A guide to hypertext literature

In the modern world of technology, it is no wonder that exclusively electronic genres of literature have formed. Perhaps you saw a Twitterature or used a poetry generator during the English Literature class. You may have seen video poems on YouTube or TikTok. Electronic literature is everywhere. But what is hypertext literature and how does it fit into the genre?

Hypertext literature, a definition

Invented by Theodore Nelson, a pioneer in the computer industry in the 1960s, the term hypertext describes “non-sequential writing – text that branches out and allows the reader choices, best read on an interactive screen”.

Hypertext literature therefore follows the same definition. It is literature that is not sequential with branching stories or pages. The reader drives the story by clicking on different hyperlinks.

“When history stops progressing, or when it cycles, or when you tire of the paths, the reading experience ends,” Michael Joyce wrote in the introduction to the first piece of hypertext literature, “Afternoon, a story”.

His story was distributed on diskette. This was in the late 1980s. Readers navigated by clicking various pieces of hypertext text on each page. The story was not linear. No, readers clicked and clicked and clicked until they got bored and click away.

It’s hypertext literature. Like a digital version of a choose-your-own adventure, hypertext literature writers compile various segments of stories, images, and other digital pages. Readers then browse them at their own pace and at their leisure. There is no beginning, no middle, no end. Neither beginning nor end. The reader reads until he doesn’t feel like it anymore, then continues with his day. Some readers can spend hours walking the paths of a hypertext story. Some may only spend five minutes.

Which leads to another unique aspect of the genre. Each reader who interacts with coins has a different experience. Two people will not click on the exact same hyperlinks in the exact same order. Readers can go back to the same story to experience it in a different order. The takeaways vary each time.

Hypertext literature is not just a story written online. You cannot print these parts or write them in a notebook. By doing this, they would stop working. To exist. In the digital world, this is where they survive.

Examples of hypertext literature

Another example of hypertext literature is “I Have Said Nothing” by J. Yellowlees Douglas from 1994. The play explores the death of someone the narrator calls Sherry and the notion of what death itself is. He asks, “Are we starting? And “but does it stop?”

Extract from “I didn’t say anything” by J. Yellowlees Douglas

Shelley Jackson’s “My Body – A Wunderkammer” from 1997 includes sounds when the reader clicks on various parts of a woman’s body to reveal memories the narrator has with those body parts. The shoulder section talks about the arms of the swimmer and Frankenstein. Her eyebrows feature makeup and 7th grade stories.

“These Waves of Girls” by Caitlin Fisher, who won the Electronic Literature Organization Award in 2001, navigates the queer identity of the narrator at the age of 4, 10 and 20. Pictures and words or sentences connect the three periods during audio playback of certain pages.

Screenshot of
Excerpt from “These Waves of Girls” by Caitlin Fisher

Kendall’s “Penetration” is an example of hypertext poetry, another facet of hypertext literature. In it, readers select phrases such as “decide” or “daylight” from parts of the poem to reveal more.

The fall of the genre

Popular in the late 1980s and through the 1990s and early 2000s, hypertext literature was seen as a threat to the typical, linear way of storytelling in its heyday. But it turns out that writing stories that aren’t linear is difficult, and the genre posed challenges that were difficult to overcome. Due to the non-linear nature, the introduction of storylines or characters had to be done on every page, resulting in repetition for readers when they clicked.

While many aspects of hypertext literature permeate our daily lives (a Wikipedia link to other Wikipedia pages or a Tweet to one news article that links to another, for example), the genre of hypertext literature itself. even did not survive. As proof, I could not even load “These waves of girls” on my computer while writing this.

While the genre actually predicted the hyperlink heavy days of today, the hyperlink literature didn’t last as long as they expected. The storytelling is always, primarily, linear.


Did you like discovering hypertext literature? Try to learn more about digital literature or maybe the cyberpunk genre!


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