Showing posts with label choose your own adventure. Show all posts
Showing posts with label choose your own adventure. Show all posts

Wednesday, September 21

How To Write A Choose Your Own Adventure Novel, Part Two

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?

1) Scene--Denied!

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?

Summarize 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 (<—).

Urgency and Opposition both act on the main character, and perhaps other characters, but definitely the main character.

For example:

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. [...]:





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.

4. Choice.

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.

Next installment: How to Write a CYOA Novel, Part Three.

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

Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love 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'm recommending, Elements of Fiction Writing: Conflict and Suspense by James Scott Bell. From the blurb: "Ramp up the tension and keep your readers hooked! Inside you'll find everything you need to know to spice up your story, move your plot forward, and keep your readers turning pages. Expert thriller author and writing instructor James Scott Bell shows you how to craft scenes, create characters, and develop storylines that harness conflict and suspense to carry your story from the first word to the last."


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!

Wednesday, June 25

How To Write A 'Choose Your Own Adventure' Story

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.

(By the way, I've added more information, detailed examples, etc., and turned this series of articles a book: How to Write a CYOA Story: The Story That's Also a Game!)

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 a 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.  

As far as writing a CYOA story goes, the best program I've looked at so far is Inklewriter over at Here's a YouTube video that provides a brief tutorial:

UPDATE: Inklewriter no longer converts your manuscript into the Kindle format.

Let's say you decide to take the plunge and write a CYOA story. How should you start? 

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 it into blocks. These blocks are linked together to form narrative chains. The number of levels a narrative chain has depends on how many blocks it has.

From what I've seen, most branching stories have a minimum of around 10 levels and a maximum of around 20. For example, the shortest branch in The Mystery of Chimney Rock had 9 levels and the longest 21.

What I'm calling a block of text could be either a scene, a sequel, or some kind of transition (for more on this see Scenes, Sequels, Sequences and Acts). In a full CYOA there can be as many as 120 blocks of text. If each block is the length of an average page and contains, say, 250 words, then you'll have to write around 30,000 words. (That may seem like a lot, but it really isn't! The minimum length for a book is 50,000 words, but, depending on the genre, can be quite a bit more. Urban fantasy books, for example, are usually around 80,000 words long.)

Keep in mind that a reader wouldn't read all 120 blocks! Because of their choices, a reader would normally see only one block of text from each level. This means that each reading experience, each adventure, would be only 10 or 20 blocks long which comes out to between 2,500 and 5,000 words—the length of three blog articles! Though, that said, one of the fun things about CYOA stories is that readers can circle back creating a kind of time-warp.

Story blocks

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 the story short. The protagonist 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 block/section and make a different decision the next time round.

Morse writes:

"[...] 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.

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 CYOA 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. As we've seen, a CYOA story can be a short as 30,000 words and 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!).
  • 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.
  • 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, I'd love to hear about your experience. Please leave a comment or contact me directly.

Update (Oct 4, 2016): There were many things I didn't have time to write about in this article so I've turned it into a series (see the links below). I've also taken all this information, added more, and turned it all into a book: How to Write a Choose Your Own Adventure Story.

How To Write A Choose Your Own Adventure Novel, Part 2
How To Write A Choose Your Own Adventure Novel, Part 3: Keeping A Reader's Interest
How To Write A Choose Your Own Adventure Novel, Part 4: Structure


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:

5. Articles about Choosing Your Own Adventure:

Also: How to write a gamebook part 1 - thinking of a plot (and then a few more plots)

Photo credit: "hunch" by greg westfall under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.