Marie-Laure Ryan

July 2, 18:00 – 19:00

Four types of textual space and their manifestations in digital media 

The first thing that comes to mind, when we think about the relations of space to narrative, is the space in which characters live, act and move (space 4 below). But the involvement of texts with space can take other forms (Ryan et al, 2016):  

  1. The spatial form of the text 
  2. The space materially occupied by the text 
  3. The spatial context of the text 
  4. Mimetic space, or space of the storyworld  

In this presentation, I will explore these four kinds of space, first in terms of their manifestations in print-based literature, and second in terms of the digital narrative applications they have inspired, and of how these applications put into play the distinctive affordances of computer technology. 

Space 1 can be conceived literally as the graphic presentation of the text on a page, a signifying resource particularly prominent in calligraphic designs. In digital texts, spatial form can refer to a variety of phenomena: to the windowed structure of Internet-based multi-modal narratives; to the underlying architecture that guides the user through hypertexts, an architecture that can take the form of trees, wheels, networks, or flowcharts; and to the design of the interface, a design based on a combination of what Dan Punday (2017) calls “primary space” and “orienting space.” 

Space 2 refers to the number of dimensions of the textual inscription. It is traditionally two-dimensional, but I will discuss attempts, both in print-based and digital texts, to make it three-dimensional. 

Space 3 describes how texts relate to specific environments. Since books are movable, it normally plays no role in print literature, but it is represented by commemorative signs that link the evocation of historical events to the locations where they took place. In digital media, space 3 is represented by augmented reality, alternate reality games (ARGs), location-based narratives, and mobile games such as Pokemon Go. 

As the space of the world in which narratives take place, space 4 is so familiar that there is no need to illustrate it print media. Through resources such as interactivity, three-dimensionality, and panoramic (360 degree) representation, digital technology affords an embodied experience of mimetic space that cannot be matched by other media. 


Punday, Daniel. “Space Across Narrative Media: Toward an Archaeology of Narratology.” Narrative 25.1 (2017): 92-112. 

Ryan, Marie-Laure, Kenneth Foote and Maoz Azaryahu. Narrating Space/Spatializing Narrative: Where Narrative Theory and Geography Meet. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2016. 


A native of Geneva, Switzerland, Marie-Laure Ryan is an independent scholar based in Colorado. She is the author of Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence and Narrative Theory (1991), Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media (2001) Avatars of Story (2006), Narrating Space/Spatializing Narrative (2016, with Kenneth Foote and Maoz Azaryahu), and over 100 articles on narratology,  media theory and digital culture. She has also edited Cyberspace Textuality:  Computer Technology and Literary Theory (1999), Narrative Across Media: The Languages of Storytelling (2004), Intermediality and Storytelling with Marina Grishakova (2010), the Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative, with David Herman and Manfred Jahn  (2005), Storyworlds Across Media, co-edited with Jan-Noël Thon (2014), The Johns Hopkins Guidebook to Digital Humanities,  co-edited with Lori Emerson and Ben Robertson, and Possible Worlds and Narrative Theory (2019), co-edited with Alice Bell. Her scholarly work has earned her the Prize for Independent Scholars (1992) and the Jeanne and Aldo Scaglione Prize for Comparative Literature (2000), both from the Modern Language Association, and she has been the recipient of Guggenheim and NEA followships. She has also been Scholar in residence at the University of Colorado, Boulder (2008-2010), and Johannes Gutenberg Fellow at the University of Mainz, Germany (2010-2011). In 2017 she received the Wayne Booth Life Achievement Award from the International Society for the Study of Narrative. Her Web site is at and she can be reached at