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Inside J.J. Abrams’s Brain-Bending Book-Within-a-Book

Doug Dorst is co-author of S., a book that takes place within the margins of another book (it's complicated). Here, Dorst reveals how he collaborated with J.J. Abrams to create a kind of printed alternate reality game.

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One day J.J. Abrams had the idea for a book project, one fueled by the kind of unfettered ambition that brings TV shows about purgatorial islands to life. It would be a book set within the scribbled margins of another book—two novels unfolding at the same time—and it needed a writer. Lindsey Weber, head of film at Abrams’s hit factory, Bad Robot, recommended author Doug Dorst for the gig, and together they began building on the elevator pitch of S. Apparently, though, the only thing more complicated than describing the resulting collaboration, or reading it, was writing it.

There's a whole lot going on within the formidable book package known as S. After removing the shrink-wrap, you find a book holster, inside of which is the novel, Ship of Theseus, attributed to one V.M. Straka. Flipping through the pages, you notice that they all feature seemingly handwritten notes in the margins, amounting to a dialogue between two students passing the book back and forth. Like a hastily assembled briefcase, there are clippings, postcards and other assorted ephemera scattered about, physically wedged in between pages. Finally, while reading the introduction to Ship of Theseus, it becomes clear that these students are enmeshed in the mystery of the book’s authorship, one that has supposedly daunted scholars for decades. They also appear to be flirting.

It's difficult to decide exactly how to start reading S.—a sort of 3-D Infinite Jest with a pop sensibility—and nearly impossible to imagine how it ever got written. Like any other extremely challenging project, though, this one began with a search for talent that could handle it.

"There were a couple entries in my short story collection that seem kind of like warm-ups for this book," Dorst says.

Indeed, Weber recruited the author to work on what became S., based on Dorst's first novel, Alive in Necropolis. With that book, the studio head found a writer who could ably tackle rotating first-person narratives and deliver exposition through non-traditional means such as police reports. She and Abrams quickly filled Dorst in on the full conceit of the project and charged him with creating the stories to fill an unwieldy template. The only stipulation was that the margin-story had to be a love story.

Over the next year, the trio worked to develop a foundation for the book. With continual input from the others, Dorst put together a prologue and first chapter simultaneously, which is what the group eventually brought to publishers as proof-of-concept. They also thoroughly hashed out the characters and themes and the mechanics of how it would all work.

J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

"I generally don’t do a lot of preparation before writing a book," Dorst says. "But by the time we went to publishers with the sample material, we also had an 80-page pitch document about how this was going to play out."

While making the prologue and first chapter, Dorst would write part of Straka’s novel, as well as the voices of the two students reading over it, during the same writing sessions. After the team successfully sold the book, though, everyone involved agreed it would be best to go through and finish the actual novel, and then layer the margin-story on top of it.

"Ship of Theseus had to stand on its own or else the whole thing would fall apart," Dorst says. "It has to be believable as a book from a long time ago that has been widely read and that people are interested in studying. If it’s not good enough to carry that illusion, then the whole project is just margin-story gimmicks."

Abrams gave Dorst carte blanche to write the Straka novel as he saw fit. The author would go off and write a chapter, and deliver it to Weber so she could make notes. Once the two had produced a specific arc or a two-to-three chapter movement, they would bring the material to Abrams, who would decide what was working and what wasn’t. In essence, Dorst was steering the ship while Abrams was guiding its course.

"I had a loose sense of how Stranka’s novel was going to work, and a loose sense of how the dialectic between [the two students] Jen and Eric was going to work," Dorst says. "The toughest part was getting these two entirely separate storylines to work with each other, and figuring out not just the trajectory of Jen and Eric's relationship, but how to build it in the context of Ship of Theseus. But a lot of it was just going forward and finding my way as I did it. I was a little worried, though, because that is the exact opposite of how you navigate such things as a screenwriter—where you don’t put a word down until you know every beat."

Another great challenge of writing the book was bringing clarity to the timelines in the margin-story. As the relationship between the two students develops, it is clear that they are writing to each other on many, many separate occasions. There had to be an internal logic governing what was written when.

"We decided, let's make it possible for them to be making notes in different places every time they pass," Dorst says. "My assumption at first was that they would just be doing it once a day, but then it's a little more frenetic as it goes on, and the book starts being passed around more."

There are clues in the text to help readers sort out the different timelines, but mainly these are coded by different inks. The variance in supposed pen-color is just one of many little details that give the illusion of Ship of Theseus as a real, well-read book. The stains of undisclosed foodstuffs dot pages that look believably yellowed by time. A familiar-looking library sticker decorates the book’s spine, complete with an entry in the Dewey decimal system. New York-based design firm Melcher Media collaborated with Abrams, Dorst, and Weber, to help make the illusion seamless.

In order to ensure the reading experience is as immersive as possible, the authors and the publishing house are neither named nor mentioned at all inside the actual book. Were an uninitiated reader to stumble upon Ship of Theseus without its shrink-wrap and outer packaging—which does, in fact, list the authors' names and the actual book title, S.—there would be nothing to betray the book’s authenticity.

Anyone who did find it out in the open, though, perhaps on an empty subway seat, would not get the full experience, were any of the insert material missing. After cracking the book open and seeing that there are trinkets between the pages, one is instantly seized by the urge to dump it all out and do an inventory, like the first time opening a board game like Mouse Trap. (Even though S. is closer to an Alternate Reality Game than it is to Mouse Trap, the comparison applies.) The only thing that might keep you from doing so, though, is not remembering where each piece goes.

"There are reasons for those things being in those places," Dorst says. "But it's not absolutely dependent on everything being in that order. In other words, if after going to the bookstore, you get caught in a wind storm and everything goes flying, it's not going to be the end of the world."

With so much physical flair, it seems as though S. couldn’t possibly work as an ebook. As it turns out, this assumption is incorrect. Technologically, the book was so difficult to convert that Mulholland Books only did so on one platform, Apple iBooks. The e-version loses the tactile feel that is one of the book’s most substantial offerings, but it redeems itself with a feature that lets you toggle off the margin notes and get a completely clean read of Ship of Theseus. It's a value-add that you can’t possibly recreate with the physical version.

Aside from which kind of copy a person ends up grabbing, though, there are many different ways to read the book. You can read Ship all the way through and then make a second pass to read the margins. You can do a chapter or a page at a time and then go back to catch up. Or you can try to do everything simultaneously, like a human born with an extra set of eyes. Ultimately, every reader has to find the way that works best through trial and error.

"It became clear that not only could we not control how people are going to read the book," Dorst says, "but that part of the fun for the reader is figuring out how they want to read it."