As I was scrolling through editing a novel I had recently finished writing, I came to a section in the plot where the protagonist has to think about whether to duck into a sketchy alleyway and hide from the villain behind a dumpster, or to continue on down the street in search of a busier part of the city to hide among a crowd.
As I was contemplating what the character would do, or what I would do in that situation, I thought to myself, ‘what if the reader could decide?’
Instead of trying to guess what a person would do in a situation, why not give them the choice and let them decide for themselves?
What if it’s not about what I would do, or what the character would do; what if it’s about what the reader would do?
The journey to interactive narrative storytelling…
With the rise of choices in games that lead to multiple endings (like in the Silent Hill series) and point-and-click narratives in video games (like those developed by Telltale Games), as well as interactive movies (like the latest Netflix original Black Mirror movie Bandersnatch), media has taken an interactive viewer-focused turn.
In technical documentation
We have most recently seen a change in fields that deal with the creation of instruction manuals and technical documentation. The work is moving from merely providing a list of instructions for the user to follow, and morphing into generating an interactive journey that lets users make their own decisions and manipulate their environment; this switch from static to dynamic learning environments allows users to gain skills and acquire the knowledge on their own through trial and error. Various continually-evolving technologies are making this more of a possibility each day.
Choose Your Own Adventure or CYOA novels are not a new concept. They have been around since the 70s and began with a series of children’s books. The title ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ is actually trademarked by the first and most notable set of CYOA novels. These series of books are also known as Secret Path Books, and they were a popular series of children’s game books back in the day, the first one having been released in 1976. Despite the slight rise in popularity of these children’s books at the time, CYOA books never really gained the breakthrough in popularity some thought it might receive, since before it could, video games came in to take their place.
In combination — text-based games
Text-based games are the in-between; they exist as something in between books and games. There are a number of programs you can use to combine books with games in a unique experience, giving a whole new spin to the term interactive fiction.
Software such as this blurs the boundaries between games and books and creates something more inclusive: an interactive experience.
Has this software then rendered the market absolute for the standard, physical page-turning ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ novel?
Believe it or not, there are still tons of Choose Your Own Adventure books out there being written, even today. But are they an outdated concept? Do people even read them anymore?
These are the questions I asked myself as I contemplated whether it would be a good idea to morph my novel into a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’, a more interactive novel where readers could be more immersed in the story as if they were the character herself (or himself).
Should you write an interactive novel?
Maybe you are also interested in the idea of letting the reader choose what paths to take in your novel. Maybe you don’t want to dictate for them what decisions to make, and want to create a novel that allows the reader to ‘write their own story’, in a way.
But before you dive in to altering your novel to become a CYOA book, there are a few things to consider for whether your novel would actually work as a successful CYOA.
What I found looking at the top-listed CYOA books
Before we look into the things to consider, I want to take a moment to share what I found while looking up the top-listed CYOA books.
I read the reviews of each of the top well-known CYOA books out there to see what readers liked about each of the books. I was mostly looking at which were successful CYOA books and which weren’t as successful as they could have been, based on readers’ reviews.
If you’re interested in reading about what I found, I created a separate post where I put together a table of my findings as well as an explanation of my results. I will soon provide a link to that post from this article.
Now, about the things to consider…
Things to consider before you decide to go CYOA
If you let a reader make one decision, they will want to make all the decisions
This is why choice in video games works so well. With games, it’s easy to vary the amount of decision making the character does, and the player does for the character. You can choose to make only some decisions relevant (as in certain point and clicks in Telltale Games) or you can make the entire game up to the character (as seen in more open-world-type games like those developed by Rockstar).
Possible solution: Make sure all your choices lead to outcomes that make sense to the reader.
Having readers make decisions might take away from your book’s plot
You have to really think about your book’s plot when deciding whether to make your story a CYOA, and whether constantly flipping back and forth and making decisions for the character would add to your story and not take away from it. When the reader is constantly flipping around, it can very easily interrupt the flow of your book. Be careful that you don’t leave the reader feeling lost with all the decisions and unable to latch onto a coherent plot. (This was a common complaint on many of the CYOA forums and book reviews). You have to find a way to keep the novel flowing and keep it from halting too much with sudden twists and deaths. A smart twist to a story is good, but it has to make sense to the reader.
Possible solution: One possible way to approach this issue is to circle back to different parts of the book rather than always creating abrupt endings, or to have more space and longer text between page-flipping choices.
Think about the type of endings that would be appropriate to your novel
If you are writing a CYOA set amidst a raging world war or a post-apocalyptic survival setting, main character deaths may be appropriate. But if your novel is set in modern-day Toronto in a setting where the character is never really in danger, or if it’s a love story where sudden character deaths wouldn’t make much sense to the plot (unless the potential suitors are in a fight to the death), try to think of more creative ways to have the adventure come to a close. The readers won’t believe unrealistic deaths that have nothing to do with the plot of your story, and you’ll risk making them disconnect from the reality of your plot.
Possible solution 1: There are other possible creative ways to have a CYOA novel come to an end.
- The character could be captured.
- The character could lose an important battle or fail to ‘slay the dragon’.
- The character could get distracted and lose sight of what’s important.
- The character could lose their sanity.
- The character could achieve the wrong outcome or obtain the wrong ‘treasure’.
- The character could fail in their journey somehow.
Possible solution 2: Or, as mentioned in the previous point, you could always circle back to different parts of the book rather than always creating abrupt endings.
Possible solution 3: One other possible way you can avoid sudden character deaths and have the novel flow be more continuous is to incorporate dream sequences or character hallucinations (or visions) into your novel. But a fair warning, only do this if your plot allows for it and you can somehow incorporate it into your novel. Do this too much or too unrealistically and your readers will view this as cheating. Be careful with dream sequences, as they are a common cliche and your readers will see right through it if you don’t incorporate it seamlessly enough.
If you’re a seat-of-the-pants writer, you might have to give up your pants-ing ways for this one and take up the dreaded outline
When you sit down to begin a CYOA novel, you will quickly discover what I mean by this. CYOA stories — especially longer ones — require heavy planning and mapping, as you will need a way to keep track of all the different routes and loops your reader will go on in the journey that is your book. You will pretty much have to go down each possible path with the reader and make sure they know what they need to know, given their previous choices — no more, no less. The longer the novel, the more crucial this step is. There will be lots of ducking and weaving through and around different plot points, and if you decide to go the route of branching out your story further through different decisions, your story will require planning for all the possible outcomes of those decisions. You have to really pay attention to the details and make sure you know what the reader (and character) knows and learns with each path they take. If they take a certain path, they might gain some knowledge that they wouldn’t know if they took a different path. You have to be aware of this. If plotting and outlining a novel really doesn’t appeal to you, you might want to reconsider writing a CYOA.
Possible solution: One tool that might help — if you decide to go this route and you are a beginner at outlining — are mind-maps. If you are an outliner, you may already be using mind-maps for your novels. Don’t be too daunted by the outlining process, it just takes a bit of practice. Mind-maps are your best friend in this case. You can download a free mind-mapping software. The current best-rated mind-mapping tool [as of 2019] is Lucidchart, but there are others out there. You can also just take the pen to the paper in the old-fashioned way and draw one out yourself.
Some readers might be turned off by the present tense, second person narrative point of view that CYOA novels are often written in
Different readers have different preferences, and each time you make a decision about how you’re going to write a novel, you may attract certain types of readers and repel others. There’s no way around it. CYOA novels especially are considered ‘niche’ forms of writing, since they are written in a tense and viewpoint not often seen in novels (i.e. second person, present tense). You are taking a risk every time you delve into a way of writing that is deviant from the standard, and CYOA novels are the perfect examples of this.
Possible solution: Look into what kind of readers you’d like to attract and keep that audience in mind when writing your novel. You can’t always please everyone, and CYOA novels are the perfect examples to illustrate this. That being said, there are a good amount of successful stories written in the second person. When done well, using this kind of viewpoint can give your novel something unique that makes it stand out from others, in a good way.
CYOA novels can be more difficult to write than standard novels
This point has been highlighted in previous points regarding the amount of planning it takes to write a CYOA. You’re not just writing one linear story, you’re writing one story plus all (or almost all) its possible variations.
Possible solution: Know why you’re writing it, and always keep that in mind. If it’s done well, all your hard work will pay off in the end.
“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”
If you decide to go CYOA anyway
If you decide to go with creating your own CYOA despite all the above daunting points I have outlined, kudos to you!
A great program to start with if you have limited coding knowledge is Inklewriter by Inklestudios.com. They offer tutorials on their site on how to get started, and it’s fairly straightforward. It’s possible to speed through all the tutorials in just under an hour if you have no problems with distraction. The program outputs a shareable link, which you can do one of two things with:
- Save as an HTML and CSS file
- Convert to a JSON file
As of now [September 2019] the program itself is still up and running, but no longer supports conversion to Kindle. The ability to save stories has also been disabled, which means the two above points are null. The one thing you can still do is play around with creating a story in real-time and screen-cap it. I demonstrate this using the software Snagit 13.
I put together a list of some alternatives to Inklewriter, which you can find in my post Alternatives to Inklewriter to Use for Your Interactive Novel or Text-Based Game.
Hopefully this post has helped answer any questions and quench any doubts you may have had about CYOA novels and whether your book would be right for it.
If you decide to embark on the creation of such a story, I wish you luck on your journey, and the many journeys your readers will go on when they decide to take on your novel!
If you decide to write a CYOA story, I’d love to hear how it turned out for you! Please leave a comment or feel free to contact me directly. I’d love to hear from you about your experience writing a CYOA!
CYOA teaser for my new book:
[UPDATE: My CYOA book is now available in both print paperback and ebook]
Other posts on creating CYOAs
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