Tips for Writing Interactive Fiction (Part Two)

On Sunday, I explained how I found that a lot of online interactive fiction isn’t worth the time to read because it lacks any real story. There are some good works online, so don’t take this to mean that I think it’s all bad. I’m just disappointed by most of what is available. I already discussed why story is the most important aspect of interactive fiction. Now I’d like to discuss some other aspects.

Map – I saw a diagram of the choices in “The Cave of Time.” The stories could be over in as few as five entries, or up to nine entries. This was because they valued the number of endings back then, and so out of 115 pages, over one third of them were endings (40 in all). In two cases, you could end up on the same path in multiple ways, which is clever, but still these books weren’t very well organized. At the time, the need to release the books quickly overshadowed a lot of testing the material. In spite of this, there are still some amusing stories, and a reasonably well structured system of branches for the stories.

Start Simple – Choose a structure that will be easy for you to fill in to begin with. Concentrate on making the stories fun to read primarily, and the map secondarily. If you wish to do something more complicated later, write a sequel to one of the endings, and tell your reader to continue from there. If that works out, write a sequel to another one of the endings. By doing this slowly and focused, you can create a longer work by creating many short works. But to begin with, write the simple one. It’ll be enough work as it is, because even if you write a 50 page work with 12 endings, you still have to write 50 pages.

Choices – The other problem that I see is too many choices or not enough choices. The examples that I gave in the section about story and plot of how the bad interactive fiction is written, you’ll note that you always had two choices. A lot of these limited games are like that.

The average CYOA book had anywhere from 1 to 4 choices per entry. The one choice would just tell you to go to another page after you read what happened. This was typically the resolution to your choice on one page, and then the set up for the next choice on the next. You rarely had four choices, maybe once or twice a book, if at all. It wasn’t very common to have three choices. But it wasn’t all just two choices the entire book.

The reason that two choices is the most common combination is because every time you give more than two choices, the more you have to do to cover for the choices. One entry with two choices creates four choices between the second entries. If those four have two choices, you will have eight choices between the third entries. Then sixteen between the fourth entries. It’s about this time that you would start ending entries so that it doesn’t get out of control. If you do two choices each time you have two, four, eight, sixteen. If you do three choices each time, you have three, nine, twenty-seven, eighty-one, and then you can start ending. You can see how quickly it can get out of hand if you’re not careful. The better way to go might be to choose your endings before you start writing so that you know what you need to do.

Also, don’t be longwinded when possible. While the readers don’t want empty entries that tell them nothing but what their choice is, they also don’t want to read too long between making a choice. Between choices you should maybe have 25 to 500 words, probably breaking up longer entries. But here’s the thing. Vary the amount of information. If all of your entries are 25 words, your reader will feel they aren’t getting any information. If all of your entries are 500 words, your reader won’t feel like they’re interacting much. A good balance and variety between long and short entries will help keep your reader invested.

Schedule – Finally, we have the bit that has nothing to do with the story itself, but the completion of the story. Plan your interactive fiction project the same way you would plan any project. If you wish to write a 90 entry story in 30 days you can either do three entries a day; or six days of mapping, then five entries a day, and six days of editing. Or whatever works best for you. But have a plan so that it doesn’t feel overwhelming. If you can see the end approaching in little steps, you will move toward the end more easily. And please don’t post your work in progress online in case you get sidetracked.

Testing – As with anything you would write, allow someone else to look at it for mistakes, and to tell you whether they’re having a good time. This is especially necessary if you write an interactive fiction with a gaming system (i.e.: if there are rules that require stats and dice rolls to get the character through the adventure). And finally, make sure that your reader doesn’t get frustrated trying to find the one good ending. I remember reading books that were almost impossible to complete because of poorly planned maps, or bad gaming systems that made it a “lucky roll” to get you to the end. One final note about gaming systems, books that used gaming systems tended to have more, but shorter, entries because the time you spent playing (rolling dice and noting changes on your character sheet) would make the time spent expand. This is typically the same with solo adventures for a known role-playing game, where the entries are shorter because you take time to randomly complete encounters.

Thank you for reading. I hope to see some better interactive fiction sites in the future. One final note. While the idea of getting everyone involved in the creation of an interactive fiction by letting people write the next entry of a game when they reach a dead end might seem like a good idea, it only really works if you have some form of quality control. This is not to say that you reject any ideas that don’t appeal to you, but that you create a submission process, and requirements (like a minimum number of words per story part).

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