A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post, How to Write a Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) story. It’s one of my favorite posts because I love CYOA stories. I mean, who wouldn’t? They’re a cross between a book and a game! Anyway, I’ve always wanted to expand on that first post and, today, decided there is no time like the present. If you haven’t read my previous post, and don’t have time right now, here’s a list of what that post covered:
- What a CYOA story is.
- A way of thinking about the plot in a CYOA story.
- The overall structure of a CYOA story.
- The structure of each block or scene in a CYOA story.
- What kind of endings a CYOA story might have.
- What kind of characters to include.
- Whether a CYOA story should have a subplot.
- Pros and cons of writing a CYOA story.
Today I want to expand on one of the themes I touched on back then: the structure of each block or scene in a CYOA story. Next time I’ll discuss in more detail the unique overall structure of a CYOA story.
Enough preamble, let’s get started!
The Narrative Blocks of a Choose Your Own Adventure Story
Novels are composed of scenes and sequels.
Let’s talk about scenes. Just like a story, each scene has a beginning, a middle and an end. In the beginning we establish the characters and setting, in the middle conflict is generated by characters who strive to achieve their goals and inevitably fall short. At the end of the scene, though there is a resolution of sorts, often the hero will fall short of reaching his scene goal.
So that’s a scene. What is a sequel? I’ll let Jim Butcher explain this. On his Livejournal, he writes:
Sequels are what happens as an aftermath to a scene. They do several specific things:
1) Allow a character to react emotionally to a scene’s outcome.
2) Allow a character to review facts and work through the logical options of his situation.
3) They allow a character to ponder probable outcomes to various choices.
4) They allow a character to make a CHOICE–IE, to set themselves a new GOAL for the next SCENE.
Do you see how neat that is? Do you see how simply that works out?
2) Sequel–Damn it! Think about it! That’s so crazy it just might work!–New Goal!
3) Next Scene!
Repeat until end of book.
When I write a scene, I use index cards, one card per scene. The cards themselves can be physical index cards—I’ve outlined that way many times!—but, of course, there’s an app for that these days. I use the Index Card app. In any case, here is the information I put on the cards:
1. GOAL: What does the main character want?
For each main character in the scene, list her goal for that scene. Each character’s goal should be concrete and specific enough to take a picture of. Note: each character’s goal should tie into their overall story goal.
2. STAKES: What does the character have to win or lose?
For each main character in the scene, if the character achieves her goal, what will she win? Conversely, if the character loses, what will she lose? Whatever it is, make it concrete, make it something you could take a picture of.
3. WHO: Who is in the scene?
Make a list of all the characters in the scene and then, for each of them, go through these questions:
- What is this character’s goal?
- Does the character achieve her goal?
- If the character doesn’t achieve her goal, what does she lose?
- If the character does achieve the goal how does her life change? What does she win?
4. WHAT: What happens in the scene?
Summaries what happens in the scene in one or two sentences.
5. WHERE: Where does the action in the scene take place?
- Is the setting vivid? Memorable?
- Does the setting present the main character with a challenge?
- Is the setting unusual? Suprising? Unexpected? Remarkable? (Think of Fangorn Forest in the Lord of the Rings.)
- Does the setting help you showcase the characters strengths and weaknesses?
- Does the setting have special significance to any of the characters?
- Does the setting tie in with the theme?
Note: Not all these questions will be relevant for each setting.
6. WHEN: When does the action in the scene take place?
Does the action take place inside or outside? Is it day or night? What time is it? What date is it?
7. URGENCY: Why does the main character have to attain their goal now?
Why must the protagonist attain their goal? What is pushing them, and the action of the story, forward?
Often—perhaps too often!—this is taken care of by a ticking clock of some kind. This doesn’t have to literally be a ticking clock (though sometimes it is). Perhaps one of the characters is ill and requires treatment, or perhaps (as with Sherlock Holmes) the main character is simply bored.
8. OPPOSITION: Urgency is a force pushing forward (—>) where Opposition is a force pushing backward (<—).
The Urgency and Opposition both act on the main character, and perhaps other characters, but definitely the main character.
Urgency: The main character is ill and must receive treatment soon or they will die.
Opposition: The nearest hospital is over a day’s walk away and the character requires treatment within the next couple of hours.
Resolution: The character collapses but is found by a hiker who happens to have a satellite phone.
Urgency: Sherlock Holmes is bored. If he doesn’t get an interesting case soon, he will start shooting up Mrs Hudson’s walls.
Opposition: John Watson, or perhaps Mycroft Holmes, wants Sherlock to do something ordinary and uninteresting.
Resolution: Someone comes to Sherlock with an interesting case.
For more about structuring a scene see: Using Index Cards to Outline a Novel.
Sequels help orient the reader in the overall story and are great for revealing character. Let’s face it, we read not just because we’re interested in what will happen next, we read because we’re interested in the characters, in what is happening to them. That’s why we care, that’s what pulls us through a book.
Making readers care about your characters is essential to good storytelling. If we can do that then we will have devoted readers. Mastering the sequel is the key to this.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. What are the elements of a sequel? Here’s Jim Butcher again:
Here’s the basic structure to a sequel. […]:
1) EMOTIONAL REACTION:
2) REVIEW, LOGIC, & REASON:
And it MUST happen in THAT ORDER.
Let’s go over this point by point:
1. Emotional reaction.
Sequels are all about reaction. At the beginning of the sequel we see the character reacting to whatever happened at the end of the scene. Recall that at the end of the previous scene the character underwent a stressful experience—most likely a setback—and now we get to see how they react to it. This, right here, is a large part of character development. How we react to major setbacks reveals character. This is true in real life and it’s equally true in literature.
2. Review, Logic & Reason.
The character has had their emotional reaction, now they need to think about what happened. The character goes over exactly what happened and they seek to understand it. Why did it happen? The character seeks to understand their failure.
3. Anticipation and Planning.
The character turns from looking backward to looking forward. Given that this happened in the past, what is likely to happen in the future? Given that the antagonist whipped my hide just now, how can I change my tactics so that doesn’t happen again? Part of the anticipation phase is thinking of various things that could happen, various possible futures, possible paths the protagonist could take. The protagonist thinks about each of these possibilities and how he or she could respond.
Now it is time for the protagonist to choose which path to take. He has had his emotional reaction. He has calmed down and thought about it calmly. He has thought about various things the antagonist could do next and how he might counter it. Now it is time to choose among these possibilities and finalize the plan. This gives the protagonist a new goal and leads into the next scene.
This has been a blog post about how to write a CYOA story, but what I’ve said, above, is true for any story. Next time I will dive into the unique aspects of CYOA stories and examine their structure. Also, I’ll talk about how to approach scenes and sequels given the branching nature of a CYOA story.
That’s it! Tomorrow I’ll post a writing prompt on my WordPress site (I tweet them as well), so head over there if you’d like to do a quick writing warmup! Otherwise, I’ll talk to you again on Monday. Have a great weekend and, in the meantime, good writing!