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.