ZedneWeb / My Experiments With Presenting Stories in HTML

Presenting Stories With HTML

Occasionally, people ask me why I don't put up HTML versions of my Sfstory work (currently Starcruiser Anonymous and Buzz Williams). There are two reasons I usually consider:

This is changing. Browser support for standards like CSS and Unicode is improving, meaning that I can do HTML versions that are sufficiently better than their plain-text counterparts to justify the effort. I've already begun doing experimental HTML conversions. Feel free to check them out, but you might want to look at the recommended browser strength first.

The Experiments

I've currently done three HTML conversions of previously text-based stories.

The Library contains other works presented in HTML (eg. Velvet Evil), but these are a bit less sophisticated in presentation.

Recommended Browser Strength

For the three experimental titles, the Big Important Thing to have is Unicode support. More accurately, your browser has to be able to recognize about half a dozen characters that exist in Unicode (and in most Macintosh and Windows fonts) but are not present in ISO Latin-1 (primarily typographers quotes, em dashes, and ellipses). Some browsers will display meaningful characters, others will show the low-level codes I'm using (such as “ for a left double quote). The easiest way to check this is to try and view the pages yourself.

You will also get much better results if your browser supports Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). The big ones are Netscape Navigator 4 or better and Internet Explorer 4 or better. Neither browser supports CSS completely, and IE 4, Macintosh Edition has some irritating bugs, but they all produce acceptable results. If you see paragraphs presented with indentation and blank lines between scenes--like you would in a book--then you have most of the important stuff.

The Advantages of Text and HTML

Why choose one format over another? For me, the primary considerations were convenience and formatting power.

Text is simple to work with and allows absolute control over formatting. Indentation, line-length, and paragraph spacing are all under the control of the author. On the other hand, there is no way to vary the font or point size. There's no way to use italics or bolding. There's no way to allow text to re-wrap to the current window width.

HTML solves most of these problems. Text wraps to match the page width, italics and bolding are available, and there is some limited ability to choose fonts. Unfortunately, HTML by itself allows almost no control over paragraph formatting. There's the usual un-indented paragraphs with blank lines between them and, well, nothing else. There are a few ad hoc ways to get around this, but most involve misusing HTML in a way that might not work with later browsers.

Cascading Style Sheets attempt to solve the remaining problems by giving authors a way to control paragraph formatting (and a great many other things). CSS support in current browsers is rather weak, but it's reached the point where it's worth playing around with. For those who cannot or will not use the later browser versions, there is always the text versions which were already available.

Features of the HTML Versions

I originally decided that I would not do HTML versions of my Sfstory work unless I could make it sufficiently better than the already-existing text versions to warrant the effort. I think I'm mostly there at this point. Here are some of the nice things I can do with HTML and CSS.

One trick that I'd like to be able to do is adjust the line height. Most browsers have this set too small, making reading more difficult. Unfortunately, Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer both deal with line height differently, and it's not worth it to try and tailor the style sheet to match one but not the other. Sigh.

One trick that I could do but haven't is play with colored text and backgrounds. I've seen a few HTML-based stories that use color to set a mood, but I haven't decided if that's something I want to do. (It makes printing things out more of a pain, for one.)

Will I go back and convert all the older episodes of Starcruiser Anonymous? Maybe. I doubt it will be any time soon. It still takes some work to do, and I'm not convinced it's enough of an improvement to justify the effort. (Feel free to let me know if you disagree.) If I tried, I'd feel guilty for leaving in some of the lamer stuff. I am considering providing HTML versions of any newer work, though. We'll see what happens.

David Menendez, zednenem@alumni.psu.edu
Created 13 January 1999