Faux Decision Points

A guide to writing interative stories.jpg

Note: This post is part of Katie Ernst's series on best practices for writing interactive stories. If you'd like to read the blog from the beginning, click here

I’ve mentioned this in previous posts, but it bears repeating because this is critical, SCENES MAY NOT BE OVER 300 WORDS. This is due to Alexa requirements that do not permit you to have audio files longer than 90 seconds, and 300 words is pushing it as it is.

But you know what? As annoying as this requirement is, it’s actually a good thing. Your writing will be crisper and more compelling if you cut out the fat. Moreover, the point of this type of story is to allow the reader/user to interact with it, so you don’t want to be droning on for two-thousand words before the user gets to make the choice.

“But how can I set up my entire story in 300 words,” you ask. “That’s impossible.”

It’s not impossible. First, it helps to have chosen a topic that’s high concept, as I described in a previous post. But, yeah, sometimes, even so, it’s difficult to set up *everything* in one scene. So here are some hacks to help you.

I’m going to use my story Cinder/Charming as an example for this. In Cinder/Charming, the user can play as either Cinderella or Prince Charming. So the first “scene” is just a vehicle to allow you to make that choice. It’s about 15-20 seconds of description of you waking up [super lame trope, I know--be better than me!] after which, you’re essentially prompted to choose whether you’re Cinderella or Prince Charming. Since the action hasn’t started yet, there’s no need to belabor the lead up to this choice. Just because scenes can be up to 90 seconds doesn't mean they should always be 90 seconds.

Let’s say the user picks Prince Charming. There is then a description of Prince Charming walking home to the Palace thinking about how he’s always wanted a dragon and that he’s going to be getting one on his 16th birthday next week. That alone took up almost 90 seconds. I now need to get across the information that the Palace is broke and that his parents can’t afford to get him the dragon he’s always wanted. So what did I do?

At the end of the scene, he walks by his father’s study and hears arguing behind the door. It seems that his parents are fighting. Do you burst in or keep listening?

So there are a couple of important points here. First, even though this actually turns out to be a “faux decision point” because regardless of which of those options you choose it doesn't ultimately change the outcome of the story, there is tension here. The kid’s parents are fighting. Bursting in is an interesting action as is snooping. The choice “feels real”. Plus, the choice is real in the sense that if they pick burst in, he does in fact burst in whereas if they select keeps listening, he keeps listening.

Now let’s say the user selects burst in. There’s then a scene where the Prince confronts his parents. This scene lasts, I don’t know, 60 seconds. But to get out all the information the reader/user needs, I needed more than an additional 30 seconds. So here I did something sort of cheap. I had the father ask, “Do you want the good news or the bad news first?” This is also a faux decision point because, again, regardless of which choice the user picks, they’ll ultimately get the same information, but this one feels more like a faux decision point because its lack of import to the rest of the story is more apparent on its face.

Remember, the player will only ever know if a decision point is “real” (that is, will forevermore change the outcome of their story) or “faux” (that is, doesn’t really matter to the outcome) unless they play the story multiple times. Your goal is to have the fewest number of faux decision points as possible because you want a high level of replayability. Ninety percent of the time or more, the user's decision should change the outcome of the story. 

But, in sum, if you must have a faux decision point, add one with tension and drama and avoid those with an obvious lack of import to the outcome of the story. 

*Note: If you are interested in writing an interactive story signup for our newsletter and receive a PDF of Cinder/Charming as well as its full story map as our free gift to you.

How to Formulate Exciting Decision Points

A guide to writing interative stories.jpg

Note: This post is part of Katie Ernst's series on best practices for writing interactive stories. If you'd like to read the blog from the beginning, click here

In the previous post I discussed the importance of putting story first when crafting an interactive story. However, the plot of your interactive story is significantly impacted by the decision points you inject. In fact, the need to create exciting decision points can very much enhance your story, heightening tension and reader engagement.

The following is a non-exhaustive list of considerations when creating exciting decision points that make your story addictive:

(1)   INTERESTING OPTIONS

Firstly, and this might seem obvious, but your decision points need to provide interesting options. For instance, at the beginning of the Cinderella story in Cinder/Charming you can wait for something magical to happen, go on a quest to find your father’s will, or murder your stepfamily. The choice "wait around for something magical to happen" is super lame. How exciting is it to wait around? 

Because that’s what Cinderella actually did in the original fairy tale, though, it made sense to have that as an option. But because that choice was so lame, I provided two additional options to choose between, both of which that were far more interesting. 

Examples of exciting choices: whether/how to go on an adventure, fight/flee/hide, solving a puzzle, moral dilemmas, choices imbued with suspense, choices that force the reader to be clever, and so on.

(2)   NON-REPETITIVE CHOICES

Your decision points shouldn’t be repetitive. In my previous post, I referenced a story that had three choices in a row that involved calling someone. Not good—you need variety.

Similarly when I was writing Cinder/Charming, on the path where the Prince sets out on a quest to find a dragon egg, I first had him choose whether to bring a satchel and then I had him decide whether or not to take off his chainmail on the way to the dragon. I quickly realized that (a) those choices aren’t all that interesting in the first place as there's no immediate suspense (see point 1 above), and (b) they’re choices that are far too similar to present back to back.

Thus, I split them up such that you’re presented with one of the choices on the quest to find a ruby dragon’s egg and you’re presented with the other choice on the quest to find an opal dragon’s egg. That way in a single story path, you’re only presented with one of those as a decision point.

(3)   NUANCED, NON-OBVIOUS CHOICES

Your decision points shouldn’t provide for choices where one option is obviously correct and the other is obviously wrong. That is, you shouldn’t have a choice in which one option is very clearly the better course of action. So, for instance, at one point in Cinder/Charming I needed a decision point for the prince because I was coming up against the 300 word limit for the scene. So I presented the option: do you give up on the idea of getting a dragon's egg or go on a quest to get one for yourself?

That’s a cop-out choice. What sort of decision is it to give up? Obviously that would end the story and it doesn't sound fun at all. Of course you can’t give up! As a writer, you need to avoid this. It's lame and an obvious ploy, and we can all do better. [I was up against a writing time crunch where I needed to write the entire 35,000-word story in one week, but that's barely an excuse.]

(4) NON-RANDOM CHOICES

I just got finished telling you that you shouldn't have any choices where one option is obviously correct and the other is obviously wrong, but you can err in the opposite direction too. You should never have two choices where there is absolutely no indication which decision is correct. Or another way of putting this is you should never have two choices where there is no indication of the stakes of the reader's choice.

For instance, in the previous post I talked about a story in which you walk onto a spaceship and you're immediately given the option, "Do you go left or right?" There is no description what you see to your left or right nor any indication of the trade-offs of this choice. Thus, you might ask well just have asked the player to flip a coin.

How might you correct this? You could describe looking to your right and seeing a group of friendly-looking aliens and then looking to your left and seeing a place to hide. Thus, when you're asking the player whether they want to go left or right you're really asking them to choose between showing themself to the aliens or hiding.

But if you give no indication what the import of the options are, then the choice feels completely random, and that's not satisfying to anyone.

(5) NO MORALLY RIGHT OR WRONG CHOICES

Similar to point 3, your decision points shouldn’t provide for obviously morally right or wrong decisions. First, you should never intentionally “moralize” in your writing. This isn’t an after-school special—it’s meant to be fun. But also, these stories are aimed at pre-teens or young teens, so overtly evil actions shouldn't pay off either.

When you give the reader options and then show the results from those various options, you’re inherently suggesting that certain courses of conduct lead to positive outcomes and other lead to negative ones. Especially for a middle grade audience, you really can’t have a situation where an evil action is rewarded by a positive outcome while a moral action leads to failure. It’s just not right. This is an engaging read, not American Psycho.

So, for instance, in Cinder/Charming I really wanted to give Cinderella the option to kill her family since that seems like the most obvious “solution” to her dilemma. But could I really have the result be that she successfully murders three women and then lives happily ever after? *Shiver*.

So, no, I couldn’t have her murder her family and succeed. I got around this by injecting her attempted murders [there are multiple options for how to go about the murder] with humor, so they are fun to read in spite of the fact that you’re pretty sure you know it’s not going to work out well for Cinderella in the end.

But generally speaking, you shouldn’t have decision points that have one option that is unambiguously morally wrong and one that’s unambiguously morally right. It’s too suggestive to the reader, and that is ultimately boring.

(6) TRULY UNIQUE OUTCOMES

The choices need to provide two truly unique outcomes. There are a few Amazon Alexa skills that purport to be interactive stories, but after a few minutes of playing them, you realize they're not because they only have the illusion of choice.

So for instance, there will be a scene and then at the end of it, you’re prompted to do either X or Y. If you choose X, the next scene will describe you doing X and then give you another series of choices. But what happens if you choose Y? When you choose Y, the story will say, “You wanted to do Y, but then you realized you shouldn’t do that, so instead you did X.” Therefore, at every decision point, there was really only one path you could go down. That’s not an interactive story. That’s a story that you talk to from time to time. Boring!

Or, similarly, there are so-called interactive stories in which you keep being given the option to either go forward, or to, essentially, give up. So it’s like, here’s a creepy house, do you want to go in or stay outside? You go in, now do you want to go into a creepy looking room, or go back outside? Now do you want to check out the creepy doll in this room, or go back outside? Those are not real options.

Each decision point should provide 2 or possibly 3 distinct options, and when the reader picks one, they should actually get to do the thing they chose.

Now, this isn’t to say that you can’t have multiple scenes that lead to the same place, but whenever the player makes a selection from the choices given, in the very next scene they should get to do the thing they chose and the two options given to them need to be real choices.

The next post will discuss hacks to help you if you absolutely can't set up your entire story in the first scene, but with cautions regarding how not to abuse these tactics. 

*Note: If you are interested in writing an interactive story signup for our newsletter and receive a PDF of Cinder/Charming as well as its full story map as our free gift to you.

How to Think About Interactive Stories

A guide to writing interative stories.jpg

Note: This post is part of Katie Ernst's series on best practices for writing interactive stories. If you'd like to read the blog from the beginning, click here

In a previous post I explained the technical details of what an interactive story is, but what is an interactive story conceptually? Fundamentally, on a very basic level?

Interactive stories, at their base, are a series of interlocking short stories. When the reader goes through your story once, the story will be 10-20 scene blocks from beginning to end. That’s 2500 to 5000 words which is, well, like I said, a short story. You want each of these short stories to be interesting. When an interactive story is well written, any full path the reader takes from beginning to end should be capable of being excised from the interactive story and stand alone as an enjoyable read.

So, for instance, in Cinder/Charming if you select to be Prince Charming, you can either choose to find a bride a la the traditional Cinderella story or you can go on a quest to capture a dragon’s egg. Let’s say you choose to find a bride a la the traditional story. You judge the girls through a series of competitions and then choose which girl you like. Then, if you've selected Cinderella, you can choose to chase after her, whether to use her shoe to find her, etc. 

Some of the reader’s choices lead to positive outcomes and some lead to negative outcomes, but no matter which path the reader chooses, the story they experience from beginning to end can stand alone by itself as a cute, short story. [Or, that’s idea anyway. Since I’m the one who wrote Cinder/Charming, modesty makes it difficult for me to say that I achieved that as a fact. :)]

The error that I see a lot of authors making is they know they need to put in decision points, so they do so without regard to what sort of story that ultimately produces. Thus, they end up with a series of interlocking short stories, none of which they would ever write individually.

For instance, I got a submission about a kid who comes across a spaceship while walking home one day. High concept? Check. Plenty of opportunity for external conflict? Check. Story that’s sufficiently complex? Check. I was super excited about this submission.

I started reading the story and I thought it was going to be good. The writer was competent and the scenes were well written. However, as I got farther into the story I noticed a problem. Let’s see if you can spot it. One path of the story went something like this: You’re a kid who encounters space ship, should you call the police or walk closer to it? You walk closer to the space ship and then you could call your friend to join you or continue toward the spaceship. You continue toward the spaceship, but then you think you could take a picture and post it on Instagram to show your friends or continue toward the spaceship. You keep going closer, walk onto the ship, and you can go left or right. You go left and meet some aliens. Do you offer them M&Ms or not. You offer them M&Ms. The aliens are now your friends and you win! The End. [Various of the other paths made the aliens angry and they destroyed the earth.]

Think about that plot for a moment if it were a stand-alone short story.  The story is: kid sees spaceship, kid considers contacting a number of people, kid walks onto the spaceship, The end. No one would ever think to write that story in a vacuum because, honestly, it’s not a particularly exciting or compelling narrative. Thus, if you wouldn’t write that story as a stand-alone short story, it doesn’t work as an interactive story either.

Every story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. Every story needs conflict. Going into all of the elements of good story telling is way beyond the scope of this blog and there are tons of great books on story formation generally. The point is, though, that all the concepts of good storytelling don’t suddenly fly out the window simply because this is an interactive story. Remember, it’s an interactive story. You’re writing for Select a Story. The biggest mistake you can make is forgetting that first and foremost you need a plot and good story-telling techniques. Once you remember that, much of your writing should fall in place.

While we’re discussing story, the next post will focus specifically on how to formulate exciting decision points.

*Note: If you are interested in writing an interactive story signup for our newsletter and receive a PDF of Cinder/Charming as well as its full story map as our free gift to you.

Topics that Work Best as Interactive Stories

A guide to writing interative stories.jpg

Note: This post is part of Katie Ernst's series on best practices for writing interactive stories. If you'd like to read the blog from the beginning, click here

As mentioned in a previous post, due to Amazon coding restrictions there is a hard limit that scenes be no longer than 300 words. That’s only a little over a double-spaced page in a word document. Therefore, in each scene you need to do a lot with a small number of words. For instance, in your first scene you need to establish your setting, set up your premise, and have something happen such that there’s a decision point at the end of it.

To illustrate, Cinder/Charming is really two stories—Cinderella’s and Prince Charming’s. The first scene of the Cinderella path sets up that your parents are dead, you have an evil stepfamily that keep you as a servant, and you’ve decided to do something about it. Then three choices are presented: wait around hoping something magical happens, find your father’s will to prove his estate is really yours, or murder your stepfamily.

Similarly, in each subsequent scene you as a writer also have to do a lot. You need to resolve the choice made at the end of the previous scene, have something new happen, and set up a decision point. Again, all of that has to be done in 300 words or less.

It sounds daunting, but it’s not impossible. I've edited a number of 400- or 500-word scenes down to 300 thinking it was going to be awful, and I found that by the time I was done, my writing sparkled. Efficiency makes for tighter, better writing.

However, these limitations do mean that only certain types of stories work well in this domain. Here are the elements that make for a good interactive story.

(1)   HIGH CONCEPT

You need a high concept. I'd heard this term thrown around in publishing circles for years not entirely understanding what it meant. I swear, some editors use it to simply mean a “good idea” which is, well, circular. When I say high concept I mean a premise that is striking and easily communicable. Examples of high concept? Well, pretty much all fairy tales are high concept since the public is familiar with them. But you don’t have to write a story based on something already in existence. Here are just a few other examples: a spaceship lands in front of you; suddenly you’re the size of an ant; someone close to you is kidnapped and you need to find the kidnapper; you wake up locked in a room and you don’t know how you got there; a ghost takes possession of your younger sister.

You get the idea. Notice how I could communicate all of those ideas in a sentence or less and the potential is immediately obvious. That’s high concept. It’s hard to write a compelling interactive story that doesn’t have this attribute.

(2) EXTERNAL CONFLICT 

Interactive stories need to be primarily driven by external conflict. That is, your character needs to be fighting someone or investigating something or solving riddles, or in some other way confronting some external adversary.

Interactive stories can’t be primarily driven by internal conflict, such as wanting to impress someone, wanting to self-actualize, avoiding embarrassment or the like. Now I’m not saying it’s *impossible* to write an interactive story primarily driven by internal conflict. I’d love to see a submission of that done well. But generally speaking, because of the constraints of the category, 99% of the time, you’re going to need to focus on stories with heavy doses of external conflict.

Of course all stories need some level of emotional connection to the events. I'm not saying it should be robotic. I'm just saying your story needs plenty of external conflict too.

(3) SUFFICIENT COMPLEXITY  

You need a story that’s big enough. In a previous post, I presented a simplified example of an interactive story that was clearly based on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Now that’s fine as an example, but I’d have a hard time seeing how that story would work as a fully fleshed-out interactive story. It’s not big enough. I can’t imagine Roudolph having enough exciting decision points to generate 120ish scenes.

Actually, the Rudolph example is a good illustration of all three elements of a good interactive story-telling. First, it is high concept because everyone’s aware of Santa and his reindeer. Rudolph is intellectual property owned by someone else, however, so practically you’d have difficulty using that character, but just analyzing whether it’s high concept, it is.

The idea fails on the second element, however. Rudolph’s story is primarily driven by internal conflict. The entire premise is Rudolph gets made fun of by other reindeer for his red nose. He feels bad about himself and wants to show them he’s not useless. That’s internal conflict. No one’s trying to kill him. There’s no natural force he needs to fight against. He feels excluded and alienated. That’s unlikely to make for a good interactive story.

And then we come to whether the story is sufficiently complex. Now it’s possible you could write a story in which the traditional Rudolph story is a small part of an overarching story and there are many other nodes with other story paths, but in and of itself, it’s not enough.

In fact, I had a similar issue when I was writing Cinder/Charming. I knew that the Cinderella story was high concept and had a lot of potential for external conflict, but the traditional story wasn’t enough to produce 120 scenes (and therefore a similar number of decision points). Thus, I wrote it such that you could play as either Cinderella or the Prince, and then I had multiple nodes or story segments for each character, half of which resulted in the characters never even meeting each other. I needed more than just the traditional Cinderella story to have a sufficient amount of content.

Now that you know the topics best suited to interactive stories, in the next post I will explain how to think about plotting out one of these stories and the sorts of decision points you should have.

*Note: If you are interested in writing an interactive story signup for our newsletter and receive a PDF of Cinder/Charming as well as its full story map as our free gift to you.

How to Map out an Interactive Story

A guide to writing interative stories.jpg

Note: This post is part of Katie Ernst's series on best practices for writing interactive stories. If you'd like to read the blog from the beginning, click here

Based on my last post, you have now figured out what the major nodes of your story are going to be, but now you need to know how to literally write the story and map it all out. I have a fool-proof method.

Let’s imagine I'm writing an extremely simple story with only one node whose premise is that you’re a reindeer with a large, red nose that is tired of getting picked on. Let’s say that I have worked out that the reindeer can either tattle to Santa or handle the mean reindeer himself. First I need to write that opening scene. When I've finished, I can begin mapping out my story. I write "opening" on the top of a piece of paper (or even better, a very large white board) and draw a box around it. Then I draw two lines from it that go to the two options, numbered 1 and 2. Like so:

1.JPG

Notice I did *not* put boxes around the two options yet. Why? Because we will only put boxes around scene names *after* we’ve written them. Also, note that at this point it does not matter what numbers I have given the scenes. The numbers are only to help me find the correct scene in my word document. 

So, let’s say the next scene I decide to write is “tattle”. In that scene the protagonist reindeer goes to Santa and at the end of the scene Santa gives the reader two options: either you can guide Santa's sleigh tonight to show the other reindeer who's the best or you can retire and move down to the South Pole with all the other washed-up reindeer. Once I’ve written that scene I will then draw a box around “Tattle” and draw lines to the two options off of that.

2.JPG

Keep in mind, the order I write the scenes or the order of the numbers in my word document don’t matter. If I want to find a scene, I just hit find in my word document to find that number. I can worry about making all the numbers go in ascending order once I'm done writing.

So now I could write either guide sleigh, South Pole, or handle them yourself. Personally, I like to stay in one path before moving onto others, so let’s say I write “South Pole” next. In this scene, the red-nosed reindeer goes down to the South Pole, but the other reindeer living down there are even worse to him than the ones in the North Pole had been. The End. Once I finish this unhappy ending, I draw a box around the scene and put two lines underneath it to let me know it’s an unhappy ending.

3.JPG

Now I write the scene for guide sleigh. Let’s say that in that scene, all the reindeer realize that your bright nose is a benefit and so now all the reindeer love you. That’s a happy ending, so I’d draw a box around “guide sleigh” and put two lines underneath to show it’s an ending but also write “you win” to let me know it’s a happy ending.

4.JPG

After that, I'd write the scene “Handle them yourself” and so on.

That’s all you have to do to write a story like this, but remember in a real story, from the beginning to the end, the player should go through 10-20 scenes before they get to an ending rather than the two they go through in this simplified example.

Also, keep in mind that scenes can intersect with each other. Different scenes can lead to the same place and the like. So here’s a drawing of a small section of Cinder/Charming.

5.JPG

These numbers do not correspond to the numbers in the finalized ebook or print book because this was before I put them all in ascending order, but this is just to give you an idea of how different scenes can lead to the same places.

In the next post I will explain what sort of topics work best for interactive stories. Stay tuned.

*Note: If you are interested in writing an interactive story signup for our newsletter and receive a PDF of Cinder/Charming as well as its full story map as our free gift to you.

How to write an interactive story: Overview

Note: This post is part of Katie Ernst's series on best practices for writing interactive stories. If you'd like to read the blog from the beginning, click here

Tools

There are programs available, such as inklewriter, to help you write one of these stories. I personally found them more confusing than helpful, so I’m going to explain how to write one of these using just your run of the mill word processing program and with a paper and pen to graph out your story, but if you find a specialty program helpful, go for it.

Premise

The first thing I do when I sit down to write one of these stories is figure out the premise of the story. When you write a novel, the premise is important, but the plot is even more so. If you’ve spent a lot of time over on Query Shark then you know your novel's pitch or blurb needs to be about plot and not the premise.

Not so with interactive stories. Interactive stories are all about the premise. That's because the plot varies depending on the paths chosen by the reader. Therefore, in an interactive story your premise really needs to hook the reader. 

For instance, the first interactive story I ever wrote was called Yawnkay East. It's not published on Select a Story because it's too adult. Let’s say the main character bore a striking resemblance to Kanye West. The premise was that you are Kanye West’s…I mean Yawnkay East’s…assistant, and you find him dead. You then decide to conduct an investigation to determine who murdered him.

Second Person, Present Tense

Now this brings me to an important point. All interactive stories are written in second person, present tense. Let me repeat that. All interactive stories are second person, present tense. That is why above I said that the premise is that “you” are Kanye West’s assistant.

So, for instance, a story might begin with something like, “You walk toward Yawnkay’s room, his breakfast tray in hand.” This makes sense because, remember, the entire idea is that reader is *in* the story deciding what happens next.

Plan Out the Nodes of the Story

Once I’ve figured out the premise, I then decide the major “nodes” of the story. So, for instance, in the Yawnkay East example, I decided the top three suspects you would immediately be interested in investigating would be Yawnkay’s mother-in-law (based on Chris Jenner), Yawnkay’s brother-in-law (based on Rob Kardashian), and Yawnkay’s nemesis (based on Taylor Swift). I also decided that each suspect would lead you to a second suspect. Chris Jenner would lead you to Kim Kardashian, Rob would lead you to Amber Rose and when you’d go to find Taylor Swift, you’d have a hard time meeting with her so you’d have to interact with Katy Perry first. So those were my 6 major nodes along with the opening node and the accusation node at the end.

After I determine what my major nodes will be, I then decide what generally will happen in each node, and then I write them one by one. So in Yawnkay East, in the Chris Jenner node, you'd go to meet with her. Depending on your choices, you'd discover that she was having an affair with Kanye's bodyguard and that explains why she was at his house. (And therefore suggested she didn't kill him.) But your choices would determine the extent of the information you'd get. Basically she's staying at a hotel and you have to figure out a way to sneak into her room.

Throughout the entire story, the reader could investigate any or all of the suspects before making an accusation at the end. There were ultimately 12 or so people you met along the way and therefore at the end you could accuse any of them. If you picked the correct bad guy [and based upon the choices you made along the way, you’d have more or less information about who was the murderer], then of course that person would go to jail and your life would turn out well. If you accused any of the wrong people, the bad guy got away and a variety of different things happened to you. Sometimes your life turned out fine notwithstanding your poor choice. Other times, you ended up sad, broke, and lonely. I made every ending different to keep it interesting. The key is replayability. You want the reader to want to read/play again and find out what would have happened had they taken different paths.

Unlike Yawnkay East which is a mystery, Cinder/Charming is an adventure story so the various nodes don’t interact in the same way that they do in Yawnkay East. At the beginning of the story you basically get to choose whether you’re Cinderella or Prince Charming. Thereafter, as Prince Charming you can decide to go along with your father’s wacky plan to find you a wife or you can skip all that and go on a dangerous mission to try to capture a dragon’s egg. If you’re Cinderella you can decide to either try to kill your evil stepfamily, find your father’s will to prove the estate is really yours, or win the heart of the prince.

Because they're separate, I wrote each of these nodes independently. So, for instance, if you’re the prince and you go off to capture a dragon’s egg, depending on the choices you make, you could capture one and therefore “win” or you could mess up and die. But regardless, you wouldn't meet Cinderella. There are a number more die endings than win endings. Overall in Cinder/Charming there ended up being 38 “losing” endings and 11 “winning” ones, so 4-1 basically.

Even though all the nodes are independent I tried to keep them as consistent with one another as possible. So in both the Cinderella story and in the Prince Charming story the two characters could interact. I tried to keep their interactions with one another and the events surrounding their interactions the same. The reader should really feel like the world is consistent; it's only their choices that change things.

*Note: If you are interested in writing an interactive story signup for our newsletter and receive a PDF of Cinder/Charming as well as its full story map as our free gift to you.

What is an interactive story?

A guide to writing interative stories.jpg

Note: This post is part of Katie Ernst's series on best practices for writing interactive stories. If you'd like to read the blog from the beginning, click here

Interactive stories are stories in which the reader or user gets to decide what happens next. [Note: in the remainder of this post I will generally refer to the person interacting with the story as the “reader”. In a book, this is literally true. In an audio interactive story on Alexa or Google Home, the person would be a player or user since the person wouldn’t literally be reading, but the idea is the same.]

Remember those Choose Your Own Adventure™ books from the 80s and 90s? They’re interactive stories.  

Basically, an interactive story starts with an opening scene. At the end of that scene the reader is given two choices. [Sometimes there may be up to 3 choices, but you really can't have more than that.] The reader then picks one of those choices. In a book, the reader would be directed to turn to the appropriate next page, while on Alexa or Google Assistant the user can tell the device which option they choose and they will automatically be taken to the appropriate next scene.

For instance, let’s say the story opens with a young prince overhearing his parents arguing through his father’s study door. At the end of the scene, the reader is given two options: burst through the study door or keep listening through the keyhole. In print form the options would be given as, “If you burst in, turn to scene 2. If you keep listening, turn to scene 3.” [Or whatever the appropriate number would be.] For the audio version, the choices would be presented as: “Do you: burst in or keep listening?” Then the player could say one option or the other and they would automatically be taken to the appropriate next scene by the device.

Interactive stories are approximately 30,000 words long. Each scene should be approximately one page or 250 words and there should be approximately 120 different scenes. (250x120 = 30,000). When a reader goes through the story one time, a single path should aim to be between 10-20 scenes long. The different choices made by the reader lead to different outcomes: some happy and some not. You need to have at least 15 or so different endings, but you may have many more than that. The number of endings really hinges on the sort of story you're writing.

For instance, in Select a Story’s first interactive story Cinder/Charming there are 130 scenes and 36,000 words. The shortest path is 5 scenes and the longest path is 15. Also, the scenes themselves range from about 150 words to 300. As you see, you can go somewhat outside of the boundaries set above, but best practices would be to keep your scenes as close to 250 words as possible and to not have any absurdly short paths. *NOTE* Because of restrictions in coding for Amazon Alexa, scenes MAY NOT be longer than 90 seconds which is approximately 300 words. Therefore there is a hard limit of 300 words that you cannot go over. Moreover, Cinder/Charming has 49 endings, although some of of them are essentially the same ending—there are just different ways of getting there.

*Note: If you are interested in writing an interactive story signup for our newsletter and receive a PDF of Cinder/Charming as well as its full story map as our free gift to you.