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.