readers to become early adopters and advertise to their friends and family, right as larger influencers are picking up the story.
Serial publication is nothing new, of course, and if this sounds like it might work for you, you can check out What Charles Dickens Can Teach Us About Book Marketing for some tips.
Hope for writers
You may love ‘17776’ or you may hate it, you may even wonder what all the fuss is about, and they’re all valid viewpoints. If, however, the short story blows you away like it has others, there’s the temptation to follow that up with a feeling of despair – something along the lines of, “Well, I’ll never write anything like that, so why am I trying?”Word of mouth is still a valid marketing tool for authors.Click To Tweet
For many, it’s a familiar feeling, even if it’s one that can’t actually extinguish their artistic need to create. Consider, however, the message of hope that ‘17776’ represents to authors. It’s a fresh, unique, enjoyable work created by someone who never thought he’d get the chance.
Bois has earned himself the sort of job we all wish we could have. As best I can tell, SB Nation pays him [to] write or create pretty much whatever he wants, as long as it’s sports-related, and even that requirement often falls by the wayside… He is paid by a sizable corporation to write pretty much whatever he damn well pleases. He wasn’t always this lucky. He once described his early adulthood “working jobs I hated, without a college education or career path or any real indication that I would have a better job.”
– ‘Death by a Thousand Yards: A Dive into Jon Bois’ “17776”’ from The Desk of Dr. #Content
Making it, whatever your personal version of that idea is, doesn’t depend on being scooped from obscurity by a kindly publisher and slung onto bookshelves. There are opportunities out there for creative writers, even in unexpected avenues, and word of mouth is still an incredibly effective marketing tool that can be leveraged for massive success. Not only that, but readers appreciate an artist who’s out to entertain them.
“The goal as conceived was to give the reader a good time,” said Jon Bois, creator of the project and contributor to SB Nation, in an email to Poynter. “That was literally the whole point.”
– Daniel Funke, ‘This SB Nation story has everything: Robots, football and 2.3 million pageviews’ from Poynter
The future of writing
‘17776’ may be a look into the future of writing or it may be a fun story that employs some novel presentation. Either way, it’s something authors can learn from, and an example that there’s a vast readership out there hungry for experimentation and willing to champion the authors that give it to them.
What do you think of ‘17776’, and what devices do you see gaining prominence in writing’s future? Let me know in the comments. Or, for more great insight, check out Writing For Digital Publication: The 3 Things You Need To Know and You’re Making A Mistake In Your World Building: Here’s How To Fix It.