Interactive story writing tips & suggestions

So, you want to write an interactive story? Here are some suggestions that may help you.

Understand the challenge

Interactive stories can be great fun to write, especially at the beginning. Unfortunately they can be extremely difficult to finish.

This is a consequence of simple mathematics. An interactive story will get exponentially bigger the deeper you go. For example, if all your story paths are six pages deep, and each page has only two branches, then you will end up with 63 pages, 32 of which are endings. Does your story idea support 32 interesting endings?

Of course, most interactive stories don't follow this binary tree structure, instead having a mixture of shorter and longer paths. You need to ensure that the shorter paths don't feel like a complete waste of time.

Have a plan

You should spend at least some time planning the major paths for your story. If you can't come up with a few interesting endings now, then maybe you should quit before you begin!

Brainstorm for cool stuff you want to include in your story, then draw a graph on a piece of paper. This will consist of circles that represent pages, and arrows that represent choices. This graph is just a starting point. You are sure to come up with more ideas as you write.

Keep only one path unfinished

When it is time to start writing, choose your most interesting path and write it all the way to the end. That way you have a complete story. Then choose the most interesting place from which to branch that story, and write that path all the way to completion too. Then choose another branching place, and so on.

This way, when you eventually run out of steam, you will only have one incomplete path. You can then either try to finish that path, or cut it out and be done with it.

This approach requires a bit of discipline, but it ensures that you are only ever one ending away from a complete story. That story will hopefully have incorporated all your best ideas.

The alternative, where you burn-out with dozens of incomplete branches to wrap up, is too horrible to contemplate. It is easy to fall into this trap, because it's fun to come up with choices. Just remember that each choice represents an exponentially growing tree of pages that you will have to finish!

Engage the reader

All your story choices should take the form of actions the reader takes. This gives them the feeling that they are in control.

This isn't enough, however. The choices should also be meaningful and not arbitrary. As an example, you might offer the reader a choice of which door to open. If you make it a choice between the red door and the yellow door then the reader might as well flip a coin. But if one door has screams for help coming from behind it, then the reader gets to make a moral decision.

You then have a responsibility to respect the reader's decision. If they decide to save the girl, don't immediately drop a rock on their head because you can't be bothered writing that path. This leads us to...

Avoid cheap deaths

Don't kill the reader without at least some foreshadowing. Random deaths (or bad endings) are cheap and usually just a way of wrapping up a story that you've run out of energy to finish. It's fine for bad things to happen, but they should be a consequence of a reader's decision going wrong in a believable way. Similarly, you should...

Avoid the quit option

Don't present choices that effectively result in the reader quitting. For example, if the reader chooses "Go home", this shouldn't result in a page that says "You go home, and will always regret not entering the spaceship. The End."

These choices are just a way of increasing the page count and are no fun to read whatsoever. Assume that the reader wants a fun story, no matter which path they take.