Faux Decision Points

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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

I’ve mentioned this in previous posts, but it bears repeating because this is critical, SCENES MAY NOT BE OVER 300 WORDS. This is due to Alexa requirements that do not permit you to have audio files longer than 90 seconds, and 300 words is pushing it as it is.

But you know what? As annoying as this requirement is, it’s actually a good thing. Your writing will be crisper and more compelling if you cut out the fat. Moreover, the point of this type of story is to allow the reader/user to interact with it, so you don’t want to be droning on for two-thousand words before the user gets to make the choice.

“But how can I set up my entire story in 300 words,” you ask. “That’s impossible.”

It’s not impossible. First, it helps to have chosen a topic that’s high concept, as I described in a previous post. But, yeah, sometimes, even so, it’s difficult to set up *everything* in one scene. So here are some hacks to help you.

I’m going to use my story Cinder/Charming as an example for this. In Cinder/Charming, the user can play as either Cinderella or Prince Charming. So the first “scene” is just a vehicle to allow you to make that choice. It’s about 15-20 seconds of description of you waking up [super lame trope, I know--be better than me!] after which, you’re essentially prompted to choose whether you’re Cinderella or Prince Charming. Since the action hasn’t started yet, there’s no need to belabor the lead up to this choice. Just because scenes can be up to 90 seconds doesn't mean they should always be 90 seconds.

Let’s say the user picks Prince Charming. There is then a description of Prince Charming walking home to the Palace thinking about how he’s always wanted a dragon and that he’s going to be getting one on his 16th birthday next week. That alone took up almost 90 seconds. I now need to get across the information that the Palace is broke and that his parents can’t afford to get him the dragon he’s always wanted. So what did I do?

At the end of the scene, he walks by his father’s study and hears arguing behind the door. It seems that his parents are fighting. Do you burst in or keep listening?

So there are a couple of important points here. First, even though this actually turns out to be a “faux decision point” because regardless of which of those options you choose it doesn't ultimately change the outcome of the story, there is tension here. The kid’s parents are fighting. Bursting in is an interesting action as is snooping. The choice “feels real”. Plus, the choice is real in the sense that if they pick burst in, he does in fact burst in whereas if they select keeps listening, he keeps listening.

Now let’s say the user selects burst in. There’s then a scene where the Prince confronts his parents. This scene lasts, I don’t know, 60 seconds. But to get out all the information the reader/user needs, I needed more than an additional 30 seconds. So here I did something sort of cheap. I had the father ask, “Do you want the good news or the bad news first?” This is also a faux decision point because, again, regardless of which choice the user picks, they’ll ultimately get the same information, but this one feels more like a faux decision point because its lack of import to the rest of the story is more apparent on its face.

Remember, the player will only ever know if a decision point is “real” (that is, will forevermore change the outcome of their story) or “faux” (that is, doesn’t really matter to the outcome) unless they play the story multiple times. Your goal is to have the fewest number of faux decision points as possible because you want a high level of replayability. Ninety percent of the time or more, the user's decision should change the outcome of the story. 

But, in sum, if you must have a faux decision point, add one with tension and drama and avoid those with an obvious lack of import to the outcome of the story. 

*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.