Choose Your Own Adventure stories seem to be making a modest comeback thanks to tablets and smart phones. Today I’d like to look at the structure of a Choose Your Own Adventure story and pass along a few tips about how to write one.
What is a choose-your-own-adventure story?
Choose your own adventure (CYOA) books started out, in the 80s and 90s, as “a series of children’s gamebooks where each story is written from a second-person point of view, with the reader assuming the role of the protagonist and making choices that determine the main character’s actions and the plot’s outcome.” (Choose Your Own Adventure, Wikipedia)
For example, Kelly Armstrong, aided by Random House and Inklestudios, created Cainsville Files, an app that takes the reader through a mystery/adventure where the reader can choose her path and uncover clues leading up to an spine-chilling revelation.
This morning I bought Armstrong’s app and read/played through her story. It took me only an hour or so and I enjoyed myself enormously. I had planned on reading her book, Omens, at some point in the not too distant future, but I’m moving it up on my reading list. I’m interested in the town, Cainsville, and its strange inhabitants. I want to meet them again and learn more about both the town and the story universe.
CYOA stories, when configured as apps, have the advantage that it’s possible to show simple animations and sounds. When I’m reading about a rainy night with lightning and thunder it’s nice to hear the pitter-patter of raindrops and the slow roiling growl of the thunder. (Armstrong’s app did not have this background augmentation.)
How to write your own choose-your-adventure story
Just like putting together a regular story there’s more than one way of going about it. That said, what follows are several tips from avid readers and writers of CYOA stories.
There are several programs that can help you keep your decision tree straight. If you’re scratching your head wondering what I mean by “decision tree” here’s an example taken from The Mystery of Chimney Rock by Edward Packard.
A program I love and use often is SimpleMind+. It allows me to draw mind maps of all sorts. I can pick custom colors and outlines as well as leave copious notes.
So let’s say you decide to take the plunge and write a CYOA story. How should you start? Well, first …
1. Sketch out the story
Write out a sketch of the story, a kind of zero draft, and then, go back through it and break the story into blocks.
From what I’ve seen, most branching stories have 20 or 21 ‘tiers’ or levels. For example, The Mystery of Chimney Rock had 21 levels and 121 story blocks.What I’m (somewhat clumsily) calling a block of text could be either a scene, a sequel, or some kind of transition. A reader, though, wouldn’t read all 121 blocks! Because of their choices, a reader would normally see only one block of text from each tier (though, depending on the story, they might be able to time-warp and circle back).
Len Morse in Writing Tips how to Write a Choose your own Adventure Story suggests, for each block, trying to answer the following questions:
“Who has your hero met? Does your hero have any traveling companions? What is their relationship? (Friends, enemies, peripheral characters, pets?)
“What is your hero’s inventory? Has your hero lost/gained an item? Is it needed to achieve the goal? (Food, clothing, money, weapons, climbing gear, a holy relic?)
“What special abilities or knowledge does your hero have? For how long? (Where is the hidden letter, who was in bed with whom, how to avoid a fight or pick a lock?)
“Has your hero actually achieved the goal? (Reached a destination, killed the enemy, won over the love interest, found the special item, rescued the prisoner?)”
2. Choose your story endings.
Morse mentions that there are five basic kinds of templates for endings:
a) The protagonist is captured.
b) The protagonist is killed.
c) The protagonist acquires treasure.
d) The protagonist finds love.
e) The protagonist fails in his/her quest.
There should be a handful of endings somewhere in the middle that cut short the story. The reader might die or just fail to achieve his/her goal. What this means for the reader is that they will need to go back to the last section and make a different decision the next time round.
“[…] you might write five of each ending type, for a total of 25 endings. (It would behoove you to write less of the “gets killed” endings. Readers hate that!) Also, there’s nothing keeping you from combining your ending types (i.e. Maybe your hero gets the treasure, and then gets captured.)”
Also, keep in mind that, depending on the complexity of the story you want to tell, there may be more than one story thread.
For example, in Kelley Armstrong’s book app, Cainsville Files, there was a main storyline—whether the protagonist, Jenn McCoy, will find out why her childhood sweetheart disappeared—and a secondary storyline that was a potential romance. You could fail to make a romantic connection, though, and this wouldn’t affect (at least, not that I could tell) the main outcome.
Decide on your secondary characters
|by Tom Gauld|
There are going to be a number of characters in your story. You won’t have all the characters I list, below, but you’ll probably want two to four, depending on the length:
- The protagonist’s helper/best friend/buddy
- The protagonist’s mentor
- The protagonist’s sidekick. Often the sidekick is the same as the helper/best friend/buddy, but not always. This could be a secondary helper, perhaps even an animal, who keeps the hero company. For example, Minsc and Boo.
- A wise old man/woman. This could take any number of forms, even that of an animal.
- A Big Bad.
- The Big Bad’s helper/minion.
- A red shirt.
- Master page of character types.http://www.tomgauld.com/index.php?/shop/epic-tale-print/
Events: Kinds of deaths
If you’re having a difficult time coming up with inspiration, here are a few possible ways to snuff out your protagonist (or any character): Various death tropes.
3. Throw in a subplot
This point isn’t specifically about CYOA books, but a second plotline can add complexity to a story. In Kelley Armstrong’s book app her subplot was a romance, and I thought it worked quite well.
Pros and Cons of writing a choose your own adventure story
- A CYOA story can be a bit easier to write than an 80,000 word novella written in 3rd person with multiple point of view characters because it has only one point of view—that of the reader.
- A CYOA story can be a bit more difficult to write than a standard novel because, rather than writing one story, you’re writing one story and all (or almost all) it’s possible variations.
- A CYOA story is written in the 2nd person.
Pro: This is one of the few times this narrative viewpoint is used, and it can be used to great effect. Besides, it’s good to try something new every so often.
Con: Many people don’t like reading a narrative written in 2nd person (e.g.: You turn the corner. A hungry vampire crouches before you, fangs bared, poised to suck your blood!).
Pro & Con: Often a CYOA story is told in the present tense. Some readers like stories told in the present tense while others loathe them with a red hot fiery passion.
Pro & Con: Unless you’re the Stephen Hawking of the writing world and can hold multiple branching outlines in your head, you’re going to have to outline. That’s a plus if you’re used to outlining and have developed a method that works well for you, but a minus if you regard outlining as the literary equivalent of cleaning out a septic tank with your favorite toothbrush.
Whatever you decide to do, all the best! If you do write a CYOA story—or have written one—I’d love it if you left a comment and told us about your experience.
Note: This blog post was first published over at my original blog on June 25, 2014.
2. Inklewriter. “inklewriter is a free tool designed to allow anyone to write and publish interactive stories. It’s perfect for writers who want to try out interactivity, but also for teachers and students looking to mix computer skills and creative writing.” For $10 Inkle will convert your story into a file you can read on a kindle ereader.
3. Cainsville Files (app) by Kelly Armstrong.
4. Decision trees:
– Image: Decision tree for The Mystery of Chimney Rock by Edward Packard.
5. Articles about Choosing Your Own Adventure: