Showing posts with label #CYOA. Show all posts
Showing posts with label #CYOA. Show all posts

Thursday, October 27

How to Write Something Others Will Want to Read: In Defense of Constraints

How to Write Something Others Will Want to Read: In Defense of Constraints

Are you competing in NaNoWriMo this year? I am! Although I’m putting a twist on it. Each day I'll blog about a key story scene as well as what elements it should have. My hope is that my post will provide inspiration and help you organize your story, like an oyster producing a pearl because of the irritating piece of sand that got inside its shell. (Not that my blog post is an irritating piece of sand! Perhaps I need to re-think that analogy. ;)

As my readers know, I’ve been interested in and written about the structure of stories for years.

One question I’m routinely asked is:

You say there are only two hard and fast rules of writing (you must read and you must write) but then you go on about the structure of stories. Sure, you say it’s optional—that wonderful stories can be written which conform to no recognizable structure. But then WHY spend so much of your time blogging about story structure if a story can be perfectly good without it?

This NaNoWriMo I’m going to be writing a lot about structure and so it’s important for me to answer this question. That’s what this post is going to be about, a defense of structure as well as an explanation of why this topic is so important to me on a personal level.

In Defense of Structure: Constraints Aid Creativity

When I was a child I had horrible nightmares.

To try and prevent these nightmares, my dad would tell me a story before I went to sleep, a different story every night. Sometimes he told me about the tiny village he grew up in, the chickens he raised, the pair of wolfhounds that defended him against rabid wolves, or the mean camel his parents made him take care of.

Other times Dad would put his own twist on folktales (how the lion got to be king) but, often, he would just make up a story.

Whatever story he told me there was one constant: I wanted more. I would always beg him to tell me another, and another. Dad would complain: “Karen, I'm going through all my material! I have to save something for tomorrow.”

Well, one day after I’d started kindergarten the inevitable happened. I decided I would tell my dad a story. It went something like this:

This morning Mom made my breakfast and then I put on my coat and that was good because it was SO COLD. Then I saw Jan and we ran to the door and I won! Then Mrs. Bloom taught English but no one likes her because she smells funny. Then the bell rang and I came home!

My dad was not impressed.

My dad was a natural storyteller. He never read an article about how to write, nothing about “Three Tips to Build Suspense” or anything having to do with The Hero’s Journey and if you asked him what an arc was he’d talk to you about Noah!

And yet he told wonderful, interesting, suspenseful stories.

That first, failed, performance changed me. It gave me a desire, a goal, that has lasted my entire life: I want to do what my dad did, I want to be able to tell a story he would want to listen to as much as I wanted to listen to his stories.

My Writer’s Journey

My parents were readers so it was natural that I became one. It was also natural that I began to write my own stories.

After reading C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien I was all about the soft magical silence of a lonely glade, or the feeling of aloneness—but not loneliness—that comes from sitting on the art gallery steps downtown and letting the sights and sounds of the crowd sweep over me.

When I was a tween I would write hopelessly atmospheric non-stories and foist them off on my mother to read. She always came back with, “Oh it was lovely, Dear.”

“Really!?” I would say, excited beyond all reason. “Which part did you like best?" I asked. "Was it the part about the leaf turning yellow?”

“Err... Yes, yes, I think it was,” my mother said, her smile a shade too tight, too stretched.

Then one day I became suspicious and, after Mom said she liked my story, I asked, "What did you think about the gorilla? Was it too much?"

There was, of course, no gorilla.

“On no! I liked the gorilla,” my unsuspecting mother said, absently flipping through her recipe cards, thinking about dinner.

“Ah ha!” I said, my voice exploding into the otherwise quiet room. “You never read it!”

I feel guilty about that now. Mom’s cheeks went bright pink and she spluttered something incoherent. Finally she said, “Well, you give me so much to read and I’m so busy. Sometimes I just want to rest.”

I do give her kudos for telling the truth. Putting what she said another way: it was boring.

And it was.

My mother and father didn’t make allowances for age or inexperience. If a story was boring then it was boring and—regardless of who wrote it—they weren’t going to read it. Life’s too short.

And I get it. I do. Now. At the time they might as well have put my little writer’s heart in a vice and crushed it.

At that time my parents were the entirety of my audience. They were my world. More than anything, I wanted them to want to read my work, to read it because they liked it.

One thing I’ve wondered is ... Why? Why was I so passionate that they like my writing, my stories?

The Intimacy of Prose

Although it took me a while to puzzle it out, I think I know. Consider this:

Although it depends on the kind of story we read (some viewpoints are relentlessly external) we often get to know not only what a character looks like on the outside—long brown hair, button nose, suspiciously large mole—but what she is like on the inside. We know what she thinks, what she feels. We know when she lies and we know why. We know if she is in love and with whom and how that makes her feel.

In short, we feel we completely understand the character because we know her in all her glorious particularity. And with that understanding comes a feeling of intimacy, of familiarity and acceptance. We like them. These characters can become like our friends, our family.

When I was a child all my characters were me. I wrote about myself, about my internal states, my loves and likes and desires, about my perspective on the world. And I thought if I did it right that the people who read my work might come to feel about me the way I had come to feel about my favorite characters.

Two Motivations For Creating Stories

Broadly speaking, I think there are two reasons why I write—and I don’t think I’m alone in this. First, as you've seen, I write to communicate. Second, I write to entertain. I think that, in practice, these two motivations are intermingled. Let's take a look at each.

Writing as Communication

In On Writing, Stephen King tells us a secret: writing is telepathy. He writes:

“And here we go—actual telepathy in action. You’ll notice I have nothing up my sleeves and that my lips never move. Neither, most likely, do yours.

“Look—here’s a table covered with a red cloth. On it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes. In its front paws is a carrot-stub upon which it is contentedly munching. On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8.

“Do we see the same thing? We’d have to get together and compare notes to make absolutely sure, but I think we do. There will be necessary variations, of course: some receivers will see a cloth which is turkey red, some will see one that’s scarlet, while others may see still other shades. (To colorblind receivers, the red tablecloth is the dark gray of cigar ashes.) Some may see scalloped edges, some may see straight ones. Decorative souls may add a little lace, and welcome—my tablecloth is your tablecloth, knock yourself out.

“.... The most interesting thing here isn’t even the carrot-munching rabbit in the cage, but the number on its back. Not a six, not a four, not nineteen-point-five. It’s an eight. This is what we’re looking at, and we all see it. I didn’t tell you. You didn’t ask me. I never opened my mouth and you never opened yours. We’re not even in the same year together, let alone the same room … except we are together. We’re close.

“We’re having a meeting of the minds.”

The thing about communication is that it only really works if we’re honest.

Writing is telepathy and telepathy is communication. We are communicating our thoughts but not just our thoughts. When we write we cannot help but communicate how we see the world, our likes and our loves, our very soul.

For me, this is what is meant by, “The truth inside the lie.”

Some people write because they want to share themselves—how they see things, their worldview, their unique perspective—with others. Of course, this isn’t the only reason anyone writes. If it was, then their story would probably be as entertaining as that first story I told when I was 5!

Every post I pick a book or audiobook I personally have loved and recommend it to my readers. This serves two purposes, I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar, at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post. :-)

Today I would like to share a link to a book I’ve just published! It’s called How to Write a Choose Your Own Adventure Story. Years ago I wrote a post about how to write a CYOA story and it went on to become one of my most popular. Then I realized why: there were no books on the subject. So I wrote one! If you’ve ever wanted to try your hand at writing a CYOA story, it will give you a place to start. If you read it, I would love to know what you thought of it!

Okay, that’s it! This was a long blog post. Sorry about that! I’ll pick up where I left off next time and talk about writing as entertainment. I’ll go over why I believe writers need to care about the structure of their stories. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, October 5

How To Write A Choose Your Own Adventure Novel, Part 4: Structure

How To Write A Choose Your Own Adventure Novel, Part 4: Structure

Over the years I've written a few articles about the various ways a story can be structured (see: Short Story Structures: Several Ways Of Structuring Short Fiction, A Story Structure In Three Acts), but CYOA stories are in a class by themselves. (Google CYOA structure to see what I'm talking about). If you do, you'll see dozens upon dozens of CYOA branching structures.

(How to Write a Choose Your Own Adventure Novel, Part 1)

This multiplicity reinforces something Chuck Wendig said: at the most concrete level there is no such thing as one story structure. Rather, each story's structure is unique. [2]

You might ask: Well, if that's the case, Karen, why do you go on about story structure like there is one, and only one, structure that all stories have?! ('One structure to rule them all and in the darkness bind them.' Sorry, couldn't resist!)

Great question! It's all a matter of specificity. It depends on to what extent we abstract away from the specific details of the story to more general details. For example, I think it's a safe bet that no two coastlines are exactly the same and yet, when mathematicians compare their shapes they can be seen to exhibit the same fractal pattern. The same can be said for leaves, the shells of certain snails, and so on. [3]

My point is that—as with the hidden geometric structures of coastlines—it's only when we pull back from the particular details of any story that structural commonalities between them emerge.

The Unique Structure of a CYOA Story

This post is about two kinds of structure. The first kind is the sort of structure I just talked about.

The second kind of structure I'll discuss is unique to CYOA stories and has nothing—or at least very little—to do with the first kind. To make this less confusing, I'll call the first kind of structure, "story structure" and the second kind of structure, "branching structure."

I want to stress that everything I say here is given with the intention of providing a person new to writing CYOA stories a place to start. If you write a story that doesn't fit into the kinds of structures I talk about, that's great! The important thing is not that your story has a certain kind of structure as opposed to another—or any kind of structure for that matter!—it is that you've written a story you love, that you're excited about. One that, when you read it, works. Ultimately, that's the only test that matters, whether you and your intended readers feel that reading your story was time well spent. (see: Kurt Vonnegut's 8 Rules For Writing)

The general structure I'm going to talk about is—and I want to stress this—given purely as a place to start. If you have your own ideas about how you want to write your CYOA story, go for it! Ignore everything I say here. On the other hand, if you're looking for a place to start, like an oyster using a grain of sand to form a pearl, then take what works for you and ignore the rest.

CYOA Terminology

First, let's get some terminology out of the way. This is how I think about CYOA stories, but I'm not saying this is how anyone else thinks about them!

Narrative block: What I have been calling a narrative block is also a node on the decision tree. For example:

Narrative Chain or Path: A narrative chain is composed of linked narrative blocks. For example, the following narrative chain is composed of 21 narrative blocks:

Narrative Chain or Path. (Click for larger image.)

Complete narrative chain. A complete narrative chain represents a complete story. These narrative chains reach the lowest level, in this case level 21 (see my discussion of levels, below).

Cut narrative chain. What I call a cut narrative chain tells a full story too, in it's way, but the player doesn't reach the lowest level. An example of a cut narrative chain would be one in which the character died before she reached the end of the adventure. A cut narrative chain is a narrative dead end.

Clusters: The CYOA stories I've looked at seem to have 2, 3 or 4 main clusters. For example, the following structure has two clusters ...

Narrative Clusters. (Click for larger image.)

... while the following structure has four clusters:

Narrative Clusters. (Click for larger image.)

You get the idea. Each cluster has a branching structure of narrative blocks inside it. In what follows I'll talk about a structure with only two clusters because it's simpler.

Levels/Depth: What I'm calling a level refers to the depth or length of the narrative chains. Generally speaking, the longest narrative chains seem to be 20 narrative blocks in length. The figure, above, has 21 levels.

Want to have all this information in one place? Get How to Write a CYOA Story! Right now it's only $0.99.


1. "Writing Tips how to Write a Choose Your Own Adventure Story," by Len Morse.

2. Chuck Wendig uses language in uniquely creative ways which makes most of his blog posts NSFW. Be warned. But this particular blog post is truly excellent (as most of his posts on writing are): 25 Things You Should Know About Story Structure.

3. "Earth’s Most Stunning Natural Fractal Patterns", by Jess McNally, Wired Magazine.