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.