Saturday, July 30, 2016

Writing Twenty Versions Of The Same Story - How To Write A "Choose Your Own.." Novel

***WARNING: I'm not a writer who can draw, so be ready for some funny looking charts that I made using Windows Paint.***

Some of you may or may not know this, but I've been working on launching a web-site where I write "Choose Your Own Romance" novels that people can read for free. I'm trying to make money from it using ad revenue and through donations (eventually) instead of selling my stories on Amazon as ebooks. This is due to the fact that I am tired of some of the new policies Amazon has forced on self-published authors (I don't want to solely depend on them for author income) and trying to keep up with the increasing demand of free books. Also, I want to try to discourage piracy online by giving people other alternatives for free reading. If I can find a way to still make money and offer some stories for free at the same time, it might help things for me and other authors who are looking for more options. Also, "Choose Your Own" stories work very well on web-sites compared to other e-books because they are interactive and involve clicking things.

Here is the web-site I've been working on::

These stories have actually been in my head for awhile. Not only did I grow up reading "Choose Your Own Adventure" stories, in particularly, the "Give Yourself Goosebumps" stories by R.L. Stine, but I'm also a huge fan of video games where you make storyline decisions, like: the Mass Effect games, Dragon Age games, and Walking Dead games. The writers for these games are amazing!

I've been studying their techniques. A lot of the romances in Dragon Age and Mass Effect are very deep. Your interactions with the characters in all of the games, both romantic and friendly, have a tendency to tug at your heart strings. You get to know them, their quirks, and their struggles. Sometimes you are betrayed by them and sometimes they sacrifice themselves for your cause. It's often an emotional experience and I've played these games enough to see all the different choices and all the different results of these choices. I've studied and thought about the patterns of these choices.

I wanted to write my own stories where the readers chooses what happens during the story. This is both much easier and much harder than you could imagine. I wanted to share with you what I have learned.

I think the biggest mistake that people make when writing a choose your own story is wanting the world to be completely open-ended. They want every choice to be possible for the reader to make. They want the world to be totally in the readers control, even though this is impossible. There are an infinite number of ways someone can choose to react to any given situation and only a certain number of ways that the world is likely to react back. Because we can only control our own actions and not others. So when they try to write a "Choose Your Own" story, instead of realizing this, they wind up with something like this because they want to include every possibility of everything.

Every choice breeds five new choices and the story grows and grows and grows. Each choice sets the character further and further into a different corner of the world the writer has created. You wind up writing 300,000 words of story and then you are left with a million different endings and a jumbled mess of a book. No two people read the same story and everyone thinks the story is too short because even though you wrote a lot of words, people only read a small section of it.

Now, one of the ways people solve this is by having some bad endings, where the reader made a "bad" choice and the book ends early and tragically. They are there to cause tension in the "Choose Your Own Adventure" because now the reader knows that it's possible to die and that they  might have to start the story all over again.

But you can't have too many of these. In fact, you must have hardly any of them because if the reader's character is dying every time she makes a choice or every other time (because every time she chooses the wrong choice, you give the reader a bad ending), then they are going to give up on the book. The bad choices, when there are too many, take a reader out of the book. They make a reader resent your story and be unable to get lost in it because they're constantly dying/failing and worrying about that instead. There will be many more ways to fail than succeed and the succeeding should outweigh the failing by far. You want the reader to feel like they have options, not like they are stuck on one specific path and if they deviate off it at all, they lose everything.

To make matters worse, when you write a "Choose Your Own Romance" story it is nothing like a "Choose Your Own Adventure." You can not have ANY and I mean ANY bad endings at all. People expect a happily ever after. They want to fall in love with your story and the male lead. It will make them miserable if he suddenly dies or breaks up with them because they did something small and insignificant like take a right during the wrong part of the story instead of a left.

So....what do you do? How do you write a "Choose Your Own..." story without the story going into a million different directions or having a million bad endings? How do you make the world feel open and the reader feel involved in their choices and still make the story long?

What you have to do is have points in your story where everything connects again. You can have choices lead into random direction, but they have to lead back to the main path eventually. You have to gently nudge the reader into the direction you want them to go at regular intervals.

It sounds like you're taking away their free will, doesn't it? Like you're not giving them choices? Because they're always going to wind up in certain spots no matter what they do?

That's not true unless you write the story wrong. Let me explain...

Let's say the reader is traveling through a cave during part of the story. They come across a deep cavern and have to get across it. You give them a series of choices. Do they find a way to build a bridge across? Do they get a rope and swing across? Do they build a contraption that can throw them across? Do they find a mage who can help them levitate across?

Any of the choices they make will completely change the story and what the reader's character does. In one they might go searching for a tree outside the cave and use the log from chopping it down to make the bridge. In another, they seek the help of a friendly mage who gave them a stone to contact them with earlier in their travels. In a different version they have a rope in their bag that they brought with them and they use it. In another they get to work on gathering supplies and using their building skills to assemble something together. In each version, they do a completely different thing. The story varies wildly.

But you know what? In every version they wind up on the other side of the same cavern, ready to progress to the next part of the story. They can't make a choice where they don't wind up on the other side, even though you gave them several options of what they can do. Because the story actually consists of the reader and the writer working together. The reader makes the choices of how they will accomplish things and the writer gently guides them forward towards the next thing.

What does that look like? Well. here's a diagram I made of the choose your own story that I'm writing so far and how all the choices line up (some of the choices had to be drawn by hand and that's why some of the arrows look weird and different.) I'm only about 1/3 or so through the story, so a full story will have a much longer diagram than this.

In the end, all the choices eventually meet up, even when they vary widely and all over the place, like they do towards the end of this diagram.

Because writing a "Choose Your Own.." story means writing a hundred DIFFERENT versions of the SAME story. I think it's a good and interesting practice in writing and it's a lot of fun because authors already do this. We consider a million different ways to write the same scene and try to figure out which one is the best. But in a "Choose Your Own" story, you write every version of the same scene you come up with and let the READER decide through their choices which version they think is the best.

Do they kiss in this scene or wait until later? Do they climb up the rope or take the stairs instead? It's not up to you, it's up to the reader!

I suggest, if the choices are confusing that you make a diagram of them with the page numbers on them to help you keep track of all the choices. A storyboard could help a lot and a detailed outline could make things a lot easier. I don't recommend writing this kind of book if you're new to writing. It's hard enough with just a linear book to keep all your facts and information straight. "Choose You Own..." stories make it a million times worse, but if you feel like this is the way you should go for your first book, then go ahead. I just don't think it will be an easy journey.

I know this sounds crazy, but I am actually writing this story as a pantser. It's easier to come up with it as you write than you might think, if you're experienced in writing. This is because you can divide the story up into chunks. Each section where all the decisions meet up again is the end of a chunk. I fill in all the blanks and all the decisions and all the possibilities for each chunk before moving on to the next one. To me, they are like chapters, some simpler and harder than others. This helps me keep the stories straight.

I also make sure to number all the pages to keep the choices straight as I'm writing it, even though I know I'll delete those later. Because you have to make sure to keep track of how the story progresses. The last thing you want to do is write a bunch of pages and not know what order they go in later.

And I'm not making the page numbers that complicated yet. I suggest that this be the last thing you do if you're writing a paperback. While traditional "Choose Your Own" stories have you going from page 2 to page 300 in the very beginning, I'd suggest you mixing up the pages later after you finishing writing it. Because you don't know how many pages the story is going to be in the end and it's easier to keep the story straight in your mind if the choices are more linear until you're finished writing. Otherwise, you might tell someone to turn to page 400 and find out later that you didn't write 400 pages worth of content. There will be holes everywhere with missing pages that are supposed to be there. If you do ebooks or a web-site, you'll never have to change the linear page numbers because there will be no page numbers, just clicking.

I also suggest, as I did in my diagram that you keep the choices in the beginning of the story fairly simple, where you make a choice and meet in the middle again pretty fast. Make things more complicated later. This is because, in the beginning, you are setting up the story and want the premise to be pretty straightforward and mostly the same for everyone. You can complicate things more and more later on.

Just make sure, if you write "A Choose Your Own..." story that you vary the patterns of the choices here and there or the reader will catch on. You can't make it too simple for them. They'll pick up on your patterns and know where the stories intertwine exactly and stop feeling like they're the ones making choices. They'll see you intervening and forcing them into certain directions.

"Choose Your Own..." stories aren't as well known as a lot of novels, even though I think they are well-liked. They seem intimidating to write before you start and they can be difficult, but become easier as you get the hang of it.

Because of the e-books and the internet, luckily, "Choose Your Own..." stories are more reader friendly than ever because now readers can make their choices simply with a click of the button. So I'm surprised more "Choose Your Own..." stories haven't been written lately.

I hope more of you start writing "Choose Your Own.." stories and that this post about tips and suggestions on how to write a story like this helps you write it. I enjoy reading "Choose Your Own..." stories as much as writing them and if you have any suggestions of any that you think I should read, especially romance ones, then please tell me in the comments.


If you'd like to read more articles on writing like this, please go to my site: The New Writer's Guide To Writing, Publishing, And More.