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.