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.