Tips for Writing Interactive Fiction (Part One)

by Chris McGinty (According To Whim .com)

When I was thirteen years old, I spent a couple of days on a very limited BASIC program for my Commodore 64. It was a D&D style adventure, and to be honest it sucked. The whole story was over in just a few segments, and the battle system was not random because I didn’t know much about programming random events at the time. I made it to look like it was random as a sequence appeared: You miss. It hits. You hit. It hits. You hit. It misses. You hit. It is dead. But that was the same sequence every time you played.

In spite of the many flaws this game had, I was learning BASIC, and I’d never written a “Choose Your Own Adventure” style game before. Recently, I have been reading about the “Choose Your Own Adventure” line of books, and I’ve been interested in reading a few. The library has many interactive fiction books, and I even own a few that I’m keeping in storage, but I figured I would look online to see what was available out there. Um. I might as well go find that BASIC game I made and put it online as a text adventure for the quality of some of these games.

This is not to say that there is no good interactive fiction online. I actually have found some interesting stuff that I plan to read/play. The problem is that there is a higher percentage of crappy works out there. Much higher. I decided that I would like to write my thoughts about how to write a good interactive fiction story. I don’t write a lot of interactive fiction, but I have dabbled a little bit. My issue is that I get bogged down in trying to create a stat based game, and become frustrated, thus never finishing my work. I’m basing this list on my own failures in writing interactive fiction, and what I’ve enjoyed and not enjoyed from the professional publishers. I will only get to one item on the list today, but it is likely the most important one:

It Is Still a Story – The biggest problem that I’ve seen, particularly online, is when the story details are written in a line or two.

“You have a soda. Drink it? Play Atari?”
“You choose to play Atari, but you don’t own one. Look for emulator? Look for actual system?”
“After asking your friends and family, you realize you’ll have to buy one. Look on eBay? Look at thrift stores?”

No one cares about a game like that. The only way that anyone will ever care about that game is if you have thousands of choices that actually lead to a thirty minute adventure with twist and turns. How bored would you have been if “The Cave of Time” read: “There is a cave. Go in? Go home?”

If you are going to take the time to write interactive fiction, map out an actual story. Realize that you are going to write a small book of short stories. Depending on what age group they were written for, “Choose Your Own Adventure” books would be around 50 to 130 pages long, and would have a wide range of possible endings (“The Cave of Time” had 40 possible endings, the first younger reader CYOA had 12 possible endings).

In most cases, these should each be short stories that dabble with a little character (this is supposed to be the reader, so not much character) and has the five basic steps of a story (introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement). Basically, each of your stories needs a plot. This seems so obvious until you see some of the crap that people have put online.

The introduction never changes, but the climax tends to often be the end of the story. Typically, your climax, falling action, and denouement will take place on the same page in an interactive fiction story, but since the stories tend to only be a few pages long each, this is ok.

The story hook obviously needs to be something that allows for a number of different possibilities. A story that is too specific in nature is probably a better short story. When you have something like a cave that goes to many different times, or a spaceship traveling among many inhabited planets, you have many directions that your story can go because you can write many unique stories using the basic plot. Treat each story, no matter how intertwined they may be, as though it is the only one your reader will read. If you don’t then it probably will be the only story your reader will read.

On Tuesday, I will continue my list of tips for writing interactive fiction.

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