Writing an interactive book, where the reader controls decisions of the main character, is a niche activity. As in, there’s lots of people who have never tried one and don’t want to. With the resurgence of text-based choice adventures riding the airwaves of smartphones, and even the resurrection of the classic Choose Your Own Adventure imprint, many authors have become aware of the ability to anchor and hyperlink text to create these possibilities (Think of a clickable Table of Contents—same idea). So even though this idea remains niche, there has been increased interest.
At my blog, Take Control, http://mimawithin.blogspot.com I kept track of many of the interactive authors, the games, the design of the stories, how to hyperlink, and other related issues. Today I wanted to share the pitfalls, beyond story creation of a dozen-or-so linked short stories, that an author might face. I don’t want you to leave with the feeling that these 6 issues would keep you from trying this genre. I need more people to play with me, because the more interactive books out there, the more demand will stir. Use these pitfalls as a “How to” checklist after you’ve finished your initial plotting. And please feel free to contact me here or privately to talk more. If I can do this, anyone can!
- Users. Note, I chose the word “user” not “reader”. One of the terms for interactive fiction is “gamebook.” The very first comments I received upon publishing my books were from people who read them sequentially. That’s right. They did not click the links. They thought it was a mishmash of unconnected scenes, and they were pissed. There was a forward, but it didn’t get read. So I had to change my blurb to be ridiculously clear. I also added a big ugly “Stop!” paragraph at the first choice point. Another issue with your users is that there is a certain stamina in an interactive book. A person has to be motivated to reread, to find the prior choices, and try again. If they don’t do this, and their first few reads were unhappy endings then the user will leave displeased.
- Endings. A romance author writing multiple endings has a choice to make. Either write all happy endings, or don’t. If you don’t, you have to find a balance. I use a bell curve: one perfect, several happy, several so-so or ambiguous, and one or two dire. At least 60% of my endings are happy—remember your audience! You can’t expect the user will read all your endings. Make sure each story stem leads to a variety. Something else to consider is that finding the endings is a major point of reading these for the fans, so you can’t have too few. The more choices you put into a book, the more endings, unless you use the cheater-pants decision of having one decision ramp the reader back into the same plot-stream from another strand. A four-choice-layered story leads to 16 endings overall, where the reader is given only 2 choices each time. So if you want to make a choice-intense story, you’re going to need a lot of endings. How are you going to make the reader want to keep trying them?
- Choices. People inevitably feel irritated if you “trick” them too much. By choosing a risky path, and having it be lightly settled, that was a trick. By choosing a safe path and having it be dark, that was a trick. But by consistently following reader’s expectations, you bore them. Also, people can generally always think of something else they would have preferred to do in a situation other than the choices you gave them. You can’t help that, but you can work hard to make sure each choice is motivated and likely, or people will feel manipulated. In a story where they are purportedly in control, you do not want them to feel controlled! Out of all the pitfalls, I put most of my effort into carefully crafting these choices, motivating them, and varying them. They are the heart of this genre.
- Character identification. By choosing to have unhappy endings, you are asking your reader to lead your main character into murky heroic territory. Okay, you are allowing your reader to be unheroic, and to be punished for it. You might ask- Why would this be fun for people, especially HEA-addicted romance fans? Well, it’s human nature to look at the train wreck. And you know those silver balls where people hold on until they’re shrieking in pain? They paid for that privilege. So allowing your characters to do unheroic things is fun! But it can make them feel unlikable. I recommend making sure, when possible, that a final choice (one that is heading toward an ending instead of more choices) rarely head into dual horrible endings. Soften one of them. Again, this is related to manipulation and the feeling damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t. You need some way for the reader to feel they rescued the character from that line of decision making or they start to disrespect the character. Also, you cannot make ANY of your choices be TSTL unless you’re writing all-out farce. You do not want your story to feel like the Perils of Pauline, the annoying, stupid heroine from the old black and white movies perpetually in danger. Or you can choose to avoid this pitfall and just write all happy endings.
- Plot. For people who swear they cannot plot, this isn’t the niche for you. As you can see, there is a fair bit of analysis I do to make sure the choices are balanced and the character paths are unique and not too depressing. I have a whole variety of choices I parcel out: seemingly-minor, major, horrible, sex, triple threat, and dead end. I have endings with codas (good or bad), endings without resolution, endings that lead to further mini-stories. Make sure these ending types and choice types are scattered across the story stems so the stories don’t feel repetitive. And when you start your story, make sure you are starting from a point that is “back” far enough to give you lots of maneuverability. Starting in the thick of action might limit choices. Also, start with a very general character goal, because it’s likely that goal will change several times. Whatever goal you start with, you MUST follow through on that in at least one story stem. Find backstory that is needed in several endings and trace up the story stem until you can find one common place to share it. Basically, don’t be repeating the same backstory several times because in rereading the story, that’s boring no matter how skillfully you dump it. It might be necessary if there’s no graceful way to put it near the start, but be aware.
- Finesse what you label the anchors and the links so that you don’t spoil the storylines, giving away consequences.
- Name the endings in some way to help readers identify if they’ve been there before.
- Because of the way ereaders blend pages, you can’t use page numbers. Give the new chapters (the anchor point after a choice) a physical icon of an asterisk or something so that it is set off from the previous page.
- Edit the stories as separate entities so that you can find continuity errors where a piece of information shared about the character in one story stem wasn’t revealed in this other story stem and needed to be.
- Make sure your links are triple checked and formatted precisely. No linky means #storyfail.
- This genre is traditionally written in Second Person. I couldn’t do that with a straight face so I chose Third, but I’ve also seen it written in First. This is up to you.
- And last, create an index (without spoilers!) of all the choices so users can reread with ease.
Visit Mima’s webpage for more information on her sexy fantasy stories, including the Take Control Trilogy. http://www.mimawithin.com